Nobody else in the arena appears to notice that both fighters have suddenly warped onto the table's surface, least of all the fighters themselves; Haggar stumbles awkwardly on one corner while Groose continually falls off and climbs back on for a couple of seconds, until the bigger wrestler teleports him into a headlock and slams him through the furniture. The in-game crowd goes wild, but not nearly as wild as those in the livechat speeding alongside it.
This is Video Game Championship Wrestling, a crossover universe of gaming pop culture filtered through the surreal lens of the game WWE '13. A TwitchTV stream of a broken, busted wrestling video game playing against itself — badly. A world where M. Bison (Street Fighter), Tingle (The Legend of Zelda), Segata Sanshiro (Sega) and Phoenix Wright (Ace Attorney) can climb into the ring to beat the living daylights out of one another, and thousands of fans will tune in to watch and cheer.
It is, undoubtedly, incredibly stupid. But it's also surprisingly enthralling, exciting and enjoyable. And it's something that's powered, in large part, by random chance.
Fifty quid and word of mouth
VGCW, for the uninitiated, is an internet stream of the pro-wrestling video game WWE '13 with custom graphics and music overlaid to simulate a pay-per-view show like one might find on TV. Only, in this case, the wrestlers are all well-crafted facsimiles of popular video game characters and personalities, and there's no one actually playing the game.
Instead, every match is carried out with the game's troubled artificial intelligence in control of the fighters. This, in combination with the game's many glitches, introduces a bizarre random element to the production that is in many ways part of the draw. Throw in some over-the-top storylines and an excitable community, and you've got a weird, nearly unique show.
"No offense to him ... but I had tons of ideas on how to improve the show."
The man behind the VGCW is an enigmatic Englishman known as Bazza, who declines to give his birth name. As he tells it, the league itself as a concept isn't original. Wrestling games have historically featured extensive Create-A-Wrestler (CAW) modes that allow players to customize their own fighters: their movesets, their entrances and — most crucially — their appearances.
Utilizing games like WWF No Mercy and WWE WrestleMania XIX, some fans originally took this idea and ran with it, swapping and showing off their creations that resembled all kinds of people: retired wrestlers, movie stars and of course, video game characters. Some even set up leagues of their own and streamed them out to their followers as best they could, recreating the ultra-macho, soap opera-esque shenanigans of actual professional wrestling with their own crazy casts.
"I watched a guy named Antraxo, who's credited at the end of all my streams," says Bazza. "He was doing a similar stream with WWE '11, but his show basically consisted of a royal rumble followed by a title match, rinse and repeat.
"No offense to him ... but I had tons of ideas on how to improve the show. There [are] more match modes in those games than he was using; there wasn't much variety ... so I bought a capture card for 50 quid, plugged it in and started setting up."
Bazza's first show — hastily dubbed "Video Game Championship Wrestling" — had less than a hundred viewers, but he was elated. "I messaged my friend," he says, "basically telling him how cool it was, saying I'd like to do it again tomorrow." He advertised the first few shows on popular internet message board 4chan, but stopped after visitors from there began to flood the chat with the board's signature memes and trolling.
"At the time, I didn't put a lot of effort into it, I was thinking, I'll just do a couple of matches."
VGCW has never stuck to a coherent schedule; the most warning anyone ever gets is 24 hours' notice from the official Twitter account, informing all and sundry that "tonight is the night." Yet, despite the shaky time slot and lack of deliberate promotion, in the early days the viewer count rose quickly. "It was just word of mouth," Bazza says. "[Forum] threads were popping up all over the place — SomethingAwful, NeoGAF, Reddit, GameFAQs — so I didn't really need to advertise it.
"At the time, I didn't put a lot of effort into it," Bazza continues. "I was thinking, I'll just do a couple of matches and I won't bother doing storyline, or plot, or anything like that."
The game, as it turned out, had other ideas.
During a live show, Bazza's role is to announce an audio feed over the top and manage any major technical errors that occur. That's because in the VGCW, matches have always been strictly CPU vs. CPU, with no human interference whatsoever. This results in two interesting oddities. The first is that, unlike in actual professional wrestling, the outcomes of matches aren't rigged or pre-scripted; it's all left to the software. Insane upsets or unexpected twists and turns are all possible, effectively a single roll of the dice away.
The second is that, with the various glitches of WWE '13, some unexpected things can occur. To wit: the spontaneous generation of a bizarre, fan-driven storyline. In late November 2012, a standard "Money in the Bank" fight — a type of match where six wrestlers race to set up ladders to retrieve a briefcase dangling from the ceiling — resolved in about a minute flat when a series of crippling pathfinding errors prevented any other competitor from stopping Zangief (Street Fighter) from instantly taking the win.
"I thought that wasn't fun for anyone to watch," remembers Bazza, "so I redid the match, and Little Mac (Punch Out!!) won. He didn't have any character beforehand, but afterwards, everyone associated him with me — they said I'd screwed Zangief over in favor of Little Mac."
Fans dubbed it the Soviet Screwjob, a reference to Zangief's Russian origins and to pro wrestling's infamous Montreal Screwjob. Bazza decided to roll with it. "I got the idea for the storyline from the chat's reaction, which is kind of how a lot of storyline and plots and tag teams have developed," Bazza says. "It's got a lot to do with the fans, and how they perceive things."
WWE '13 also includes a Create-a-Story mode, where a player can — with some effort — cobble together short scenes out of pre-made animations and player-inputted text. Bazza utilized this to cast Zangief as the aggrieved victim, Little Mac as a thuggish, company-approved enforcer and himself (in the body of the WWE's real-life chairman and occasional wrestler Vince McMahon) as the VGCW's corrupt manager. The ongoing feud continued throughout the shows that followed, until ultimately, in the first season's finale, Little Mac turned on McMahon before being hit by a car.
"Basically, the first season was kind of done on the fly," Bazza says. "And as we started to go into season two, I opened up Notepad and started typing up a basic skeleton of what the rest of the seasons were going to be from there."
The story since then has touched on classic wrestling tales — betrayals, tournaments, championship titles and a hostile takeover of the management of the VGCW itself — mixed in with the more fanciful elements of a video game world. Demonic deals with Dracula (Castlevania), the identity of the mysterious Mr. L (Super Paper Mario) and Chaos Emerald-powered time travel are among the weird and wonderful concepts touched on so far.
Of course, the unpredictable nature of the VGCW means that Bazza can't write too far ahead. "When I write the storylines," he explains, "they're very, very basic. Because, depending on the outcome of the matches, I might have to completely change the way a story's going to progress."
Although longtime Japanese developer Yuke's is the party responsible for programming WWE '13, the blanket term used by the VGCW community to describe the game's innumerable glitches, bugs and general wonkiness is named after now-defunct former publisher THQ. Examples include strange clipping errors, teleporting wrestlers, hilariously inept combat AI, incorrect commentary, an occasionally unhinged camera (anthropomorphized as, or more correctly blamed on, the Mario character Lakitu) and many more.
"THQuality" is an inherent part of the VGCW and the catalyst for many of its more bizarre and exciting moments. A season's worth of storylines arose from the discovery that multiple wrestlers were using a glitched finisher that, effectively, instantly crippled an opponent. Fighters can't seem to resist breaking the announcer's table in every match, a critical inability to pathfind past the referee has resulted in the occasional controversial disqualification and certain types of pins may result in a lengthy, and often hilarious, chain of reversals.
There's also BazzaQuality, when Bazza screws up somehow (forgetting to set characters to CPU control, plugging things into USB ports while the show is ongoing, etc.), and PSQuality, for when the PlayStation 3 freezes and crashes during a match — something that doesn't strike often, but that can bring a show to its knees when it does.
It's still real to me
Part of the appeal is the inherent absurdity of the spectacle. "I'm a big sucker for crossovers," says Bazza. "Marvel vs. Capcom, Smash Bros.; people just like to see characters from different franchises cross over and beat the crap out of each other."
Bazza himself is a big pro wrestling fan, beginning in the era of Hulk Hogan and Randy Savage. "Everyone had over-the-top personalities in those days," he says. "With their brightly colored clothes, their general design, they kind of looked like superheroes, like video game characters.
"In today's wrestling, everyone's sort of the same, just kind of an angry badass. There's more character, there's all kinds of people in video games — you'll never get time travel in the WWE. We all know wrestling is fake, and it doesn't get more fake than watching a video game version of it. So why take it seriously at all?"
But there's a crowd component to it, too, so much so that archived shows always include the stream's livechat speeding alongside it. Some of it is comparable to the excitement that's generated simply by being part of a crowd, even if that crowd exists only in the form of a fast-scrolling chatroom or forum thread; members of the fighting game community or the various eSports audiences are probably familiar with the concept. It's fun to cheer for your favorites, jeer the villains and be outraged when a match doesn't go your way.
It's also the knowledge that you're invested in the fiction of a shared universe, a kind of group madness, a wiki-built emergent world. Everybody watching knows that the show is, ultimately, nothing more than a bunch of dressed-up robots fighting one another according to preset character statistics and the whims of the combat intelligence. But they pretend that it's not. They pretend it's all "real"; they project a layer of emotions and histories onto characters that have no way of actually holding them — but since everyone agrees that they have them, for the purposes of the show, they do.
"Some fans like to analyze things like wrestler stats and their movesets and stuff like that," says Bazza. "Others prefer to pretend that it's all real, that some wrestlers are stronger than others. You could call 'em the marks, and the other guys the smarks. I kinda think, you know, have fun with it."
The show's kayfabe — fake reality, in wrestling parlance, comparable to the fourth wall of fiction — encompasses all. Losses and victories, actions in the ring or out of it, even glitches; everything feeds into the crowd, who add it to what they already know of the characters, recontextualize it, rationalize the absurd bits and add it to the community wiki. In this world, Red (Pokemon) is a nigh-undefeatable kid with a lot of heart, literally fighting to be the very best there ever was; Vegeta (Dragon Ball Z) a power-hungry, self-important fighter who nonetheless can't seem to actually win a match.
In a key move, Bazza tends to take this community-built mythos and incorporate it into the show. Not only is he, as in real-life wrestling, gauging character popularity when determining which wrestlers to promote and which characters to bury, he's also adopting storyline ideas from the crowd as well.
"It was just going to be a one-off, a way to mark Dracula as a bit of an asshole."
Some are matters of practicality: an extremely good custom wrestler design for Dracula (Castlevania) ended up replacing a prospective third season antagonist who Bazza had privately felt was overexposed — and, coincidentally, let him name the season "WrestleVania." Others are more direct; at one point, a temporary team-up between two unwilling partners, Gabe Newell (head of Valve) and Adam Jensen (from Deus Ex: Human Revolution) became permanent due almost entirely to fan pressure.
"It was just going to be a one-off, a way to mark [then general manager] Dracula as a bit of an asshole," says Bazza. "But everyone was like, they're Safety Valve; they're a tag-team now. They started making pages on the wiki ... and I was fighting it for a while, deleting the pages, telling people they weren't a tag team at all."
"And that's basically the relationship I wrote between the two. Jensen's me. He's telling Gabe, 'No, we're not a tag team, this is absolutely ridiculous.' And the chat [members], well ... they're Gabe Newell."
When preparing for a show, Bazza spends anywhere from two to seven hours creating each roughly two-hour long episode. He's got to lay out the overall plot, including the alternate cutscenes that account for any possibly branching paths. He's got to write the script up and laboriously enter it by hand into the PS3, a task made more difficult by the game's problematic interface. There's other bits of housekeeping, too: changing up movesets and editing the created wrestlers and their entrances to better fit the show.
"Luckily, I've got really good fans that contribute a lot," he says. "I don't know how to use Photoshop for the life of me. So stuff that's been contributed — that's all done by fans who've done it off their own backs, just because they love the show."
Not only are the fans contributing parts of the show itself — musical remixes, video production efforts, banners and the custom wrestler designs as well — but they've also created various external bits that keep it afloat. An extensive Google document tracks wins and losses and collects links and timestamps to as many shows as possible. The fan-made wiki, meanwhile, solidifies the somewhat loose consensus into something more concrete, something more real.
One fan even attempts to derive an "objective" set of power rankings for every character in the federation; the updated stats are posted, alongside a pseudo-serious match write-up, after each and every show. "I think that's awesome," says Bazza. "Since I started noticing his stats, I've been basing a lot of the match-ups off of them."
Of course, it's very easy for a crowd to become a mob. Bazza keeps a handle on the more juvenile aspects of the crowd — the attention-seeking, insult-spewing segments — partially through the efforts of a handful of fan moderators, but primarily by ignoring it. "If I start telling people not to say this, not to say that, well ... you know what the internet's like," he shrugs.
"I think it's worked. People've slowed down on that kind of thing, but, well, there's always going to be people acting like that. There's not a lot you can do."
"I got pretty annoyed, I overreacted and flipped my shit at some of those reactions."
But there's also the risk of fan backlash — serious fan backlash — when people get perhaps too invested in the show. When controversial fighter Charles Barkley (of real-life basketball fame, but also star of indie hit Barkley, Shut Up and Jam: Gaiden) grabbed the title belt, portions of the fanbase absolutely exploded, lobbing abuse and complaints at the show — and at Bazza, who in the heat of the moment threatened to cancel the show entirely.
"I got pretty annoyed, I overreacted and flipped my shit at some of those reactions," he says carefully. "But, honestly speaking, the main reason I got mad about it is because I didn't want Barkley to win. Because I knew that everyone would get mad. So when he won, I was like, 'Fuck. This is going to be so bad.' I sort of lost my temper, and I shouldn't have, really."
Even that, though, was eventually funneled into the show; Barkley showed up the next week to cut a scathing promo directly to the crowd (a reference to real-life wrestler CM Punk's kayfabe-breaking "pipebomb" shoot that made major waves in the pro-wrestling world). The audience ate it up. "That was really risky, that whole thing," sighs Bazza. "But a lot of people really liked it. It took a lot of heat off him."
Fake is real
There's no noble goal to the VGCW, no burning desire to change the face of entertainment or to build a media empire (despite the emergence of a few official spinoffs, including a women's league and a bizarre reality show set in The Sims 3). Bazza makes some cash from the show, via fan donations and his TwitchTV partnership ad revenue — the ads play over the game's comically lengthy loading screens — but he's not cranking out personalized merchandise or conforming with corporate masters.
When he initially entered into partnership with TwitchTV, in fact, he announced the deal at the beginning of the show — characteristically — through an in-game promo. Acknowledging the mood of the crowd with an audio overlay of the traditional wrestling chants of "You sold out!" Bazza's in-game persona took the stage and made an promise: money would have no effect on the contents of the show.
"The money's not what's making me do the stream, anyway," says Bazza. "I get a little bit of pocket change, sure, so there's a slight incentive there; but I'm not really that fussed."
"If the channel gets shut down, if I can't do it anymore, well, maybe I'd move to another website."
In light of recent legal events in the world of video game streaming, though, it's become clear that the VGCW has always been in a tricky position. "I've already spoken to a couple of people, and they've told me that if anybody approaches them and says that this is copyright infringement and they want this to stop — they've said they'll shut me down straight away, without a second thought," Bazza says. "I've known that from the start. I'll risk it.
"If the channel gets shut down, if I can't do it anymore, well, maybe I'd move to another website. I wouldn't like to — I like it on Twitch, the staff have been really good to me, really friendly and helpful," he continues. "But I'd do it."
It's still a relatively small production, overall; shows only regularly attract around 2,000 fans at a time, with a cumulative total viewership of slightly over a million. But Bazza agrees that it's become more than just a random little hobby stream, a side project to relieve some boredom. The fights might be fake — well, the fights might be even faker than usual — but the authenticity of the show, the devotion toward the fans — that's different. That's real.
"I was just doing it for fun, at first — well, I'm still doing it for fun, really," Bazza says. "But back then, when I first signed up for the partnership, I thought — if they shut me down, I'll just stop doing it. I wasn't really that bothered. But now ... "
He pauses. "There's too much of a fan following, now. I'd just be letting down too many people.
"I guess I'd find a way around it."
Editing: Russ Pitts, Matt Leone
Design / Layout: Warren Schultheis, Matthew Sullivan