WWE’s virtual fans a (thunder) ing success


WWE ThunderDome Image: WWE

The deadly COVID-19 has spared none – be it the common man, luminaries or celebrities. The fatal respiratory disease is still assaulting the world and is leaving behind a trail of death. The world economy is still bleeding and the sports venue sector is also bearing the coronavirus brunt.

Major professional sports leagues around the world shut down early in 2020 as the deadly virus spread its tentacles globally. Amid all this cacophony, the world’s leading professional wrestling firm, World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE), weathered the coronavirus storm and stood ground.

World Wrestling Entertainment is an American integrated media and entertainment company that is primarily known for professional wrestling. WWE has also branched out into other fields, including movies, football, and various other business ventures.

The WWE held closed-door events for almost the whole of the pandemic and silently scripted a success story. As the world locked down, WWE was trying to prepare for WrestleMania, its signature event of the year.

There is a saying that when the going gets tough, the tough gets going. And this proverb sits apt on WWE. The people who were in charge at WWE dived into rounds of “tense and stressful” meetings that took place internally at the WWE, and the efforts paid off – the firm pulled off WrestleMania, and then brought fans back into the arena through virtual reality. They pulled out all stops to keep the show running amid the pandemic.

The fulcrum of WWE’s plans is the ThunderDome, an immersive experience for fans, run out of an arena in Orlando, Florida in US.

Any sporting event’s true spirit gets best manifested when it is performed before a live audience – fans are the soul of any sporting fixture – the raison d’être. And it is no different for the WWE – the ring bouts get best defined when it feeds off a live audience.

Even the deadly pandemic could not dampen the spirits of WWE and it moved away from big, fan-filled arenas and into the firm’s Performance Center in Orlando, Florida, and made all events a closed-door affair.

The WWE’s boardroom meetings were high on the stress quotient and were full of nerve-racking moments. It was no cakewalk for the world’s leading professional wrestling firm trying to figure out how to navigate the worldwide health crisis.

Stephanie McMahon, WWE’s Chief Brand Officer and daughter of head honcho Vince McMahon, told mediapersons recently that it was “tense” because multiple cities around the world had already locked down by mid-March, which was just weeks before WrestleMania — the flagship WWE event of the year.

WrestleMania 36 was supposed to take place live on April 5th, 2020, in front of 80,000 people at the Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Florida.

Instead, the show was broadcast on a tape delay over two days – April 4th and April 5th – and included imaginatively devised matches.

The visually striking performance included ‘The Boneyard’, where the seemingly immortal Undertaker (American professional wrestler Mark William Calaway known by the nickname ‘Undertaker’) defeated AJ Styles (American professional wrestler Allen Neal Jones known by the nickname AJ Styles) by kicking him into a grave, getting into a tractor, and pouring a load of dirt over his body to bury him alive!

The whole scene seemed right out of a Hollywood horror flick shot at a grimly-lit cemetery location.

‘Tense moments’

McMahon reminisces the “stressful” weeks leading up to the marquee event – “First and foremost, we had to take into account the safety of our fans and of our superstars and employees — that’s paramount.”

“Working with the local Government offices in Florida, the CDC, and the World Health Organization (WHO), we made sure we were aligned with all the recommendations from the organizations to do the right thing,” McMahon added.

WWE executives raised questions over how the company could continue to fulfill its business plan while guaranteeing the safety of its fans, talent, and employees – “There were a lot of scenarios being planned all at the same time,” she added.

Doubts were raised and internal discussions took place to decide whether they could even go ahead with WrestleManiaWWE’s Superbowl — let alone pull off a spectacular show in the middle of a pandemic.

McMahon continues, “We had to quickly pivot to decide – a) does the show still go on? and b) if so, where and how? We decided that yes we have responsibility to our audience, and to our partners, to continue to produce our programing.”

She further informed, “We wanted to provide an opportunity for our viewers to escape. We still do. It’s our mission to put smiles on people’s faces. WrestleMania took place at our Performance Center over two nights in front of absolutely no people, and it was definitely a unique experience.”

Virtual reality does the magic!

In April, WWE was back producing live broadcasts behind-closed-doors venues. Helping them in their endeavor was Ron DeSantis, the Florida Governor, deeming sports an essential business critical to the State’s economy.

Shortly after that, WWE held talks with The Famous Group, a Los Angeles technology company which excels in mixed reality, augmented reality, and virtual events.

With COVID wallop on the world on in full swing, it was becoming increasingly apparent that mass gatherings were not happening any time soon, and the WWE wanted to find a way of bringing its fans into an arena through virtual reality.

“It starts with the WWE vision with what they want to create, and give them the credit here for having the vision,” Jon Slusser, owner and partner at The Famous Group, told mediapersons.

“They were willing to take this concept of having virtual fans to a place nobody had ever seen before,” he added.

Narrated Slusser, “They called us, said, ‘Hey, we want to work with you guys on this idea of building a low-latency massive experience for our fans.’ And they wanted that experience to be authentic, real, and for the reactions to be as quick as possible. So we worked to create that environment as soon as possible.”

The virtual fan experience would be one part of what would become WWE’s ThunderDome, a multitech, avant-garde, behind-closed-doors production inside Orlando’s Amway Center – a major sports and entertainment venue.

The Amway Center which can fit in 20,000 fans is normally the home of the National Basketball Association (NBA) team Orlando Magic, but with the team playing in the league’s bubble across town at Walt Disney World, WWE took over.

Vince McMahon announced the ThunderDome concept during a Friday Night Smackdown event in August.

It includes pyrotechnics, lasers, and drone cameras. And, crucially, the most exciting part is the video boards which feature fans who can enter the arena virtually and react in real time to the chaotic energy taking place at each and every event during the pandemic. A real adrenaline rushing experience for fans!

Stephanie McMahon’s mission mode to oversee the return of an audience inside an arena, reacting to the WWE’s superstars, had arrived.

This whole concept has clicked off with wrestling buffs in a big way and 130,000 people have requested entrance to the arena since its launch last month.

“The ThunderDome is not one piece of technology … its many different departments that the WWE has put together to create this energy, experience, and environment, from a broadcast [point-of-view] and the fans coming in virtually,” Slusser added.

He asserted, “We work with the WWE on one aspect — the virtual fans.”

Slusser said that whenever the WWE uses its drone camera technology, incorporating a wide angle view, one can see the entire audience which comprises thousands of fans watching live at home who might be screaming, cheering, or booing, depending on what is happening at the event.”

“Those moments give me chills because nobody has ever done anything in that scale before. It’s mind-blowing when you see it all put together with all those people, those live faces. The crowd gets so intense, so emotional about these moments, and you could feel it, see it, and see them reacting to it.” Slusser exulted.

“The wrestlers play off it too. Those moments when you can feel the emotion of the crowd … those are my favorite moments,” he further stated.

Virtual reality has arrived!

The Famous Group has been working on mixed reality and virtual technologies for years together, but put together a rapid bespoke solution for the WWE, ready to launch within months of sports shutting down due to the pandemic.

“This technology is the culmination of years of developing different technologies for live events. We didn’t have this solution, but we had components of this solution. We had worked with real-time rendering before on a variety of different projects, mixed reality using the Unreal Engine, and we’ve used AWS (Amazon Web Services) for our projects, which we’ve used for this,” Slusser explained.

“Quince Imaging (display and design firm) and Frozen Mountain (Canadian software company) are our two technology partners, and so we had all of the pieces in place. But when COVID struck we had to put those pieces together very quickly using our knowledge of the market, our 20 years of being in the sports business, understanding the live event, and calling our friends in the leagues and saying, ‘This is what we can provide.’,” he recounted.

“Although it came together quickly, it’s because we built all these other technologies either separately or somewhat together, then put them together in that moment, to create this spectacle for the WWE,” he further recounted.

The end result, which completed the ThunderDome experience, swept McMahon off her feet.

Slusser recounted McMahon as saying, “We were hoping to be back in arenas by now with fans in attendance but obviously that just wasn’t meant to be.”

“All along we were really learning, playing with audio, different types of graphics packages — all different things. Then we realized we’re not going to be in different arenas and starting to travel again, so what are we going to do, and how can we create the best experience for our fans,” she maintained.

The WWE saw what the NBA was doing with virtual fans and wanted to build on that, McMahon said.

“We have up to 1,000 fans surrounding the ring all giving us their real, visceral reactions. Having no people in the arena allows us to play with things like lasers and pyro in places we never could before because we had human beings sitting there and you had to be careful, obviously!” she further maintained.

“So it really opens us up to doing all kinds of things. The screens with people on can change, we can program them to be a part of someone’s entrance, or be a part of an effect during the show for one of our characters. That combined with the virtual reality and everything else has really brought back that energy that we were missing,” McMahon averred.

‘When there is a will there is a way’

A ThunderDome-esque experience could feasibly compliment the tradition fan experience on a post-pandemic planet, McMahon said, telling mediapersons that “anything is possible”.

“We really do want to create the best possible experience for our fans. One that’s worthy of their passion so we’re examining all kinds of things and you could see both. I think we’re going to see a lot in all businesses and in particular the entertainment industries and sports, a lot of combinations of the new learnings from all this technology, plus the fundamental foundational learning that we have to move our businesses forward. So it’ll be an intersection of what works best,” she noted.

Slusser believes the whole concept has birthed a new industry – “I don’t think this is just a new platform. I believe you can monetize a virtual experience that leagues, teams, and promoters can sell tickets for globally, for a local event. There are super fans for every franchise out there, who would love to be at the game or event, but they can’t be.”

“And if they have the ability to be close to the game, rather than just watching it on television, they’ll sign up to it all the time. As a result, this is a new business model. You can bring in fans who can get a unique experience either through exclusive camera angles or extra content. Plus, the most important thing is that they feel like they’re in the building,” he added.

“Their presence is with the players, or the artist. That is unbelievably powerful. I know leagues, teams, promoters, are going to see an opportunity to increase revenue and expand their global audience with this platform. This is absolutely going to happen, going forward. It looks like the future because it is the future,” Slusser concluded.

The grit and gumption of Stephanie McMahon and her team as well as the Famous Group team with their cutting-edge technology made the impossible possible.

WWE needs to be patted for making the best use of technology in a COVID-struck planet. While the sports venue sector shuttered, the WWE and Famous Group was (technically) weaving a success story.

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