Tag Archives: wrestling

CM Punk and Transmedia

CM Punk
CM Punk

In dealing with a contract renewal negotiation, CM Punk brought the world of transmedia storytelling to professional wrestling.

Before I dive into this, I need to explain some wrestling terminology. A “work” is something that’s scripted — Wrestler A hates Wrestler B in the ring, but backstage they’re friends and they travel together, for example. When a story is is worked, it’s all fictional.

A “shoot” is the opposite — it’s very real, bringing backstage politics to the ring. Wrestler A shoots on Wrestler B in the ring, and that’s because they’re real tension (or “heat”) between them outside of the ring.

Over time, promoters realized that audiences really liked shoots, in much the same way that they like performers in love comedy shows to crack up (called “breaking”) during rehearsed skits. So, something evolved called a “worked shoot,” in which real tensions are amplified or enhanced in order to tell a better story in the ring.  Often times, a worked shoot becomes a pure work, as tensions are resolved outside the ring but the story continues inside of it.

Earlier this year, CM Punk mentioned that his contract was expiring on July 17th, and he wasn’t considering renewing. As far as could be determined, this was all shoot, and seemed consistent with previous interviews and Twitter messages from him. He threatened to beat John Cena (then the WWE Champion) and take the belt with him off of television at the Money in the Bank pay-per-view. That seemed to be a work, and it was likely that something would happen that allow the belt to remain in the WWE’s hands. There was some great shoot and worked shoot mic work leading up to the PPV which I recommend watching if you like wresting, but from a pure storytelling perspective it wasn’t anything new — just quality work by two professionals at the top of their game. Punk has a number of interviews, including one with GQ magazine, in which he’s pretty clear about leaving the company. The Money in the Back match comes, and John Cena and CM Punk wrestle.

And Punk wins. And leaves with the belt. And then things get interesting.

First, he posts pictures of his celebration on Twitter, making it very clear that there isn’t going to be a sudden reversal or tidy wrap-up, at least not right away. Traditionally on WWE, the next night’s live Raw broadcast deals with the fallout from the previous night. Everyone expected Punk to show up and be involved somehow. And yet, at the time of Raw’s airing, Punk was still in Chicago at a Cubs game, and posted pictures of the belt from the game. On television, the focus was on making a new belt and the repercussions on the character of Vince McMahon, who is fired as CEO and replaced with his son-in-law, Triple H. (Side note: One CNBC reporter speculated that the SEC may have to investigate the firing, and for a few days it appears the WWE was actually playing along with the investigation. They ultimately admitted that Vince was only fired as Chairman, a title that the SEC doesn’t have any authority over.) Punk still has the title.

Then, Comic-Con. CM Punk crashes the WWE/Mattel panel that has Triple H, and continues the storyline. The video is all amateur — there were no WWE cameras there, and it appears to all be unscripted. Again, except for a few mentions on Raw and on WWE.com, none of this is happening on any official WWE outlet. On July 25th, Punk returns to Raw at the very end of the show, and the story takes on its normal proportions — it’s largely on television and WWE.com again. So, from a transmedia perspective, we’re really looking at the time period from the evening of July 17th to the evening of July 25th.

From a television perspective, the story is simple — CM Punk leaves, a short tournament is held, a new belt awarded to John Cena, and then CM Punk returns to challenge that. You can follow along without any of the external media and get it. But by following Punk on Twitter and the incident at Comic-Con, you get a lot more texture and nuance for the story — there’s a second story unconnected to official WWE media that accentuates and enhances the core story. The fact that WWE is notoriously protective of keeping their story on their own media adds to this — they went outside of their comfort zone and let Punk tell his story as well.

And, from everything I’ve been able to tell (although I have nothing definitive), Punk wasn’t even a contractor with WWE during this time. It appears his contract legitimately expired on the 17th, and that he was resigned close to his appearance on Raw.1

Wow.

To me, this shows that we’re in a world where you don’t have to keep a stranglehold on your narrative. Side narratives can exist in alternative channels that layer into the core narrative in intriguing ways. Further, “creative control” seems to be more resilient and more fluid than previously believed. On the one hand, there’s nothing really that groundbreaking about what happened during that week in July, but the fact that a venerable entertainment company like the WWE tried it and, more specifically, let a contractor run with it says volumes.

So, thank you, CM Punk. You have made me seriously reconsider the boundries of storytelling.

  1. I have since learned that in a recent interview, Punk admits to resigning his contract the day of the 17th, so he was a paid contractor that entire time. However, a lot of my core point stands.

Wrestling with Soap Operas

Back on the train of transmedia thoughts from ARGfest.

The next presentation/discussion I participated in was “Can Transmedia Save The Soap Opera?” by Brooke Thompson. The talk covered a lot about soap operas, what little bit soap operas have done in experimenting in the transmedia space, and what more transmedia could do to keep this style of storytelling alive. But what interested me more the look at how soap opera writers need to write to a variety of audiences all at once, and what writers in other media can learn from that.

Ultimately, soap operas are written for three kinds of groups: people who watch very infrequently (once, maybe twice a year), people who watch somewhat infrequently (a couple of times a month, say), and people who watch religiously. I think Brooke broke it down to “when my kid is sick,” “when I’m skipping class,” and “every day” watchers. One of the things that Brooke found interesting was that the writers on soap operas worked to engage each of these fans simultaneously: providing a compelling story for casual watchers while rewarding hardcore fans with nuances of story that made sense only by knowing the story to a intricate level of detail. During the panel, I pointed out that professional wrestling also works on this multi-tiered writing style, although I admit it’s more heavy-handed – the recaps to catch up casual watchers are excessively repeated, and sometimes depth of history between wrestlers is ignored or downplayed, but the multi-tiered writing style is still prevalent in professional wrestling. I didn’t think about it at the time, but established comic book series do the same thing – trying to engage new fans while also dropping bits of lore for fans who have been following a series for years.

Russell and I keyed on quickly on how this can be adapted to video games. MMOs also have the similar distinctions between hardcore fanatics and more casual players, and content that can be pitched to these multiple groups would be interesting to see in that space. It’s also something that the classic World of Darkness did to good effect: each new book added new content to the world, but would often contain easter eggs of content that reward fans who have read many of the other books. But either way, it’s the same balance – when you have a lengthy backstory and history, you have to consider the balance between casual audiences and fanatical audiences. In interactive fiction, the biggest resource your audience spends on you is time, so you have to reward both small and large investments of time in your product.

Do you, my loyal readers, have some concrete examples of multi-tiered writing?

Wrestling with the Three-Act Structure

Jeff Hardy performing a low dropkick on Umaga....
Image via Wikipedia

Recently I’ve been reading a lot about story structure, particularly the three-act structure. There’s been a lot of discussion about story structure on various blogs lately (hell, I even talked about it), but one thing I kept hearing about was how that stories are all structured the same way, that any meaningful story has a three-act structure, blah blah blah.

I didn’t believe it. I was like “Yeah, whatever, there are some (non-interactive) methods of storytelling that don’t follow the three-act structure, totally.”

This past weekend, I watched Wrestlemania XXVI with a few friends. It was the first Wrestlemania in four years that I hadn’t seen live, but I always look forward to it. It’s often the resolution to a lot of the stories that have been going on since January.

And wouldn’t you fucking know it — those stories tended to follow the three-act structure.

Continue reading Wrestling with the Three-Act Structure

Thank you, HBK

Shawn Michaels at WrestleMania 24
Image via Wikipedia

A quick wrestling post. Back in June, I ranted about false retirements and Ric Flair wrestling after he got a fantastic retirement match at Wrestlemania XXIV.

Last night, Shawn Michaels gave his own retirement speech on Raw, and while I’m sad that he won’t be in the ring anymore, I have nothing but respect for Shawn. Specifically, here’s a quote from ShawnMichaelsWeb.com:

Michaels said that he appreciates the sentiment and he knows that people are skeptical of career-ending matches, but he was going to do everything in his power to make sure “one more match” doesn’t happen. “I don’t want to break my word to you and I don’t want to break my word to The Undertaker,” he said.

Thank you, HBK.

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Returning the Gold Watch

As I mentioned in my prologue, on June 13, 2009 I watched one of my best friends wrestle his last match. It was Ric Byrne’s retirement match at WWC No Escape 2009 — an “impromptu” four corners match for the VCW World Heavyweight Title against JT Stahr, Ben Kimera and Shirley Doe. It was a fantastic match. Afterwards there was a lot of heart-felt sentiment, including both Ben and Shirely breaking character in the ring as heels to express their gratitude to a crowd of over 200 people for Byrne’s contributions to not only the midwestern professional wrestling scene, but to the industry as a whole. I was at Byrne’s premiere match, and there was absolutely nothing that would stop me from being there for his final one as well.

I was also present for the retirement of another Ric: Ric Flair’s final match against Shawn Michaels at Wrestlemania XXIV. Again, it was a fantastic match, easily one of the best of the year. Again, there was a lot of emotion afterward, both on Raw the next day and in the following weeks as Flair bid farewell to a long and legendary career in professional wrestling. From there he went on to do a number of publicity appearances, as well as a few on-mic roles for WWE and some for Ring of Honor. We didn’t expect Flair to stay away from wrestling forever, but he had certainly retired from the ring.

On June 1st, 2009, Flair had a planned “backstage brawl” with Randy Orton on Raw. Although Flair himself said repeatedly that he wasn’t having a match, there have certainly been enough sanctioned street fights, parking-lot bouts and other matches-that-aren’t-inside-a-ring in WWE history that most fans I know call bullshit on the semantics. It was a match. It was a match on a professional wrestling program. It was a match on a professional wrestling program that he claimed he retired from.

As far as I’m concerned, Flair broke his word to his fans. He returned the gold watch.

Now, there’s certainly a history of leaving retirement in professional wrestling. There are a number of angles where the loser leaves town or a wrestler retires only to come back several months or years later. (For example, Mick Foley retired in 2000 from the WWF, only to start wrestling again in TNA in 2009.) Certainly fans can point to the rich history of wrestling and claim that it’s actually very rare that a wrestler stays retired. I’m not saying that there isn’t a tradition of breaking retirement. But there’s the other side to consider: a lot of wrestlers are forced to retire due to medical conditions or personal decisions, and may get nothing more than a short speech and a tournament over their vacated belt, if they’re not just mentioned in passing at the next show. There’s no consistency as to how a wrestler retires, and it seems that a particular performer has to build up a lot of respect in the industry before they’re given any kind of retirement match at all.

This tradition of false retirements and sudden returns means that we, as the fans, often don’t know if a retirement is legitimate until it’s too late. We become blase and suspicious of retirement matches or speeches, only to feel bad when we find out later that the retirement is legitimate. At Wrestlemania 25, I saw JBL’s last match, but at the time I didn’t know it was his last match, because he’s “quit” a number of times before in the WWE. On June 8, 2009, Vickie Guerrero suddenly quit as Raw General Manager, and we as fans didn’t realize until later that she had decided to leave the company to spend more time with her children. So when a wrestler has a lengthy build-up to retirement and a chance to put out a fantastic match, and when that match is able to overcome our inherent skepticism and get us emotionally involved, that’s something special. It’s special to the wrestler, to the industry and to the fans.

Which is why I’m so pissed that Flair had a chance to do something classy with his retirement, and barely waited a year before he was mixing it up again.

His decision makes the problem of future sendoffs so much worse. Now just about every retirement is going to be mocked or ignored. We won’t realize someone is gone until a few years go by and someone asks “Hey, whatever happened to so-and-so?” Nothing is going to be taken at face value. This isn’t exciting. This isn’t clever. This is disrespectful to the fans, the wrestlers and the industry as a whole, because now if a wrestler does have to retire and does put himself through one last amazing match to celebrate his career (like Ric Byrne), it doesn’t mean a damned thing. It’s going to be harder and harder for the guys in future to have respectful, dignified retirements, because I’m going to be thinking “If the legendary Ric Flair couldn’t stay retired, why will you?”

I saw that we declare this particular swerve over and done with. I’m sick of it. It can be done with class and dignity. For example, Chris Jericho didn’t “retire” in 2005. He was (kayfabe) fired from the WWE, but he said that he was just leaving wrestling “for now,” and that if and when he came back, it would be with the WWE again. Others have quietly left for other feds or other opportunities, such as mixed martial arts. That’s fine — I can accept that. But if you use the word retired, be serious about it. Make it rare, make it special, and make it stick. I’m tired of being emotionally abused by fake retirements.

If you take the gold watch, you’d better damn well keep it.

Did We Kill Benoit?

On June 25, 2007, Chris Benoit was found dead with his wife Nancy and their son Daniel in their home in Fayetteville, Georgia. On February 12, 2008, the Fayette County Police Department closed their investigation, citing that Benoit strangled his wife and suffocated his son before hanging himself. The reasons for his actions haven’t been officially determined, but the most plausible theory (proposed by Chris Nowinski) involves chronic brain damage to all four lobes of his brain leading to depression and dementia. Interestingly, the original and most popular theory in the media — that Benoit used steroids and went into a so-called “roid rage” — was disproven when no artificial steroids were found in his system in the autopsy. Many other wrestling deaths have come to light over the years, but none have garnered as much controversy and attention to professional wrestling as Chris Benoit’s case. The media attention led to an overall examination of the impact of steroids and other drugs on the lives of professional wrestlers, regardless of the unlikeliness that they contributed to death of Benoit and his family specifically.

Whether it was brain damage acquired from repeated concussions gained by a signature move and a variety of head shots, or steroids and other damaging medical procedures to increase strength and change body shape, professional wrestlers have died for actions that directly or indirectly involve their performance in the ring and in the industry as a whole. Their desire to be a better or more popular wrestler lead them to take actions that dramatically increase their chances of an early death. As I mentioned in my first essay, many professional wrestlers don’t perform purely out of financial incentive, but rather because of their passion and respect for the business. But on a more fundamental level, many of them do it for the same reasons that musicians perform in concerts or actors perform on stage — for the reaction of the crowd, the thrill of public performance, the excitement of crowds of people chanting your name. And we, as fans, comprise that audience.

So, from a fan perspective, the question must be asked. Do fans push wrestlers too hard, leading them to their premature deaths? Is their blood in some way on our hands? In effect, did we kill Benoit?

There are two obvious answers to that question. Yes, we are responsible — if there were no professional wrestling fans, there would be no industry, which wouldn’t require these risky actions to be taken, which would lead to less deaths. No, we aren’t responsible — the talent make their own choices to put their lives on the line every night, and taking actions that put their lives at even greater risk ultimately stem from their own decisions. But both answers are simplistic and trite, and neither is completely accurate. The reality is that, on a fundamental level, there’s a symbiotic relationship between the wrestlers and the fans that twists in on itself, providing no easy starting point to examine. An amazing match brings us time and again to watch our favorite wrestlers perform or create new fans. An incredible crowd reaction energizes a wrestler and pushes him to keep delivering quality matches for as long as he’s able (and, perhaps, long after he’s no longer able). The moment of a perfect crowd and a perfect match transcends both; the result is much greater than the sum of its parts.

From there, attention naturally moves in the same direction it did with the media — to the promoters and federation owners. It’s easy to say that they are responsible for pushing the performers to take the head shots or consider using drugs, but that’s also too simplistic. Wrestlers often volunteer to do risky spots on their own initiative, and I’ve heard of a number of cases where a wrestler refused a particular spot in a match. Also, regardless of what you think about the effectiveness of the WWE’s Wellness Program, it is true that a number of wrestlers have been suspended and released due to violations of the program, even before Chris Benoit (for example, Eddie Guerrero is pretty open about his own termination over his drug use in his biography). WWE has also taken steps to reduce the extreme matches on their product, particularly on their ECW brand. Arguments can certainly be made that perhaps WWE and the other federations haven’t done enough to reduce career-ending spots and performer drug use, but it’s false to say that nothing has been done at all to discourage both in the industry. And yet fans continually respond well to risky spots and wrestlers of a particular build or physique.

The reality is an unfortunate Catch 22. Wrestlers are frequently paid by performance, so they have to limp their body along for one more match to get one more paycheck. They often use drugs to help them when they’re injured (Footnote: Alcohol is probably the most abused drug by wrestlers. Many wrestlers I’ve talked to admit to drinking after (or before) matches to help with pain management) . They also accept risky spots in order to get a particular match over. This gets the audience excited, which creates more fans, which helps to grow a federation. The federation wants to bring more attention and people to the events, so they can make more money — which, ideally, will make it back to the talent. If you get rid of one part of the equation, the rest falls apart.

Where does the blame ultimately lie? I don’t think any one group is completely to blame, but neither do I think that any one group is completely innocent, either. Wrestlers have to make decisions for themselves about what kinds of matches they will do, and what they’re willing to put their bodies through. Promoters have to decide what kind of product they want to produce, and what financial and cultural risks they’re willing to take for it. And fans have to decide what forms of wrestling they’ll support with their money. For example, I personally don’t like how devastating “ultra-violent” wrestling (such as what CZW promotes) can be, so I don’t support it when my money anymore. I buy the merchandise and photo opportunities of wrestlers that I want to see succeed, to give them a financial avenue in addition to their appearance fee. I try to spend my money — the one commodity that ties this equation together — to direct the industry in the ways I want it to go. My money is the first, last and only direct impact I have on professional wrestling, so I use it consciously.

As wrestlers make decisions that help to extend their careers and promoters decide to reduce dangerous spots and punish drug use, we as fans should think about how we support the industry with our money and our enthusiasm. It won’t bring any of the great talent we’ve lost over the years back, but maybe it will allow the wrestlers of today to live longer and healthier lives so that they can entertain us for years to come.

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Wrestling Is For Idiots

Prologue

I just got back from watching one of my best friends wrestle his last match to about 50 people in Aberdeen, Ohio. Just ten weeks before, I was watching Wrestlemania 25 with tens of thousands of people in Houston, Texas. Over the past few years, wrestling has gotten a lot of attention (admittedly mostly negative), and more and more of my acquaintances want to talk to me about professional wrestling, so it’s been on my mind off and on for a while. I decided to try to encapsulate some of my thoughts into an essay, which quickly became a series of essays that I’m calling “Get Over.” Consider these all to be works in progress.

Wrestling Is For Idiots