My first encounter with a War Games match came back in the early nineties. I can remember it well, even after all these years. I’d ensconced myself in the little attic bedroom at the top of the house, gathered around me a generous supply of feasting materials, and settled down to watch something new and exotic – The 1989 Great American Bash.
I can’t begin to tell you how excited I was. This wasn’t WWF; it was WCW, and all I knew about WCW was that it wasn’t WWF. Tearing open my first bag of Space Raiders, I crammed the borrowed videotape in to the VCR player I had surreptitiously liberated from the downstairs living room, pressed play, and hunkered down for a three-hour escape into the world of professional wrestling.
At first, though, I was confused. Was the friend who’d lent me the tape having a laugh? Was this a documentary? Why was I looking at a field – with horses – and why did the outside of the arena bear more than a passing resemblance to a factory? Suddenly, I was worried. Was this all going to end in disappointment? Had I got my hopes up for nothing? I thought I might have, until the opening video package kicked in to reveal some well-trodden territory, and just like that, I was back on track.
Pulling the ring on can of Diet Coke, I revelled in the graphically rendered stars and stripes that crisscrossed the screen and peered hard at the little floating parallelograms of wrestling action that whizzed on by to the rousing wail of guitar based rock. This was what I’d expected. A world of professional wrestling, with it’s larger than life denizens, who inhabited such distant lands as Baltimore, Maryland.
Yet, for all that was familiar to me from my regular WWF viewing, already so much seemed so different. Everything was less colorful somehow – muted almost – although, to be fair, I was watching on a fourteen-inch black and white portable TV, but that wasn’t the point. The point was that from the get go, things appeared less vibrant, more, dare I say it, raw. Then it was into the arena and down to the rings.
While the two rings were certainly surprising, surprisingly, this wasn’t what surprised me most. What surprised me most was the gloom. It seemed to wrap everything up in a shroud of mystery. All that I could see clearly were the rings, and maybe the first few rows of fans opposite the hard-cam. Everything else was composed of, at best, shadowy outlines, and at worst, impenetrable darkness.
This contrast didn’t change as the camera switched to a fan point-of-view and then out to a slow pan of the entrance area. Everything, apart from the ring, was still an enigma. Even the entryway seemed dark and foreboding. Flooded with blue and purple light, the wrestlers emerged for the first bout as if from nowhere. Where once there had been darkness, figures began to materialize, first as distant shadows, before slowly resolving to full illumination. It was as if these men had emerged from the dark hinterland that surrounded rings. It was as if they had crossed over from that unformed space beyond the light, as if they had emerged from the very shadows and stepped in to the world of wrestling.
Even when the house lights came up, the contrast remained pronounced. A few more rows of fans became visible, but for the most part, there was the ringside area and the darkness beyond. As a young viewer, this dynamic drew me in toward the action in the rings. I was a part of the audience, invited in to view the world of wrestling but forever confined to the shadowy and somehow distant space beyond. Or so I thought.
Returning now, in 2017, to the 1989 Great American Bash, I’m drawn to Claude Lévi-Strauss’s notion of binary opposition to explain my experience of that aesthetic (Dundes, 1997). For me, the narrative of the event, and my entrance into that event, was driven by the juxtaposition of the binary opposites of, as Roland Barthes (1972) would suggest, the great solar spectacle of the wrestling ring and the surrounding gloom.
It was this oppositional reading of the space in which the fans existed against the space in which the wrestlers existed that allowed me to construct meaning. The wrestlers were elevated to a special world, the world of wrestling, while the rest of us (including me in my little attic room) were kept from this space. Here, the wrestlers were amplified, luminous and dynamic. The spectators, by contrast, were mostly static, sitting in rows behind a barrier and often in shadow.
The gaze of the wrestlers and the spectators worked in binary opposition too. As a young boy watching the TV, my gaze was primarily focused on the wrestlers. So too were the spectators in the arena. The gaze of the wrestlers, by comparison, was primarily focused on their opponent. Again, this distanced me from the special world of wrestling. I was there to consume it, not be a part of it. I was necessarily on the outside looking in. The construction of the narrative did not lead me to perceive myself as bodily co-present with the performers. It led me to perceive myself as apart from them.
Then came the War Games match, and suddenly this opposition shifted.
By the virtue of a camera operator being stationed inside the double cage and between the two rings, no longer was I excluded from the space of the world of wrestling, but rather I was immersed amidst it. The oppositions were shifting, but only for me. The live audience was still bound to their spatial plain beyond the world of wrestling, but, from my little attic room at the top of the house, I had now entered that cage with the wrestlers. I was in the world of wrestling. Just like the wrestlers who had emerged from the gloomy hinterland, I too had now transcended to the light to become bodily co-present with the very world I’d been excluded from only moments ago.
It wasn’t a permanent transcendence, however. It was only fleeting and transitory. One moment I was in the ring, as Jimmy Garvin raked Bobby Eaton’s face across the mesh of the cage, the next, I was cast out. Sent back to the audience and set apart from that special world. That was okay with me though. Those little moments were enough. Those brief instances of privilege, where it was just me and wrestlers in the ring had transformed an event that had at first accentuated my distance from the wrestling world to one that had immersed me in that hallowed space more than anything I’d experienced before.
I remember feeling a sense of sorrow when the War Games match came to an end and the cage was removed with the main event still to come. When Ric Flair faced Terry Funk for the NWA World Heavyweight Championship, I’d expected to be back on the outside looking in, and for the most part I was, until the binary oppositions shifted once more.
After Flair had won the match, the fight continued, spilling into the crowd, with the brawl expanding to include the Great Muta, Sting, and Gary Hart. Soon, all five men crossed over into the space of the of the audience. No longer were the wrestlers set in opposition to the spectators; now they inhabited the same space. No longer were the wrestlers amplified, and luminous in contrast to the audience; now they were often in shadow. No longer were the wrestlers solely those who were dynamic; now the space of the wrestling world had converged with the space of the audience and I too had been invited back in via the roving camera operator, and the experience had been exhilarating.
It was with memories of this level of immersion in the text that I approached the 2017 NXT TakeOver: WarGames, some twenty-eight or so years later. Initially, I had planned to discuss in this posting how and why the aesthetic changes that have occurred on the surface of professional wrestling pay-per-view events have impacted on storytelling; however, within moments of streaming the NXT TakeOver: WarGames event, I was struck by how much hadn’t changed at all. Okay, so maybe the floating parallelograms were gone, but there were still two rings. There was still the opening video package, with clips of wrestling action and shots of downtown. There was still the generic guitar-based rock theme, and there was still, for me at least, the sense of something a bit different.
So, what do I mean by that? Well, while NXT is a part of WWE, it is also an entity in its own right. It’s distinct. There is a purposeful separation between NXT and the other brands of WWE, and this separation strikes me as more pronounced than the separation between Raw and Smackdown Live. This differentiation is especially evident in the visual aesthetic of the brand. Like the WCW of all those years ago, NXT seems to be less vibrant in color palette than the other brands of WWE. The dark grey, if not charcoal, canvas is a marked signifier of this tonal shift, much like the dark canvas utilized in the 1989 Great American Bash. It stands out. It makes thing different, more gritty somehow.
The aesthetic binary oppositions of the world of wrestling are, I would also argue, more pronounced in NXT too. While the wrestlers – or should I now say sports entertainers – no longer emerge from the gloom of a dark and foreboding entrance way (except for maybe Lars Sullivan), the dark once more enshrouds the NXT audience, clearly delineating the brightly lit world of wrestling from the dark space around it. This, of course, can be read in opposition to other WWE pay-per-view events, or indeed, Raw or Smackdown Live, where the WWE Universe is often celebrated in full light, showcasing the full or near full arenas as a testament to the popularity of the WWE product. It’s another level of differentiation. In NXT the audience, for the most part is hidden, and for me, this begs the question – just who exactly is sitting out there?
In this way, I found that the dark visual aesthetics of NXT TakeOver: WarGames again distanced me from the special world of wrestling, and maybe even the audience. I was once more there to consume it, not be a part of it. I was necessarily back on the outside looking in. Again, the construction and aesthetic of the narrative did not lead me to perceive myself as bodily co-present with the performers. It led me to perceive myself as apart from them. Even with the on screen paratextual prompts to engage with discussion about my consumption with other members of the WWE Universe (obviously unavailable to WCW in the late eighties), I was encouraged to discuss and share my experience, not participate.
Much like the 1989 Great American Bash, only in the WarGames match itself did this aesthetic of exclusion give way and allow the viewer to transcend the binary limitations of the audience to become bodily co-present in the wrestling world. Once more, I was invited in to the wrestling world to stand shoulder to shoulder with the denizens of NXT. Once more, the live audience remained bound to their spatial plain beyond the world of wrestling; but for me, as a viewer, I was back in that cage with the wrestlers. I was bodily co-present again. I was right there in the ring when Roderick Strong superplexed Adam Cole into the assembled masses of humanity, and dare I say it again, it all just felt a little more raw than Raw.
So, as I sat there, no longer in the attic room at the top of my parents’ house but in the living room of my own house, no longer watching on a fourteen-inch black and white portable TV, but watching on a fifty-inch LED smart TV, I had expected much to have changed. Yet on the surface of the text, and most notably in the visual aesthetics, I found that, at least with NXT TakeOver: WarGames, not much had, and truth be told, that made me happy. It was just a shame there wasn’t a big in-crowd ‘schmoz’ ending.
Barthes, R. (1972). Mythologies. (A. Lavers, Trans.) New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux.
Dundes, A. (1997). Binary Opposition in Myth: The Propp/Lévi-Strauss Debate in Retrospect. Western Folklore, 56(1), 39-50.
 This was in fact Jim Crocket Promotions and the National Wrestling Alliance, but I didn’t know that till much later.
 I’m from Scotland, and at that point in my life I’d never even ventured so far as to cross the border into England, let alone Maryland.
 Although, for me, much less so than in the WWE.