RetroMania Wrestling, which is now out for the Switch and PC, takes its name seriously. It’s an intentional homage to WWF’s arcade games from the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, WWF Superstars and WWF WrestleFest, which were popular quarter-eaters during the latter half of WWF’s Hulkamania era. The WWF console games of the time couldn’t replicate their distinctive art style or control scheme, so these games never escaped the arcades. As arcades died throughout the ‘90s and ‘00s, Superstars and WrestleFest became increasingly hard to find, and that scarcity, combined with the nostalgia for their childhood that wrestling fans would naturally feel as they grew older, fostered a yearning for the games.
Now, over three decades after Superstars first came out, Retrosoft Studios has released a game that it’s promoting as an official sequel to WrestleFest. RetroMania doesn’t have the WWE license, of course, but it does feature two stars of WrestleFest: the tag team best known as The Road Warriors, who appeared in WWF in the ‘90s as The Legion of Doom, and who were effectively the final bosses in WrestleFest. The rest of the roster features a combination of indie wrestling stars, former WWE names, and two territorial stars from the ‘80s, Nikita Koloff and Austin Idol. It looks like WrestleFest, it plays like WrestleFest, and it has a roster of wrestlers who are cult favorites with the kind of fans obsessive enough to remember WrestleFest, so the “official sequel” moniker fits.
RetroMania does exactly what it set out to do: revive a cult classic wrestling game that never really had a faithful home version. In the process, though, it exposes one of the major problems facing pro wrestling today: its audience is old as hell.
You don’t have to be in your 30s or 40s to be familiar with WrestleFest. Perhaps you played an old arcade machine at a local game room or restaurant. Maybe you’ve played it on a MAME cabinet or through computer emulation. If you’re nostalgic for those games in their original state, though, and for the era of WWF that they represent, you probably are middle-aged, at the least. WrestleFest turns 30 later this year. Almost every wrestler on its roster was done as an in-ring wrestler for WWF by 1994. This is ancient history as far as the entertainment business goes, and it’d be logistically unlikely for many people under the age of 30 to remember that era. Unfortunately, if you’re old enough to remember WrestleFest, you’re basically the target demo for pro wrestling today.
TV ratings tell the tale: the average viewer of pro wrestling is closer to their own final three-count than they are the opening bell. The median age of a WWE viewer today is in the 50s—one of the oldest average ages of any major sport or sports entertainment company. Its main competition, All Elite Wrestling, skews only slightly younger, with a median age in the 40s. A lot of this has to do with the fact that younger people just don’t watch TV—despite that 40something average viewer, AEW Dynamite occasionally skews younger than any other national sports program, as it recently did with its March 17 episode, which points out both how few viewers under 18 watch TV, and also how AEW has struggled to attract the over-50 wrestling audience that has largely stuck with WWE. No matter the cause, it indicates a lack of interest in or familiarity with wrestling among younger viewers who didn’t grow up watching it and are too young to have been alive during wrestling’s late ‘90s / early ‘00s heyday, and that’s going to be a long term problem for the business.
At the moment, wrestling’s aging audience hasn’t negatively impacted either WWE or AEW. WWE is more profitable than ever, due to its large TV rights fees and a major streaming deal it recently struck with Peacock. AEW, meanwhile, has done what promotions like TNA/Impact and Lucha Underground have failed to do: launch a brand new national wrestling company that became profitable, and AEW did it within its first year. Wrestling’s audience might be simultaneously shrinking and growing older, but with the larger fragmentation of all pop culture it’s still valuable to TV networks.
That isn’t always going to be the case, though. Younger fans might be getting into wrestling through avenues that aren’t as easy to track, like YouTube and Twitch, but until that converts to TV or streaming viewers it won’t help WWE and AEW over the next few years. WWE’s average TV viewer is outside the key 18 to 49 demographic—an audience advertisers will pay the most to reach—meaning even with their high TV rights fees they’re probably missing out on potential earnings. And although AEW’s median viewer age is still within that key demo, it’s just barely so; a small drop in its younger viewership, or a rise in over 50 viewers, could tilt it out of that demo.
Wrestling’s not on the verge of death, or anything. Even though WWE’s ratings have dropped significantly over the last decade, and even despite the pandemic making live events almost impossible, pro wrestling is about as strong as it’s been in America in a couple of decades. There are more companies producing more hours of wrestling every week and providing more opportunity for wrestlers to get work than we’ve seen since the territorial days. If the ratings continue to slide, though, and if younger viewers aren’t eventually compelled to become fans, that massive TV money might start to fade away.
To their credit, WWE is trying to bring in younger audiences. Popular rapper Bad Bunny has been a featured act on its programming over the last few months, even briefly holding one of the company’s lesser titles; he’ll be wrestling at next week’s WrestleMania, opposite Real World contest-turned-wrestler The Miz. YouTube star Logan Paul, who was just ousted from The Masked Singer last night, and remains one of the most popular and successful celebrities among teens and tweens, will also appear at WrestleMania. Neither star is especially relevant to the middle-aged lifelong wrestling fans that make up the bulk of WWE’s audience, but they’re exactly the kind of people WWE should be using to beef up its store of younger fans.
Obviously Retrosoft Studios doesn’t need to bother itself with the TV ratings of companies it has nothing to do with, or even with the health of wrestling overall. They just need to sell their game, and there are probably more than enough fans of wrestling, WrestleFest and retro gaming to make RetroMania a success. It is faithful to its inspiration, with the right kind of modern updates needed to bring it up to modern gaming standards, and should be played by anybody who’s into wrestling games. It’s not dependent on nostalgia to enjoy it, but it probably helps. By its very nature, though, it echoes wrestling’s journey from a popular part of mainstream youth culture to a niche subgenre that mostly appeals to an aging, dwindling audience that has stuck with it for decades. No matter how much you enjoy wrestling today, you should probably be a little worried about its long term prospects.
Senior editor Garrett Martin writes about videogames, comedy, travel, theme parks, wrestling, and anything else that gets in his way. He’s on Twitter @grmartin.