Screens with people on the screen can change the appearance – we can program them to be part of some character’s entry – or be part of an effect for one of our characters during the show – This coupled with virtual reality and everything else really brought that energy back that we were missing “, McMahon said in regards to a ThunderDome-like experience that complements the traditional fan experience after the pandemic.
Since this episode with the SmackDown on FOX episode went live on Aug 21, 130,000 WWE fans have requested seats in WWE ThunderDome.
With Insider.com and CEO Stephanie McMahon on Monday, The WWE Chief Brand Officer talked about The ThunderDome and WWE launching shows during the COVID-19 pandemic. It was noted that WWE officials had “stressful meetings at the boardroom 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 WWE atmosphere was “tense” because several cities around the world had already closed to one another by mid-March, just weeks before WrestleMania 36. She told him she can now laugh about it but the weeks leading up to WrestleMania were very stressful. WrestleMania ended up happening at the WWE Performance Center on a closed event for two nights over and taped before time.
“First and foremost, we had to take into consideration the safety of our fans and our superstars and our employees — that was paramount,” Stephanie said. Working with the local governments 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 when looking for a way to continue implementing their business plan while guaranteeing the safety of fans, employees and talent.
There were a lot of scenarios planned at the same time, she said.
WWE also discussed 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 maintain programming to fan and partners.
We had to quickly pivot to decide – A) the show continues to go on? And if so, where and how? We decided that we have the responsibility to continue producing our programming to our audience and to our partners. Providing an opportunity for our viewers to escape. That still works. It’s our mission to smiles people on the face. WrestleMania took place over two nights at our performance center in front of absolutely no people and it was definitely a unique experience. ”
WWE worked together with The Famous Group to transform the Amway Center in Orlando into the ThunderDome. The Famous Group is a Los Angeles based technology company specialized in mixed reality, augmented reality and virtual events. WWE alums famous to find a way to bring the fans into an arena via virtual reality. Jon Slusser, owner and partner of The Famous Group, spoke to Insider about WWE’s first contact. WWE wanted the new viewing experience to be authentic and real and for the reactions to be as fast as possible.
It begins with the WWE Vision with what they want to create and gives them the credit for having the vision,” Slusser said. They were willing to take this concept of virtual fans to a place they had never seen before.
“They called us and said: Hey, we want to work together with you guys on the idea of building a low-latency massive experience for our fans. ” And they wanted this experience to be authentic, real and reaction as swift as possible. Therefore, we worked to create this environment as soon as possible ”
Slusser also discussed what makes ThunderDome work.
“The ThunderDome is not one piece of technology… it’s many different departments the WWE has assembled to create this energy, experience and environment, from a broadcast point of view and the fans that come in virtually”, Slusser said. “We work with the WWE on a point — virtual fans.”
Slusser said that he is amazed by what ThunderDome offers as a viewing experience. He noted that whenever WWE uses their drone camera technology, the entire audience, made up of thousands of fans online, can see to react to what is happening at the event.
Those moments give me chills because nobody else in this scale has done anything before,” he said. It is mind-blowing when you see all of that together with all those people, those living faces. The crowd becomes so intense, so emotional about these moments that you could feel it, see it and see them reacting to it. The wrestlers play a part also. Those moments when you can feel the emotion of the crowd… those are my favorite moments”
Famous has worked on mixed reality and virtual technology for years, but WWE ThunderDome was a new challenge for them to put together a rapid bespoke solution that was ready for launch in months of sports closing under the pandemic.
Slusser said: “This technology is the culmination of years of development of different technologies for live events. We did not have this solution, but we had parts of this solution. We had previously worked with real time rendering on a variety of different projects, mixed reality with Unreal Engine, and we have used AWS for our projects that we used for this. Quince Imaging and Frozen Mountain are our two technology partners so we had all of the pieces put together.
“But when COVID struck, we had to quickly combine these pieces using our knowledge of the market, our 20 years in the sports industry, understanding the live event and calling our friends in the leagues and, ‘This is what we can offer you. Although it came together quickly it’s because we based all these other technologies either separately or fairly together then grouped them together in that moment to create this spectacle for WWE.”
Stephanie pointed out that the final ThunderDome experience blew her away. She also said that WWE was hoping that fans would return to the arenas soon enough.
“We were hoping to be in arenas now with fans back but it was obvious that this was just not meant to be,” said Stephanie. “We were really learning ” all along : playing with audio, different kinds of graphic packages — all different things. Then we realized that we are not going to be in different arenas and we will start again travelling. We then needed to ask ourselves 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 credits ThunderDome with bring back the energy that WWE was missing.
“We have up to 1,000 fans around the ring who all give us their real, visceral reactions, ” she said. No people in the arena allows us to play with things like lasers and pyro in places we never could before because we had humans sitting there and you had to be careful of course!
Then it really opens our eyes to all kinds of things. Screens with people on can change the appearance – we can program them to be part of someone’s entrance – or be part of an effect for one of our characters during the show – That coupled with virtual reality and everything else has really brought that energy back that we were missing ”
McMahon said “anything is possible” in regard to a ThunderDome-like experience that compliments the traditional fan experience after the pandemic.
“We really want to create the best possible experience for our fans,” stated Stephanie. “One that is worthy of their passion, so we examine all sorts of things and you could see both of them. I think we’ll see a lot in all businesses and particularly in the entertainment industry and in sports, a lot of combinations of the new learnings from all this technology plus the fundamental fundamental learnings that we have to advance our businesses. It will be an intersection of what works best in terms of reliability and effectiveness.”
Slusser said he thinks that WWE’s ThunderDome created a new industry.
He said: “I don’t think this is a new platform as such.” “I think you can monetize a virtual experience that leagues, teams and promoters can sell tickets 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 can’t be. If they have the ability to be close to the game rather than simply watching it on TV they will always get it.
As a result, it is a new business model You can bring in fans who can get a unique experience via exclusive camera angles or additional content. The most important thing is that they feel like they are in the building. Their presence is with the players or artist That is absolutely powerful. I know that leagues, teams, promoters will see with this platform an opportunity to grow revenues and to expand their global audience. It is certainly going to happen for this and so on. It looks like the future because it is the future”