Pro wrestling and video games have an intimate relationship that often goes understated. A lot of that is due to the long history of pro wrestling in Japan, and so many game developers growing up as fans. But some of it is also due to pro wrestling’s warped sense of reality, which lends itself so well to inclusion in games. But when it comes to making actual video games about wrestling, the industry struggles, especially today. But why is that? Surely the two go so well together this shouldn’t be an issue, but it is. I think the problem lies in how the industry views “sports” games, and how WWE wants to fit into that box.
WWE isn’t the only wrestling company or video game of course, but it’s the major one. And for a while, it truly was the only one getting video game adaptations, as companies like TNA or smaller wrestling organizations never really had the capital or interest to drive a major game. And more fictional series like Fire Pro Wrestling disappeared for a long time, coming back recently after a years-long hiatus. So within that period, the WWE 2K series has more or less been the only video game representation for wrestling existing in the mainstream space. But that’s only if you count “wrestling video games” as games specifically about wrestling properties.
Wrestling in video games goes back to the 8-bit era, if not earlier. On the NES, you mostly had actual wrestling games, because everything was so simple you could only do so much. But once things progressed to the 16-bit era and arcade games really got bigger, you start to see wrestling trickle down into other spaces. Take beat ‘em ups, for example. Final Fight famously incorporated Mike Haggar, who could pick enemies up and even do a piledriver afterwards. The piledriver became a standard in similar games, meanwhile in fighting games and other more complex affairs things like suplexes, drop kicks, and different sorts of slamming maneuvers become commonplace.
As games grew more complex and gained space for animation depth, wrestling became even more ingrained in games! Batman himself uses a DDT move in Arkham Asylum, and you can’t even argue for that being an actual combat technique. The Resident Evil series goes ham with wrestling moves, using the Mercenaries mode as an excuse to incorporate things like hurricanrana takedowns, lariats, tornado DDTs, and more. None of these moves are practical (or even physically possible) in a real combat situation, but the magic of pro wrestling translates to unreal, virtual spaces perfectly. Only in video games can you see a Ninja Turtle bust out a Kevin Nash-ass jacknife powerbomb to effectively take down a foot ninja.
Meanwhile, actual wrestling games these days try to cram so much in they lose focus on the fun part. 2K Games wants the WWE series (and presumably WWE itself) to fit in with the sports simulation games, aka the Maddens and FIFAs of the world. Yet, WWE is a fictional sport that relies on layers of performance, storytelling and audience participation to work. You would think the WWE video games would shoot for creating its own unreality and present the illusion as mythical fact, but instead you’re given a giant toybox of management simulations and a combat system that never quite feels like it fits in with why you like pro wrestling in the first place. Games like WWE All-Stars, where the fiction takes the wheel, end up being looked back upon much more fondly, because despite their cartoony affectations they adapt the experience much more faithfully.
If I want wrestling video games, I often don’t think to get that from the officially-licensed WWE games. I’ll play them, but I have to know what I’m in for, which is a weird mess of literalized adaptation and unrealistic management menus. Maybe a bad story mode in there too. But if I want to experience the same excitement as watching the actual pro wrestling art in real life, I’m much better off picking up something like Final Fight or Resident Evil 6. Games like that, in representing the over the top wrestling moves as usable in “real” combat, do far more to capture the spirit and appeal of watching a “fake” combat sport play out on TV, or even an in-person arena. I’ve been to SummerSlam; trust me on this one!