I was probably 10 years old when Hulk Hogan scared me so much that I ran away.
The WWF came to town, and to me, wrestling and that organization were synonymous. I was aware that other companies — promotions, in wresting parlance — existed, but they all looked weird. The rings seemed too small, or the ropes were the wrong color or the wrestlers looked cheap, somehow, in a way they didn't over at the WWF where real wrestling happened.
You could say, in other words, that I was a fan. So was every grade-school friend I had, whose houses were also filled with action figures of superstars like the Iron Sheik.
Knowing this, one weekend in the late '80s or early '90s, my dad took me and my brother to see stars like Hogan and the Bushwackers. Our neighborhood friend Mr. Richley and his two boys, John and Joe, were there, too.
I remember two things very vividly. The first was that, during a tag team match, Mr. Richley started yelling at the wrestlers for fun. They started yelling back, and we joined in. It was fun for a while, right up until the moment that Mr. Richley realized that this might be getting out of control. Those dudes were big. He told us to stop.
The second thing is even more memorable. It was a house show, meaning that what happened at Youngstown State University would stay at YSU. This wasn't televised. Despite that, there were some big-name wrestlers there, and no name was bigger at the time Hulk Hogan. The big, blond, balding champ was everybody's hero. Tough and patriotic, he hit every note to strike the perfect chord for kids like me the world over.
The show ramped up to his match. I couldn't tell you who he fought or whether he won or lost. But I can tell you about his entrance — or at least part of it.
The announcer appeared on the loudspeakers and prepped us for the match. The place exploded in a chorus of cheers.
We didn't have ringside seats, so I and every other kid around me charged down toward the ringside seats, hands outstretched, hoping the Hulkster would give us five as he passed. I was small. Most everybody else was big. I was never going to see him if I didn't fight my way up. So I stood on a front-row seat. A moment later, some crabby adult started screaming at me about how much money he'd paid for it, and I hopped off.
"No human being should be that big."
Undeterred, I went with Plan B and somehow squirmed my way in front of everybody else. My right hand outstretched, I waited. I can see it now — a sea of pale, white arms, voices cheering, heads turned to the backstage area awaiting the arrival of a true American hero. He told his fans to brush our teeth, do our homework and say our prayers. It sounded good to me.
Hulk Hogan turned the corner. I took one look at my favorite wrestler — the biggest celebrity I'd ever seen — and my gut went sour with fear. "No human being should be that big," I thought. Just as fast as I'd slithered my way to the front, I was gone, running back up to my seat and my dad.
I didn't stop watching wrestling after that. I don't remember being ashamed of my fear or my gut reaction to seeing my hero in real life. I was a Hulkamaniac, and that was for sure and for certain.
I grew up, and at some point, I stopped watching wrestling. Everybody else I knew did, too. But the WWF didn't go anywhere.
At some point in the late 1990s or early 2000s, during what would later be known as the Attitude Era, I got back into wrestling. For a year or so, I watched new superstars like The Rock and Stone Cold Steve Austin battle guys like The Undertaker, who were still around from my childhood. I bought a DVD or two. I watched Monday Night Raw over my friend Travis' house. We ordered a pay-per-view or two. When I went to visit my friend Bob, who as in law school in Cincinnati, we watched The Rock's DVD.
"He's got the charisma of Christ," I told Bob. He got on board for a while, too.
And then, for no particular reason, we all stopped watching again.
In some form or another, whether I've been a practicing or lapsed fan, the WWF's brand of wrestling has been part of my life since childhood. The only other form of entertainment that compares, in terms of longevity, is my love affair with video games.
I thought about wrestling here and there for a while. I knew of old superstars leaving. I knew about new superstars like CM Punk. But I never made the effort to get back into watching regularly. Until earlier this year.
When you work in the video game journalism field, your Twitter feed is filled with friends, colleagues, acquaintances and, if you're a reporter, interesting figures in the development industry. At some point, I noticed that, aside from video games, one other topic kept coming up: professional wrestling. Never was that more true than this past April during the weekend of WrestleMania XXX.
I sat, on a Sunday night, with my iPhone in my hand, scrolling through dozens of tweets about wrestlers familiar and new, and I realized, finally, what I was missing. That week, I signed up for the WWE Network.
I figured I'd watch WrestleMania XXX and see what all the fuss was about. About 10 minutes in, as Hulk Hogan, Stone Cold Steve Austin and The Rock stood in the squared circle surrounded by tens of thousands of fans, spouting off, doing what they call promos, I realized there was no turning back. I was all in.
2014 will be, for me, the year I came back to pro wrestling with my video game friends at my side.
I talked about it with my buddies and got them interested. My brother Jeff keeps up with it now, too. In a few quiet moments during E3, I bonded with my friend and coworker Phil Kollar about our shared love of what the WWE now calls "sports entertainment." It's a constant source of conversation between me and Polygon community manager Shaun McIlroy. I watch every week. I listen to freaking wrestling podcasts, for crying out loud. I'm in deep here, friends and neighbors.
And here's what I know: Wrestling is kind of dumb. Nobody pretends it's real now, like they did when I was a kid and in the decades before. We're all in on the gimmick. It's OK: Its silliness is part of its charm.
In fact, it's a lot like video games. I follow my favorite wrestlers like I follow my favorite developers and my favorite franchises. I talk about it with my buddies, just like we swap Dark Souls strategies. I await the monthly pay-per-views, when my buddy Kris and I get together and mainline three straight hours of pro wrestling.
I know it's not entirely real. That doesn't matter. There's enough reality woven in that makes it interesting. I know video games aren't real either, but that didn't stop my heart from racing or my body from jumping when I played P.T. this year. The line between reality and fantasy is smudged just enough for it to be perfectly enjoyable in a harmless sort of way.
Now, I thought that when this year's annual installment of the only WWE wrestling game in town, WWE 2K15, came out, I'd be all in, too, but I have a confession to make: I haven't felt so inept with a game in approximately forever. I have it. I've enjoyed watching Bray Wyatt and John Cena and Dolph Ziggler make their entrances, but I'm as useless as a WWE referee in the virtual ring.
No matter. I grew up with wrestling, just like I did with video games. And both are still here. So am I, and I enjoy both. I know that, in the minds of some, wrestling and video games are the exclusive domains of children. My mom doesn't know or care about Hayao Miyazaki or his cartoons, either, because for her, cartoons are the domain of children, too. But I'm from a different generation — one that's comfortable with bringing some of its childhood into adulthood.
I get weird looks sometimes when I say I write about video games for a living. People who don't play have a tough time understanding how that's a job, let alone a career. I get the same weird looks sometimes when I talk about watching wrestling. After all, Bob's married now, and his 4-year-old son is the only other big John Cena fan I know. I get it. I've made my peace with both.
So if you need me on any random night in 2014, odds are I'll be doing what I was probably doing in the late 1980s or early 1990s: watching wrestling or playing video games. Only now, I'll be rooting for John Cena.
This piece is part of Polygon's 2014 in Review series. Throughout December we'll be exploring the games, people and events that shaped gaming in the past year. You can check out more 2014 in Review stories in our StoryStream.