Professional wrestling is the spectacle to end all spectacles – a mish-mash of combat sports and soap opera that has captivated millions around the world for decades.
Larger than life personae representing good and evil do battle, and sure, everybody knows the scripted nature of wrestling, but to acknowledge as much, at least on-air, is utterly verboten.
The irony that wrestling games have by and large been reduced to hyper-realistic simulation games in the vein of their “real” sports counterparts should not be lost on fans. This is why WWE 2K Battlegrounds is now one of the most exciting upcoming games of 2020; we just can’t get enough of arcade wrestling games.
The Problem With WWE 2K20
Recent installments of the WWE 2K franchise have included over-the-top elements like supernatural storylines and “monster-fied” versions of top Superstars, but for the most part, these games are meant to place players in the shoes of actual up-and-coming grapplers. You start in high school gyms, have a couple of awful gimmicks, rise up through NXT, and make your main stage debut on Raw or SmackDown. It’s still pro wrestling, but it’s real pro wrestling. Well, as real as pro wrestling can get.
That is, until WWE 2K20 came along and was utterly reviled by those who got their hands on it. It’s not hard to find the many pieces that have been written on why 2K20 was so critically panned, so we’ll skip that part of the story, but to the surprise of nobody, 2K Games will be skipping WWE 2K21. In its stead will be the cartoonish, uber-exaggerated WWE 2K Battlegrounds.
So, what kind of game will Battlegrounds be? Well, the very first shot of its teaser trailer features Hollywood’s own Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson tossing John Cena over his head into the gaping maw of a nearby alligator.
Yeah, it’s like that.
For as bizarre and as stylized as pro wrestling is, games like these are few and far between, but they are often some of the most satisfying games to play. It’s one thing to simulate the pace of an authentic professional wrestling match, from the opening flurry of the “babyface shine” to the heartbreaking “heel cut-off” to the multiple “false finishes” and finally bringing the match home with a spectacular finishing move. It’s another thing entirely to take control of legendary wrestling zombie, The Undertaker, and break a literal marble tombstone over the head of your opponent, and subsequently watch dozens of bats fly out of their fallen body upon a successful pinfall.
But, way back when, we used to get a heavy helping of arcade wrestling games. Here are the unrealistic, over-the-top, arcade-centric wrestling games you have likely forgotten:
WWF WrestleMania: The Arcade Game
Such was the case with 1995’s WrestleMania: The Arcade Game. Inspired by digitized fighting games like Mortal Kombat and taking a cue from the “enhanced” nature of NBA Jam and its turbo-charged dunks, WrestleMania: The Arcade Game took your favorite wrestlers and asked what they might look like if their various gimmicks were represented literally in the ring.
So rather than bodyslams and suplexes, we were treated to Doink the Clown electrocuting opponents via joy buzzer, or Bam Bam Bigelow’s fists and feet erupting into flames like his trademark flame-tattooed scalp.
This was a first for wrestling fans at the time, and this willingness to get silly (to say nothing of the fantastic melee action) led to glowing reviews. And while its follow-up, 1996’s In Your House, doubled down on the fantastic aspects of the game, with entire stages inspired by wrestlers, as well as Fatality-esque finishing moves, it wasn’t nearly as highly-praised, with blink-and-you-miss-it gameplay that resulted in matches being over before they really began – a far cry from the epic clashes of the titans that wrestling is known for.
WWE Crush Hour
From there, and for years thereafter, the digital fare that bore the WWE brand was boilerplate and by-the-numbers, reaching various highs and lows in terms of quality, but never again daring to blend wrestling action with the type of chicanery that bent the laws of physics as if they were trapped in Chris Jericho’s signature Liontamer.
There were a handful of WWE titles that departed from wrestling entirely; there was 2001’s WWF Betrayal, a side-scrolling beat-em-up for the Game Boy Color, and 2003’s Crush Hour, a bizarre car combat game that’s best left forgotten.
But it wasn’t until 2011 that WWE would once again embrace its often surreal nature and bring fans in-ring action that defied gravity and logic alike, with THQ San Diego’s phenomenal WWE All-Stars. Seemingly out of nowhere, All-Stars combined easy-to-learn, arcade-style gameplay with gorgeous graphics, in which wrestlers from yesterday and today looked even more like action figures come to life than they typically did in person. Wrestling fans and gamers alike were astounded at how satisfying it was to hit someone with a GTS or a Pedigree and watch them backflip 20 feet into the air before crashing down for a knockout victory. Meanwhile, the game’s reversal system was a surprise hit, making for sequences that could see four or five reversals strung together, resulting in a fantastic party game that was just as fun to watch as it was to play.
All-Stars received positive reviews all around, and in a cyclical twist of fate, as WrestleMania: The Arcade Game had been inspired by the original Mortal Kombat 16 years prior, All-Stars went head-to-head with the reboot of the classic fighter at the 2011 Spike Video Game Awards in the category of Best Fighting Game. MK would snag the victory, but fans were nuts for the pure mindless fun of WWE All-Stars, so much so that a sequel was planned. According to YouTuber ItsMyYard, who exchanged emails with a developer of the game, All-Stars 2 would have combined the best elements of All-Stars and WrestleMania: The Arcade Game, improving upon the former with the quirks of the latter, such as a heavier emphasis on the particular character traits of each Superstar. Sadly, the sequel would never see the light of day, as June 2012 brought about the demise of THQ San Diego, a mere six months before THQ proper would file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy.
Once 2K Games took over the WWE license from THQ, the WWE 2K series would drop an installment each fall like clockwork, without a whole lot of variation between games. Rosters would be tweaked to reflect the constantly shifting state of the WWE locker room, and new real-life storylines could be replicated in the games’ Showcase modes, but apart from that, each game was just like its predecessor, not much more than a cut-and-dry wrestling game.
Mobile gamers got a bit of a reprieve from the monotony in January 2015, with the NetherRealm Studios-produced WWE Immortals. Immortals was ostensibly a wrestling reskin of the Injustice mobile games, replete with a bizarre Daniel Bryan goat hybrid, a cyborg Brock Lesnar and a Celtic druid version of Sheamus. The finishers that each wrestler boasted, like the cinematic Super Moves of Injustice, were fun to watch, but ultimately, the necessary grinding of the 3-on-3 fighter got real old real fast, and come February 2019, Immortals was proven to be mortal after all, being shut down completely.
With the 10-year anniversary of WWE All Stars looming on the horizon, it didn’t seem like there would be much of a deviation in the game plan of 2K Games. Even after WWE 2K20 was lambasted at every turn, there was no indication that the future of wrestling games included anything other than dreary sims.
Coming Soon: WWE 2K Battlegrounds
But on April 27, 2020, that all changed. In the same open letter in which 2K Games announced that there would be no simulation game released in 2020, WWE 2K Battlegrounds was announced. 2K Battlegrounds will be developed by Saber Interactive (the minds behind the NBA Playgrounds series), and if Playgrounds’ NBA Jam-esque art style and gameplay is any indication, Battlegrounds should prove to be a welcome return to the WWE arcade-style game.
The sub-30 second teaser trailer is light on substance, but all the same, an optimistic eye can see that Battlegrounds appears to have a few of the hallmarks of what made WrestleMania: The Arcade Game and All-Stars such fan favorites; Becky Lynch slugs Charlotte Flair with fists aflame, The Rock delivers a 20-foot-high DDT to John Cena in what looks to be a Louisiana swamp, and so on and so forth.
But there’s still a long way to go until Fall 2020, especially the way that time has been passing as of late, and the announcement was not without skeptics and detractors. The strange proportions of some character models and the revelation of microtransactions in the game has sparked some trepidation; some YouTubers have complained that it looks far too much like a mobile offering, while others are content to stick with the nearly decade-old All-Stars for their arcade fare.
Either way, if nothing else, WWE 2K Battlegrounds will present something sorely needed for some time in the realm of wrestling games: variety. The eye-popping nature of pro wrestling should be reflected and even heightened in its digital counterparts from time to time. There’s nothing wrong with realism in simulations, but it can be tempered with absurd antics and impossible action. Come Fall 2020, the world will find out if the future of wrestling games lies strictly within the confines of the squared circle, or far, far beyond.