Wrestling. The old tale of men and women with flashy tights grappling to win pre-determined matches, enhanced with characters ranging from angry Texans to cerebral assassins and whatever the Gobbledy Gooker was. Nowadays, pro wrestling has undergone dramatic shifts, fuelled by the rise of UFC and the desire to make the industry a healthier, more steroid-free environment, giving it an incredible new degree of athleticism and choreography. To me, it has led to wrestling that is more driven by sports than ever and when mixed with great characters, there’s nothing like it.
Few companies exemplify these changes more than the still-young All Elite Wrestling (AEW). They’ve grown to firmly be America’s number two promotion behind the behemoth that is World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE). Spearheaded by former New Japan Pro Wrestling (NJPW) stars Kenny Omega, The Young Bucks and Cody Rhodes and funded by Tony Khan, the promotion has quickly grown into a tentpole of the modern wrestling world.
It was only a matter of time then for AEW to expand its repertoire and enter into the video game world. When it comes to AAA wrestling games, it’s fair to say the genre has struggled in recent years to produce unique games. Yuke’s themselves are known for developing WWE’s yearly 2k series up until WWE 2k19. However, that series sadly reached a low point with WWE 2k20, developed by Visual Concepts, owing to a product full of bugs and glitches upon release.
Despite some more off-the-wall efforts with the recent release of WWE 2k Battlegrounds and the oft-forgotten but personal favourite 2011 release WWE All-Stars; I’ve found myself pining for a title that had the quality and pure fun of WWE Smackdown vs Raw 2010.
This isn’t to say there haven’t been other efforts for wrestling games recently. Take Fire Pro Wrestling World, which brought about a classic arcade art style with frenetic play and packaged with the licenses for NJPW and Japanese Women’s promotion Stardom. Historically, Yuke’s themselves have produced some great wrestling games with some memorable modes. Fans still fondly remember WWE SmackDown! Vs. Raw 2006 for its GM mode, which saw players managing one of the two titular brands, booking matches and trying to earn money, and numerous creation modes.
With Yuke’s now developing for AEW, we’ve seen an early teaser trailer promising dream matches and presentations from the AEW Games department led by Kenny Omega. Whilst of course it is far too early to proclaim a return to form for AAA wrestling games, there is plenty to get me intrigued; not least because of how AEW’s wrestling product could result in some big changes and new concepts for the game.
Before looking at the product, it’s fair to say that All Elite Wrestling’s top brass are video game fans. The aforementioned Kenny Omega is a man who, similar to WWE’s Xavier Woods, is a man who wears his passion for video games on his sleeve and has even incorporated video gaming concepts into his persona. Take his Fyter Fest 2019 entrance alongside the Young Bucks, in which the Bucks are the literal Ryu and Ken to his Akuma. Even better for my money is his entrance as Undertale’s Sans, complete with Megalovania as his music and fireworks, on the 2019 Halloween episode of AEW Dynamite.
Omega even wore costumes that paid tribute to characters such as Mega Man and Sephiroth in his NJPW days. Fair to say that Omega, who is executive vice president of AEW, and his pals are aficionados. It’s also fair to say that their patience with Yuke’s could help for a better final product. In a 2.Show presentation for AEW Games, Omega was keen to not give an official release date, stating “As you know, sometimes when games are rushed, they encounter a lot of bugs… we don’t want that, we want people to have fun with this thing”. Sounds like WWE 2k20’s launch fiasco should be accounted for.
But looking closer at AEW’s in-ring product, there is so much promise for a AAA game that could be very different. For one, consider the match types. Wrestling games thrive on having plenty of options for match types, whether it be a good old fashioned battle royale to a ridiculous ladder match. Luckily, AEW have provided plenty of absurd match types. Take the Stadium Stampede match in which The Elite battled The Inner Circle inside the Jacksonville Jaguars’ football stadium or comedy wrestler Orange Cassidy taking on Chris Jericho in a ‘Mimosa Mayhem’ match in which the winner was the first person to throw their opponent into a bath of orange juice.
Other more serious stipulations include the bloody and violent unsanctioned matches that Jon Moxley, the previous AEW World Champion, has pioneered in AEW to plenty of controversy. These, although not my cup of tea, could be added for those who do love a hardcore match. Yuke’s could see these as a source of inspiration for some wide variation in gameplay and fresh stipulations for wrestling games.
Even looking at an AEW Pay-per-view card, it points to how the gameplay could become wildly varied. AEW shows tend to vary up the stipulations and wrestling styles you see. Take the AEW Revolution 2020 pay-per-view, which featured an incredible in-ring range. The card sees Omega and Hangman Adam Page vs. The Young Bucks in a highly athletic and personal 30-minute marathon resulting in one of the best tag matches ever, to the five minute aerial sprint between Darby Allin and Sammy Guevara, to the comedy respite of Orange Cassidy vs. Pac, all capping off with the intense main-event between Jon Moxley and Chris Jericho for the AEW World Championship.
The card smartly changed up the tone and pacing across its matches and this represents perhaps the biggest challenge facing the game. Can they produce a moveset and gameplay system that allows for fast sprints and slower, more technical contests? How do Yuke’s create in-ring combat that allows for these without sacrificing the fun?
That technicality could also be a big challenge for Yuke’s but could result in one of the most complex and in-depth wrestling gameplay. AEW matches can have sequences featuring numerous counters and reversals, as well as wrestlers hitting different finishers or learning moves in a storyline. In the teaser trailer, this is observed as Omega and Jericho trade multiple reversals, each dodging and ducking the other’s big moves. Other games have tried to balance reversals by giving players a limited number of them or putting mini-games in to allow people to counter. This could prove a particular challenge for online play, balancing the systems so it doesn’t feel unfair. If Yuke’s can master this though, the game could have an additional depth to help matches feel more fluid.
Where the biggest change could come through is through the single-player story modes. Whilst the 2k series has attempted different kinds of single player content through its universe mode or recent cinematic story modes, one of AEW’s biggest story selling points right now is their deep connections with the other companies like NJPW or Impact Wrestling. Right now, Kenny Omega is a dastardly champion teaming with his former New Japan brethren Karl Anderson and Luke Gallows. Nothing particularly strange until you realise that Anderson and Gallows are the current Impact Wrestling Tag Team Champions. On this week’s AEW Dynamite, Jon Moxley was jumped by NJPW star KENTA.
AEW is rapidly creating a shared universe of multiple promotions within wrestling, relying on character relationships and character histories to do so whilst building up other characters on its own card. This could result in a huge roster (depending on licensing which may not happen) but more interestingly, the potential for a story mode here feels more intriguing owing to the long-form stories and relationships. Yuke’s could be able to do something with this.
Wrestling games have done all sorts of great story modes in the past. I have fond memories of the old Road to Wrestlemania storylines in the Smackdown vs. Raw games and the hyperbolic cinematics accompanying them, or the OTT madness of TNA Impact!. With the many groups in AEW and the individual long-form stories, Yuke’s could have plenty of scope for some new single-player modes and maybe even interesting story content with crossovers into other companies. Again, that may come down to getting licenses. But still, my hopes for a great in-game wrestling story could come to fruition.
When it comes down to it, AEW’s console game could be genuinely an exciting entry in the wrestling genre if it’s anywhere near a reflection of the company’s product. It may just be potential and hope yet, but it isn’t unfounded potential.