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Be sure to check out part one of our interview with WWE star Xavier Woods here.
World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) superstar Xavier Woods (real name Austin Watson, gamer name Austin Creed) has said in the past that if esports had been a viable career path when he was growing up, he would have jumped in with both feet. He has certainly supported the industry for years as the host of his WWE-branded YouTube gaming show UpUPDownDown, and speaks about what the esports industry can learn from the professional wrestling business every time the opportunity presents itself.
Woods is no stranger to the space; he is a fixture of the professional fighting game scene, regularly attending and taking part in events such as Evo, CEO, and more. He has also interviewed players such as Evo 2019 Mortal Kombat 11 champion Dominique “SonicFox” McLean and two-time Evo TEKKEN champion Jae-Min “Knee” Bae –even challenging them upon occasion for UUDD.
In an interview with The Esports Observer, Woods talked about working with partners such as IGN, Capcom, Riot Games, and others to create exhibition gaming events; and spreading the message that esports needs to pay attention to the “entertainment” part of “sports entertainment.”
Woods’ familiarity with the fighting game community led to an interesting cross-promotional battle on an E3 stage, made possible with the help of Street Fighter V publisher Capcom. A “final battle” between Kenny Omega (real name Tyson Smith) and Woods at E3 2018 was the culmination of a three-year long “feud” between the two, laid out in video vignettes created during several stops at CEO, an annual fighting game tournament held in Florida.
This was the “main event” at this two-and-a-half hour exhibition, but also featured a 3v3 match between Woods’ tag team The New Day and the team of Omega and fellow wrestlers The Young Bucks (Matt and Nick Jackson aka Matthew and Nicholas Massie) as a lead-in. While Woods didn’t say that this was planned from the start, it was an interesting way to illustrate his philosophy that wrestling energy injected into esports can generate buzz.
Getting Capcom on board probably wasn’t a hard sell, as both Woods and Omega worked with the company on the Street Fighter V: Arcade Edition commercial revealing playable character Cody Travers (Omega starred as Travers, while Woods played an anonymous caller goading the newly-elected mayor of Metro City into a fight).
“Being able to do all that stuff with Kenny and The Young Bucks at E3 was awesome, because people thought this would never happen and they let me handle it in the way that I wanted to handle it, which was ‘very wrestling,’” he said. “We did a contract signing, announced our teammates one-by-one, and tried to build the hype for it. So I was grateful for that, again, because like I said, I’m trying to bring more wrestling energy into the gaming space.”
Woods said that the event was almost shut down a few times because there were too many people squeezed into the space near the stage and everyone involved was “making too much noise.” He attributed it to “that wrestling energy coming out,” as Omega and Woods cut promos on each other in between matches.
The timing was right for this event to happen too, because in 2018 Omega and The Young Bucks were working for New Japan Pro Wrestling, an organization that WWE seems to treat as neutral territory (it even promoted the event on WWE.com). Today they work for All Elite Wrestling (AEW), a company launched in 2019 and backed financially by Tony Khan, co-owner of NFL team the Jacksonville Jaguars and English Football League Championship team Fulham F.C.
“It’s like a common sense thing,” Woods said. “Their company probably wouldn’t let them be on my channel and my company probably wouldn’t think it’s a good idea that we do something like that.”
Woods also attends smaller events when he has the time, and expressed a particular affinity for the TEKKEN fighting game scene.
“I really like TEKKEN just because that’s my favorite fighting game – especially this past one, TEKKEN 7,” Woods said. “It’s nice to get out, when i’m bouncing around, and [find] random tournaments.”
He says that attending these smaller events is “heaven” for him because he likes to “feel the energy” of the room.
“My favorite times are when it’s just a small room, there’s 30 PlayStations going, and 70 people [are] in there just dripping sweat because it’s too packed and it’s too hot in there, and everybody’s just screaming about TEKKEN.”
Woods has tried to bring the wrestling energy he so frequently talks about to other events over the years, such as the IGN-backed Street Fighter V tournament in October 2017, the RAW x NXT League of Legends exhibition match that took place in November 2018 at the LCS Arena in Los Angeles, and his pairing with Chris “DenkOps” Denker for the 2019 Fortnite World Cup Pro Am.
Working With Riot Games
Having worked with the company on several projects, Woods praised Riot Games and its joint operation with Tencent in China (TJ Sports) for its high level of production and professionalism. In addition to RAW x NXT, both he and Cesaro (real name Claudio Castagnoli) attended the 2019 League of Legends Pro League (LPL) play-offs for an episode of the show. Cesaro is a big fan and dedicated League of Legends player; he attended Riot’s 10th anniversary celebration of the game last year and even interviewed Riot Games Co-Founder and League of Legends Co-Creator Marc Merrill for several episodes of UUDD.
“Doing all of our stuff with Riot has been incredible,” Woods said. “They’ve all been so kind and they understand what i’m trying to do; and that’s bring wrestling energy into the gaming space and kind of spread it around, but everything they showed us – down to their production, how they run the show – was all top notch. And honestly it was a blast getting to work with them because of that, because they’re so professional when they need to be.”
Woods says that League of Legends is the kind of game/esport he enjoys introducing to his audience because people don’t fully understand its layers of complexity and can be intimidated by it.
“For me, I like being able to translate games that people may think are very complicated, kind of simplify them, and explain [them],” he said. “Once people understand a game, they are more likely to give it a try. I’ll see comments [from fans] explaining that, ‘Oh, I thought this wasn’t for me, but i’m going to go ahead and try it now.’ Stuff like that makes me feel good.”
Working with companies such as Riot, Psyonix Studios (he has held Rocket League competitions on the show and attended the game’s third birthday celebration in July 2018), Capcom, and various event organizers, Woods continues to push the idea that esports needs to look at the things WWE does best (entertaining the audience and its ability to set up and operate live events) and implement those elements into their productions.
What Esports Can Learn from Sports Entertainment
The Esports Observer has written about what esports can learn from WWE at length (you can check it out here), but for Woods “the entertainment part” of it is a bit of a personal crusade. He sees himself as an ambassador for WWE when he attends events, and believes that adding some theatrics to esports can bring new people into the space who otherwise might not pay attention to it. Creating buzz by entertaining will grow the audience and help bring money into the space.
“The thing that people obviously enjoy about wrestling first and foremost is the storytelling because there’s these colorful characters that get in these crazy situations,” he said. “You get to see fights between good and evil, get to pick somebody to root for [or] against, and it’s all super interactive.”
This turns esports into an interactive “esports experience,” which will in turn bring in more people to fill out stadiums or watch matches on live streaming platforms, according to Woods. CEO is on that path already, though it is fairly comfortable with the atmosphere of wrestling; its participants play matches in a ring, cut promos, and have entrances complete with an announcer and their own theme music. The event has also hosted exhibition wrestling matches in the past featuring New Japan Pro Wrestling and AEW stars.
“I don’t think it’s 100% necessary, like ‘if this doesn’t happen esports is gonna die,” Woods added, concerning injecting theatrics in esports. “It’s definitely nothing like that. I just feel like there’s a lot that the wrestling world can bring to a lot of different forms of entertainment, and the one that i’m most vested in by far is esports.
“I feel like there’s that one piece missing and that’s the ability to hook casual fans into watching people play Street Fighter, TEKKEN, or League of Legends.”
Woods used Evo being broadcast on ESPN as an example. If a non-gaming viewer were to see a match on TV, they would likely change the channel because there’s nothing interesting to keep them engaged; they might not know anything about video games and they likely don’t understand what they are seeing on the screen.
“If I see one of the guys come out and he’s cutting a hilarious promo on his opponent, I might stop for a second and go, ‘What am I watching?’” Woods explained. “Then I hear the commentary team explain what’s going on and now I understand the rules for winning and losing, I know I like this one guy that made me laugh, and now i’m going to keep watching a little longer and I might find something that attaches me more to the product.
“And so that’s kind of my goal is to be able to create a situation where we have these charismatic gamers who are larger-than-life characters – still themselves obviously, just turned up some – so that more people can be pulled towards this space.“
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