Category Archives: Opinion

High Stakes in Pro Wrestling

“Heat and hatred” has become a catchphrase of Joe Lanza from the Voices of Wrestling Flagship podcast. Heat and hatred draws money, that’s his point. It gets people excited so that they want to buy a ticket and see the show. It’s what creates interest. Pro wrestling has been built on heat and hatred, especially in the United States. I don’t disagree about this. One of the reasons that wrestling falls into the sports entertainment trap, though, is that they push for heat and hatred while forgetting one other thing: stakes.

Why do people watch competitive sports? At any particular time in the US, the major sports league in season will destroy the attendances and TV ratings that wrestling does. Now, a lot of people are determined to ignore business signals and such. I am not. You don’t need to be engaged in this stuff to enjoy wrestling but, aside from wrestling, I am interested in persuasion. In this instance, that means the fact that competitive sports are more popular than pro wrestling is interesting to me and it deserves some exploration. Pro wrestling has one foot in a lot of different worlds, and the fact that it grew out of competitive sport is a reason it will always be tied to that world.

So again, why do people watch competitive sports? Or, to be more precise, why do people generally prefer to watch elite level sports competition (national leagues, world championships, the Olympics) over lower-level competition? I think it’s because people like to watch the best of any type of thing they’re interested in. That’s where the draw of critic ratings in all sorts of things comes from. If you like comedy movies, you are probably somewhat interested in what people consider “the best comedy” to be; even if you personally don’t like it, you’re more likely to check it out than many other comedy movies. The same is for wrestling. This attraction to “the best” happens for two related reasons. First is the straightforward prestige. Showing that one has proven that they are superior in a skill to everyone else has its own attraction. It’s an accomplishment, a feat that only a few can do, and just on reason of rarity it’s interesting. The second reason is that high skill in anything usually translates to a more compelling performance. High-level sports are much more dynamic than lower-level sports due to the higher skill level and athletic ability involved.

Heat and hatred exist in competitive sports. Longtime sporting rivalries are well known in the US; I’m sorry that this sounds like SEO garbage but I’m not a big team sports fan so I can’t call out my favorite rivalry that people would know about. Americans have probably heard about European football hooliganism, another expression of how heat and hatred can draw people in. I do think “heat and hatred” refer to two different concepts, but I’m going to leave them linked as something “emotional charge” as I don’t want to presume how Lanza would make this division. For what I need here, it’ll work well enough. My point in bringing it up is that though heat and hatred does provide some draw to competitive sports, the primary draw is not heat and hatred. The primary draw for competitive sports is stakes.

The stakes of a contest is, essentially, what each participant has to gain or lose from the outcome. The highest interest matches in competitive sports are championship matches — where teams have the chance to become the overall league winners — and matches that will set one up for or eliminate one from reaching the championship match. All contests are rated according to what they mean for that ultimate stake. Things that happen to members of each team are also rated in their importance relative to what it might mean for the team reaching the championship. Understanding each set of stakes relies on knowing what happened before and on all that information being clear. Without those stakes, one contest is almost equivalent to another, meaning that the interest level remains at a baseline level.

A consequence of a high stakes situation is that each side is likely to put out more effort than in a low stakes situation. This isn’t to say that people consciously don’t try hard in low stakes situations, more than people have extra incentive to work harder than their usual when the stakes are higher than their usual. As a result, those people may be even more dynamic and exciting than they would be at other times. That acts as an aid to the “drawing power” of the contest, as not only will a potential fan see this contest as important enough to want to see it themselves, they can be more confident than normal that they will see an exciting contest. None of these require heat and hatred to exist beforehand, but they are all enhanced by the addition of heat and hatred.

Lanza says there are two aspects that lead to drawing potential, heat and hatred. I think there are four: heat, hatred, stakes, and character. Of these, I think that heat and hatred are actually the least important. I don’t say this as an insult to Lanza and I think he is correct in saying that heat and hatred are where “real money” come from, as that is how wrestling has generally drawn money. What happens for most people who discuss wrestling is that “character” is not considered separately from heat and hatred (which it should be) and “stakes” are treated as a given. The focus in wrestling storytelling from a planning/theory perspective has classically been on heat and hatred, at least in the United States. I think that, historically, Japan has had a stronger relationship with stakes than the United States has, though this has been changing in recent years.

When I say that stakes are taken for granted, what I mean is that there is very little attention paid in American wrestling to making stakes clear. As I stated above, for the fan to understand stakes properly, the stakes have to be presented in a clear and unambiguous manner. The championship title matters, yes, but everything around the championship also matters, because the stakes involved are not just who has the title but the entire context around the title. Every new complexity that is added into the situation makes it harder to understand stakes. Multi-side contests (like triple threats and fatal four-ways) confuse the situation. “Dirty finishes” like when someone cheats to win confuse the situation. Unexplained changes of how contenders are determined confuse the situation. All of these reduce the effectiveness of stakes in making matches stand out and be more important. This certainly leads to reduced interest and it may also lead to reduced effort; even though professional wrestling is not strictly competitive, most wrestlers will agree that they put more effort into high stakes contests.

My hot take is that people don’t need “storytelling”, what they need are favorites. Storytelling is a great tool to use in creating favorites, but what really draws people in are not the overall stories but the personal stories of their favorite wrestlers. By “personal stories” I’m not talking about boo-hoo family drama. What I mean is, if Jon Moxley is having a feud with Naito Tetsuya, what is important to fans is not if the feud is artistic, what is important to fans is what the feud means for Moxley and what the feud means for Naito. This is what I mean when I say that “character” is the fourth element of drawing, and it is probably the real difference between a good draw and a great draw. Heat and hatred help to enhance character and stakes and cultivating heat is highly important, but there is no sizzle without steak and I am absolutely mortified that the homophones there line up so well. This was not planned.

The best version of wrestling, in my opinion, is one with colorful characters that focuses on building stakes, and then uses the most popular characters in stories with heat and hatred that can keep the show exciting without locking in the entire roster into a complex and never-ending high school play. Clear stakes are more effective than confused stakes. Having more than two sides in a match makes the stakes involved almost irrelevant. Dirty finishes confuse stakes, clean finishes don’t. These are obvious lessons but ones that I think are more pressing when you understand that building stakes is incredibly important to how wrestling draws interest.