“Wrestling’s not fake. Maybe the ending is predetermined, but what happens in there is as real as it gets.”
Hulk Hogan just comes out and says it at the roster reveal panel for WWE 2K15. Pro wrestling gradually quit the con job in the 90s, finally acknowledging to a public that had long known the truth that wrestling is fixed, that it presents stories instead of legitimate competitions. It’s still shocking to hear an old-timer like Hogan off-handedly admit it during a promotional event. The curtain’s been less pulled back than ripped down and torn to shreds, but wrestlers still tend to dance around that fact, vaguely referring to how “this business” works in interviews while usually only approaching frankness in inevitable “shoot” interviews or ghost-written autobiographies.
Yes, it’s predetermined. Yes, the fans realize that. To be good at wrestling still requires unbelievable athletic skill, along with the abilities to act and to connect directly with the fans on a primal level. It’s equal parts street fight and Cirque du Soleil, with bizarrely talented performers helping each other inflict pain that’s minimized as much as possible but still very real and very painful. Its combination of soap opera dramatics and over-the-top violence makes wrestling a perfect fit for videogames, and the genre has been a vital one since the 1980s. WWE 2K15 is the latest contender, and a recent series of press events in Los Angeles makes it seem like a real threat.
Hogan’s admission comes amid a group of professional wrestlers on a stage in Los Angeles. They’re talking about WWE 2K15 and their careers and, like much of the culture around wrestling today, it’s a weird mix of truth and fiction. Some anecdotes are told in storyline, other comments are based in reality, and there’s never a cue when a wrestler crosses that threshold.
Of course the Europeans are the best dressed. Cesaro, a photogenic Swiss strongman who thrilled for years in independent promotions, wears a sleek, dark gray suit, with no tie and the unbuttoned top tastefully flared open. The Irish wrestler Sheamus sports a matching vest and newsboy cap. If other wrestlers ever needed a style consultant, they should talk to these two, or whoever these two have hired to help dress them.
Around them sit both cartoon characters come to life and guys who look like they just got out of Delta’s economy class. Hogan grimaces in classic red and yellow, painfully turning his entire body towards whoever he’s talking to after a series of back, hip and knee surgeries have left him as rigid as his 1980s LJN action figure. Sting, the facepainted WCW stalwart who never wrestled for WWE, sits with face both blank and paintless, a slicked back mane and long, thin strip of hair on his chin making him look like a bad guy from a Steven Seagal movie. Roman Reigns, the former Georgia Tech defensive tackle currently being groomed as the next Rock or John Cena, wears a pullover with a WWE logo on the breast, like a dad who wears whatever he gets for free. John Cena is dressed the way John Cena is always dressed, a cereal box version of himself in a John Cena t-shirt with John Cena wristbands and ballcap. Only the Europeans dressed up.
Not that the audience cares. The diehard wrestling fans in attendance just want to hear their favorite fighters talk, and maybe learn which of them will be playable in the next WWE videogame. (Hint: All of the seven on stage, along with dozens of other current and former stars.) They want to hear Sting repeatedly say he’d like to wrestle fellow 90s star Undertaker before they both hang up the tights, and Cesaro and Sheamus share legitimately funny banter about the differences between Ireland and the continent. They want to sit at the feet of Hulk Hogan and “Stone Cold” Steve Austin and pay their respects to their heroes.
Between questions, Austin and his co-host Renee Young announce the wrestlers that will appear in WWE 2K15. Large computer-generated depictions of each performer appears on a screen above, their arms and heads wreathed in flame. Their theme music plays for a few seconds. The only surprise is that the official roster reveal panel doesn’t come close to revealing the entire roster. A few hidden surprises are always expected in a game like this, but a dozen or so currently active superstars are omitted from the panel’s list, including a few that are quickly confirmed as appearing in the game. In the highly political backstage world of pro wrestling, that’s enough to make a man paranoid.
After the panel the wrestlers sit through an hour of rapid-fire, one-on-one interviews with press. Sting reveals himself to be perhaps the least nostalgic man ever, admitting to never watching his own matches or dwelling too much on his career. John Cena continues his run as one of the smoothest and most on-brand public relations machines in the history of any sport. Grown men writing for game websites and sports magazines and pop culture outlets have to stand cool and professional as if Hulk Hogan and “Stone Cold” Steve Austin and Jimmy “The Mouth of the South” Hart, for crying out loud, didn’t just brush shoulders with them. The wrestlers all love WWE 2K15, even though none of them play videogames.
Later that night Stephanie McMahon works off prompter when introducing footage from the game in a bar in downtown Los Angeles. The pillars that run from floor to ceiling in the beautiful art deco room are covered in massive videogame images of Bray Wyatt, Roman Reigns and other WWE superstars. McMahon, probably the only chief brand officer in America fighting an employee in front of thousands of spectators this weekend, discusses some of the most anticipated features of WWE 2K15. Chief among those is the 2K Showcase mode, where players can recreate two infamous rivalries, the CM Punk / John Cena war that flared off and on throughout 2011 and 2012, and the early oughts dust-up between former Degeneration X partners Triple H and Shawn Michaels.
A polished executive and performer in her late thirties, McMahon reveals that the My Career mode, a popular feature from 2K Sports’ annual NBA games that makes its official wrestling debut with 2K15, will start players off in WWE’s state-of-the-art performance center in Orlando, where aspiring grapplers and indie stalwarts looking to transition to WWE practice the art. Players will have to work their way up through NXT, the developmental league that’s refreshingly run like a classic small-time wrestling program, and whose weekly hour-long show can be seen on the streaming WWE Network. After excelling in NXT players will move on to the big leagues of Raw and Smackdown, cycling through feuds and storylines with the end goal of headlining a WrestleMania. The basic concept has appeared in previous WWE games, but officially connecting this latest version to NBA 2K’s tremendous My Career mode greatly raises expectations. It promises a depth and level of detail not yet seen from a WWE game’s career mode.
After her speech McMahon cedes the stage to Mark Little, WWE 2K15’s executive director, who goes into more detail about the new features and slight tweaks to this year’s game. One of their goals was to make the game feel weightier and slower, less like an arcade brawl than a simulation of a wrestling match. That goal inspired the second most obvious change after the almost photo-realistic graphics in the Playstation 4 and Xbox One versions. It’s a new attempt to recreate the sort of chain wrestling that often starts a real-life match, what a wrestling announcer would call the “feeling out process”, as grapplers struggle for position in collar-and-elbow tie-ups, stringing together quick holds and low-impact moves while striving for dominance. It’s the part of professional wrestling that most resembles real wrestling.
2K15 tries to accomplish this with a new mechanic that acts like rock-paper-scissors: When two wrestlers lock up, the game pauses briefly and each player picks one of three holds. There’s a set hierarchy for these holds, as, say, the headlock beats the hammerlock but loses to the waistlock. (Those may or may not be the actual holds in the game.) Again, it’s like rock-paper-scissors, and whoever picks the winning hold has the upper hand in that lockup.
This leads directly into another new mechanic. When players are chain wrestling in the early portion of the game, and have an opponent in a lockup, two circles will appear on screen, one for each player. By tilting the right joystick they can find the so-called “sweet spot”, recognizable when the circle turns red and the controller starts to shake. If the player holds the stick in that sweet spot long enough for the circle to turn entirely red, they can then pull off a move or counter out of the lockup. This sounds confusing as Little explains it on stage, but it’s easy to pick up after one or two play sessions. Feeling for the sweet spot resembles lockpicking in Skyrim or Fallout, and is more successful at recreating the appearance of a real wrestling match than the rock-paper-scissors distraction, which will thankfully be optional in the final game.
Little touts the state-of-the-art motion capture techniques used to recreate the essence of each wrestler. One photo has Sting, in full Crow-era paint and dress, standing in a chamber that looks like something from an airport security line. Repetitive commentary is the most common complaint of every sports title, and Little promises five times as many lines from Michael Cole and Jerry “The King” Lawler in 2K15. That makes it stand out even more when Cole repeats the same familiar line of dialogue within a few minutes of the demo introduced by Little. Details like that aren’t entirely finalized, so perhaps the commentary will have a greater variety when the game ships.
When Little finishes WWE superstars Daniel Bryan, Damien Sandow and Bad News Barrett post up at interview stations as waiters fan out with finger food. Bryan, the heavily bearded headliner of this past April’s WrestleMania XXX, is now benched with serious real-life neck and nerve injuries. He passes his time at home rehabbing, listening to Jason Isbell and Frank Turner, and watching New Japan Pro Wrestling’s unparalleled G1 Climax tournament. “I love those style of tournaments,” he says. “I’ve roomed with Shinsuke Nakamura, so I’m always interested in what he’s doing because he’s so great and so much fun and such a good human being.
“I also like to know what’s going on in the wrestling world,” Bryan continues. “I think that’s important in any industry that you’re in. If you’re in the videogame industry you need to know what other videogame systems are doing, and I think the same thing with WWE and wrestling. I know a lot of people just put their head down and focus on the one company they’re working with, but if you see how it’s evolved worldwide, that’s important for all of us.”
Barrett, the tall British brawler who was connecting with the fanbase and getting pushed by the WWE more than at any other point in his career when he went down with a dislocated shoulder in June, uses his sudden spare time to keep up with his hometown Premier League team, Preston North End. He was able to catch up on the World Cup after his injury, something that’s hard to do when you’re working in a different town every day of the week. Sandow, whose current gimmick involves dressing up in a different costume every week, is in character as a trollish gamer, with messy hair, dirty jeans and a wrinkled plaid shirt. He swigs from an energy drink and hilariously berates interviewers, proclaiming that they’re not costumes, but “simply outward expressions of how I’m feeling inside at the moment.”
Upstairs, on a balcony above the stage, journalists get their first crack at WWE 2K15. The My Career mode isn’t on display in these demo stations, and neither is the now-standard WWE Universe mode, which simulates the non-stop “season” of weekly TV shows and monthly pay-per-views. Players pick either a standard exhibition match from among four competitors or play the first match in the Punk / Cena 2K Showcase track, a recreation of the main event of Money in the Bank 2011, one of the most beloved matches of the recent era and the moment that solidified CM Punk as an all-time legend. As in the historically-based matches from previous WWE games, 2K Showcase matches expect the player to hit certain moves or perform specific actions that occurred in the real match. The closer the player’s match is to the real thing, the more bonuses he or she unlocks. 2K15 captures the unforgettable atmosphere of that summer night in Chicago, as the virtual crowd responds rapturously to Punk’s entrance before practically booing Cena out of Illinois.
The action is slower than previous games, and character models react more convincingly to each move. It makes WWE 2K15 feel more brutal and deliberate than most wrestling games. The stamina bar has been reintroduced, and players won’t be able to perform certain special moves or finishers if that meter is too low. That can result in a more measured, back-and-forth match, and also add a bit of strategy, but it might be an unpopular decision among a fan base that generally disliked stamina bars in previous WWE/WWF games. Repeated strikes don’t turn wrestlers into cartoonish, Street Fighter-esque blurs, as in recent WWE games. Grappling instigates the new lockup minigames in the early portion of a match, but as an opponent’s health and stamina wears down grappling takes on its traditional form, with a player pushing the joystick in one of four directions and then either pressing or holding down the grapple button to pull off a weak or strong move. The right shoulder trigger still counters or reverses, and the directional pad kicks off a wrestler’s most familiar taunts and poses. WWE 2K15 feels different from the last few generations of WWE games, but once you get past the slower pace and cosmetic upgrades it’s clearly from the same lineage.
The next night, in the main event of SummerSlam, Brock Lesnar beats John Cena after 16 German suplexes, winning the WWE title in the most one-sided title match in company history. It’s like Lesnar is playing a videogame, dominating the match from bell to bell, shaking off Cena’s few attacks and landing devastating move after move. As Cena is dropped on his neck and shoulders time after time, one thinks back to the Hulkster’s words from the previous morning. Wrestling might be predetermined, but unlike the simulated action in WWE 2K15, it definitely isn’t fake.
Garrett Martin edits Paste’s games section. He was there at the Omni when the Miracle Violence Connection, “Dr. Death” Steve Williams and Terry “Bam Bam” Gordy, beat the Steiner Brothers for the WCW World Tag Team Championship.