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Restriction breeds creativity.

Pro Wrestling

Lessons learned by WWE and AEW during the empty arena era

Restriction breeds creativity.

Empty arenas have presented pro wrestling with one of its biggest hurdles to date. Professional wrestling in its current state relies in large part on the audience. Audiences contribute so much — they build up the energy, helping those watching at home become invested in a match or get their second wind during a long PPV. Audiences can help sell a big hit, or cover a bad one. Thus, things have been difficult with audiences being absent due to COVID-19; but restriction breeds creativity. So let’s go over some of the things that have developed because of this limitation and see some of the things wrestling can gain from this ordeal when we come out the other side.

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Cinematic Matches

With all of the empty arenas, wrestling has taken on a new, strange tone and promotions have tried to adopt. The most obvious attempt to adapt to this situation has been with cinematic matches. We have seen this before, of course, with The Final Deletion, other Impact segments, and Lucha Underground to name a few. It’s a shame that it took something literally world-changing to help bring about cinematic matches to the forefront, but here we are. Without an audience it allows not only for fancy camera cuts and special effects, but for the matches to take place anywhere as well. It allows for a whole abundance of possibilities and creativity that just don’t exist when you must film in front of a live audience.

Restriction breeds creativity.
The Firefly Fun House match.
WWE

However, the ability to cut and add things isn’t restricted to a ‘cinematic’ feel whatsoever. Matt Hardy’s AEW debut featured an entrance into the ring made magical with cuts to make Hardy look as if he was teleporting. Similarly, Bray Wyatt teleported around on the SmackDown before WrestleMania. Both of these show a willingness to use some newfound freedom that the lack of audience allows within the more conventional “live” aspect of wrestling, not just in a cinematic format.

Obviously, it would be extremely hard to do such camera work/editing for a live audience, and these kinds of things will most likely need to go once crowds come back. However, the cinematic matches and segments should very much remain. The issue is, however, when do you show the match? Do you air the match and just have your live audience stand around and watch it? That’s always been an issue with prefilmed matches. But workarounds are available (air a special, post it online, have dark matches for the live audience during the airing, etc). So I hope that we see more of these.

AEW’s Tonal Shift

AEW has seemingly leaned even more heavily into their improvisational tone with the whole show. With the crowd made up of wrestlers and matches like the one last week (between Kenny, Nakazawa, and the Best Friends) the show feels more like watching a group of friends have fun and mess around. The different wrestlers on commentary have all been casual and laid back. Rule enforcement has become worse, as seen in the Cody vs. Spears match. Sure, AEW has been bad about not DQing when they should, but last week was the worst example yet. It was also a large contributor to the feeling that there wasn’t any structure and more just everyone wanting to mess around.

Restriction breeds creativity.
Britt Baker happily beating Cody with her shoe.
AEW

Aside from the DQ issue last week, the casual attitude is a unique approach to the situation. However, it’s an approach that is not for everyone. It requires familiarity with everyone and enjoying seeing them all interact on a more personal level than a character level, much like a podcast. I myself am enjoying it, but I wouldn’t necessarily want it to stay permanently.

However, I think what AEW should pull from this is that it needs more non-match interaction between wrestlers and small B plots backstage throughout an episode. WWE of course is no stranger to this, but AEW has seemed to shy away from it. However, the interactions with wrestlers in the crowd has been similar to backstage segments, such as MJF and Shawn Spears betting throughout an episode. They’re excellent side plots and AEW needs to focus on them a bit more. 

WWE and Sound

WWE’s main roster has been playing around with the tone of their show as well, and experimenting with a slew of different options, seeing what works. It began with the very first episode of a crowdless show on SmackDown when fans pointed out Bray Wyatt’s promo was so much better with a silent arena. Whether WWE had intended that or realized that would come out of this is unclear, however the Raw and SmackDown‘s more emotional promos have adapted well as monologues spoken without any background noise whatsoever. Edge’s promo on the go home Raw was incredible.

However, it hasn’t been all purely emotional quiet soliloquies. WWE has also toyed around with taking a comedic tone in response to the lack of a crowd reaction, most famously Stone Cold’s segment which honestly felt like it had come out of The Eric Andre Show or Tim and Eric between the awkward pauses and timings with absolutely no other noise to relieve the awkward tension in the air.

Restriction breeds creativity.
Stone Cold chugs a beer with Saxton.
WWE

Going forward I would like to see promotions playing more with sound. While promotions may not be able to eliminate all sound once audiences come back, they can turn down crowd audio when appropriate, allowing there to be more weight and levity to what is being said. It would be a great way of ensuring that 90% of plots don’t all take on the same tone.

Other Quick Notes

  • Similar to the way WWE has played with sound, the lack of an audience throughout the wrestling world has meant that hits sound and feel harder. You can hear wrestlers yell at each other during the match. It’s a strong case for turning up the ring noises more in the future.
  • I appreciate that there are references being made to the lack of a crowd. For a while WWE seemed a bit afraid to confront the issue (and still sort of are), however they’ve been better and AEW has done a good job directly addressing the lack of a crowd.
  • Crowd reactions normally make up a nice little chunk of time. Add that on top of reducing the amount of matches slightly to make up for missing talent/limiting contact, and there has been a need to fill time. WWE has chosen to do that with old matches, AEW with video packages. WWE has seemed to start to follow AEW’s in the past week — here’s to hoping they continue. It’s a good chance to build talent further rather than just air reruns.
Restriction breeds creativity.
Cody addresses an empty arena.
AEW

All in all, like I’m sure all of you, I miss the roar of the crowd and the chants — hell, I’m starting to even miss the “What” chants. I look forward to the time when it is safe for live audiences to congregate again, but I hope promotions learn from this strange period in history and add a couple narrative/technical devices to their quivers.


Do you love wrestling? Do you have strong opinions on AEW, WWE, NJPW, Impact, ROH, and the independent scene? Do you like to write about wrestling? Then we want you on our team. AIPT is currently recruiting wrestling writers. Apply to write for AIPT today!

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