This Isn't "Twitch Plays Pro Wrestling," But It's Damn Close

A real life wrestling promotion led by former WWE star Rikishi is turning to Twitch viewers to book and choreograph matches.

Jan 23 2018, 9:00pm

All images courtesy KnokX

The essential ingredient in successful pro wrestling is the interplay between wrestler and audience. The calls and chants. The booing and cheering. The way you, as fans, can ultimately determine the success of your favorites, which brings on that frisson of electric thrill which no other form of live entertainment provides. Go watch a stage production of Hamlet and see if booing him (he’s an asshole, it’s ok) changes the storyline. It won’t, and that interactivity is what makes pro wrestling work.

Back when Waypoint was the temporary home of my Bruiseday column, I compared this interaction to a video game controller, where the output in the ring mirrored the input, however imperfectly, of the crowd. That was and is analogy. But it’s not real, in the sense that pro wrestlers are not dolls and you cannot manipulate them directly.

One small promotion is looking to see what happens if the analogy becomes more than that, asking what happens if you actually do control the wrestlers in real time. KnokX Pro, based in Los Angeles, has partnered with Twitch to stream pro wrestling and allow home viewers to give text input on everything from who “gets over” to what the next move in a match should be, all via the platform’s chat client.

The way it works is fairly simple, if a little uncanny. There’s a standard wrestling ring with wrestlers working a match, announced by a team including KnokX Pro trainer and former WWE star Rikishi. Where the uncanniness comes in is that there’s no live audience, leaving a noticeable void where the chants and noise would. Instead of the din of a live audience spurring the wrestlers on, there’s a big screen television just off camera, beaming the promotion’s Twitch chat to the wrestlers, a torrent of viewer text offering input and voting on what the next move should be.

“Rikishi said this is going to change the industry, change the format, because fans are smarter and understand everything and know what’s going on,” explains Gary Shergill, KnokX Pro’s director of marketing. “When it comes to wrestling on TV or anywhere else, it’s the wrestlers and promoters who call the match. In this case, since the wrestlers are delivering pretty much what the audience wants, the audience gets to choreograph the match.”

There’s a lot going on with the notion that pro wrestlers at KnokX Pro’s LIW (Live Interactive Wrestling) events answer to the audience. There is, of course, something natural to it, a sense that if you can make the sometimes hard to parse boos or cheers—was that a cheer for the wrestler, a particular move, or something happening three rows over—easier for wrestlers to understand then why not do it?

For fans, there’s something undeniably cool about seeing your favorite moves when you want to see them. In the course of our interview, this was Shergill’s main point: Pro wrestling is and must be about what the audience wants, above all other considerations, so let’s make this happen.

“It’s unpredictable,” he enthused to me over the phone. “The wrestlers have to adapt in real-time, but at the same time, it’s hard. But also easy! They have to deliver what the audience wants. They can see the chat, live, so they’re interacting with an audience, which doesn’t change, but the audience is requesting the moves directly, and the wrestlers react to that.”

So it’s cool to patch into this feedback and the wrestlers at LIW events sure seem to like the format. The slight discomfort at a silent room fades somewhat when you see a wrestler looking at the Twitch screen, yelling directly at individual users or egging on the chat. It is, in a surprising way, personal. No doubt there’s an opportunity for regular users to establish a rapport with the wrestlers, becoming characters in the drama on their own terms.

We are not, to be clear, talking about thousands and thousands of live Twitch users during the LIW events, so for now the level of unpredictability seems low, contra Shergill. You have a few dozen Twitch users entering moves, so it seems relatively easy (from the outside) to parse the chat and incorporate moves into what looks a lot like traditional pro wrestling storytelling. The main difference is that where there might be a rest hold—a sleeper or armbar so the wrestlers can catch their breath and plan what’s next—the wrestlers momentarily squint up at the off-camera screen.

There’s a theoretical future where the scale of chat, whether it’s handled as a straight chatstream or through mods to parse the incoming votes, bits, commands, and discussion, outstrips what KnokX Pro’s wrestlers can elegantly incorporate into a traditional match. When and if that happens, and if KnokX Pro is prepared, new possibilities arise with the increase in volume.

The human element is needed and cannot be eliminated...

Picture a hardcore match where the weapons become virtual mass votes on what to use next, a 21st century version of the ECW tradition of fans bringing weapons to the arena for the wrestlers to use. Or picture the sometimes maligned but never less than impressive acrobatics of Will Ospreay and Ricochet shedding the restraints of traditional pro wrestling entirely, becoming vessels of distilled cool spots as a crowd in tune with them feeds wilder and wilder moves into the data stream.

But there are also things to be wary of. If pro wrestling is an art, as I believe, the locus of the artistry isn’t in the acrobatics or feats of strength, but in the very thing which KnokX Pro is trying to eliminate: reading the crowd. It downplays some of the skills of empathy which pro wrestlers traditionally need to succeed, making subtext actual, on your screen text. In normal promotions, a great wrestler knows when to call a reversal to a power bomb for dramatic purposes based on what they intuit the crowd needs, not because it’s on the big screen.

There’s a chance the reduction of crowd-wrestler interactions to simple textual input reduces pro wrestling to a video game rendered in meat and bone. It also taps into that most corrosive of potentialities in hardcore fan culture: the idea that this is all for us, only for us, inevitably for us. We’ve all seen it across a million formats, the ways we fantasy book a lackluster WWE pay-per-view, the raging battle over just what The Last Jedi means and for whom it was made in the first place, or the retread remakes of faded series (they’re bringing back Lost, for Pete’s sake) in increasingly widening spirals of fan service.

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I’m reminded, too, of the famous collective input of Twitch Plays Pokémon. There, over a million players came through a chatroom on Twitch set up to play Pokemon in an exercise of mass collaboration. KnokX Pro’s effort isn’t anywhere at the same scale, but it raises similar questions about how we collaborate in real time toward a goal, whether that goal is winning a Pokemon battle or getting a wrestler to do a dropkick when we want, and whether that collaboration is worth it pursuing or whether it is, in the end, just “neat,” a toy we play with like so many other diversions before discarding it in favor of just the way things are.

So much of notions of disruption come down to the intersection of cool and necessity. KnokX Pro’s Live Interactive Wrestling is cool; you can go back to ancient Romans adding steam power into toys to confirm that there seems to be something elemental to our endless fascination with automating the human engine, necessary or not.

But is this rethinking of the fundamentals of pro wrestling necessary? I don’t have an answer for that, though a hint may be in Shergill’s plans to bring LIW on the road, in front of live audiences who both cheer with their real voices and use their mobile devices to get their votes in. The human element is needed and cannot be eliminated, which is perhaps the most eternal truth of pro wrestling.