The history of wrestling games Part 2: Button mashing & body slamming

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In Part 1 of our deep dive into the history of wrestling games, we explored how the meteoric rise of pro wrestling in the 1980s coincided with the Golden Age of arcade games, and how WWE’s dominance was threatened in the 1990s by WCW’s success, both on TV and in the gaming sphere. Now, let’s explore how the world of wrestling games continued to evolve at the turn of the century.

The 2000s

As the Millennium hit, things got taken to the extreme for wrestling games. Despite being in its final year of operation, Extreme Championship Wrestling (ECW) would join the fold and release two games of its own in 2000. ECW Hardcore Revolution and ECW Anarchy Rulz were developed by WWE’s former partner, Acclaim, and featured identical gameplay to WWE’s 1999 game Attitude, but with a cruder feel that matched ECW’s punkish, underground style. 

The war between wrestling companies had spawned its own war between gaming companies. WWE ended their long-standing relationship with Acclaim to start working with WCW’s former bedfellows, THQ, Yuke’s, and AKI Corporation. Meanwhile, WCW had started working with Electronic Arts.

WCW Backstage Assault Goldberg vs Scott Steiner
WCW Backstage Assault (2000)

After a slew of successful releases, WCW – also in its final years – would branch out with what was easily one of the most unique wrestling games at the time, Backstage Assault in 2000.  Here, WCW took the action outside the ring – with 14 different behind-the-curtain settings to brawl in. Despite being poorly received, Backstage Assault was a predecessor for several non-traditional wrestling games that would follow throughout the decade – like 2001’s The Simpsons Wrestling.

WWF No Mercy wrestling games
WWF No Mercy (2000)

WWE wasn’t slowing down either. In fact, in 2000 they’d release what many would call the greatest pro wrestling game of all time, No Mercy, for Nintendo 64. No Mercy would develop a cult following over the years, becoming perhaps one of the most modded wrestling games of all time – many still choose it as their wrestling game of choice to this day.

WWF Smackdown! 2 Know Your Role fatal 4-way match
WWF Smackdown! 2 Know Your Role (2000)

WWE would also release their last arcade game to date at the top of the decade, WWF Royal Rumble, before setting their sights on the future of gaming with the launch of WWE’s gargantuan Smackdown! series on PlayStation. Developed by Yukes and published by THQ, Smackdown! and its sequels formed the most successful and beloved wrestling game franchise in history.

Season modes, unlockables, and perhaps the most comprehensive (and fun) create-a-player modes in gaming history helped bring the series widespread appeal, far beyond wrestling fans. Each year, the Smackdown! series, which would be rebranded as Smackdown! vs. Raw in 2004, would bring heightened graphics, new in-depth storylines, groundbreaking game modes, and elevated gameplay. 

By 2001, the war was over. WWE purchased both WCW and ECW in 2000, monopolising the wrestling industry, and in turn, monopolising the wrestling games industry. Of course, there were indie franchises like Fire Pro Wrestling on PC which appealed to the more niche wrestling fan, but in terms of major releases, the Smackdown! series held it down for a few years. That is until AKI Corporation returned with a wrestling game like no other…

Def Jam Vendetta DMX vs Ludacris
Def Jam Vendetta (2003)

Teaming with EA, who hadn’t released any wrestling games since Backstage Assault, AKI Corporation, and Yuke’s released Def Jam Vendetta in 2003. Hip hop and wrestling have long been intertwined, with early wrestling legends like Ric Flair and Dusty Rhodes having a major influence on the bravado and machismo that would become quintessential in rap.

Def Jam Vendetta tightened the gap – a hip hop-themed wrestling game that featured several major rappers, including DMX, Ludacris, Ghostface Killah, Funkmaster Flex, Method Man, Scarface, and more. It appealed to wrestling fans, hip hop heads, and all points in between, becoming one of the highest-selling video games in the first half of the decade and spawning a sequel in 2004.

Backyard Wrestling: Don't Try This At Home gameplay
Backyard Wrestling: Don’t Try This At Home (2003)

Backyard Wrestling: Don’t Try This at Home was another strange release from 2003. It too featured a few rappers – members of the Insane Clown Posse, to be exact – and as far as we know, it’s the only wrestling game to feature a Jerry Springer-inspired ‘Talk Show Mode’. 

WWE Crush Hour character selection
WWE Crush Hour (2003)

That same year, WWE released its weirdest, most outrageous game ever – WWE Crush Hour. It’s hard to call this one a wrestling game, really. Sure, it has wrestlers, and ‘matches’, but this was far more demolition derby than it was suplexes and superkicks. The game was hugely panned, but we commend WWE for at least trying to step outside the box, or ring.

MTV's Celebrity Deathmatch Mr T vs Carrot Top
MTV’s Celebrity Deathmatch (2003)

In case 2003 wasn’t a weird enough year for wrestling games, MTV would also release Celebrity Deathmatch, based on the notorious claymation series, on PlayStation 2. The game featured the likes of Busta Rhymes, Carmen Electra, Justin Timberlake, Jerry Springer, Mr. T, Tommy Lee, and more. 

Outside of those unexpected outliers, the 2000s were dominated by the Smackdown! series, and without any major competition, the world of wrestling games started to become rather stagnant – much like WWE had itself, arguably. 

The 2010s

WWE Immortals fight
WWE Immortals (2015)

While the Smackdown! series kept trucking along, the 2010s saw the rapid rise of mobile gaming, and that created a vast space for wrestling companies to expand their offering and bring even more variety to the wrestling games landscape. Throughout the decade, we got manager apps, turn-based card collecting games, casino games, puzzle-fighter hybrids, arcade-style games, and more. 

WWE had more freedom to explore more unique, genre-bending formats outside of their flagship console series. From zombie fighter games like WWE Immortals to the puzzle RPG WWE Champions, wrestling games were more varied and accessible than ever.

Wrestling Games of the 2010s included ones such as Total Extreme Wrestling 2010
Total Extreme Wrestling 2010 (2010)

Fantasy booking games like Total Extreme Wrestling put you in control of your own wrestling federation, and the steady rise of Steam, as well as mobile gaming, created space for more of these management-style games to emerge throughout the 2010s.

In 2011, the beloved Smackdown! vs. Raw series was rebranded again, simply becoming the WWE series. The new series wouldn’t last long though; after the release of WWE ’12 and WWE ’13, THQ went into liquidation in 2012. While many vied for the spot, it was 2K Sports that would acquire the license to publish WWE’s console games, and the relationship has continued to this day.

WWE 2K mobile game
WWE 2K mobile game (2015)

The 2K series has had a rocky journey. The initial hype quickly subsided as 2K would put out a series of what many considered to be sub-par wrestling games. While still working with Yuke’s as the developer, the 2K series was run-of-the-mill, lacking the innovation and freshness of the earlier Smackdown! series. 

Gamers lamented the continued use of an outdated engine and seemingly worsening graphics, as well as the disappearance of several beloved game modes and features. Meanwhile, the gameplay of WWE 2K games was equally unpopular; the combat became too complicated, with too much-misguided focus on realism taking away from what really mattered, the fun. 2K were never able to keep the ball rolling as THQ had done with the Smackdown! series and it all came crashing down with the release of WWE 2K20.

Many of the issues with the 2K franchise stemmed from tensions between 2K Sports and Yuke’s, and in 2019, 2K replaced the developers with Visual Concepts, developers of the NBA 2K franchise. Visual Concepts only had a few months to piece together something playable – and unfortunately, they failed. Terrible graphics, physics and gameplay, and endless glitches created a complete mess of a game, which quickly became known as the worst game of the year, and the worst wrestling game ever.

The 2020s

WWE 2K Battlegrounds mobile game
WWE 2K Battlegrounds (2020)

After the notorious blunder that was 2K20, the main WWE 2K series was forced into a 2-year hiatus in order to rebuild from the ground up, while WWE and 2K shifted some focus back towards easy wins through their mobile output and the arcade-style fighting game, WWE 2K Battlegrounds

Meanwhile, AEW had emerged as WWE’s strongest competitor since WCW and announced its intentions to enter the gaming sphere. The new company would make its name known in the gaming world by teaming with Alex Jebailey’s Community Effort Orlando (CEO) fighting game convention to co-host their Fyter Fest pay per view.

UpUpDownDown YouTube crew playing wrestling games

This coincides with perhaps the most noteworthy development in the world of wrestling games in recent years; the rise of wrestlers as popular gaming personalities. WWE’s Xavier Woods (aka Austin Creed) has had massive success with his gaming channel UpUpDownDown, Kenny Omega has become something of a Street Fighter celebrity, wrestling stars like Paige and Miro gained massive followings on Twitch in the early months of the pandemic, and it seems like the relationship between the wrestling world and gaming world is stronger than ever.

In Development: AEW's untitled console game
In Development: AEW’s untitled console game

Today, both are booming industries at their financial peak, and there’s almost as much variety and choice across the wrestling industry as there is in gaming. We’re seeing an increasing number of indie wrestling games in development, offering more creative gameplay and design away from the WWE machine, while AEW looks to strengthen their rise to the top as they enter the console game space with wrestling game legends, Yuke’s. 

Wrestling games have come a long, long way in their almost 40-year history, but it’s clear that we’re only just getting started.

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