WWE Network Review: Does Vince McMahon’s Latest Gamble Pay Off?

 

vincemania

Last Monday, after weeks of hype and promotion, and literal years of speculation, WWE unveiled the newest iteration of pay-tv sports-entertainment. There were a few issues out the gate. Fans lashed out on Twitter. Even by Thursday, major problems still kept cropping up at inopportune times. But this was a new streaming revolution, and as such, growing pains were to be expected. So the real question is: did WWE manage to overcome those obstacles to deliver a service worth investing in, or have early bandwidth issues created an uphill battle for McMahon & company? Read on to find out.

White Ring of Death

It would be negligent to mention the WWE Network without also discussing the initial “failure to launch” phase. My first 24 hours with the service were no different than many of those on Twitter. Live TV seemed to work from the get-go, but trying to cue up anything from the streaming archive delivered one of seemingly endless error types. Fast-forwarding caused the feed to crash… trying to launch an ECW Pay-Per-View resulted in an endless white circle that seemed to be taunting me. I could not quickly exit and re-enter a show and have it save my place. Annoying.

Platform of choice also created a headache for most users. My PC initially handled the network just fine, but my Nexus 7 (2013) android tablet gave me a force close message. Playstation 3 kind of, sort of, worked, but not without a whole lot of finger-crossing and praying. As of this writing, my Xbox 360 still refused to even let me log-in (UPDATE: I received an email on Tuesday that said WWE had fixed any issues). Couple that with the fact that users are required to have Xbox Gold in order to even access WWE Network, an entirely SEPARATE service they’re already paying for, and you’re pretty much begging fans to revolt.

People seemed to have much better access with Roku and Apple TV, but WWE’s solution to Chromecast was non-existent. Sure, you can stream from your browser directly to your TV… but the “Cast from Chrome” feature is currently still in BETA and thus essentially a work around. If WWE wants to claim it supports Chromecast, then support it outright via the app, like YouTube, Netflix, and various other streaming services. This seems like, at best, a cheap cop-out.

I’ve received no less than four e-mails from WWE since last Monday, asking for patience and assuring me that things will improve with time. I believe it. I’ve already seen it happen as the week went on. Will they ever fix the PS3 app so it supports native controls from the official bluetooth remote? I don’t know. I hope so, but my guess is, the company in charge has more pressing matters.

(Not-So) Live Stream

WWE did something pretty gutsy in going live the very first day of the network, with both pre- and post-shows for RAW. Impressively, these feeds came in without issue. Where things went a little.. awry… was in the first highly-touted live pay-per-view style ‘NXT ArRIVAL’ event. This was to be the network’s first crack at showing a major card to the masses, and also NXT’s premiere event for those without Hulu Plus (or YouTube… or WWE.com… or the internet, I guess). Things were beautiful the first hour and a half until – right before the main event, like clockwork – WWE Network crashed.

I’m not sure how widespread the problem was, or how the issue manifested itself to others. Most people reported seeing the same Tyler Breeze clip over-and-over again (shameless self-promotion!). But the timing was terrible. The show was solid, and fans were hot for the main-event ladder match, so the feeling of helplessness that came with not being able to see the show you were just watching conclude was maddening. Imagine if this happened at a major Pay-Per-View? Or ‘Mania? It would be disastrous.

Unfortunately, WWE has treated this week-long “free trial” as nothing more than an open beta. So yes, presumably, WWE will have its crap together enough come April 6th that issues like this won’t exist anymore. But the fact is, they ARE happening now, and for WWE to send out an email apologizing, and simply saying “we will upload it overnight to the archives” isn’t enough. Just like promoting Xbox 360 as one of the network’s premiere platforms, while suggesting fans who can’t access their account via that device just use their computer instead, isn’t acceptable. Those aren’t real alternatives. Extend the free trial, or offer up a bonus live event. Something to alleviate consumers’ very valid complaints.

Perhaps its wrong of me to ask WWE for anything more than what its already giving me at such a spectacular price. But Vince McMahon needs to be getting as many eyes in front of his capstone project as possible. Even if this means giving away free weeks, free events, free tshirts, or heck, free ice-cream bars, the investors are eyeballing Wrestlemania 30 as the “do or die” time for this network experiment. So don’t just placate fans. Make them feel vindicated for sticking with WWE through a pretty rough Week-One.

WWE Network

History in the Making

The one thing I still can’t wrap my mind around is how MUCH content WWE Network actually has. Every WCW, WWF/E, and ECW pay-per-view were promised, and they’re all here. WWE also seems to be actively uploading old tv shows and documentaries as well. Just in the last week I’ve seen Smackdown number 1, and a few RAW is WAR shows from 1998 join the fray. Plus, the fantastic “Greatest Rivalries: Shawn Michaels vs. Bret Hart” is available for streaming any time. It seems like the current strategy has shows airing first as part of the “live” schedule before joining the archives. Smart move.

Original content has all been earmarked for easy access on the network. Wrestlemania Rewind #1 actually encouraged me to watch the (admittedly mediocre) Hogan/Mr. T vs Piper/Orndorff headliner. It’s a match I wouldn’t have actively seeked out. But seeing the perspective that Rewind gave, I found myself oddly invested in one of WWE’s earliest pop-culture misfires.

‘Countdown’ was entertaining enough, and ‘Beyond the Ring’ is just WWE’s way of differentiating its extensive backlog of documentary content. But these unique programs are likely to prove a draw, especially for younger fans without much wrestling history. Plus, WWE wisely leverages its current roster to help fans feel an immediate connection. Daniel Bryan might not have actually been at the first Wrestlemania, but I’m a huge Bryan fan, so I appreciate his perspective. These details are important for WWE network moving forward. Can you imagine the Wrestlemania Rewind for Austin/Rock at ‘Mania 18, and hearing what CM Punk has to say about it? What about Undertarker/Shawn Michaels, with a little insight from Chris Jericho? Incredible.

I’m also jazzed at the idea of more live programming. If WWE does come through with a daily talk show with some ‘Sportscenter’-like flair, the product will look major league in a way it hasn’t before. It’s obvious that the company is willing to invest time and effort in original programming for the network. The question is, as always, whether WWE can find creative way to fill up the limitless hours now at their disposal, or if they’ll simply resign to generic time filler. But at least things are off to a solid start.

My major complaint deals with scheduling. WWE needs to figure out a better way to highlight new and original content on the live network feed. Just glancing at the schedule tells me nothing about what I have or haven’t seen, or what new things are being added to the content catalog. This might seem like a small detail, but it’s actually a pretty big deal. Being able to quickly manage a queue of new content, and pick out fresh episodes of ‘Wrestlemania Rewind’ without having to dig through layers of menus, would do wonders for improving the user experience.

BOOM Drop!

Audio and visual quality is one area where the WWE Network remains unsurpassed. When I’m not hitting a buffer warning, or restarting my frozen PS3, quality comes through in full HD and 5.1 surround sound. Impressively, it looks (and sounds) even better than the stuff I’m getting on my cable tv every Monday and Friday night.

The network’s interface is functional, menus look clean, and pictures are crisp and eye-catching. And WHEN is WWE going to adopt the WWE Network’s logo company-wide? I love it.

Best of all, WWE has carried over its excellent production value and social-media fan service to everything on the network. Live tweets and second-screen experiences abound. Plus, WWE has paid special attention to in-between show vignettes that add to the overall experience. The company was smart to know that in order to sell WWE fans , this needed to be more than just another YouTube knockoff. Making this a legitimate streaming network, complete with the most impressive video vault known to man, guarantees Vince McMahon a hefty payday for many years to come.

wwe championship battleground

The MIllion-Dollar Championship

So is WWE Network worth the price of admission? YES! No other streaming service offers this much quality content, especially for wrestling fans, at such an incredible price. Considering that for only $9.99 a month you get access to every major Pay-Per-View, plus every WWE event moving forward (for at least the foreseeable future), makes this a no brainer. If you’re worried about the first week woes, just know that things have improved dramatically since day one. And they’ll get even better moving forward.

With the launch of its own streaming network, WWE didn’t just change professional wrestling – it sent out a warning call to the entire entertainment industry. Subscribers have access to what they want, when they want, for a price that’s incredibly fair. It’s the ultimate fan-service. Well done, WWE.

Are you still enjoying the WWE Network? What’s the best thing about it so far? Make your opinion count in the comments below. And be sure to follow Between the Ropes on Facebook and Twitter to keep up with all the latest breaking news and opinions!

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