WWE's Thunderdome Brings Noise And Excitement To Summerslam

LED screens are the next best thing to an actual, live audience.


Over the past week, WWE rolled out a "Thunderdome" arena concept to compensate for the absent live audience. Based on the August 21 episode of Smackdown (where it debuted) and the following Summerslam PPV on August 23, the Thunderdome boils down to two key enhancements.

The first enhancement is visual: WWE went all out on its superstars' entrances. Lots of pyro and lots of lights were the order of the day. The massive LED screens by ringside enhanced the entrances further with thematic graphics. And when the entrances weren't happening, the LED screens broadcasted the faces of hundreds of WWE fans, who registered for a virtual seat on the broadcast and agreed to lengthy Terms and Conditions.

The second enhancement is audio: there is a constant, ambient "crowd noise" that permeates the entire show. The noise goes up and down in response to the action; when the babyface wins, you hear more cheers; when the heel makes his or her entrance, you hear more boos. The implication is that the on-camera viewers are the ones making the crowd noise, but that's almost certainly not the case. Any genuine crowd response has been significantly enhanced to sound like a bigger crowd and to respond with the face/heel reactions that WWE desires.

The Thunderdome was a successful theatrical presentation; this is the most that WWE has felt like WWE since the COVID pandemic began. WWE is fond of saying that its fans, the WWE Universe, are the most essential part of their shows. The LED screens prove the point; even virtual fans in attendance are better than no audience at all.

Part of the reason why it works is because the WWE already lies to its audience as a matter of practice. None of the choreographed, predetermined fighting that we see is "real" in the manner that a competitive sport is supposed to be real. People who dislike wrestling find this difficult to get past, but fans want to suspend their disbelief for the performers. And suspending belief over the production of the show--the pumped-in sound of the crowd, the appearance of the audience--is a tiny logistical hop from that. Hearing a loud crowd in an empty arena or action movie music during a lobby brawl can feel vaguely condescending, due to its lack of effort. But hearing crowd noise while seeing a virtual broadcast of people? It's enough commitment to the lie that the audience will gladly play along.

WWE has also been preparing us, passively, for the moment when the backstage crew becomes fully complicit in the deception. Ostensibly, the production team is an impassive observer, there to capture the actions of the performers. But over time--particularly in the last 20 years--the production crew has actively driven the narrative forward and enhanced the overall experience.

Take surprise entrances, for example. It used to be that if an unexpected performer came out from behind the curtain, the production crew wouldn't play their music. How could they, if the appearance was a "surprise?" Today, that's rare. The production crew has the music all cued up for any appearance, no matter how "unexpected."

The production crew cuts between cameras to maximize the impact of high-risk maneuvers, and blocks shots to hide match interference until the last possible second. It also enables the supernatural elements of a superstar's entrance, from the Undertaker's lightning bolts and raising of the house lights, to the hallucinations of Bray Wyatt's Firefly Funhouse.

Of course, WWE will be better when the audiences finally return; the Thunderdome, for all its enhancements and appearance of a live audience, isn't the real thing. But until then, this is the best possible substitute, with just enough smoke and mirrors for us to accept being lied to. And there's additional ways to make the lie even more complete. How about cuing up audience chants? How about creating more specific audio cues to signature moves and finishers? How about interacting with the virtual audience at ringside? The possibilities abound.

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