Tonight was the Night: The End of VGCW, Video Game Championship Wrestling

Tuesday, May 10th, 2016 marked the final episode of Video Game Championship Wrestling, and the end of one of the most bizarrely enjoyable spectacles I’ve ever known.

VGCW was a federation that used the WWE video games’ “Create a Wrestler” feature to fill its ranks with video game characters, celebrity gamers, and even Vegeta and Nappa from Dragon Ball Z. Pitting not human opponents but rather (often incompetent) computer-controlled wrestlers against each other, VGCW stood out amidst a universe of “Let’s Plays” and eSports titles in ways few other phenomena could. VGCW was the flagship show for the VGCW Network, which also includes a women’s federation and a developmental one.

One of the more fascinating aspects of VGCW was the fanbase that surrounded it. Viewers in Twitch chat would cheer on their favorite wrestlers, despite knowing full well that their rabid typing would not actually affect the routines and patterns of the AIs. While story threads presented by the creators of VGCW provided the stakes for many matches, what has been really the heart and soul of this whole concept of video game AI wrestling is the ability for the fans to willingly give meaning to the actions of these virtual marionettes who represent out favorite heroes and villains.

While the same could be said of actual pro wrestling, the difference is that audience interaction there tells the wrestlers if they’re doing well and if they need to change anything to keep the audience’s attention in a predetermined match. In VGCW, match results are unknown even by the creators.

I remember seeing Little Mac redeem himself by knocking out Dracula and throwing him in a casket. I recall Phoenix Wright returning from captivity to vanquish his alternate-dimension evil doppelganger (affectionately known as Phoenix Wrong), an achievement celebrated by having Fall Out Boy’s “Like a Phoenix” play over the end credits (see above). I enjoyed seeing the Gameshark force the wrestlers to leave WWE 2K14 and enter the N64 game WWE No Mercy. Gabe Newell, founder of Valve, wrestled and defeated Jesus, teamed with Deus Ex 2 hero Adam Jensen, became an all-powerful villain, and died. Scorpion from Mortal Kombat is arguably the greatest champion of all time with his record six title defenses.

For the recent finale, the championship match featured Ganondorf, the only triple crown winner in VGCW history, against perennial underdog Zubaz—a rejected Street Fighter design popularized by the Super Best Friends YouTube channel who became a playable character in the bare-bones fighting game Divekick. On top of that, they actually commissioned former WWE announcer Justin Roberts to announce the match. Calling VGCW a wild ride would be an understatement.

My personal connection to VGCW lied not just in the excitement it brought, but also in that it helped me deal with tension in my life. When I first started watching VGCW, I was still living in the Netherlands, and due to the pressure of trying to finish my dissertation I could sense that my nerves were constantly frazzled. Watching anime and reading manga was fun, but it wasn’t relaxing because consuming titles caused my brain to keep firing on all cylinders. During this time, I found that what soothed the cacophony inside my head was episodes of VGCW. It was, in a certain sense, my version of “healing anime” such as Aria.

I have to give a shout-out to the defunct multiplayer spinoff called “NWTOH,” which first featured a bizarre entrance for obscure Final Fantasy VI character Banon. A shining example of what one might call “anti-cinematography” due to the non-sequitur nature of its transitions, Banon’s entrance can make me laugh so hard that I can literally feel the stress leaving my body every time I watch it:

Although the main VGCW show is gone, it leaves with successors and descendants. All of the more recent episodes are on YouTube, and a little digging around can uncover older ones as well. Women’s Video Game Championship Wrestling (WVGCW) is gearing up for its own finale. Developmental show Extreme Dudebro Wrestling (EDBW) still has some life left in it, and might just step out of the shadow of VGCW now. Belmont Wrestling Alliance (BWA), which will be live tonight, recently made its return, and it has perhaps the most eccentric and eclectic roster of all.

To Bazza, TOH, and everyone who worked to make me and the other VGCW fans sports entertained, thank you.

 

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Wrestling Video Games, Where Performance is Power, and Fiction is Reality

Though I don’t mention it often, over the past year or so I’ve become a fan and regular viewer of Video Game Championship Wrestling, a weekly show streamed on Twitch that uses characters from video games and has them play out both matches and stories similar to an actual WWE show, with free pay-per-views (an oxymoron yes) that cap off each arc. During this time, I’ve come to realize how interesting the concept of pro wrestling video games are.

Whenever a video game is based on a “real world” activity, be it shooting people, playing basketball, or building TCG decks, the games are designed to simulate some activity where the intention is to win or lose. With pro wrestling, however, the point isn’t to overpower the opponent but to put on a show, and to merely mimic the idea that these two wrestlers are really going at it. This is what’s known to wrestling fans as “kayfabe,” or supporting the illusion that everything happening in wrestling is 100% real, and to go off-script or to break that illusion is a “shoot.” In that sense, a wrestling video game is akin to a video game about Shakespeare, where you would have to perform plays in front of an audience and receive their applause.

The gameplay mechanics that go into these wrestling games are a reflection of this performative quality, especially as time has passed and things have gotten more sophisticated. In the “drama” of wrestling, matches go back and forth, wrestlers have “signature moves” that tell you when they have the momentum, and they have “finishers” that generally net them the win should they land. If you look at a bad old wrestling video game, like Wrestlemania for the NES, it fails to follow “wrestling logic.” You punch and kick and never use holds, while occasionally a power-up symbol floats by and makes you stronger. Very few of the wrestlers can even perform their unique finishers, and overall there was clearly little effort expended to make it “feel” like wrestling beyond slapping some popular faces on and making the background a wrestling ring. In contrast, more successful games of the era such as Tecmo World Wrestling do a much better job of replicating the idea of a wrestling match, by doing something as simple as giving the characters unique finishers and having dramatic cut-ins when used on worn-down opponents.

In the case of WWE 2K14 (which VGCW utilizes for its show), there are actual built-in “drama” mechanics such as the fact that a wrestler can make a “comeback” that replicates digging deep when the chips are down.  You have signature moves that can build up into finishers. All of the attacks are things that have happened in the history of the WWE (or at least in some sort of televised wrestling). While there is obviously a wide chasm of difference in terms of technological and graphical power between an old NES game and a PS3 game, what’s more important is that the latter is practically a game whose display is fundamentally based on “storytelling” rather than “competition.”

While this could be extended to, say, fighting games (which take a lot of cues from martial arts films and anime), with the wrestling game there’s a greater sense of mixing up what is real and what is fake because of the origin of the wrestling itself. As with so many things that dramatize combat, certain techniques would never work or would be too impractical in a realistic setting In the game world, but the wrestling video games take it a step further because supporting and maintaining kayfabe is in a way the key to victory. To win is to play along with the rules of wrestling as performance, and to do otherwise is perhaps in its own way a form of shoot.

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TONIGHT IS THE NIGHT: Free Pay-Per-View Event Featuring Kefka vs. Illidan Stormrage

Lately, I’ve been a fan of Video Game Championship Wrestling. It’s where you watch AI-controlled video game characters duke it out in a WWE game.

Tonight s “End Game 7,” the finale to the latest season of VGCW. I recommend that people turn in, as End Games tend to be the hypest of hype, rarely if ever disappointing. Whether it’s Phoenix Wright fighting his alternate-universe evil doppelganger, Little Mac coming back from the lowest of lows to bury Dracula in a casket match, or Kefka using the power of the Dragon Balls to become a god, there’s always something crrrrazy to look forward to.

Me personally, I’m looking forward to Kefka vs. Illidan, if only because there’s the possibility that Kefka will re-obtain his divine powers to fight Mr. Stormrage Winged Purple Beast to Winged Purple Beast.

You can check it out at the official VGCW channel at 6PM Eastern, 11PM UK, 12PM Central European.

VGCW is a Slice of Fandoms

In the second episode of the Video Game Championship Wrestling series spinoff, “Extreme Dudebro Wrestling,” Lucina from Fire Emblem: Awakening made her way to the ring. Just as VGCW makes the chat itself part of the viewing experience, so too does EDBW, and Lucina’s arrival brought with it some powerful (text) chants.

“LET’S GO CINA!”

“CINA SUCKS!”

Anyone who’s familiar with the WWE over the past decade is likely familiar with the origin of these dueling chants. Loved by kids, reviled by adult fans who grew up with The Rock and “Stone Cold” Steve Austin, John Cena’s popularity splits the audience in two whenever he wrestles. Naturally, VGCW fans did not pass up an opportunity for some wordplay.

Of course, this is to be expected, right? It’s a constructed wrestling universe based on popular video game and occasional anime characters, so this type of crossover should lead to cross-demographic jokes. And yet, when I watch and participate in any of the VGCW chats, I feel like I’m being exposed to a group which I normally don’t interact with otherwise. Somehow, even though I’m friends with anime fans, gamers, and smarks, I’ve never found myself in the middle of their convergence as much as I do in VGCW. That’s what makes all the Table-san jokes work, where the announcer’s table is jokingly viewed as a shy and meek anime girl whose day always get ruined when Wrestler A decides to powerbomb/suplex/elbow drop Wrestler B on top of her.

The connection between anime fandom and wrestling is a lot stronger in Japan, where you had series like Kinnikuman which continue to get referenced even today, as well as real life wrestlers based on anime like Jushin Liger and Tiger Mask. It’s sort of like if Zeus from No Holds Barred turned out to be one of the best, most beloved wrestlers ever when he made his WWF appearance.

As for Lucina, she fell behind the entire match, barely missing out on being pinned for the 3-count over and over. Then, as if the entire match was simply an opportunity for her to mount a comeback, she landed a DDT and a devastating finisher and won the match. The chat exploded, realizing that Lucina was even closer to John Cena than expected.

As they say, Hustle, Royalty, Respect.

The Spectacle of Salty Bet and VGCW

At this point a lot of people know that it’s fun to watch other people play video games, whether it’s a Let’s Play or a competitive esports event. A subsection of these people additionally know that it’s crazy fun to watch AI opponents fight each other, provided the right context surrounds it. That’s what we get with Video Game Championship Wrestling, a gaming stream where various gaming culture icons fight each other inside of a WWE video game, and with Salty Bet, a place where you bet fake money on fighting game characters.

Though similar in that they both involve having non-human-controlled characters duke it out, they’re opposites in terms of how these AIs are used. VGCW is a curated experience where, much like actual pro wrestling, a single person writes the story and decides the overall direction of his “show,” but ironically is missing the most crucial pro wrestling component of having match results predetermined. Instead, the show clearly alters its path from week to week according to the results of its own matches. For me, the highlight of the entire thing so far has been when Little Mac came back from getting hit by a car and had an amazing match with Dracula that ended with Mac landing a powerful Star Punch counter on Dracula and then throwing him inside a coffin.

Salty Bet on the other hand is not about “story,” it’s about seeing how different characters crafted by M.U.G.E.N. creators across the world fare against each other, a complex interaction of not just who the characters are but the skills of their makers, their desires to make the strongest or the weakest characters, and even sometimes their desires to be in video games, as many of the self-insert avatars in Salty Bet show. Largely, the “drama” is created at random when two strangely appropriate opponents face each other, or a clash of gods occurs. The exception is that once every Thursday the owner of Salty Bet holds custom tournaments, often around a certain theme (the week of Pokemon X & Y‘s release there was a Pokemon character tournament).

In either case, what I find most amazing about their experiences is the necessity of the audience. Sure, audience matters at a Starcraft or Street Fighter IV tournament in that it livens up the mood and makes things just feel special, and in a Let’s Play of course you the viewer are the audience, but with VGCW and Salty Bet watching them is substantially worse when there is no chat available. The chats, with all of their memes and running jokes, make the fights feel “real” because real emotions are being poured into them. Scholars like Henry Jenkins talk about active fandom and audience participation, but with these “shows” the audience is in many ways the reason to watch. That’s not to say the work the owners of VGCW and Salty Bet don’t matter, as they’re of course important, but their successes are also tied into the image created by the very people viewing them.