130,000 WWE fans have requested seats in the WWE ThunderDome since it launched with the August 21 SmackDown on FOX episode, according to Insider.com.
WWE Chief Brand Officer Stephanie McMahon recently spoke with Insider to discuss The ThunderDome, and WWE running shows during the COVID-19 pandemic. It was noted that WWE officials had “stressful meetings taking place at a board-room level” as the company tried to figure out how to navigate the worldwide coronavirus pandemic during the early days of the outbreak earlier this year.
McMahon added that the atmosphere in WWE was “tense” because multiple cities around the world had already locked down by mid-March, just weeks before WrestleMania 36. She said she can laugh about it now, but the weeks leading up to WrestleMania were very stressful. WrestleMania ended up taking place over two nights on a closed-set at the WWE Performance Center, and was taped ahead of time.
“First and foremost, we had to take into account the safety of our fans and of our superstars and employees — that’s paramount,” Stephanie said. “Working with the local government offices in Florida, the CDC, and the World Health Organization, we made sure we were aligned with all the recommendations from the organizations to do the right thing.”
WWE officials considered various scenarios ass they looked for a way to continue fulfilling their business plan while trying to guarantee the safety of fans, employees and talent.
“There were a lot of scenarios being planned all at the same time,” she said.
WWE also had discussions about whether they could even hold WrestleMania, let alone pull off such a spectacle in the middle of a pandemic. WWE decided that they had a responsibility to fans and partners to continue to produce programming.
“We had to quickly pivot to decide — A) does the show still go on? and B) if so, where and how? We decided that yes we have responsibility to our audience, and to our partners, to continue to produce our programming,” she said. “We wanted to provide an opportunity for our viewers to escape. We still do. It’s our mission to put smiles on peoples faces. WrestleMania took place at our Performance Center over two nights in front of absolutely no people, and it was definitely a unique experience.”
WWE worked with The Famous Group to turn the Amway Center in Orlando into The ThunderDome. The Famous Group is a Los Angeles-based technology company that specializes in mixed reality, augmented reality, and virtual events. WWE reached out to Famous for a way to bring fans into an arena via virtual reality. Jon Slusser, owner and partner as The Famous Group, talked to Insider about WWE’s initial contact. WWE wanted the new viewing experience to be authentic, real, and for the reactions to be as quick as possible.
“It starts with the WWE vision with what they want to create, and give them the credit here for having the vision,” Slusser said. “They were willing to take this concept of having virtual fans to a place nobody had ever seen before.
“They called us, said, ‘Hey, we want to work with you guys on this idea of building a low-latency massive experience for our fans.’ And they wanted that experience to be authentic, real, and for the reactions to be as quick as possible. So we worked to create that environment as soon as possible.”
Slusser also talked about what makes ThunderDome work.
“The ThunderDome is not one piece of technology … it’s many different departments that the WWE has put together to create this energy, experience, and environment, from a broadcast [point-of-view] and the fans coming in virtually,” Slusser said. “We work with the WWE on one aspect — the virtual fans.”
Slusser said he’s amazed at what ThunderDome offers as a viewing experience, noting that whenever WWE uses their drone camera technology, fans can see the entire audience, made up of thousands of fans watching live at home, reacting to what is happening at the event.
“Those moments give me chills because nobody has ever done anything to that scale before,” he said. “It’s mind-blowing when you see it all put together with all those people, those live faces. The crowd gets so intense, so emotional about these moments, and you could feel it, see it, and see them reacting to it. The wrestlers play off it, too. Those moments when you can feel the emotion of the crowd … those are my favourite moments.”
Famous has been working on mixed reality and virtual technology for years, but the WWE ThunderDome was a new challenge for them, putting together a rapid bespoke solution that was ready to launch within months of sports shutting down amid the pandemic.
“This technology is the culmination of years of developing different technologies for live events,” Slusser said. “We didn’t have this solution, but we had components of this solution. We had worked with real-time rendering before on a variety of different projects, mixed reality using the Unreal Engine, and we’ve used AWS for our projects, which we’ve used for this. Quince Imaging and Frozen Mountain are our two technology partners, and so we had all of the pieces in place.
“But when COVID struck we had to put those pieces together very quickly using our knowledge of the market, our 20 years of being in the sports business, understanding the live event, and calling our friends in the leagues and saying, ‘This is what we can provide.’ Although it came together quickly, it’s because we built all these other technologies either separately or somewhat together, then put them together in that moment, to create this spectacle for the WWE.”
Stephanie noted that the final ThunderDome experience blew her away. She also said WWE was hoping to be back in arenas with fans by now.
“We were hoping to be back in arenas by now with fans in attendance but obviously that just wasn’t meant to be,” Stephanie said. “All along we were really learning, playing with audio, different types of graphics packages — all different things. Then we realized we’re not going to be in different arenas and starting to travel again, so what are we going to do, and how can we create the best experience for our fans.”
Stephanie also noted that WWE saw what the NBA was doing with virtual fans, and wanted to build on that. She credited ThunderDome with bringing back the energy that WWE was missing.
“We have up to 1,000 fans surrounding the ring all giving us their real, visceral reactions,” she said. “Having no people in the arena allows us to play with things like lasers and pyro in places we never could before because we had human beings sitting there and you had to be careful, obviously!
“So it really opens us up to doing all kinds of things. The screens with people on can change, we can programme them to be a part of someone’s entrance, or be a part of an effect during the show for one of our characters. That, combined with the virtual reality and everything else has really brought back that energy that we were missing.”
McMahon said “anything is possible” in regards to a ThunderDome-esque experience complimenting the traditional fan experience after the pandemic.
“We really do want to create the best possible experience for our fans,” Stephanie said. “One that’s worthy of their passion so we’re examining all kinds of things and you could see both. I think we’re going to see a lot in all businesses and in particular the entertainment industries and sports, a lot of combinations of the new learnings from all this technology, plus the fundamental foundational learning that we have to move our businesses forward. So it’ll be an intersection of what works best.”
Slusser said he believes that WWE’s ThunderDome has birthed a new industry.
“I don’t think this is just a new platform,” he said. “I believe you can monetize a virtual experience that leagues, teams, and promoters can sell tickets for globally, for a local event. There are super fans for every franchise out there, who would love to be at the game or event, but they can’t be, and if they have the ability to be close to the game, rather than just watching it on television, they’ll sign up to it all the time.
“As a result, this is a new business model. You can bring in fans who can get a unique experience either through exclusive camera angles or extra content. Plus, the most important thing, is that they feel like they’re in the building. Their presence is with the players, or the artist. That is unbelievably powerful. I know leagues, teams, promoters, are going to see an opportunity to increase revenue and expand their global audience with this platform. This is absolutely going to happen, going forward. It looks like the future because it is the future.”