WWE's Development League Just Saved a Vintage Format

WWE's developmental league is bringing new energy to a stale format

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The Survivor Series pay-per-view has been a staple of WWE’s programming since 1987, at which point the high-profile event—usually considered one of the four most important shows the billion-dollar company puts on each year—was held on Thanksgiving Day. With a ceaseless flow of content pouring endlessly from CEO Vince McMahon’s streaming service, there’s undoubtedly been something less special about Survivor Series than there was back in the day. But this year, due to both a series of bizarre happenstances and geopolitical nightmares, Survivor Series has been revitalized with new energy from an invading cast of NXT characters challenging WWE’s flagship entertainers. How did this all go down in the first place, and what, exactly, is at stake?

Survivor Series events traditionally feature an elaborate elimination tag match as its main attraction, a stipulation that took on new meaning in 2016 when WWE re-split their roster in half for the sake of establishing two distinctive brands, Raw and SmackDown. The two brands were then pitted against each other specifically and exclusively for the show. 

The conceit of Survivor Series is fun in theory, but in practice one can’t help but feel a sense of existential malaise around the whole thing. Raw and SmackDown have always been rather interchangeable, meaning that no one had any real reason to root for one team or the other—and there was never an established prize for the victor anyway. With the recent and completely absurd advent of the semi-abandoned Wild Card Rule, stars were hopping from one brand to the other, making allegiance to either the Red or Blue team completely irrelevant. And besides, both sides help line McMahon’s pockets. So what exactly is the point?

But now that NXT—a show with an entirely different aesthetic and creative team behind it—has been moved from WWE’s streaming service to actual television, a new competitor has entered the fray. For the very first time, NXT has now been put on the same playing field as Raw and SmackDown, and the lesser-known stars have a lot to prove as they’ve now been recognized as a third team in this year’s PPV. That means the Survivor Series matchups this go around are indeed much rarer, since crossovers from the WWE’s main roster into NXT are few and far between. And fans have projected a lot onto NXT and its leader, Triple H, who they see as harbingers of a new generation of pro wrestling divorced from the chicanery and rigamarole of WWE’s more mainstream products.

Throwing NXT into the mix seems like a brilliant and pre-planned move on WWE’s part, in that it establishes a brand that was once considered developmental as completely legitimate and will likely garner new interest in the recently debuted TV show. But the move may or may not have actually been the result of a series of fortunate accidents resulting from an international incident with potentially global political ramifications.

On Nov. 1, WWE was set to air a regularly scheduled episode of SmackDown that likely would have started the buildup for some Survivor Series feuds. The problem was that many of WWE’s biggest stars were stuck in Saudi Arabia following a highly criticized Halloween special held in that nation the day before. It remains unclear as to why they were stuck there, but some reports (that still have not been officially verified) suggested that the Saudi government had sabotaged the flight to get revenge on McMahon for cutting the live feed of the event for Saudi audiences as retribution for unpaid contracts with Saudi royalty.

If this is the case, McMahon might have been callously endangering the lives of his own talent and potentially creating an international incident, considering what we know about the Saudi propensity for beheading foreign dissidents. It’s also possible that gossip-hungry press people created the more tortuous narrative in the aftermath of very real mechanical issues in the aircraft. Because of WWE’s noted history of providing blatant disinformation to press and fans alike, we’ll probably never know what really happened.

Nonetheless, WWE was in dire straits and at the literal last second imported NXT stars to fill in for the missing SmackDown athletes, generating entirely new feuds, stories, and brawls between brands. Was Paul Heyman cutting a lengthy promo to open the show because the NXT talent hadn’t even gotten off the aircraft from Florida by the time the program started? Who knows! Either way, the current invasion angle had begun. The question of whether NXT was set for this year’s Survivor Series had not the Saudi situation been so dire will likely never be answered with honesty. But we’ve since seen more cross-brand pollination on every show, and each program is better for it.

Foreign affairs aside, for more skeptical fans, it’s still difficult to shake the ennui of “brand supremacy” as a prize for victory, especially considering that although NXT has a different brand identity, it’s still owned by the same billionaires. And a victory for NXT doesn’t actually do anything, especially because the whole thing’s scripted anyway. But if you go too far down that path of inquiry, what’s the point of wrestling at all?

Amid criticism of WWE’s creative departments, the company has proven that it does a pretty decent job of coming up with fresh ideas when their backs are to the wall. Or, if you’re more pessimistic: The situation has proven that essentially randomizing the matchups across WWE’s brands is more exciting than whatever the plan actually was. Either way, it seems that Survivor Series finally has given people something to fight about.

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