WWE 2K16: The Outsider Worlds of Games and Wrestling

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Wrestlers are known for their hyperbolic statements—look no further than your average promo on Monday Night Raw—but when Stone Cold Steve Austin proclaimed, at Thursday night’s WWE’s SummerSlam Kickoff Event for WWE 2K16, that the game was “the biggest, baddest, coolest videogame that’s ever been put together,” I still believed him. And after demoing the game, I might even agree.

Aside from the game itself, there was so much more to take in during the event. There isn’t any real way to prepare for spending a night with various WWE Superstars—Seth Rollins, the Bella Twins, Stone Cold Steve Austin (!!)—in a giant club, Capitale, that used to be a bank. It was a strange juxtaposition between Stone Cold growling his famous “And that’s the bottom line…” into the mic just mere seconds before the club’s sound system started blaring Ke$ha’s “Die Young.” WWE, something that I have embarrassingly obsessed over since I was about 10-years-old, was always the outsider sport, a secret shared between select friends who would excitedly talk in hushed tones about last night’s Raw in the school cafeteria, but never anywhere louder. It was always the underdog of sports—“sports”—in that baseball and football fans could talk freely; wrestling fans could only within our little circle, for fear of being made fun of. To see this all celebrated in such a big, fancy fashion was simultaneously exciting and completely bizarre.

When you think about it, the overlap of wrestling and videogame fans does make a lot of sense; like punk rock, which also shares fans with WWE, there are a lot of similarities between these subcultures, largely because they tend to emphasize the outsider status. The superstars in attendance were all eager to talk about videogames—not just 2K16, though they were clearly excited about that as well, but all videogames. Xavier Woods, an enthusiastic videogame nerd, told me about the fundamental role that games played in his childhood: “I didn’t know how to talk to people. I was very socially awkward. My mom said the first time she ever saw me connect with another kid was when we were playing Nintendo together. She said it was like I was completing the circuit: I had a controller, he had a controller, and it was the only time I would talk and feel OK.”

Many of the other Superstars had similar childhood memories of playing videogames. Wade Barrett “used to love all the old WWE games, WCW games, FIFA soccer, Sonic the Hedgehog, Mario, Street Fighter, Mortal Kombat.” (I got visibly excited when I learned we both always played as Sub-Zero.) He enthused about the vintage WWE games, and how he loved mastering all of the characters—but, unsurprisingly, he always preferred to play as British Bulldog. (As for 2K16, Barrett doesn’t play as himself because “I’m not very good, and I don’t like to lose.”) Dean Ambrose, however, stuck to lots of arcade games (“Double Dragon, Street Fighter II, the Ninja Turtle game”) while Sheamus’ preferred consoles were Sega Genesis (which, in his thick Irish accent, he referred to as the “Sega Mega Drive”) and Nintendo 64, especially because of N64’s Wrestlemania 2000 where he would regularly play as Stone Cold.

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Xavier Woods

During the Kickoff event, there wasn’t much talk from the stage about the intricacies of the gameplay or the differences between this and 2K15, preferring instead to have the game speak for itself when we demoed it on the multiple televisions set up in the back of the room. We did learn that it will feature a lot more WWE talent, including more divas and, most excitedly, some NXT talent (Finn Balor and Kevin Owens were both featured in the demo version). But I can say that 2K16 is immense fun, and the gameplay hasn’t changed much. The game is great for someone like me whose usual approach to figuring out fighting games is to mash all the buttons until something happens. Working Holds are as simple as holding X while your opponent is seated; submissions are X while rotating the right analog stick. One exciting new difference involves reversals. In 2K16, there are two types of reversals: Minor Reversals (they show up as green), which use a single reversal stock, and Major (red), which use two reversal stocks. Oh, right—there are now reversal stocks, meaning you can only do a limited amount of reversals at a time before you have to wait for them to recharge. We all have that friend who frustratingly uses a million reversals a game while we yell at the TV, so this is an intriguing change. There are other cool elements of the game, too, such as the opportunity to play as the Terminator (if you pre-order the game), an option that Dean Ambrose was especially excited about (“Anyone in the WWE vs a cyborg sent through time [and] made of steel, who are you going to pick? I feel like the Terminator might be the best player in the game.”) and the career mode that highlights the great Stone Cold Steve Austin.

On stage, Stone Cold talked about how proud he was to be the cover of the game, and how cool it was to see some of his own storylines in videogame form. “One of the cool features about this game is the story mode, which covers my career as it went down in WWE. 2K16 did so much research; some of the things that I did with the company, I’ve actually forgotten about, so I got a chance to see a lot of really cool things that I’d forgotten about, and how much research, depth, and detail they went into telling the chapters—chapter one all the way to chapter 316—and it was a hell of a ride.” He went on to praise Jerry “The King” Lawler and Jim Ross for their voice talents in the game, and also talked up the roster and the details in career mode. “Hell, half the time when I showed up to work, I didn’t know what the hell I was doing but it was damn near like therapy for me. So these days, when you pick up a videogame and do the same stuff that I was doing back in the day, you’ll get a sense of some shenanigans, the thrills, the chills, the spills.” When I talked to Stone Cold later that night, he was enthusiastic about the game, and elaborated on the specifics in his career mode that jogged his memory: “Some of the early stuff. Putting all the pieces together starting with Vince McMahon at Madison Square Garden, driving the different vehicles, and just really starting to unleash and push the envelope with a mic, and being aggressive.” (He would not reveal whether or not my favorite Stone Cold moment—him driving the beer truck—was in the game or not.) As for being in the game? It’s cool “to play as Stone Cold Steve Austin because I know all my moves.”

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The Prime Time Players

Throughout the night, the Superstars also praised the level of detail that went into 2K16—it’s one of my favorite aspects of the game: the fans’ t-shirts in the crowd, the pained expressions on Superstars’ faces during close-ups of submission moves, the perfect entrances that are too good to skip through. Dolph Ziggler, who was heading to do an improv set at The PIT later that night, joked about the realism of his character, how he’ll look at his videogame self and think, “Oh yeah, I do need to hit the gym a little harder. It’s so realistic. If I slack on a couple weeks of cardio, it shows up in the game.” (Barrett had a similar take: “They’ve got every wrinkle on my face. I’m kinda sad about that.”) Ziggler shared my enthusiasm about the addition of NXT talent, marveling at Finn Balor’s impressive, monster-like entrance. “I don’t go to NXT very often because we’re always traveling, but it was real cool to see that.”

It struck me that these Superstars get the same joy out of playing WWE 2K16 as us fans do: pretending to be other people or just pretending to be themselves (I’ve spent so much time creating myself as a Diva and agonizing over entrance music), marveling over the details, getting to see cool stuff—like Balor’s entrance—that you don’t get to see in real life, having playful rivalries with friends (at one point, Barrett told me that if he could bareknuckle box anyone, it would be Sheamus because “he just has a face that I love punching” and Sheamus later countered with “[Barrett] wouldn’t last two seconds. I’d break that nose back into place”). Videogames, like the fandom of wrestling, can be a bonding experience, a way in which to connect with people if you have a tough time connecting otherwise. “It’s legit my safe haven,” Xavier Woods told me as we bonded over our shared preferred Mario Kart character (Yoshi, of course), “and where I feel most comfortable: sitting down with a controller in my hand, online yelling at people as I completely destroy them in Rocket League.”

Also check out our gallery of WWE 2K16 screenshots.

Pilot Viruet is the Television Editor at Flavorwire and a culture writer who has contributed to The A.V. Club, Grantland,The Hairpin, and more. She tweets nonstop about punk rock and wrestling here.