Storytelling Gone Wrong: Why WCW Failed

You might not have realized it, but a war raged over the airwaves of the 90’s and early 2000s. At that time, wrestling was probably the hottest thing in popular culture. This was the era of the Monday Night Wars, where the World Wrestling Federation and World Championship Wrestling vied for supremacy in the ratings. Tens of millions of viewers tuned in to watch WWF RAW and WCW Nitro every Monday night beginning in 1995.

At the end of the war, in early 2001, WCW failed and Vince McMahon was laughing atop the smoking pile of rubble. But why? A few years earlier, the opposite could have been true. Where did it all go so wrong for WCW?

The Monday Night Wars were relatively even at first, but as 1996 progressed and professional wrestling blew up into the stratosphere, WCW began to gain a decisive advantage, with Nitro often drawing a million more viewers than RAW each week, and sometimes two as 1997 went on. Most of the names that made the WWF huge in the 80’s  and early 90’s – Hulk Hogan most prominent among them, left for WCW in the mid 90’s.

Things really began to get hot when two more big names jumped ship in 1996 – Kevin Nash, formerly known as Diesel, who had held the WWF Championship for over a year, and Scott Hall, formerly wrestling as Razor Ramon, who was one of the premier villains in the World Wrestling Federation, famously putting on a spectacular ladder match with Shawn Michaels at WrestleMania X.

When they jumped ship, these two were known as “The Outsiders,” a menacing duo who were “invading” WCW and would take it over. But…they weren’t alone. They revealed that they had an accomplice, a “third man.” At Bash at the Beach on July 7th, 1996, this “third man” was revealed to be none other than Hulk Hogan himself, the iconic all-American hero who was adored by crowds for well over a decade. It was the most explosive heel turn in the history of professional wrestling.

Through the latter half of 1996 and all of 1997, this “New World Order of wrestling,” the nWo, blew through WCW and its talent in much the way a tornado shatters homes and scatters the debris to the four winds. The faction grew in size and power, to the point that WCW looked like it would be “put out of business,” as the nWo had its own Nitro show and even staged its own pay-per-view, nWo Souled Out.

This all led not only to an explosive growth in the popularity of World Championship Wrestling, but a merchandising extravaganza for WCW, as black and white nWo shirts were a common sight on the streets of any town in the late 90’s. In a way it was the perfect illusion – WCW created its own competition which appeared as if it would run it off the map, when in reality, as 1997 neared its conclusion, WCW looked like it would run its real competition, the WWF, off the map. This was especially so when Bret Hart, one of the top stars in the World Wrestling Federation, was screwed by Vince McMahon in the infamous “Montreal Screwjob” incident of Survivor Series 1997. While Vince’s fears that Bret Hart, who was leaving for WCW, would show up on Nitro one night with the WWF Championship belt were sound, the Montreal Screwjob severely diminished his reputation and prestige in the wrestling world and was a PR disaster.


WCW, meanwhile, was heading into its biggest event of the year, and indeed, the history of the company, in December’s Starrcade.

Starrcade 1997

If the nWo dominated the wrestling world in 1996 and 1997, it wasn’t invulnerable – if you knew how to fight them. There was one opponent that often got the better of them, one force that made them shake in fear. That was the silent avenger, Sting, who would show up out of nowhere to ruin the nWo’s day time and time again, and the fans always went wild.

So after 18 months of run-ins and indirect confrontations, Sting and Hogan were finally set to have their confrontation for the WCW World Heavyweight Championship at the promotion’s biggest show, Starrcade. It was being billed as the match of the century, and at the time, it really felt like it, too. The tension was palpable, like the jostling and abrasions of a flint ready to ignite a massive conflagration at any moment.

Hogan vs. Sting Starrcade 1997

And…

It was a trainwreck.

For some mystifying reason, WCW decided to insert the recently-acquired Bret Hart into the title match at Starrcade. During the match, there was supposed to be a controversial finish, as a referee was told to give a fast three count, however, this was botched, and the count was normal. Nevertheless, Bret hart came in anyway, demanding a restart to the match with himself as referee. And with a lame reflection of the Montreal Screwjob, Bret Hart called for the bell after Sting applied a submission hold even though Hogan never tapped.

What followed was a confusing clusterfuck where the title was vacated, only for Sting to win it again, only for Hogan to regain it a couple of months later.

So as it turned out, what should have been the climax and culmination of the nWo storyline, where the villain would finally get his comeuppance at last and peace would begin to return to WCW, instead became a confusing mish mash that ruined everybody involved. Starrcade 1997 was WCW’s biggest event, but it would never again reach such heights. It should have been the captstone of a glorious rise to power and a vault for the promotion to drive the reeling WWF out of business. Instead, it would be the first plank in a different storyline, the story of why WCW failed.

1998: The Rise of Goldberg and The Turning of the Tide

While Starrcade 1997 was to be a major missed opportunity, it wasn’t fatal at the time. The WWF was still reeling. It had lost one of its biggest stars in Bret Hart, and another one, Shawn Michaels, had a back injury that seemingly forced him to retire. In the meantime, another huge opportunity came for WCW in the form of a rookie who was rising through the ranks and would prove to be immensely popular.

Bill Goldberg debuted in September of 1997 and ran like a wrecking ball through everyone. He would go out, kick some ass, and leave, and fans loved it. The adrenaline wafted through the room and everyone eagerly anticipated the next Goldberg ass kicking.

By the middle of 1998, Goldberg was WCW’s United States Champion and had an undefeated streak of over 100 victories in a row. This would eventually take him into a feud with Hulk Hogan and the nWo Hollywood faction where, on a Nitro in July, Goldberg would win the WCW World Heavyweight Championship. The decision was an odd one, as the match could have headlined Starrcade to tremendous success and a ton of money. Instead, it was put on free television.

But that alone can’t explain why WCW failed. Even as Goldberg was shooting to the moon, 1998 was also a renaissance year for the WWF. Stone Cold Steve Austin was now at the helm, spearheading the WWF’s new “Attitude Era.” Because of the hugely intense Austin vs. McMahon feud, which saw the rebellious employee in Austin fight against his maniacal, tyrannical boss, the WWF overtook WCW in the ratings and in revenue. But still, WCW was doing well in 1998. The scales hadn’t yet been decisively tipped in the WWF’s favor. Stone Cold Steve Austin and Goldberg both began to cross into the wider mainstream in terms of their popularity. “Who’s Next?” and “Austin 3:16” were both phrases that people recognized and shirts that people wore. In many respects the war between WWF and WCW would come down to who handled their breakout star better.

Now champion, Goldberg continued to crush anyone in his way. At the same time, the nWo was in a full-blown civil war, splitting off earlier in the year into the “Hollywood” and “Wolfpac” factions, but the nWo civil war was essentially a clusterfuck that continued the story far past its sell-by date.

At Starrcade 1998, Kevin Nash would, with the help of Scott Hall and his infamous stun gun, defeat Goldberg, end the streak, and become the new WCW World Heavyweight Champion.

But this all came to nothing, as the next week on Nitro, Hulk Hogan returned to take the even more infamous “Fingerpoke of Doom.”

With this, the nWo civil war was resolved and the group reunited, and Goldberg cooled off. He would remain the most popular star in WCW until it finally failed, but would never again reign as champion, and would never be as hot as he was in 1998. Stone Cold Steve Austin, meanwhile, would continue to set the world ablaze, and he would soon be joined by many other white hot acts like The Rock, Triple H, and so on.

1998 should have been the year that WCW phased out the nWo story and built the promotion with a strong cast of characters around the massively popular Goldberg. This could have easily been accomplished that year by having Goldberg face Hogan at that year’s Bash at the Beach, the promotion’s pay-per-view, for July. The nWo could have not known what to do about the threat Goldberg posed, he could have humiliated them, and finally, both factions could have been disbanded shortly after (after all, without nWo Hollywood that Hogan led, there was no point for the Wolfpac).

Instead, the main event at Bash at the Beach that year was a tag team match between Hogan and Dennis Rodman against Diamond Dallas Page and Karl Malone. While the celebrity involvement had crossover appeal, it was otherwise meaningless, and serves as a good microcosm of the state WCW would start to put itself in.

The Fall of WCW

With nothing going but nWo rehashes and directionless brawls, WCW floundered as 1999 went on. While WCW still drew good ratings at around 4.0, Nitro was being crushed by RAW, which was routinely drawing 6.0 or higher that year. In 2000, RAW would often draw four times as many people as WCW’s bleeding got worse, dwindling down to 2.5 or lower. Things got so bad that WCW looked to regain attention by having the actor David Arquette become World Heavyweight Champion to spur interest in the box office failure Ready to Rumble.

Safe to say, this kind of stuff didn’t work.

Now bleeding money, in March 2001, Time Warner, the promotion’s parent company, gladly sold WCW to Vince McMahon for a bargain basement price.

Conclusion

There were many little errors in WCW’s failure. Perhaps the most infamous of these came at Halloween Havoc in 1998, when Goldberg and Diamond Dallas Page had a great match that many people couldn’t see because the event ran over its allotted time…but they did get to see the disastrous WrestleMania VI rematch between Hulk Hogan and The Ultimate Warrior in what was probably the worst match of the decade.

But none of these little things lead to a promotion failing on its own. In a systems versus goals analysis, WCW failed because its system was bad. The nWo was huge for a time, but it should never have lived on as long as it did. Sting’s ultimate vengeance at Starrcade 1997 never happened, leaving a sour taste in viewer’s mouths. Goldberg was never made into the franchise player he could have been. Supporting characters were never even brought up. Storytelling was consistently poor after Starrcade 1997, and backstage drama only added to WCW’s woes.

In the meantime, the WWF shined with brand new stars and hot stories that kept people enthralled with the proper structures – protagonist, antagonist, conflict, climax, and conclusion. The WWF followed Robert Greene’s 41st law of power – the past of the Hogan-led 80’s era was scorned and a new beginning created, while WCW relied too heavily on the past, failing to innovate beyond its success with the nWo storyline.

Always innovate. Never rest on your laurels. And when you have something that’s hot, you run with it. The WWF ran with Stone Cold Steve Austin. WCW didn’t run with Goldberg as much as they could have.

Read Stumped so that you can learn how to spot something hot and avoid WCW’s mistakes.

  • iBooB

    Excellent analysis. There’s one minor difference which until now I never realized was a big contributing factor as to why I preferred WWF over WCW.

    The camera work, lighting and colours.

    WWF had much more intense camera work with close zooms, live action motion and creative angles. Looking at a typical WCW set it would always be dull, grey and drab, with that same wide angle camera shot.

    The immersion that great camera work entails was lacking severely at WCW. The colours were all dark and gray and drab. It looked like a budget basement wrestling ring on tv.

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    • Ainigmaris Thales

      That’s a really good point. If you watch that Monday Night Wars show I mentioned in my other comment, they will sometimes switch back and forth between WWF matches and WCW matches, and you can really see the difference in production value. WWF was just easier to watch and better looking aesthetically.

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    • Yeah, but WWE nowadays seems to have the opposite problem. It’s too sleek and polished. Doesn’t look like a gritty fight atmosphere, compared to say, UFC.

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  • Ainigmaris Thales

    There is a great series called the “Monday Night Wars” on the WWE Network that goes through the entire rise and fall of WCW and its war with WWE. A few of the episodes are a little repetitive, but most of them are really good, especially the first few and the last few. I definitely recommend it.

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