How All Elite Wrestling Is Breaking WWE's Mold

Inside the strategy behind wrestling's revolutionary new league

aew mobile hero imaeg
Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images

A casual wrestling fan may not be exposed to much wrestling beyond the world of WWE. But as AEW—All Elite Wrestling—begins to assemble what may be the first legitimate competition for the hyper-corporate sports entertainment entity in decades, new audiences are seeing how wrestling could look through a different lens.

AEW’s TV deal is finally signed and sealed, but tons of questions still linger about the burgeoning brand. With AEW’s first official PPV, Double or Nothing, we now have hints about what the company’s aesthetic could be when the show hits the small screen later this year. How is AEW marketing itself, visually, as different from WWE and what does its new look say about the program itself?

The biggest sticking point of AEW’s presentation remains the diversity of its roster, which was made a prominent feature of the brand from the earliest announcements of its signees. The inclusion of openly LGBTQ talent such as Sonny Kiss and Nyla Rose immediately marked AEW as more progressive than WWE, which has remained cautious about even discussing the queerness of the only gay athlete on its program, Sonya Deville. AEW has continued this by prominently featuring a plethora of body sizes and people from different backgrounds, including bilateral amputee wrestler Dustin Thomas.

The focus on diversity extends far beyond identity politics and to the very look and feel of the program, which also featured a plethora of fighting styles ranging from hard-core to lucha libre to joshi puroresu. The visual story of diversity was represented in the different costumes and styles that were worn in the ring, which ranged from your average black spandex to far more opulent and ostentatious outfits. For example, the colorful costuming of the women in the joshi match provided an excellent contrast to the actual hard-hitting style of the wrestlers in that particular brawl.

If anything, Double or Nothing proved that it’s far from nonsensical to put different styles of fighting—comedic, bloody, straightforward, silly, heartfelt, messy or otherwise—next to each other in quick succession. While at certain points in the show any notion of “realism” was totally thrown out the window (think Glacier’s frozen spit during the Casino Battle Royale or Orange Cassidy’s slow-motion kicks), but in no way does the fantasy violence invalidate the other kinds of more sports-like wrestling seen elsewhere in the program. This eclectic tone acts as a foil for WWE, whose signature “sports entertainment” style focuses on clearly presented matches, PG entertainment, deliberately slow pacing, pristine production, long narrative vignettes and toylike costume design. Emblematic of this is how WWE chose kid-friendly primary colors to represent its brands (red for RAW, blue for SmackDown, yellow for NXT), while AEW picked a more adult gold-and-black palette for its packaging.

But the pristine production is one of the only areas in which AEW simply cannot compare to WWE. WWE’s team has wrestling broadcasts down to a science. The cameramen almost never miss spots, the packages and promos are edited like state propaganda, the performers nearly always hit their marks, and the technology rarely glitches. AEW, meanwhile, has a long way to go: Despite some truly stunning camerawork, key moments in matches were sometimes missed by quick jumps between views, the microphone feedback was disruptive and commentators got dates of future events wrong several times. The general sense of chaos can easily be forgiven—it’s a brand-new show, after all—but if AEW wants to be taken seriously by outsiders it will have to nail down a more precise level of presentation as fast as possible. On the other hand, given that AEW ultimately was spawned from a no-budget YouTube series, it would be foolish to expect billion-dollar production values right out of the gate.

The small fumbles hardly mattered, though, when it came to general enthusiasm and freshness—something WWE lacks immensely at the moment, as its ratings continue to plummet to new lows. It’s hard to capture in live streams, but the general feel of the crowd was incredibly celebratory, whereas the WWE audience often vehemently rejects the prepackaged narratives they are supposed to be entertained by.

AEW is doing a bit of double-speak at the moment, on the one hand saying it simply wants to provide an alternative to WWE and on the other symbolically destroying monuments that represent the older, bigger company. Whether AEW will come to threaten WWE’s success is a huge question, especially if you can put the scale and scope of each company’s audience in perspective. But as far as we know, for now, AEW has already marked itself as significantly different from its elder wrestling sibling.

Did you like this article?
Thumbs Up
Thumbs Down