The WWE 2K series is in a weird spot. After a few pretty bad games following 2K and Visual Concept’s rebranding of the series (following a really great last-gen sendoff in WWE 2K14), last year’s title was surprisingly solid. It had many of the same, usual struggles, but a lot more compelling structure. Now, for WWE 2K20, longtime developer Yuke’s has ended its partnership with the brand, and Visual Concepts has taken over entirely. What that could mean for this year’s title is up in the air, but that’s not what I’m here to rant about. Today’s topic is about the cover reveal. Usually a momentous occasion, 2K and WWE have once again revealed the superstar gracing this year’s video game marketing. But this time, it’s actually two superstars. While there are reasons the cover is legitimately cool, it also distills a lot of issues with WWE’s current image in, well, a single image.
The two superstars gracing the WWE 2K20 cover are Roman Reigns and, much more notably, Becky Lynch. Lynch, who has had an incredible year in the WWE despite creative challenges impacting nearly everyone else in the company, is front and center. Reigns, long a controversial figure in the wrestling world, has his back to hers, in what could be seen as a powerful image in certain contexts. Lynch is also wearing a “The Man” shirt, which of course is a nod to her ongoing storyline of being a total badass who has a violent disrespect for the established rules. The vibe given off my the cover is reflected in the game’s debut commercial, which is a hamfisted (appropriate because, well, wrestling) display of dubious corporate wokeness.
The commercial sees all the usual current and “legend” WWE superstars enjoying a black tie social, with even “The Monster Among Men” Braun Strowman dressed to the nines in what looks like some ludicrously wealthy person’s cigar room. Everyone in the room is male, and we see the likes of Steve Austin and The Rock, among others. Then, the ceiling, which is made of glass because that’s how metaphors work in the wrestling world, shatters into a bajillion pieces as Becky Lynch Batmans her way into the party. She grabs a drink and makes thoroughly sexy eye contact with Roman Reigns, as the two establish their respective BDE in the room.
First, let’s talk about the positives. For one, this is the first time a woman has been on the cover of a WWE game, since the series took on the whole EA Sports-style cover athlete gimmick. Becky Lynch being recognized for everything she accomplished since before WrestleMania this year is awesome, especially for such a huge marketing effort. And while the fanbase continues to struggle deciding if they still hate Roman Reigns or not, his triumphant return from a cancer recurrence is a huge deal and after main eventing multiple WrestleMania events in a row, he deserves a cover spot. And it’s a pretty dope image on top of all that. But I have some issues with the whole presentation nonetheless.
Let’s face it–WWE has pushed and pushed itself as suddenly getting bit by the progressiveness bug, and has branded its relaunching of its womens’ division as the “Women’s Evolution.” In fact, that’s what WWE 2k20’s showcase mode is all about. But if you look at what has actually happened in WWE since, you’ll see the same old problems hiding under the showy surface. Women still get less time than all the men, they’re still paid significantly less (except for Ronda Rousey), and unless WWE needs some fresh PR, are nowhere near the main event. Also, Chyna being a DLC character feels like yet another weird slap in the face to her legacy, as WWE did everything it could to make excuses about not acknowledging her existence until she was dead.
For example, after introducing a whole new women’s tag team title belt set, it was immediately removed from its initial champions, given to jokey heel characters and immediately became a distraction instead of a serious belt. It has since changed hands more, but WWE has never given the belt the push it needed to feel like more than lip service. And underneath all the local issues, WWE has also stubbornly stuck to its business partnership with Saudi Arabia, going all-in on propaganda such as, “We now allow women to drive!” but leaving all the women’s division talent out of the shows for political reasons. Becky Lynch was practically a fluke, and everyone on the roster who isn’t Lynch or Charlotte Flair often barely get screen time week to week.
So of course, when a woman gets to be the cover athlete for the first time, suddenly the game needs to have two superstars. It reeks of, “here, we did the cool progressive thing, but also here’s what we really wanted to do.” Roman isn’t even really doing much in the actual programming, being involved in mostly mid-card matches and stories that are fine, but hardly on the same level as The Man. Again, it’s a cool image with a lot of good reasons to be excited about it, but it’s also a representation of problems WWE is still failing to acknowledge. But with other new additions such as career mode including both gender options, at least some of the positive changes WWE has undergone have finally trickled into the video game version.
For example, after introducing a whole new women’s tag team title belt set, it was immediately removed from its initial champions, given to jokey heel characters and immediately became a distraction instead of a serious belt. It has since changed hands more, but WWE has never given the belt the push it needed to feel like more than lip service. And underneath all the local issues, WWE has also stubbornly stuck to its business partnership with Saudi Arabia, going all-in on propaganda such as “we now allow women to drive!” but leaving all the women’s division talent out of the shows for political reasons. Becky Lynch was practically a fluke, and everyone on the roster who isn’t Lynch or Charlotte Flair often barely get screen time week to week.