I was heading to bed this morning when I heard that the latest cover star of WWE 2K16 is none other than WWE Hall of Famer Stone Cold Steve Austin. I saw the trailer, thought it was alright, and went to bed.
But as I laid there and tried to drift off to sleep, so many thoughts entered my mind, most of them thinking that this cover choice just didn’t feel right. On a marketing level, I totally get it.
“Stone Cold” Steve Austin is a recognizable name to those who haven’t watched wrestling in forever, people who more than likely still play video games. People will see him on a video game box at GameStop and will probably gain some sort of interest in the upcoming title, promising to have many more characters than last year’s iteration of the game, a lot of those more than likely from the same era as Austin. He’s a great choice to sell units for a series that needs to gain interest after lackluster sales.
The problem is, Steve Austin retired in 2003. It’s now 2015.
Wouldn’t one think that the poster boy for the latest WWE video game should be the WWE champion? The problem there is WWE has done such a lackluster job of pushing their new top guy that they have to rely on history to garner sales. Seth Rollins has not been pushed as a great champion. The storylines involving him for most of this year revolve around him needing help from 10,000 people to retain the title, the top two being Stephanie McMahon and Triple H, the real stars of WWE Monday Night RAW. The other guy they’ve tried to push is Roman Reigns, who the crowd turned on so vehemently against at the start of the year due to WWE’s attempt at pushing him that now he just sort of hangs around the main event spot, waiting for another shot at the title as he gets less and less over.
In the last few years, those are the two guys that WWE has protected the most aside from Brock Lesnar, and of course Hunter. And they aren’t on the cover of this year’s game, nor are they featured players on any WWE advertising because they’re nowhere near the level a guy like Austin or Cena were.
WWE’s inability to create new stars has been a problem for years now. They gave the push to Cena, Orton, and Batista ten years ago to varying degrees of success. Reigns, Rollins, and to a degree Ambrose were supposed to be the next wave of talent that would carry WWE for the next ten years. But instead of realizing their potential through great booking, like the three names of 2005, these three have struggled, not through their own merits, because they all have something that could make them top stars, but rather through a writing team and a 70-year-old man that have no real way of creating a top tier talent through solid booking and marketing.
When Triple H was at the top as a heel champion, he did not have all of his cronies constantly interfering in his matches. Yes, he had that on occasion, with Evolution and the like, but not constantly and consistently like Rollins. Remember all those times Triple H won cleanly as a heel? Yeah, that helps get a guy over. Rollins hasn’t had that opportunity, and now he’s in a role where he’s a heel champion who can never get a clean win. And when I mean never, I mean virtually every time he’s in the ring, whether it be RAW, SmackDown, whatever, either it winds up being a DQ finish or Kane and company run in for a DQ. He’s not Magnus TNA champion level bad, because that would take effort that WWE doesn’t have right now, but I wouldn’t call it one of the greatest reigns of all time either.
Roman Reigns’ booking isn’t much better. The booking of Reigns should have been easy. You don’t have the guy lose, he beats a bunch of people in quick fashion and challenges the almighty beast Brock Lesnar at WrestleMania in a battle of two guys booked to look completely unstoppable. But of course, making guys under the age of 35 look good isn’t WWE’s forte at the moment. Instead, the guy everyone wanted to win the Royal Rumble, Daniel Bryan, was put in despite everyone but WWE knowing that the crowd would be into him winning. Anyone who remembers the Royal Rumble from the year before would tell you that.
Unfortunately, the only people who had no clue about this were WWE themselves. Bryan then lost, and the Philadelphia crowd turned on the match quickly. Reigns came in, did largely nothing to look impressive, then tossed a hidden Rusev over to win the Royal Rumble to a chorus of boos. He had no real steam following this win, having a lackluster feud with Bryan where no one turned on each other, then after losing to Big Show in long, boring matches because it’s WWE, he had confrontations with Brock Lesnar which involve playing tug of war with the WWE belt to hype up their match.
At WrestleMania, he proceeded to get screwed out of the title by Seth Rollins, who cashed in his Money in the Bank briefcase and pinned Reigns. To say that Reigns not over right now would be an understatement. In fact, right now there’s not many people right now in WWE who are over, and that’s a big, big problem.
WWE is doing everything it can to not feel like a hot promotion. The three-hour Raws that drone on, the big matches with crappy finishes, feuds that involve who is going to interfere in matches…that doesn’t create stars. It creates boredom. What they have going for them is they can turn that switch when it matters…and that’s three times out of the year: Royal Rumble, WrestleMania, and SummerSlam. When those three events arrive, suddenly the company feels hot. Brock Lesnar returns, Triple H puts the boots back in, everyone that was a star before 2003 are suddenly making appearances. Ratings go up, house shows improve and Raw starts selling out again. If it’s WrestleMania, even better! Next year’s card seems certain we’ll see the likes of Sting, Undertaker (not in the same match, don’t be silly) The Rock, and hell, maybe even Steve Austin. Every guy that ever made a name for themselves in the WWE who are game will be at WrestleMania 32 at AT&T Stadium, and it’ll probably be the biggest WWE event of all time if they have their way.
And that’s great! You want to stack that card with as many names as you can if you want to reach that fabled 100,000 in attendance. Granted, the real number will probably be about 20,000 less than that, but you know the kayfabe number will make this event the biggest of all time within the WWE Universe. And for the next couple of years, those names will probably still be around. But as the hands of time roll on and people continue to age, eventually those names will be gone. Yes, eventually Brock Lesnar will want out of his big money contract and go back to Minneapolis or North Dakota to hunt. The Rock will see no other matches that will warrant his time and go back to making a bunch of successful movies. Batista might come back, but his movie schedule’s ramping up too. Sting, Undertaker, and even Cena will call it a day, and that will be sooner than later. And when all these names are gone for good, who will be left to take their spot?
WWE never needed so many past stars to fill their cards like they have today. In the 90s, when business was bad, they would bring in a few names like Mr. Perfect or Roddy Piper, but they never needed to bring back every single top draw to work a card on a yearly basis. Whether it be Diesel, Shawn Michaels, Bret Hart, whoever, they always had new names to headline their shows. In the last decade, there have been lots of rematches, lots of trilogies, lots of sequels to main events that have headlined or co-mained WrestleMania. We didn’t need to see Undertaker and Triple H have two matches, or Rock and Cena to do two either, but that’s how business works now. To say that WWE is hesitant to push new stars to the top would be an understatement. They tried this year with Lesnar and Reigns, but with the way Reigns is booked now how will anyone take him seriously as a main eventer when the time finally comes? It’s not so much that people aren’t ready to accept new stars, it’s more WWE’s booking 9 out of these 12 months thats killing these guys, and even this year the other three months aren’t much to write home about either.
More than ever, WWE is relying on their past to draw business. And that’s because names like Rock, Austin, Triple H and Lesnar were booked the right way. Lesnar was a monster and pushed straight to the top when brought up from developmental, going undefeated for about ten months straight. Triple H almost never lost a match when he was a heel champion. Austin and Rock’s charisma shone through and enabled them to be top stars. In 2015, WWE booking prevents all of that from happening. People are assigned characters with nicknames that are pounded on by the viewer that aren’t created organically with written dialogue that no human being would ever say, destroying any kind of credibility they would have at connecting with an audience. People win matches, then people lose matches for no real reason other than it’s just the way it is. And most of the time, those wins and losses are either DQ’s, count outs, or come through tons of interference. Because that’s the way it is.
“Because that’s the way it is” is the laziest form of booking imaginable. It’s really hilarious every time I hear that WWE has booked itself in a corner because they don’t want a guy to lose, but they don’t want this guy to win, so they end up doing a finish that gets neither guy over. The biggest problem with WWE booking in 2015 is that they have so many guidelines and rigmarole as to who is a star and how a star should be booked that they didn’t have even ten years ago no one can ever get over with the way they book now. No wonder that The Rocks and the Steve Austins of the world are still all over WWE marketing – they got over big at a time when they were able to be themselves and they didn’t have to worry about losing every other week or being handed weird verbiage written by a 70-year-old!
I don’t know why Steve Austin appearing on the cover of WWE 2K16 drove me to write this article. Like I mentioned, it’s a good marketing move. I think in the end, my real problem with it is that it’s another sign on WWE relying on their past stars, that ones that didn’t have so many barriers put in front of them, to be the big money draws while they guys that they are trying to build continue to flounder and struggle for relevancy because the way they book top stars now doesn’t work. It’s a problem we’ve seen over and over again in the past decade, but more than ever it’s the white elephant in the room that WWE continues to ignore, trudging through the dull periods in between the big three to get to where they need to be. That’s a fine method to go for a few more years, but sooner than later that method of booking is going to bite them in the ass. Big, massive changes need to happen in creative in order to get guys over the same way an Austin got over in 1998. Otherwise, for WWE 2K26, we’ll have Steve Austin and Hulk Hogan on the cover again…and then what would people think?