Six months ago, WWE took an unparalleled venture into television history; a 24-hour “over-the-top” streaming service, featuring both live and on-demand programming. Hyped for nearly 2 years, expectations were understandably high, given WWE’s access to a vast number of historical tape libraries, as well as their move to bring every live Pay Per View event to their live streaming service. Analysts and fans alike were abuzz at the possibilities of the network, and its potential in the marketplace. Needless to say, it was an exciting time to be a wrestling fan, as the Network launched 6 months ago.
Personally, I couldn’t wait to get myself subscribed to WWE’s service. I am a lifetime wrestling fan, clocking in over 30 years of blood, sweat and bodyslams. Access to the vast video-on-demand library, alone, was enough incentive for me to subscribe, and at $9.99/month, it really was a no-brainer. More than anything, though, I really wanted to be part of this historical moment in professional wrestling from the ground level. As much of wrestling fan as I am, I’m also a tech geek, so the thought of a streaming service really peaked my curiosity. What would happen on launch day when hundreds of thousands of wrestling fans tried to subscribe to the service at once? Could the servers handle the load? And what about the live stream of WrestleMania 30? Theoretically an unlimited number of people could potentially subscribe, and attempt to watch the live stream. Could the servers handle that? What original content would we have access to? What other hidden gems will be made available to us?
Of course, almost all of my questions were answered the day of the launch, February 24, 2014. And here are my experiences, thus far.
I’m almost ashamed to admit that I didn’t sleep well the night before launch day (and, I would imagine, I wasn’t the only one). I was legitimately excited, like a child anticipating Christmas morning. I woke up early (6:30am EST), and begin checking WWE’s sign-up page, which was scheduled for a 9:00am EST launch. At 8:10am, almost an hour early, it went live. I might have been one of the first 100 people to have signed up for the Network, as I completed their sign-up process at lightning speed. And, the very next thing I knew, I was live.
I spent the next 45 minutes browsing through the VOD library, amazed to see every ECW, WCW, and WWE PPV, including some I thought would surely be omitted (WWF Over the Edge 1999 namely, but was also surprised to see any event heavily featuring Chris Benoit). After test-driving a handful of videos, all “WWF” mentions, and logos, appeared to be intact, as well, which was a huge relief. I had avoided buying many WWE PPV re-releases as I found Attitude Era footage was unwatchable between the 10-12+ blurs on screen, and any audible WWF mention censored. Much to my relief, everything appeared intact.
It was then, though, that I ran into trouble. As more and more people attempted to sign up, the Network became unwatchable. On Demand features either wouldn’t load, or would appear with an error message stating “Media Error: The video is unavailable”, and the live stream simply wouldn’t load at all. My heart sank, as I began to feel that WWE had not adequately prepared for what was surely an incredible surge of traffic, and video consumption, on their servers. The remainder of launch day basically became a wash, as I experienced trouble for the lions-share of the day getting anything to load. Colour me disappointed, to say the least.
As the week progressed, my video vows eventually subsided. I was cautiously optimistic that WWE would have their server woes under control by WrestleMania, and if necessary, heavily invest in additional server capacity to service what was likely a stronger initial subscription rate than anticipated.
It was here that I really began to appreciate the vastness of WWE’s newborn Network. Want to watch WrestleMania 8 today? No problem. It’s there. Want to see what WCW countered with the same time of year? No problem. It’s there, too. And what about that crazy up-start, ECW? What were they doing? It’s there. I could literally sink an entire day just browsing through the Network, seeing what was available. Do you know the feeling when you’re browsing through Netflix, for what seems like an hour, because there are so many things you could be watching, but you can’t decide on just one? Well, that’s what this is like. Upon launch, there was more content available than most people will watch in their entire lifetime.
I only experienced a small few hiccups those initial few weeks, as well. Occasionally my picture would slightly pixelate, or on a rarer occasion, skip back a few seconds and replay something over again as it attempted to buffer. Those issues happened so few, and far between, that they almost don’t merit a mention in this column. And, to be clear, I was consuming content at an incredible rate. Often, the live stream was left running for hours at a time, with no noticeable impact on video quality. My internet bandwidth consumption (limited to 275 gigs per month by my internet service provider) did take a substantial hit, however. My approximation is that an hour of HD content on the WWE Network uses about 2 gigs of bandwidth from your allotment. So, my advice is, if it is reasonable to upgrade your internet package to an unlimited usage option, do so. Between Netflix, Hulu, and WWE Network, you’ll be consuming more bandwidth than you realize.
The big day. I was nervous. This was WWE’s chance to make, or break, the Network. If WrestleMania experienced even a momentary blip during it’s live stream on the Network, my fear was that the Network would universally be panned, and disappear as quickly as it appeared. There was a lot of curiosity from my friends, as well. I had invited 10 people to my house for WrestleMania, and none of them had seen the Network in action until then. It was showtime.
I began my live stream at the beginning of the pre-show, about 2 hours before WrestleMania was scheduled to start. The stream loaded, without issue, and began streaming in HD. As people slowly began to arrive, it played in the background as we ate pizza and drank beer. About a half an hour before the show began, someone said “Hey, when are you going to switch it over to the WWE Network? You’ll want to get on early”. I explained that we had been watching the Network the entire time, and everyone was in awe. Comments on how smoothly the stream had been working, and the video quality were abound. Everyone, myself included, were impressed with what we had seen to that point.
And then the show began. AND IT WORKED! Colour me a skeptic, but I really believed that at some point during the show, something bad would happen. I had nightmares of Undertaker’s entrance beginning and then the stream crashing. Nothing of the sort happened. Other than a momentary blip as The Rock made his entrance (and we’re literally talking a one-second freeze frame that might have been an internet issue, as opposed to a WWE Network issue) the stream worked flawlessly all night long. Such an amazing experience, and as such, created a number of WWE Network subscribers in my social circle.
Time to backtrack a little. We haven’t talked about the software, or how it’s installed, yet. I have an XBox 360, PS3, Android device, PC and laptop in my house (and until writing this, didn’t realize I had so many toys). Each device views the Network just sightly differently, although the overall experience is basically the same.
The most trouble I encountered was with the XBox 360; not so much in the installation of the software, but rather the content that was made available on launch day. Most PPV content was missing until about a month after the Network launched, so the experience on the Xbox wasn’t nearly as good. Of course, now, everything is available, and the experiences are all roughly the same.
Speaking intuitively, the PC/Mac version of the Network is the most user-friendly. It really does help having a mouse/keyboard to browse through the selections. Secondly, in my opinion, the PS3 version is the next most intuitive.
I still find myself with the most trouble using the XBox version of the software. Perhaps its just my inexperience with the system in general, but it doesn’t feel very user-friendly, nor am I able to search as easily.
On the whole, though, all services work practically identically. There is a one-minute time difference between the PC version, and the console versions of the software, where the PC airs things slightly ahead of the rest. I’m sure that’s a matter of server routing, and really doesn’t distract from the experience in viewing.
On PC, provided your Flash and Silverlight versions are up-to-date, there is no further software required to download. Immediately after completing the signup process, you’re thrust to the main screen of the live stream. The stream can be watched both full screen, or within the window it was opened in. Volume can be controlled both within the video window, and your OS driven volume control.
On the consoles, there is an additional piece of software to download, but much like the Netflix app, it is both easy to find, and easy to download (and is free of charge). The software size varies from console to console, but is typically in the 30MB – 60MB range on gaming consoles, and about 6MB-10MB on Android/iPhone devices. Certainly not an overwhelming download, and is completed within a minute or two on all high speed connections.
On all versions of the software when watching on demand content, during the major events (and most episodes of RAW), there are bullet points you can fast-forward to in effort to see the bigger moments that happened during the event with ease. As with any growing piece of software, there is a certain amount of room for improvements. Namely picking up a video where you left off, should you have to stop the event before you finish, would be an excellent add-on. Overall, however, WWE’s viewing platform is easy to use, easy to navigate, and responsive. A major thumbs up.
THE ORIGINAL CONTENT:
There is a LOT of original content featured on the WWE Network; so much so that I’m sure I’m going to miss something here.
Legends House: Probably the most anticipated series upon the announcement of the WWE Network. Legends House was not made available upon launch, but was aired, weekly, starting about 3 months ago, and concluding about 2 weeks ago. All episodes are available, including a Legends House reunion episode filmed recently, on demand. Upon first viewing, I wasn’t sure that Legends House was going to stack up to my expectations. A guilty pleasure of mine is to watch Total Divas, weekly, on the E! Network. I had high expectations for the first episode of Legends House, but felt let down at the end (as I detailed in this column). But as the series progressed, it very quickly became must-see TV each week, and I was sad to see it conclude. It is difficult to summarize the series in a short snippet, however you really should go out of your way to see it. Absolutely top-notch television, and with all original content is available in the on demand section of the WWE Network.
WrestleMania Rewind: Another original I was hesitant to get behind. With access to on demand content, including every WrestleMania ever, did we need another repeat of a particular WrestleMania match that we could just go out of our way and find ourselves in the library on content? The answer is yes, we did. And the reason is the historical perspectives given during the lead-up to the airing of the match. Presented as a mini-documentary, a number of WWE Superstars, Legends, and celebrities give their historical perspective on a given match (or sometimes two) from WrestleMania. The first episode featured a great historical piece on WrestleMania 1, and there have been several must-see episodes since. Another top-notch program, that is a weekly view in my household.
Countdown: As voted by the WWE.com viewers, a number of topics are counted down each week. Topics such as Greatest Trash Talker, Greatest Manager, Top RAW Moments, and more. Although difficult to take the actual rankings seriously (as rankings tend to lean heavily towards WWE superstars as opposed to wrestlers who made their names in other companies), this is still a fun weekly watch.
WWE NXT: From Full Sail University, NXT has become a hidden gem of good-to-great wrestling, and storytelling, weekly (and it’s also got a pretty bad ass opening music video, as of this writing). Considering the number of call-ups from NXT to WWE in the past 12-to-18 months, it’s not a well guarded secret that there’s a lot of talent being well-developed within the WWE system. Names such as Sami Zayn, Cory Graves, Adrian Nevelle are current NXT stars, but Bray Wyatt, Adam Rose, Bo Dallas, Paige, Big E, Rusev and more have all come through the system in the past year. Each week, we get a glimpse into the future of WWE, and the future looks pretty darn good.
Original Specials: There are some great pieces included in this section, including a wonderful 4-part series on the Ultimate Warrior (which features a documentary being filmed during WrestleMania weekend), and a special following Daniel Bryan during WrestleMania weekend, as well. WWE should really be proud of the content they have created for this particular section, and I wish it would get a little bit more love than it gets. In the past, WWE has created some memorable documentary pieces and, while not always as detailed, these pieces are an excellent addition to that library.
Beyond the Ring: This section is used to air WWE documentary pieces, which have included The Attitude Era, nWo: The Revolution, Mick Foley, Triple H, The Rock, Steve Austin and most recently CM Punk. If you haven’t already watched these documentaries, they’re all excellent, and add an incredible value to the Network. Individually, these DVDs often sell for $20-$40, and are now available as part of your Network subscription. Match compilations that often accompany these DVDs are missing, nearly all matches are found on demand anyways.
WWE Classics on Demand content: If you weren’t a WWE Classics on Demand subscriber, in the past, you missed out on some really great original content there, as well (although not nearly at the rate we’re treated to on the WWE Network). Series’ such as Legends of the Roundtable and WWE Old School are shown, in their entirety. The Roundtable discussions are of my favourite WWE programming ever, and are excellent companion pieces to the topics they discuss.
Monday Night WAR: Although only having the opportunity to catch the “sneak-peak” first episode aired after last Monday’s Monday Night RAW, this series will be the golden child of the WWE Network. Again, colour my a skeptic, but I wasn’t sure I needed another rehash of the war between RAW and Nitro (and largely WWE and WCW). I’ve seen it. I’ve lived it. I’ve got multiple t-shirts. WWE went and proved me wrong, yet again, however, and produced an absolutely captivating first episode, encapsulating the history between Vince McMahon and Ted Turner and their companies, the WWF and WCW. I won’t give anything further away, but this is my most anticipated future piece of WWE Network programming, as the series begins its official airing in mid-to-late August.
As detailed, with very few exceptions, WWE Network has far surpassed my lofty expectations on every front. After the flawless WrestleMania 30 stream, my remaining WWE Pay Per View event experiences on the Network have been excellent. Occasionally I have experienced pixilation or a momentary freeze in my stream, but they have not detracted from the overall experience of the Network on the whole. Technical issues are always going to be a possibility, but with each passing day I feel WWE is getting stronger in their understanding of how to properly manage the technical demands of the Network, and when we look back at this column 6 months from now, will be a thing of the past. Technical issues truly happen so infrequently that they’re not even really a concern, but for the sake of clarity in the column, I felt like I should bring them up.
Every day I find something new to watch on the WWE Network, and have done so for the past 180 days, and will continue to do so each and every day that passes. At $9.99, the Network has become a steal in its value. The price cannot be beat for the content that is made available.
Leaving virtually no stone unturned, there is a plethora of historical content made available. Monday Night RAW episodes are being uploaded, 5 per week, every week. The entire 1993, 1994, 1995 and most of 1996 catalogs are already available, and growing weekly. “Best of RAW” and “Best of Smackdown” episodes are also uploaded weekly, almost exclusively in years where weekly content isn’t already being uploaded. Recently every WCW Clash of the Champions was uploaded, and 15 episodes of WWF Saturday Night’s Main Event made their way to the Network last week as well. ECW Hardcore TV and WCCW episodes are also available. The scary thought is that this is just the tip of the iceberg. Once those libraries are available in their entirety, we still have WCW Nitro and WCW Thunder libraries to be uploaded, ECW on TNN episodes, as well as any amount of B-programming including WCW Saturday Night, WWF Sunday Night Heat, Shotgun Saturday Night, WCW Worldwide, and more. That doesn’t even include the additional tape libraries that WWE has purchased, including AWA, Stampede Wrestling, or the soon-to-be-acquired Memphis Wrestling library. Scary amounts of content to be consumed.
I love the WWE Network. It is everything I hoped it would be, and more. As this column approaches 3000 words, it’s difficult to put into even that many words how much value I feel I get for my money in subscribing. WWE has created something really, really special that they should be proud of. In two weeks, they will be announcing their second subscriber count. At launch, they said they hoped to have 1,000,000 subscribers by the end of 2014, and a break-even of 2,000,000 subscribers by the entire of 2015. I think these are very realistic numbers to hit, if not an under projection of their potential. They need to get this under the nose of every wrestling fan, past, and present. This is where marketing is key. It is great to advertise on WWE television each week, but to capture those older wrestling fans who have left the current product, marketing has a challenge. There is a TON of value for older wrestling fans, and they’re missing out by not subscribing. It is here that I feel WWE has its greatest opportunity for success.
To close, if you haven’t already subscribed to WWE Network, I hope I have given you enough reason to at least give it a try. Often WWE promotes a free week-long trial of the service, and you’re really doing yourself a disservice if you don’t give it a look even then. You will fall in love, instantly, and never look back. The WWE Network really is way over the top.