Category Archives: Sports

WCW/nWo Revenge

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Released October 26, 1999

The late 90s was a great time to be a fan of pro wrestling and especially pro wrestling video games. World Championship Wrestling had been riding high with its New World Order stable, a collection of heels (bad guys) largely culled from the roster of competitor the World Wrestling Federation. It was a meta angle as it blurred the lines for fans between what was real and what was fake. When performers Scott Hall and Kevin Nash arrived for Monday Nitro it was unclear if they were still employed by the WWF. Of course they were not, but it was a surreal moment in wrestling history.

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If you saw this before your wrestling game you knew you were in for a good time.

1998 was the apex of the Monday Night Wars. WWF’s Raw is War had been on television for years before it was challenged by WCW’s Monday Nitro. Eager to be the king in the ratings war, WCW went all out to topple WWF by signing major stars away from the brand and occupying the same timeslot as Raw. Eventually, WCW added a third hour to its broadcast making it start a full hour before Raw. Fans would tune into Nitro at 8 EST, and if the product was good enough they might just hang around until 11 ignoring Raw all together. This was the era before DVR and on demand viewing so wrestling fans had to make a choice each week and stick with it, or tape one of the programs.

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The intro to this game is some bonkers stuff.

1997 was the nadir for WWF. The stars Vince McMahon was able to hang onto and invest in were failing him. Shawn Michaels had injuries and substance abuse problems which kept him off television for long stretches. He also didn’t get along with Vince’s chosen top guy, Brett Hart. So paranoid was McMahon that he would lose Hart to WCW like he had so many others that he signed him to a massive 20 year deal. Vince then had to back out of the deal, either because he couldn’t afford it or felt he had made a mistake, leading to the infamous Montreal Screwjob and another WCW defection.

Basically saving WWF was the unexpected rise of Stone Cold Steve Austin. Cast aside by WCW, Austin took his talents to Extreme Championship Wrestling where he did enough on the mic to get WWF’s attention. He initially was wasted on the roster as The Ringmaster, but when times got dark and things desperate, WWF basically turned to its talent and told them to “go to work.” Having creative freedom allowed performers to show off their real talents. Some got over, some did not, but certainly the biggest benefactor was Austin. Unfortunately, his ascension was put on pause when an accident at Summerslam 97 caused him to miss time with a serious neck injury. By early 1998 though, Austin was the new champ and WWF was back in the ratings lead.

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Late 90s wrestling was all about sex appeal, even in polygons.

WCW’s counter to the rise of Austin was another fresh face. Bill Goldberg somewhat looked the part of Stone Cold:  black trunks, black boots, goatee, though his character was quite different. Goldberg was a no nonsense battering ram who took down all challengers usually in less than 2 minutes. He basically had two moves, but they were two moves that looked pretty nice on TV. Crowds went nuts for him, and so desperate was WCW to maintain its hold on the ratings crown that it pit Goldberg vs Hollywood Hogan on cable television for the World Heavyweight Championship rather than using that match to sell a Pay-Per-View.

That was basically WCW’s last hurrah. After that it was mostly all downhill, but arriving at retail during Goldberg-mania was WCW/nWo Revenge. The sequel to WCW vs nWo – World Tour, Revenge was a much anticipated wrestling simulation for the Nintendo 64. The video game landscape had become just as competitive as the television one and WCW was the clear front-runner, until 1999, much like the shows. THQ was the license holder for WCW and while the games it produced for Sony’s PlayStation were pretty lackluster, the N64 games were much celebrated. By comparison, Acclaim had held the WWF license for the better part of a decade and was struggling to remain relevant. The games of the 16 bit era had been okay, but were extremely similar to each other and had grown quite stale. Acclaim would try to revamp its process with WWF Warzone, but most felt that WWF had the inferior game when compared with WCW.

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This was the video game debut for Goldberg, who has looked better.

THQ turned to the AKI Corporation and Asmik Ace Entertainment for development of its N64 WCW games. AKI would come up with a tremendously accessible system that it would use for its flagship Virtual Pro Wrestling series in Japan and adapt it for WCW games in the US. The approach to a match was fairly simple. Players controlled their chosen wrestler with the controller’s d-pad, as opposed to the analog stick, and had two primary modes of attack:  strikes and grapples. Both were context-sensitive in that pressing the strike button resulted in a quick strike, while holding it down resulted in a slower, but stronger, attack. With the grapple, wrestlers would enter the classic tie-up position. Whoever initiated the grapple would then select a move. Pressing either the grapple or strike button resulted in a move, as would pressing one in conjunction with a direction on the D-pad allowing for each wrestler to have a wealth of available maneuvers. Reversals were possible with the R button and a key to mastering the game’s CPU. The C-buttons were used for running, opponent selection, and entering/exiting the ring or ascending a turnbuckle. It was easy to learn and pick-up and proved quite addicting.

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AKI really injected some personality into the game giving wrestlers like Scott Hall their signature finishing maneuvers instead of something more generic.

World Tour, released in 1997, was a blast, but its clear shortcoming was the lack of bells and whistles. Revenge largely sought to rectify this with a refreshed roster and an injection of personality. The new arenas were modeled after the actual television arenas and looked pretty good, all things considered. AKI was also able to add-in all of the major championships including minor titles like the Cruiserweight belt and Television title. There was a lengthy intro added to the game, and the whole presentation just screamed WCW.

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The visuals get the job done in that you mostly know who is who just by looking at them, but they’ve certainly aged.

Visually, the game also looks better. Wrestlers are easy to distinguish from one another and if you were at all familiar with the television roster then you knew who each character was. Though it should be pointed out, this was never a great looking game even in 1998. It was functional, as the characters are quite blocky and the faces a bit weird. There was at least a difference in height between the really tall and the not quite as tall, though the cruiserweights in general look a bit too large compared with most. Technological limitations also prevented the game from including entrance music so everyone just enters to a generic theme. Entrances are also largely limited to the talent just doing their taunt on the way to the ring and upon entering. Some enter with a manager or valet, which is a nice a touch. There’s a stable system in place too so there’s nWo red and white as well as Raven’s Flock. Affiliated wrestlers will sometimes receive help from a comrade during a match too without the penalty of a disqualification.

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Allies will sometimes rush to the aid of a buddy, which can get a bit annoying when it happens every match in your opponent’s favor.

In the ring, everyone basically moves at the same speed and with the same weight. Super heavyweights can’t ascend a turnbuckle, but nothing will stop other wrestlers from suplexing them. The whole goal of a match is to ware your opponent down and get the crowd on your side. Once your spirit meter fills you’ll gain access to a Special status for a brief moment of time allowing you to unleash your wrestler’s signature move, or steal your opponent’s. Usually there’s enough time to hit your move twice, unless your wrestler has a long animation for it. Sometimes just hitting this special move is enough to score a pinfall, but most of the time just one won’t do unless your opponent is on the ground and twitching. Repeated blows to the head will also bust your opponent open, no weapons needed, which is a nice badge of honor. Taking the action outside the ring opens up the possibility to yank weapons out of the crowd. They’re not nearly as effective as they would be on TV, but it’s still fun to assault your opponent with a chair or baseball bat.

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Some guys even start matches with weapons. Lucky for them, there’s no DQ.

The in-ring action is all around solid, but does show its age. Collision detection was always a problem for this game. It’s not terrible, but there are moments where characters will partially pass through each other and you’ll have to time your attacks to avoid invulnerable animations your opponent may be in. There are no running grapples, and submission moves aren’t particularly effective making guys like Brett Hart and Chris Jericho a little less fun to use. And as simple and effective this gameplay is, it can be argued it’s not particularly realistic when compared with the televised product. How many matches consist of dozens of collar and elbow tie-ups leading to moves? None, really.

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Match types aren’t very robust and are limited to singles, tag team, battle royal, and handicap matches.

As far as game modes and match types go, Revenge definitely feels lacking and it always has. World Tour wasn’t robust either, and it’s a shame Revenge didn’t really do anything to rectify that. You basically have your choice of Championship and Exhibition modes. In Championship, you select the title you want to go after and then battle through 9 grapplers and become champion. It’s fine, but can get a little annoying as the CPU often gets outside assistance which lengthens the matches without making them really much harder. The order and grapplers faced are also a bit random as I encountered Sting in the US Title hunt when one would assume he’d be in the World Heavyweight Championship ranks. The opponents get harder as you go along, though what makes an opponent harder than the next is largely just how successful they are at reversing moves. This is something that always annoyed me with AKI games as it’s not something you have any control over, you just have to answer with reversals as well and hope to get lucky that your moves will stop being reversed.

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You can go after basically all of the major titles, but you have to win the minor belts first before the bigger ones open up.

In the exhibition mode, you have the option to compete in single and tag matches and there’s also an option for Special matches. These are just the battle royal and handicap matches. Battle royals are fine and most fun with four human players in a local setting. You can select as many as 40 entrants, but are limited to just 4 in the ring at once. Handicap is just two on one or three on one, if you like a challenge. When it comes to match types, it’s more about what’s missing. It’s kind of weird to have the ability to do a battle royal, but not a triple threat. Cage matches were also becoming a common match type in games so there being none in this game was a disappointment. And on TV, hardcore elements were all the rage so a lack of things like tables was always disappointing, though at this point in time ladder matches had yet to become a thing in games. This game also came before Create-A-Wrestler was a standard feature, but you can at least edit the attires of the existing guys.

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In terms of visuals, the arenas hold up better than expected.

WCW/nWo Revenge is a superior game to its predecessor. It was also better than WWF Warzone even if that game had more match types. It also had a shorter shelf life though since it’s a game that really relies on the gameplay alone. And it’s a good thing that an individual match against the CPU or a friend is quite fun, but there does come a time when you decide you can only topple a champ so many times. Back in 98, it was fun to try and keep up with the TV product so when Kevin Nash beat Goldberg at Starrcade 98 you could go into the game and battle your way with Nash to the title. Of course, game development being what it is, there were plenty of missing wrestlers. In 98, the biggest omissions were Ric Flair and The Warrior. It’s still weird to have a WCW game without Flair, though from a 2020 perspective I can’t say I miss Warrior since his WCW run was terrible. It’s a harder play through now since it’s missing so much of what modern games have. There’s still a lot of nostalgic fun in coming back to this old, flawed, yet beloved gameplay system. And if your nostalgia for wrestling in 1998 is slanted towards WCW, then this is the game for you.

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Over 20 years later, this game is still the best celebration of WCW you’re going to find in video game form.

If your nostalgia is for WWF though, then you’re probably playing either WrestleMania 2000 or No Mercy. Not long after Revenge was released, THQ’s agreement with WCW came to an end and WWF pounced. It was a crazy time as Acclaim still had a game in development in WWF Attitude. That game would arrive on the PlayStation in July 1999 with the N64 version following in August. Just a few months later came the AKI developed WrestleMania 2000 giving Attitude an incredibly short run of just two months as the newest WWF sim on the N64. WWF basically cannibalized one game in favor of another, but that’s how popular these AKI games were. It’s something we’re not likely to ever see again. Hopefully AEW can land a killer licensing agreement with someone so we have more options for wrestling games. For now, we’ll always have 1998-2000.


Catching up with MVP Baseball 2005

MVP_Baseball_2005_CoverartWe’ve had a warm winter up here in New England. That’s been especially true of late as Spring has really been in the air, even though it’s technically still weeks away. Whenever the weather starts to warm and the air has that damp taste to it, I start to think of baseball. Open windows, lemonade, Wiffle Ball out in the yard, and Spring Training on TV. Or rather, that would be true if not for the fact that we’re all basically self-quarantining this year thanks to the COVID19 virus, but I digress. This time of year makes me especially nostalgic for my college years when I had time to consume baseball in ridiculous quantities. I’d watch Baseball Tonight on ESPN religiously and look forward to the annual publication of the Baseball Prospectus handbook. As a fan of the Boston Red Sox, it was an especially good time to be a baseball junkie as the team finally captured World Series glory during that period. I had grown up a fan of the team watching the likes of Roger Clemens, John Valentin, and Mo Vaughn, among others always wondering what it would be like to see the team actually win something, but never really expecting it to happen.

It was during this period that I also spent many, many, hours with baseball video games. I had played some games on the my Nintendo Entertainment System when I was a kid, but the first baseball video game I fell in love with was the inaugural World Series Baseball for the Sega Genesis. I actually took the time to play through an entire season in that game more than once. The menus and interface were rather clunky, but the game itself was a blast to play. Back then, it was still a novelty just to have the actual Major League Baseball Player’s Association license alongside the actual MLB license. Many games had one or the other so you either had real teams with no-name players or real players on generic teams. After the 16-bit era ended, I drifted away from sports gaming. Falling in love with fighters, RPGs, and the occasional platformer meant I just didn’t have time. Perhaps getting a bit burnt out on some of those games is what brought me back when the PlayStation 2 era took off.

I bounced around from franchise to franchise initially when it came time to find a baseball game to enjoy. The first I came to love was 3DO’s High Heat. The gameplay was simple, but really fun, and it was the first title where I encountered a Guess Pitch gimmick as well as what has come to be known as Zone Hitting. Guess Pitch allowed you to predict what pitch was coming, guessing right meant a boost to performance while guessing wrong meant a penalty should you swing. Zone Hitting was an alternative to the cursor approach of World Series Baseball. With a cursor, you moved a reticle around the strike zone to try and guess where the pitch would arrive. You could try to adjust on the fly as well, though on the Genesis the response time made that difficult. With analog controls, it was easier, but it was never a mechanic I liked. Zone Hitting simplifies the cursor mechanic by breaking the strike zone down into nine zones or areas:  upper left, upper middle, upper right, middle left, middle-middle, middle right, bottom left, bottom middle, and bottom right. With a right-handed batter at the plate, pushing up and to the left (10 o’clock or so) meant your batter would try to hit a pitch that was up and in. It was a similar philosophy to cursor hitting, but required less precision. It made it much easier to adjust on the fly to a pitch and felt like a more realistic approach to the game.

High Heat was a lot of fun, but it really lacked the bells and whistles of other games. I would move onto the newer iteration of World Series Baseball put out by Sega and 2k which had the ESPN license as well. The 2003 version was the first time I played a baseball game that let you pitch with a camera placed behind the pitcher, like a television broadcast. I sunk many, many, hours into that game even though I never felt like I truly loved it. I wanted something more, and EA had an answer.

EA had been the market leader in the 32 bit era with its Triple Play franchise. That one was allowed to grow stagnant though and was in need of a serious overhaul. The PS2 edition was not well received, causing EA to make the drastic decision to axe the franchise in favor of a new one:  MVP Baseball. MVP immediately caught my attention due to the inclusion of a pitch meter. Borrowing the popular mechanic often seen in golf sims, the pitch meter was a way to add more player involvement to baseball. Basically every baseball game up to that point left the precision of where a pitch ends up to the A.I. of the pitcher being used. The meter puts some of that back in the hands of the player as they push a face button on the controller corresponding with the pitch they want to start the meter and hold it down to increase velocity. As the meter fills it turns from blue to red. Letting go brings the meter swinging back the other direction where another timed press needs to be initiated to stop the meter in a green zone. Depending on the effectiveness of the pitcher, the effectiveness of the selected pitch type, amount of velocity, and the pitcher’s level of fatigue, determines how large this green area is. This helps to separate the good pitchers from the poor ones, but also means players who are really good at using the meter can get the most out of the back of their bullpen.

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The standard view of the game. EA was quite proud of the picture-in-picture base-running at the time.

The first version of MVP Baseball was a bit rough around the edges. I passed on it, but I did so with the intent of buying the next version assuming EA ironed out the kinks. And they did, for the most part, as MVP Baseball 2004 ended up being my chosen game that summer. It was great, and the only blemish was the dreaded lefty glitch. Left-handed hitters had their power squashed to the point where the only way to usually hit a home run was to hold up and in on the analog stick and sit dead red. Come the following year though, that glitch was rectified and it was no longer exceedingly difficult to launch bombs with a hitter like David Ortiz. In addition to that, the game also had a robust Owner Mode added to go along with the popular Dynasty Mode from the prior year. Single-A affiliates were added to both modes giving players access to a deep minor league system. Additional mini games sweetened the deal and many fans seemed to agree that MVP Baseball had become the premiere baseball video game of its time.

Unfortunately, that was the last iteration of MVP Baseball as a Major League franchise. A few months before release, EA shocked the sports gaming world by locking up the exclusive video game rights to the National Football League. This put an end to the 2k franchise NFL 2k and set off a mini arms race for league rights. 2k responded by locking up the exclusive third party rights to Major League Baseball. This meant the end for both of my preferred sports franchises, and I was devastated. A college edition of MVP followed, but it just wasn’t the same for me. The only silver lining is that 2k’s deal did not prevent first-party publishers from licensing MLB for their games opening the door for Sony San Diego’s MLB The Show which has become the new standard in baseball sims. 2k’s World Series Baseball deteriorated into mediocrity eventually leading to the cancellation of the franchise. As far as I know, nothing is preventing EA from getting back into the baseball business, but baseball games aren’t as hot as football so apparently nothing has convinced the publisher to do just that.

As I have with the last edition of NFL 2k, I’ve found myself compelled to revisit the greatness that is MVP Baseball 2005. I’ve never been as compelled to return to it as I was with the NFL product, but I think that has a lot to do with the quality of The Show. The Show was never shy about taking from MVP what worked making the early versions of it feel like a clone of sorts. It eventually found its own identity, and I’m quite confident in stating that modern versions of that franchise are superior to MVP Baseball 2005, something I also had to begrudgingly admit when it comes to modern Madden vs NFL 2k5. Still, that doesn’t mean MVP has been rendered irrelevant. There’s a reason a dedicated modding community has continued to exist for the PC version keeping the game as up to date as any other. Since I have a PS2 copy, I can’t take advantage of such things, but that’s fine by me as part of the joy of playing this is seeing the old rosters largely populated by players who have since retired.

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Most of the players look all right, some are certainly better than others. Most have this same “dead eye” look Manny has.

EA has always been great at adding a layer of polish to the presentation of its games and MVP carries on that tradition. A fun video intro gets the game rolling along with an introduction from a real life player, coach, or fans letting you know “If it’s in the game, it’s in the game,” a slogan heard many times back then. Boston’s Manny Ramirez was the cover athlete for this edition I guess owing to him being named World Series MVP the prior season. Since this is the game that comes fresh off that legendary title, it makes it quite easy for me to find affection for it, even if the 2005 Red Sox weren’t a particularly fun bunch.

I’m playing this game on a PlayStation 3 hooked up to a modern television. I feel this should be mentioned because out of all of the sports genres, baseball games have benefitted the most from high definition. It makes the batter/pitcher interface a lot easier to see for my aging eyes, so going to a more grainy presentation like this takes some adjustment. MVP added a new mechanic for the 2005 edition that color codes pitches as they’re being delivered. The best and most difficult pitchers hide the ball during their wind-up making it tough to see what’s coming until the ball has left their hand. No color means a fastball variant, while red indicates a breaking ball, green a change-up, and purple for sinking pitches. This makes up for the game’s resolution being too low to properly show rotation on the ball. And since pitchers change speeds often, it doesn’t make things that much easier. A pitcher that throws both a curveball and a slider, for instance, has an advantage over one that just has one breaking ball as there is still a reaction element at play as both are colored red. I find the older I get the worse I am at reacting to a good fastball, so in replaying this one I find I like to wait for a change-up and only sit on heat if it’s something I know I can handle.

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Meet Bizarro Kevin Millar.

The graphics in 2005 when the game launched were pretty good, but obviously are a bit lacking today. For the most part, the superstars look the way they should. I think the game does better with the players who have extensive facial hair as it allows them to cover-up a jawline. On the Sox, Jason Varitek and David Wells look particularly good, while Curt Schilling and Keith Foulke hardly resemble their real-life self at all. This was also an era where there were still scab players in the Majors from the 94 strike season who were never allowed entry into the MLBPA as a result. That means a guy like Kevin Millar is replaced by a fake player who does not resemble the real world version in the slightest. Barry Bonds also famously opted out of the licensing agreement apparently thinking he could land his own game or something (he never did) so he’s also been replaced by a fake guy. Some animations are also better than others. Certain swings look great and others do not. Surprisingly, Manny Ramirez’s swing is a bit iffy even though he was the cover athlete. I think that’s partly the result of too much scrutiny being put on him because he’s the cover athlete to make his swing unique and “special” when it really didn’t need much.

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The mini games were a lot of fun in 2005 and they still are today.

I found the mini games were a good place to start in coming back to this title. The pitching mini game is pretty addicting as it turns pitching into a block puzzle game. You have a time limit and need to accrue a certain amount of points to move onto the next round. To do so, you toss pitches at the strike zone which has been filled with colored bricks which correspond to a given pitch in the pitcher’s arsenal. Simply breaking a brick with a pitch will net you some points, but to really drive up the score you have to stack like-colored bricks to create a large swath of that color and then bust them all up with a single pitch. The hitting mini game has you select a hitter and a pitcher (just for their delivery animation, their arsenal of pitches isn’t affected as all will be able to throw everything) to swing at ten pitches. Before each pitch is thrown, the game tells you what it wants you to do with the pitch and gives a general idea of where the pitch will be. Usually, it will want you to either hit a fly ball or grounder, and it will want it to one of the three fields:  left, center, right. Hit both goals and you get a bunch of points plus a point for each foot the ball travels, hit just one and you get a smaller goal or if you miss the goal all together you can still salvage some points via the foot bonus. Miss and go the complete opposite way and you’ll incur a penalty. A foul ball always results in a score of zero. In the field are also obstacles and opportunities for more points. Hit a tractor cutting the grass for an extra 1,000 points, while strike one of the discarded automobiles beyond the outfield fence will also net a small bonus. There’s a vortex that will spit the ball back at home plate as well as ramps which will either reward or penalize the hitter by either speeding up the ball or deadening it. Both games are quite fun, but I found the hitting one to be especially addicting. It’s great to play with a slugger, but I think my favorite hitter to use may be Ichiro since his bat control is amazing.

The other modes, and the ones I used to spend most of my time, are Dynasty and Owner Mode. Dynasty is your typical season or franchise mode. You select a team and basically take over the duties of a general manager. You build the team using the funds dictated by the owner and oversee development of the minor leagues as well. You’re free to play the games, sim them, or manage them. Manager Mode is pretty entertaining and allows you to make a managerial decision for each plate appearance in a game. It’s a quick way to resolve a game while also giving you some involvement. The Show has implemented such, but takes it too far by actually putting you in the game for every pitch which just makes it drag and defeats the purpose.

Owner Mode was new for the 2005 game and it’s basically a more robust version of Dynasty, but with a few added quirks. For starters, you begin the mode by building a new stadium. It’s kind of neat, but really limited. It also feels a bit sacrilegious to select the Chicago Cubs only to not play in Wrigley. This is mostly done though to force you to start from scratch as the way to make money in this mode is by selling tickets and other items related to the ballpark. You need to amass a lot of money to add more seats and concessions if you want to afford the best players. This actually makes selecting a big money power house like Boston or New York really challenging as you’ll struggle to make payments early on. You may even need to jettison some of those expensive veterans just to scrape by.

Owner Mode is pretty neat for what it is, but it’s almost too involved for my taste. I much prefer to be a virtual GM and leave the mundane stuff like ball park maintenance to someone else so Dynasty Mode is where I’m at. And Dynasty Mode is quite good at what it wants to do, but it does come up short compared with modern titles. For one, the interface was never great. Some of the menus are clunky and I miss the feedback of The Show’s trading screen which let you know if a proposed trade was likely to be accepted or not. It feels like a guessing game and since you don’t even know what an A.I. controlled team is after you have little to go on. The same is true for negotiating contracts with players. On my virtual Red Sox team, Bronson Arroyo was unhappy because he was only making 300k. He wanted 2 years at 3M, but I countered with 3 years and that apparently pissed him off. I then upped my offer to 3.5M per year, and he just got angrier. You would think a guy would love a 1,000% pay increase and job security, but I guess not?

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It is quite a trip to look at these old rosters populated almost exclusively by players who are now retired.

The Player Morale feature is perhaps the most annoying. Players are basically controlled by how often they play relative to the role dictated by their contract, how well they’re playing, and by how much money they’re making. What’s really annoying is that the default roles are way off. Every starting pitcher on the Red Sox, for example, is classified as an MLB Ace. This means they expect to be in the #1 starter position on the depth chart, but obviously there can be only one. Curt Schilling is rightly classified as an ace as that was his status at the time, but even Tim Wakefield has that distinction as does Wade Miley who in the real world had signed a small deal with Boston because he was coming off a major injury. Similarly, guys in the lineup who were added to be platoon players (i.e. they only start when the pitching matchup favors them due to the handedness of the pitcher) like Jay Payton are rated as “MLB Every Day” so they expect to start every day. When players are not deployed in their specified role, you can try and sign them to a new deal to better reflect it, but good luck there. The only other options are to either trade them, release them, or demote them. Somewhat thankfully, the game does not have a realistic system for sending players to the minors so anyone can be sent down. In the real world, a veteran can’t be demoted without consent forcing you to release them.

Another unrealistic aspect in the game concerns minor league players. Twenty years ago, the MLB PA was really hesitant to allow actual money in its games and accurate contracts. They felt it did them no favors to have fans be able to easily see how much money they were making. That was loosening by the time MVP 05 came out, but perhaps it’s why the contract system isn’t perfect. In the real world, a player needs to accrue six seasons worth of service time to qualify for free agency which makes it very easy to hang onto up and coming players. In MVP, they just have a contract that must be dealt with like any other so you could actually lose that star shortstop on your Triple A team before he even sets foot in the Majors. It’s annoying, but it was the standard then. One thing the game does do well though is give you opportunities to improve these prospects via the mini games. During Spring Training, you can put your best prospects through those games which earns them a permanent boost to their underlying stats. My biggest complaint with The Show is that prospect development sucks with most just staying the same. In this game, your can’t miss prospect will likely blossom into a true star if you keep at it. The other unrealistic aspect of Dynasty Mode lies in the offseason. That’s when the draft takes place, even though that actually happens during the season in the real world. It’s not a big deal, but worth pointing out. The offseason is also condensed into 6 weeks for free agency in which you make an offer, sim to next week, and go from there. You’ll be able to track the best offer made to each player and adjust accordingly, or they’ll sign. This is where the player role actually adds to the experience as you may not want to pay someone to be your ace pitcher, for instance, but perhaps you can offer more money. Every player has a desired contract length, amount, and role so it allows for some variety in the negotiations.

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A fairly robust Minor League system makes player development a lot fun, but also introduces more cumbersome rosters to manage.

Dynasty Mode is fine for what it is, but none of it really matters if the actual game doesn’t hold up. I’m happy to say that while it certainly has aged, the game is still fun to play. First of all, it moves much faster than modern games which is very much appreciated. I’m used to a game taking over an hour, but I find most of these ones take about 35-40 minutes. The pitch meter takes getting used to, but it’s still a strong mechanic. Hitting is a little less enjoyable. MVP uses zone hitting, referred to as the Pure Swing System, though with the added quirk that pushing up on the stick is done to hit a fly ball while down is meant to influence a grounder. It’s an odd mechanic, but the game largely seems to work best with the old “see the ball, hit the ball” belief and just put the stick where the ball is. If the pitcher throws a down and in fastball, just put the stick down and in. You may still elevate the ball. That’s something that seems more true of the 05 game than the 04 one, but I don’t know if anything was actually changed.

The shortcomings of the game itself are largely technological, but the clunky menus do still present a minor obstacle. Outside of games, managing your various rosters is a chore. They’re slow and not well organized and I wish players had numerical ratings instead of these meters for comparison. In game they’re only marginally better. If you try to access every thing via the Pause menu, you’ll find them slow and lacking in options. For example, you can’t access your bullpen while your team is hitting, so if you forgot to get someone warming before the previous half inning ended then you’re stuck with your current pitcher. That is, unless you realize you can access your bullpen from the Quick Menu achieved by holding down R2 at anytime. The Quick Menu is convenient, but it’s silly that certain functions are only accessible via it. Like many sports games, you’ll also encounter a glitch here and there. I’ve recently run into two such glitches. On one, the A.I. controlled outfielder threw wild into the infield following a flyball out. The ball sailed past the catcher and then just sat on the grass. No one would go get it. Thankfully, I had a runner on second so I had him run around the bases and score which moved things along. It was disappointing though as I was in a one-run game at the time and that was a cheap way to double my lead. Another glitch occurred when my third basemen caught a little pop-up. I don’t know why, but it was scored a hit even though the ump said “Out.” I even checked the replay to make sure it wasn’t a high chopper or something or to see if my player dropped the ball, but no such thing occurred. Thankfully, I got the next batter to hit into a double play.

By far though, the biggest weakness I found with MVP 05 was the artificial intelligence of opposing managers. Even though each game in Dynasty Mode has an impact rating, opposing managers treat every game the same. If you’re in an elimination game and get out to an early lead against the starter, don’t expect him to be pulled. And if he is, you can bet the mop-up man is coming in and he’s going to pitch multiple innings no matter what. He might even do that multiple days in row! You can’t see how much stamina the opposing pitcher has unless you’re in manage mode, but the A.I. managers have no qualms about throwing a guy who is spent. It makes the Playoffs feel less special than they should. I also find the difficulty hard to manage. Simply put, playing on “Pro” or medium difficulty results in a game that’s way too easy. I routinely win games 8-1 or 5-0 on that setting. Bump it up to hard and the inverse becomes the norm. I also found it really hard to strike guys out. Back in the day, I was good enough at the game to hold my own on the hardest setting, so maybe just playing a hundred hours would solve this problem, but I no longer have that kind of free time to devote to a sports game.

The other presentation aspects of the game are less important to me, but worth mentioning. Duane Kuiper and Mike Krukow provide the commentary and at the time it was considered really good, but now sounds really limited. Sometimes they give away plays right off the bat which is annoying like when you’re trying to run down a lazy fly and Kuiper calls it a hit while still in the air. The licensed music is basically a mixed bag, you might like it, you probably won’t. It gets repetitive, though I was surprised at how nostalgic it made me feel. Granted, those feelings didn’t last all that long.

I’ve said a lot of words about MVP Baseball 2005 and I could keep going. There’s a lot to dissect with sports titles like this because there are so many nuances to the gameplay, too many to cover them all. Some of those nuances matter more to certain players, but ultimately I think the gameplay here is still fun and a good representative of what the actual game of baseball was like in 2005. I wish the A.I. was better and the contact system more realistic, but if I want that I have modern titles to look to. The real question is will someone who never played this game who has heard how great it was for 15 years be impressed if they pick it up today? It depends on their perspective. If they weren’t playing games 15 years ago, then they probably won’t, but if they’re at least modestly familiar with baseball games of yesterday then they just might be blown away. Anyone who spends enough time with it will probably find something to like, even if it’s just the mini games or the oddly addicting Manager Mode. In short, the game holds up as one of the best baseball titles ever made.


Catching up with ESPN NFL 2k5…Again!

nfl 2k5The NFL season has come to a close and now it’s onto the playoffs. Twelve teams will battle for the opportunity to be called champion, guaranteeing that the fanbases for 31 NFL franchises will be disappointed, but one will not! After going my entire childhood without being a part of that one, I’ve enjoyed an embarrassment of riches as a football fan for my hometown New England Patriots have had a pretty incredible run of luck. Yes, that means a bunch of people now hate me because the football team that is geographically closes to where I reside happens to be both good and therefore detestable, but so be it. It will all end one day and this unprecedented run of success will become a story I tell my grandkids as my own grandparents did of the Boston Bruins of the 1970s or the Celtics of the 60s. For now I will continue to savor the ups and the downs as the season goes on.

Every football season I inevitably return to an old, beloved, game:  ESPN NFL 2k5. This was the last Sega-produced NFL title before the league entered into an agreement with EA which would make it the sole holder of the NFL and NFLPA license to this day. It was a disappointing day for me, and it took me years to move on and actually buy a Madden title. And I still don’t purchase one annually as I haven’t bought a copy in 3 or 4 years. And it took me awhile to admit that Madden had finally surpassed my beloved 2k5, but that doesn’t mean I don’t still enjoy playing it to this day.

I enjoy it enough that I’ve done this post before. When I first posted about the game I was basically just dabbling with it momentarily. Since then though I have actually played it more and more to the point where I’m actually in year 2013 with the Patriots and an aging Tom Brady is still leading the charge against an NFL that has become nearly unrecognizable due to retirements across the league. I’m actually curious when this virtual Brady will tell me he’s hanging up his spikes as the real life version is still going at age 42. Surely, the video game version will not last that long because no one has. I assume I’m nearing the end, but who knows? The only non-game created players on the roster right now are receivers Deion Branch, Antwaan Randle El, running back Tatum Bell, and defensive linemen Vince Wilfork and Ty Warren. Everyone else is some game-generated character, many of which share the same fake portrait image so it looks like I have a pair of identical twins starting in the secondary (which is kind of funny because the current version of the Patriots can say the same thing).

2k5 pats

Yeah, I like the Pats. Boo me all you want.

In playing a game that is now more than a decade old it’s interesting to see how much the real version of the NFL has changed. Take the shotgun formation as an example (I’m going to assume if you’re reading this you’re familiar enough with football to know what I’m referring to with “shotgun”). In 2006, after this game came out, the average NFL offense utilized shotgun for 19% of its offensive snaps. I don’t know if this data strips out kneel downs and spikes, but it will work here. In 2016, the average team utilized the formation 68% of its snaps! One team, the San Francisco 49ers, even used it for 99% of its plays. And why is that? Well, the game has opened up. Rule changes that went into effect during the offseason before 2k5 was released emphasized illegal contact by defenders which helped boost offense. Over the years, those types of calls have been helped along by additional safeguards for receivers as well as quarterbacks. Teams found that it was now efficient to simply spread defenses out and throw the ball, leading to an emphasis on receivers of all kinds, especially slot receivers, and a deemphasis on runningbacks and fullbacks. Most teams in 2019 don’t even have a true fullback on the roster anymore, but every team in 2k5 does with the game recommending that two be carried at all times.

This is amusing to me because the real life game has come to more resemble video games in some respects. Players often played these game in what purists would call an unreal manner. Lots of throwing, especially deep balls, with quarterbacks taking huge drop-backs and punting practically unheard of. I’ve personally never gone that crazy in my playing, but I also rarely play human opponents. Even playing in a more pass-friendly and aggressive scheme though, it’s actually hard to replicate the modern game in 2k5 largely because defenders can jam and impede receivers down the field without fear of a penalty. Maybe if I tweaked the penalty sliders I could pull that off, but I also think part of the “jamming” is just limitations with the animations and collision detection of a PlayStation 2 game released in 2004. Receivers in general are also notoriously bad at catching in this game so it would be hard based on that reason alone to replicate the high percentage throwing offenses of today.

2k5 iform

You don’t see too many plays out of the I-Form these days. Especially on 1st and 10.

In playing the game, I find route combinations with receivers are especially more vertical than the modern game probably features (unless you’re in a Bruce Arians offense). In the entire Patriots playbook, I can’t find a proper mesh concept, for instance, which is hugely popular in today’s game. Teams love crossing routes because they create natural pick plays, though the few plays of this type in 2k5 usually just lead to a jumbled mess. I find it’s much easier to to go with posts, go, and the occasional out and slant when playing this game. Fast receivers matched-up one-on-one on the outside are often pretty good at beating their man on a go route, and if you have time, the double-move can be effective. It’s just funny because it’s nothing like what the Patriots currently run, or really ever ran aside from when Randy Moss was in town, but it works here.

More and more though, it’s just interesting to notice the quirks that come up when you’ve played nearly ten seasons of virtual football. I play every regular and post season game on the schedule, only skipping the preseason. In game, few frequent bugs show up. There is one that I’ve noticed where a tight end just won’t be covered by the opposing defense. It always happens when I run a trips-bunch to the right with a single tight end on the left. Sometimes that guy is just all by himself for an easy completion (unless the tight end is stone-handed, a frequent problem with computer-generated tight ends where every pass is an adventure). The funny thing is this only crops up in certain seasons. It was basically one season where it happened a lot, to the point where I stopped using the formation because it felt like a cheat. It stopped once I finished that season, though recently popped-up again, but with the formation flipped and the tight end to the right. The receivers also had normal spacing and weren’t bunched. My current tight end has a horrible catch rating though so I actually didn’t even complete the pass, but I’ll be on the look-out to see if it comes up again.

By far though, the weirdest bug I’ve encountered concerns Philip Rivers. You know Rivers as the quarterback of the LA Chargers. In 2k5, he’s a rookie playing behind Drew Brees. I think he ascended to a starter at one point in my game, but he’s now a backup for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Weirdly though, if I look at league leaders he’s usually near the top – in rushing. Now, as afar as I know, there is no way to play a quarterback at runningback. Maybe if all of your backs got injured in a game the backup Qb would end up there, but I doubt it. I’d guess another skill position player would inherit the role before a Qb. Anyways, that’s not the only thing that’s weird here. What is odd is that his statistics are a mirror image for whoever my starting running back is. I even played Tampa and can confirm that Rivers did not have a single carry in the game, but when it was over he was tied with my back for whatever ranking he was at for various categories. It’s truly bizarre, and just doing a google search on the same returned nothing, but I’d be surprised if this was unique to my game.

2k5 brady steelers

Tom Brady, just like in real-life, is still going in my game as a 13 year man. I doubtt he catches up to the real version.

Another glitch, this one more annoying, is that I basically lost my fullback position. I don’t know why, but starting at around year 7 of my franchise my backup runningback assumed the fullback position. If I try to edit my playbook things look fine, but when I play a game the problem persists. It essentially has rendered fullback useless as I can’t get the guy into a game. And it means that I need to prioritize run blocking with my third string RB. The only fix I have found is if my starter gets hurt. Tatum Bell recently broke his hand and will be out for 4-6 weeks. For those games I actually get to trot out a legit fullback, who after going years without even a snap to his name, now has two receiving touchdowns. I’ve found he’s a pretty terrible blocker though, despite his rating, so my ground game has actually been pretty awful lately, but at least I have a fullback! A similar, but less annoying, bug is that my third string TE takes all of the I-Formation snaps. If I try to edit the personnel for that package I simply can’t swap him out for anyone else. It’s weird.

Another bizarre in-game bug concerns the kicking game. For whatever reason, it seems like one kick-off per game my controller will be near unresponsive. There’s a huge input delay often resulting in a brutal kick. Since I play on an old model PS3, I thought maybe my controllers were getting less responsive and started playing with my controller plugged in, but that didn’t solve anything. It’s just a bug. On the AI side, many teams for some reason have a lineman as their kick and punt returner. It looks pretty ridiculous to see a big man field a punt, and it also makes coverage pretty simple. Some teams also have a terrible kick-off person where the ball will usually land around the 30 or 35 yard line. It actually doesn’t lead to many long returns as the up-man often ends up catching the ball while on the run, but it is stupid to see. And in all of these seasons, I’ve never returned a kick for a touchdown. One of the criticisms of the prior game was that it was too easy and the designers basically over-compensated by making coverage teams spectacular. I have come close on a couple of occasions, but never sealed the deal.

2k5 kicking

There’s a bug that can sometimes make kicking a real adventure. Thankfully, it usually only happens on kickoffs, but it has cropped up during a field goal attempt as well.

One other bug I assume is quite common concerns the schedule. The NFL has a pretty simple formula where each team plays its divisional opponents two times each. It then plays one other division in its conference and one division outside its conference which is on a rotational schedule. The remaining games are commonly ranked opponents. For instance, the first place teams from the prior year play all of the other first place teams in the same conference, the second place teams play all of the other second place teams, and so on. This formula should be easy to program, but apparently it’s not or Sega/Visual Concepts got lazy and only programmed so many seasons. My Patriots have played the AFC North every year for the last I don’t know how many. The actual 2004 Patriots had to play the same, so maybe the game only programmed for one rotation through the divisions before it went back to the start and stayed that way. The NFC portion of the schedule generates fine, so I don’t know what the problem is. Maybe I just wasn’t supposed to play this long, but I have to believe there are people out there who have gone well beyond where I’m currently at.

Even though this version of the NFL is almost unrecognizable at this point, and the bugs I’ve encountered sometimes drive me nuts, I still have fun playing this one. I’m just going to keep on playing it until I don’t enjoy it anymore. Will that come with Brady’s retirement? Maybe, or maybe it won’t. I think at some point I’ll be sick of playing with all fake players, but I’m practically there now and still enjoying it. There are things I do miss from modern games that aren’t here. In 2004, this game was the best at granting absolute control to a pass via the Maximum Passing setting, but it’s not nearly as robust as current versions of Madden. There are times when I wish I could throw a proper back-shoulder pass, or I try to stick a ball out in front of a receiver, and the coverage, only to find the quarterback basically tries to make the pass too catchable and it gets intercepted when really I wanted to make a legal throw-away. It’s also hard to intentionally throw a pass high for a tall receiver to go up and get. And the running game, which felt dynamic and ahead of its time, is no longer that way and it can be frustrating to take a patient approach or to steer the back through a certain hole. Plus, lead blockers are often dumb and will just run past guys or into the back. It’s not as bad as Madden’s “suction-blocking” from the same era, but it’s noticeable.

At any rate, this is my second post on the topic and maybe there will be a third. Who knows? This game is still cheap and easy to acquire and if you were watching football back in 2004 then maybe consider dusting this sucker off and taking a trip down memory lane. You may even decide you never need to play another snap of Madden again.


A Bloated Preview of WrestleMania 34

3365454-dekI swear the WWE won’t rest until it dominates every facet of my life. WWE already wants me to watch 5 hours of television programming per week, plus 2 hours of additional content on the Network each week. Then they drop in a special Facebook tag team tournament and a Pay-Per View event almost every other week that routinely runs 4 hours. Now they want me to devote upwards of 7 hours of my Sunday to WrestleMania every year. Let’s be realistic, 7 hours is way too long for any single event be it a World Series game, Super Bowl, Daytona 500, or whatever. I’m not even sure how often I’ve sat and watched 7 hours of a favorite TV show in a marathon fashion. And in the case of WrestleMania, that 7 hours is the capper to a weekend of wrestling content as the Hall of Fame ceremony and NXT Takeover events occur the previous nights.

I’m exhausted just thinking about it, and honestly it does dampen my enthusiasm for WrestleMania, which I otherwise normally really look forward to. I like that it’s over the top and the big capper on what feels like a “season” for WWE programming. And I do understand why it ends up being so damn long because the talent on the roster all know how important WrestleMania is so WWE seems to try its best to include everyone. This is how you end up with a giant card and two battle royals. It used to be that everyone on the card would receive a payment proportional to the “gate” for the event, which included PPV buys. As a result, WrestleMania was always one of the best pay days of the year for wrestlers. Now, with everything being on the WWE Network for the low, low price of $9.99 per month, that annual payment probably is much smaller since fewer people watch the event via PPV, but it’s still probably a better pay day than every other event they put on.

Nonetheless, I try to do a wrestling post once per year around this time, though i failed to last year. It’s something I still follow, though I can’t keep up with everything as there’s just too much content (as highlighted earlier). This WrestleMania though is pretty interesting. It’s a start for some, and an end for others. There’s some uncertainty on the card, and the roster is just so damn big now that it’s hard to figure out where all of the moving pieces are going after the event. And since this card is so massive, and this post is also kind of a year-in-review for WWE, this entry is going to be equally massive so maybe I should stop with the introductions and just get on with it. Let’s start with the Pre-Show matches:

The Andre the Giant Memorial Battle Royal

maxresdefault-23The big battle royal, named after the 8th Wonder of the World, has seen its prestige drop over past few years. It debuted at WrestleMania XXX and was won by Cesaro who went on to experience a push immediately following the event. He was paired with Paul Heyman and seemed destined to be a singles star, but behind the scenes Vince McMahon wasn’t sold (as he openly discussed on an episode of Steve Austin’s podcast) and the push was quickly cooled. Cesaro would then suffer a pretty serious shoulder injury and miss a bunch of time and ever since returning to health he’s been relegated to the tag division once more where he and Sheamus currently hold the Raw Tag Team Championship. Despite all of that, he’s still the most successful winner of this battle royal. The following year, The Big Show won as sort of a lifetime achievement award that did nothing to really further his character. Following him, a debuting Baron Corbin won. He received a push on Smackdown that peaked with him winning the Money in the Bank briefcase. He then suffered the embarrassment of being one of the very few to fail to win the championship with that security blanket and he now finds himself competing in the battle royal once again. Would winning a second time be an achievement or the ultimate rib? Last year, with help from New England Patriots Tight End Rob Gronkowski, Mojo Rawley won the battle royal and he too is featured in the match again this year. Unlike Corbin, he has really nothing to show for winning the event other than a heel turn. One year later, it seems clear he was allowed to win more for his real life friendship with Gronkowski than anything else. This year, who wins seems less important than ever. Is this match a true stepping stone for a young wrestler, a gift for an old reliable superstar, or just the pre-show filler it truly is? I have no idea, and thus my prediction feels kind of pointless so I’ll say a new version of Bray Wyatt debuts and wins, because why not?

Prediction:  Bray Wyatt

WrestleMania Women’s Battle Royal

womensbattleroyalThe women’s roster, thanks in part to a rise in the quality of women’s wresting on WWE programming and the brand split, is now large enough that it can support its own battle royal. Decades ago, the women were more likely to be tossed into some stupid pillow fight or just used as eye candy for an unrelated match or event, so even though I kind of dumped on the men’s battle royal, this one does feel like progress. Next year we can get cynical about it. Though WWE almost dropped the ball with this by originally naming it after The Fabulous Moolah who has been accused of stealing from other wrestlers and for essentially being a pimp. In other words, whether true or not you probably shouldn’t name a match after her on your brightest stage. Rather than finding someone else to name it after, they just went with a conventional name. This match actually has some storylines heading into it as both Absolution and The Riot Squad  have been booked as invading wrestlers on Raw and Smackdown respectively, so a number of the other women probably want to get their hands on them. There’s also the rivalry between one-time bestie Sasha Banks and Bailey. The feud between those two is deserving of its own match, so it’s rather disappointing to see it relegated to this event. Unfortunately, the card is so stacked that there wasn’t really any room for a traditional grudge match. Personally, I would rather see that match instead of either of the non-title tag team matches, but I get why those are on the card and this is not. Because of their rivalry though, I don’t expect either Banks or Bailey to win this match. It’s possible this match goes to a debuting NXT star, but I’m not sure if any of the ladies at NXT are in-line for a promotion at this point in time. Instead, it may be used to elevate one of the members of the aforementioned stables, or as a lifetime achievement award to a vet like Natalya. WrestleMania typically doesn’t feature many heel victories, and this card appears to be no exception, so perhaps this is an easy spot to toss in a heel win.

Prediction:  Mandy Rose

WWE Cruiserweight Championship (vacant)

Cedric Alexander vs Mustafa Ali

mqdefaultTwo wrestlers making their WretleMania debut, Alexander and Ali will be competing for the vacant Cruiserweight title. The Cruiserweight Division experienced a rather tumultuous 2017 marked with outside of the ring scandal and beset with poor story-telling and little direction. The brand has been sort-of rebooted over the past six weeks and I hear its show, 205 Live, is much improved, but I personally haven’t watched it. As a result, I’ve got little to say about this match. I doubt these two talented wrestlers will be given enough time to really shine under the bright lights, but there’s a small chance they put on a show-stealer. Alexander seems like the rising star of the division so a win for him is likely, though it could really go either way.

Prediction:  Cedric Alexander

WWE Smackdown Tag-Team Championship Triple Threat

The Usos (C) vs The New Day vs The Bludgeon Brothers

bludgeon-brothers-vs-usos-vs-new-day-wrestlemania-34I’ll give credit where credit is due, Smackdown has done a good job of making this match something to look forward to. The rivalry between the champs, The Usos, and The New Day has been very enjoyable and evenly matched. Toss-in the undefeated Bludgeon Brothers and you get a nice twist. Though a match between The Usos and New Day may have been a better direction, at least The Bludgeons, in spite of their stupid gimmick, are competent wrestlers and should work well. Truthfully, I do not know what the order of the card is so I’m predicting this will be the curtain-jerker for the main show because The New Day seem like the perfect cats to get things started. Last year they didn’t get to compete and were relegated to host duties, so this is a welcomed to return to actual competition. Meanwhile, the other four participants weren’t featured on the main card and instead were relegated to the battle royal, except for Rowan who was injured. In other words, they all have something to prove. A lot of the titles look like they’ll be switching hands during this event, so I’ll predict that the Smackdown Tag Titles will be one of the few that does not.

Prediction:  The Usos

Raw Women’s Championship

Alexa Bliss (C) vs Nia Jax

maxresdefault-24This storyline had one of the shortest build-ups thanks to the uncertainty over who Royal Rumble winner Asuka would challenge at WrestleMania. That was unveiled at Fastlane when she challenged Smackdown Women’s Champion Charlotte Flair leaving Alexa without an opponent for WrestleMania. Truth be told, I always assumed Asuka would be paired with Charlotte leaving Bliss to square-off against either multiple women or Nia Jax. Jax has played the role of protector for Bliss for most of 2017 into 2018. With Bliss being a natural heel, it made sense for her to not appreciate what Jax does for her leading to a fractured alliance. Bliss is also conventionally attractive and that’s worked into her persona as she’s presented as conceited, shallow, and just one of those “mean girls.” Jax, on the other hand, is a pretty large woman making her weight an easy thing for Bliss to poke fun at and that’s been the basis for this feud. Both women are returning to WrestleMania looking to make-up for losses at last year’s event. Bliss dropped the Smackdown Women’s Championship to Naomi in a six-woman match, a classic brief match where WWE just tosses a bunch of women into a chaotic match to get them on the show (it lasted barely over 5 minutes), while Jax failed to come away with the Raw Women’s Championship in a four-woman match won by Bailey. Jax has also never held a title at either WWE or NXT despite being booked like an unstoppable monster at times. She’s essentially a victim of the big wrestler bias where the “monsters” are often kept away from the titles (like Undertaker, Big Show, Andre, etc.). Lucky for her though, every big wrestler usually gets a couple of title reigns here and there and I think she’s in-line for one here. The storyline of Bliss poking fun at Jax’s weight is inherently mean and it makes little sense for WWE to go there and not have the heel get what’s coming to them. Of course, they’ve done stuff like this in the past and gone the other way (perhaps most infamously with Triple H vs Booker T from WrestleMania XIX), but WWE seems to be more concerned with its image now more than ever. Jax has also come close on numerous occasions to winning the belt and it seems like another tease could really harm her progression. For her to not win, it will likely take interference from Bliss ally Mickie James. Neither woman appears primed for a new opponent after WrestleMania, so they could always trade wins at the next PPV too.

Prediction:   Nia Jax

WWE United States Championship Fatal Four-Way

Randy Orton (C) vs Bobby Roode vs Jinder Mahal vs Rusev

79e67b33cf6b943828442923f43ce53b_1200_675Aside from perhaps the pre-show matches, this match for the US Title is likely the one fans are looking forward to the least. All four participants are decent enough workers in the ring, but at least three aren’t particularly interesting. Orton is overexposed, and 2017 felt like the year where he tumbled from the main event scene, possibly for good, with his series of matches against Mahal being a low point for WWE programming after winning the WWE Championship at WrestleMania 33. And Mahal was equally a low point as WWE Champion as he shockingly won the belt not long after last year’s embarrassing elimination from the battle royal by Gronkowski. Mahal is an effective heel on the mic, but totally uninteresting in the ring. Perhaps for a heel to truly be hated though he should be a crappy wrestler since so many heels end up being crowd pleasers. Roode was promoted from NXT after last year’s WrestleMania and had an okay 2017. He’s terrible with a mic in his hand, and I’m not sure it’s a good thing when your entrance is the best thing anyone can say about your character. He’s also been booked like a babyface, even though his Glorious persona feels more like a heel one. Saving this match from being a total drag is the recently added Rusev. He was scheduled to participate in the battle royal and only recently was added to this match. It was done because his Rusev Day gimmick has gotten way over with fans, even though it probably was meant to just be comedy filler for Smackdown. It’s great to see though because Rusev is a tremendous talent and his fall in the company has been extremely odd. Since he was added in at the last minute, one could theorize that WWE has no real plans for him and they’re just capitalizing on his flavor of the month status. Or, as really the only guy in the match who’s even remotely over, he could be viewed as a lock to win this thing.

Prediction:  It’s Rusev Day

WWE Raw Tag Team Championship

The Bar (C) vs Braun Strowman and TBD

maxresdefault-22Possibly the weirdest match on the card. Cesaro and Sheamus went from after-thought singles wrestlers to tag team champs over the last two years. Meanwhile, Strowman has been one of the hottest guys in the company, but as a monster wrestler, WWE has struggled to find a place for him. His popularity warrants main event status, but he’s been booked as unstoppable and maybe they worry about how to book him as a champion, or as a failed challenger, even. In reality, it’s a total head-scratcher why Strowman isn’t the one getting setup to destroy Brock Lesnar for the Universal Championship, but chalk that up to WWE’s insistence on making Roman Reigns “The Guy” in the promotion. Rather than demote Strowman to the IC title picture, they went in an odd direction and had him win a tag team battle royal to become the number one contender for the Raw championship, despite not having a partner. Since WWE has decided to withhold who will be competing alongside Strowman until the event, it would seem likely it will either be a returning superstar from either injury or outside the promotion, a celebrity, or an NXT call-up. I haven’t paid attention to the dirt sheets leading up to the event as I’d prefer to not have anything spoiled, but I’m well aware that Rey Mysterio is out there and would elicit a pop from the audience if he indeed teamed with Strowman. On the injury front, both Dean Ambrose and Big Cass could be ready to return as could Somoa Joe. Of the three, Ambrose is the biggest name, but I’d personally be really interested in a Somoa Joe/Strowman team should Strowman remain in the tag division for now. As for NXT, I have no idea, but Johnny Gargano would get a nice reaction if it were him so that’s who I’d like to see most. He being the consummate underdog could even eat the pin, allowing for him to move onto 205 Live and Strowman to resume his singles career. Lost in all of this is The Bar, who actually make a great team. While I would prefer to see a guy like Cesaro flourishing in the singles division, I’ve at least enjoyed their run, so I won’t mind seeing it continue. They will need some fresh meat following WrestleMania, so maybe a feud with The Hardys is to come.

Prediction:  The Bar

WWE Championship

AJ Styles (C) vs Shinsuke Nakamura

styles-vs-nakamuraStyles had a nice conclusion to 2017. Last year, he was the placeholder heel champ expected to carry the WWE title during the lean months, only to drop it before WrestleMania. As a result, he found himself in the curtain-jerker position last year facing off against Shane McMahon in a match that ended up being way better than it had any right to be. Perhaps as a reward for enduring such ignominy, he’s now the champ heading into WrestleMania where he gets to resume his New Japan feud with Shinsuke Nakamura, who is participating in his first WrestleMania. Because these guys have such great in-ring chemistry with each other and because they’re both world class workers this match is expected to be a show-stealer. I can’t think of another recent non-main event match that had such expectations, maybe the TLC rematch though that’s hardly recent. Smackdown did not have a good second half in 2017, but Stlyes and Nakamura remain over with fans and this is one of the few face vs face matches at this year’s event. It feels like if WWE is ever going to commit to giving Nakamura a run with the belt then it has to do so here. He had some big wins in 2017, but failed to dethrone Mahal when he got a title shot. Styles has sometimes been an after-thought as champ, with most of his feuds serving as vehicles for feuds between other wrestlers (namely, Zayn and Owens vs McMahon) so it’s hard to see where he’s going as a character. In other words, regardless of what happens at WrestleMania, these two seem destined to continue their rivalry.

Prediction:  Shinsuke Nakamura

WWE Intercontinental Triple Threat

The Miz (C) vs Seth Rollins vs Finn Balor

The-Miz-vs.-Seth-Rollins-vs.-Finn-Balor-WrestleMania-34-Intercontinental-Championship-MatchIt’s been a bit of an odd year for the participants of this match. Last year, The Miz found himself in a program with part-timer John Cena leading to a mixed tag match that was just a vehicle for Cena to propose to his real-life girlfriend and former WWE Superstar Nikki Bella. When he wasn’t away filming bad WWE films though, The Miz usually was wearing the Intercontinental Championship and doing well for himself as one of the company’s best heels. Rollins, on the other hand, has somewhat floated around for the past year. At WrestleMania 33, he had a big blow-off match with former mentor Triple H in which he had to return from a serious knee injury in short order to even compete. Since then he’s kind of flirted with the main event while remaining the workhorse for Raw. A Shield reunion and tag title run with Dean Ambrose was derailed by an injury to Ambrose. He was then paired with Jason Jordan and the two appeared to be on a collision course until he too suffered a real-life injury. As a result, Rollins has been tossed into the mix here along with fellow participant Finn Balor. Balor, of course, famously won the newly minted WWE Universal Championship (against Rollins, no less), but had to relinquish it the next night on Raw due to injury. He was ready to return at this time last year, but WWE chose to hold him out of WrestleMania saving him for Raw the next night. He had a way too long feud with Bray Wyatt, that he ultimately emerged victorious from, but has since been adrift much like Rollins. Balor has always felt like a main eventer in waiting, and his Universal Title win seems to add credence to that. He still needs some work refining his character a bit, but I could see the IC title being a reset for him. Rollins doesn’t need it, and if former stable-mate Roman Reigns is indeed victorious in his match with Lesnar, it’s possible WWE sees money in a Rollins/Reigns program atop the card. Meanwhile there’s The Miz, who apparently is approaching some sort of title reign record for the IC belt. He’s sort of become attached to the belt and will likely be remembered for his many reigns with it when all is said and done as more and more people forget that he once appeared in, and won, a WrestleMania main event. His retaining here would not be all that surprising perhaps leading to a one on one program with Balor.

Prediction:  The Miz

Tag-Team Match

Daniel Bryan and Shane McMahon vs Kevin Owens and Sami Zayn

Daniel-Bryan-Shane-McMahon-Sami-Zayn-Kevin-Owens-WrestleMania-34-645x370At this time last year, Daniel Bryan was simply an on-air character. Forced into retirement by a series of concussions, it was up in the air whether he would ever wrestle again. Most thought he’d finish his contract with WWE in his current role and then head to either Ring of Honor or New Japan to resume his in-ring career since it was WWE’s doctors that wouldn’t clear him. Instead, he surprisingly was medically cleared just a couple of weeks ago and immediately has been thrust into this match-up. Throughout much of the year, he was seen as an ally to Owens and Zayn and butted heads with his boss, Shane McMahon. After Owens and Zayn kayfabe sent Shane to the hospital following Fastlane, Bryan felt like he was forced to fire the duo resulting in them attacking him and thus leading to this match. Bryan and Shane are out for revenge, while Zayn and Owens need to win if they want to resume their careers on Smackdown. Notice the terminology there? It leaves open the possibility that Owens and Zayn could lose, but be hired by Raw. What shouldn’t be forgotten, is that Bryan and Shane were pretty adversarial throughout the year so their alliance is shaky at best. McMahon has more reason to hate his opponents, but that’s never prevented WWE from executing a swerve before. Now, I love all of the participants in this match (well, not so much Shane) because they’re great characters and even better wrestlers, so I’m actually disappointed to see them here. Owens and Zayn deserve better, but at least they aren’t in the battle royal. At this point last year, Owens was the recently defeated Universal Champion forced to do battle with his former ally Chris Jericho in a match for the US Title. That match was some-what famously not enjoyed by Vince McMahon which apparently put Owens in the doghouse. Zayn was forced into the battle royal, so his match here is definitely an improvement over last year. Ultimately though, this feels like a waste of Bryan’s in-ring return. In a rush to get him onto the WrestleMania card, I feel like WWE missed an opportunity to have his return be the main event at a different event. Here he’s kind of lost in the shuffle of a massive card in a feud that wouldn’t have made sense a month ago. A return match pitting him against Shane would have made way more sense, or better yet, one with The Miz. Alas, here we are though. I think these guys are capable of telling a good story and delivering a good match, but I don’t know if they’ll have the time for either. It seems weird predicting Bryan losing his return bout, but Shane could eat the pin or even turn on him, putting him right back into that underdog role he flourished in before his career came to a premature end.

Prediction:  Kevin Owens and Sami Zayn

Smackdown Women’s Championship

Charlotte Flair (C) vs Asuka

maxresdefault-21Of the matches on the undercard, the two most likely to steal the show are the two big Smackdown title matches, the previously covered Syles vs Nakamura and the women’s match featuring champion Charlotte Flair vs Asuka. Flair went from a heel contender on Raw at least year’s WrestleMania to a babyface champion on Smackdown. Part of the reason for the switch seems to be the real life near death experience of her father, Ric Flair, which garnered her much sympathy as a result. She’s a much better heel than babyface, so I expect this match to be the start of a turn for her as she faces the mega-hot Asuka. Asuka has ridden an undefeated streak to the top of the Women’s Division that got started in NXT. At this time last year she was successfully defending the NXT Women’s Championship, which was kind of a surprise as most thought she would drop the title and then show-up on Raw or Smackdown following WrestleMania 33. Instead, she kept the belt and would eventually get injured forcing her to relinquish her title without defeat. As a result, we don’t know if the plan was for her to head to the main roster undefeated or not, but that’s what happened when she was cleared to return to action. Since joining Raw, she’s mostly been kept out of any major feuds instead simply winning whenever she’s featured in a match, including tag matches and most famously the inaugural Women’s Royal Rumble match. At NXT, she never crossed paths with Charlotte so a match between the two has been something fans have been dreaming of for the past couple of years. The fact that it’s finally happening at WrestleMania is pretty awesome, though there is some fear that their lack of experience with each other could lead to a disappointing match. Both women are great in the ring, but neither one has yet developed a reputation for having great matches with anyone they’re paired with, though Charlotte is pretty close to that level at this point. What hasn’t been addressed in storyline is if Asuka is now a Smackdown competitor. Since challenging Charlotte, she has appeared on both shows and if she wins it’s assumed she’ll be Smackdown exclusive going forward. If she loses though, does she return to Raw? I don’t know, but it seems like a waste of her streak for it to end at WrestleMania against Charlotte, who doesn’t need the rub. Her streak has reached a point where it will be a major accomplishment for whomever ends it. While WrestleMania is a big enough stage for such a moment, it just feels like it could be a way to anoint an up and comer (even though Asuka is pretty much an up and comer herself). What I sincerely hope does not happen, is for Asuka’s streak to end at the hands of Carmella after she cashes in her Money in the Bank briefcase.

Prediction:  Asuka

Mixed Tag-Team Match

Kurt Angle and Ronda Rousey vs Triple H and Stephanie McMahon

v2-Wrestlemania34The star power of Ronda Rousey will likely mean this is one of the last matches of the evening, even though few probably expect a good match. Rousey, having never wrestled professionally before, is about as green as it gets. That doesn’t mean she can’t make the leap and do so quickly, but it’s an unfair expectation even for the likes of her. Stephanie McMahon has also never been a full-time performer and to call her part-time is even a stretch. Still, she’s married to a future Hall of Famer and her McMahon lineage likely means she doesn’t want to embarrass herself so I expect competence, at least. Triple H is as good as ever, which is to say he’s a steady worker. He was never flashy, even in his prime, but usually effective. Kurt Angle, on the other hand, is one of the best all-time. Even thinking about his career last year when he was inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame I wondered if he was my favorite wrestler of all-time. He could do anything in the ring, have a great match with anyone, and he was superb on the mic. Sadly, time and injury have left him a shell of his former self. He can’t be expected to carry a match in 2018, so I have no idea how he and Triple H can be expected to cover-up for the women if they’re not up to the task themselves. Even though it’s a four-participant match designed to protect Rousey, a lot does really rest on her shoulders. I expect this to be be brief, and more spectacle than anything. Angle and Triple H will probably get things started with a few minutes of mat-wrestling, but it could quickly turn into a squash. Stephanie’s character does not require any sort of in-ring credibility, and I don’t think Triple H is averse to putting over the biggest signing WWE has had in perhaps ever. This is the Rousey showcase match – hopefully she comes through and proves that she belongs in WWE.

Prediction:  Kurt Angle and Ronda Rousey

Unadvertised Singles Match

John Cena vs The Undertaker

John-Cena-vs.-The-Undertaker-WrestleMania-34-750x430At this time last year, The Undertaker lost in the main event for only his second defeat ever at WrestleMania to Roman Reigns. Following that match, he removed his hat and coat (after briefly putting them back on which was sort of awkward) and laid them down in the ring before walking off into presumed retirement. In the real world, Taker was in need of hip surgery and it showed. His match with Reigns was not good, and it’s actually been awhile since he put on a good match. He looked like a guy who was ready to go, but here we are a year later and John Cena is issuing open challenges to him on WWE programming lobbying for a match at WrestleMania. The two part-timers certainly have the name power to make any match between them an event, even if there’s no real reason for it to happen. Which is probably why Undertaker has failed to answer those challenges. I expect him to finally do so at the event, which is still weird since it means WWE can’t exactly advertise it without giving it away. Now the prevailing theory around the internet seems to be that last year Undertaker retired his dead man gimmick and will return as American Bad Ass Undertaker, or Biker Taker, if you will. The fact that Kid Rock, who lent his song “American Bad Ass” to that gimmick and will be inducted into the Hall of Fame this weekend for his contribution, will be around seems to make that possibility seem likely. I can’t stress enough how much I hated that era of Undertaker so I won’t be popping on my couch when he comes riding out on his chopper, but I expect it at this point so I’m kind of at peace with it. He could come riding out on a chicken and the crowd would go nuts, so I don’t expect any snark. Kid Rock would probably normally be booed if he stepped out onto a WrestleMania stage, but since the crowd will know what his presence means they’ll likely pop for him too. What this match means for the future of The Undertaker is entirely unknown. Is this some encore to last year’s match and a true final match where he gets to go over without harming a young star? Or is it just another year of Undertaker serving as WrestleMania’s final boss with more to come? It’s quite possible it means nothing at all and it’s mostly being done as a favor to Cena, giving him a dream match for his years of loyal service to the company. One thing I do feel certain about is there’s no way Undertaker is returning just to lose to John Cena.

Prediction:  The Biker Taker

WWE Universal Championship

Brock Lesnar (C) vs Roman Reigns

WrestleMania-34-645x370Finally, we’ve arrived at the last match on the card. Though even as i type this I’m frantically looking over the card to make sure I didn’t miss anything because it feels like this damn thing is never ending. It feels kind of crazy, but Lesnar has been Universal Champion for an entire year having won the belt from Goldberg at last year’s event in a brief exchange that never made much sense. Lesnar has had a pretty bland year. WWE has built him up so much that actually defeating him is meaningful (even if Goldberg did it in about 20 seconds), so it’s probably put too much thought into how he should eventually drop the belt. In the real world, Lesnar’s contract with WWE is up following the event. I don’t know if it ends immediately or if there’s an appearance or two left, but all signs point to Brock leaving WWE to pursue a UFC career once again. Lesnar has never been a fan of pro wrestling, so it’s not surprising that he seems to get bored with it. His match quality has steadily gone downhill and a break from the company is probably needed. Hopefully, he takes some pride in in appearing in the main event for WrestleMania and gives a good performance in what could be his final match. Reigns, of course, got to take down The Undertaker last year and temporarily retire the Dead Man. His appearance in this spot has been assumed pretty much ever since despite his failing to become a repeat Royal Rumble winner. Reigns moves a ton of merchandise, which is why he’s booked as a top babyface despite the crowd often being very much against him. For this match, WWE has wisely booked him as the full-time dedicated wrestler railing against a no-show superstar like Brock. They even booked no-shows for Lesnar making fans wonder if his absence was part of the show or if he legitimately didn’t show up for Raw. It’s probably the only way WWE could make Roman the good guy here, but in reality a snarky WrestleMania crowd might just shit all over this one from the start making its placement at the top of the crowd some-what risky. WWE has proven that, if nothing else, it’s all in on Reigns so don’t expect a big surprise. Whether the crowd boos or not, this one is going on last and Reigns is going over. It might not be the best ending for WrestleMania, but after 7 hours, at least it’s an ending.

Prediction:  Roman Reigns

 


WrestleMania XXXII Preview

wwe-wrestlemania-32WrestleMania is once again upon us. This year the flagship show of the wrestling year is coming live from Dallas, TX in front of what could be a record-breaking crowd at AT&T Stadium, home of the Dallas Cowboys. This should be the most exciting time of the year for wrestling fans, but this year’s edition of WrestleMania has a different feel. Injuries, always a factor in sports and wrestling, have played a huge role in shaping this year’s card. None of last year’s title winners will be able to compete this year due to injury. Daniel Bryan, who last year won the Intercontinental Championship in a ladder match, was forced to retire due to injury. Other competitors who can’t compete include Seth Rollins, who won the WWE Heavyweight Championship at WrestleMania XXXI, John Cena, Cesaro, Sting, Randy Orton, Nikki Bella, and others. This makes booking the show a real challenge, but there’s also opportunity. It’s been a pretty good year for NXT graduates, and some of them will be putting their talents on display Sunday. Still, there’s mounting criticism that this show has not been booked well and expectations are probably lower than they’ve been for a WrestleMania in a long time. I’ll get to those issues and more as I walk you through the card for WrestleMania XXXII. I’ll make a prediction on who I think will win as well as include the “opposite momentum” prediction. If you’re not familiar with the concept, opposite momentum refers to the character who looks weakest on the most recent episode of Raw (e.g. – Rock blasts Stone Cold with a chair to close-out Raw only for Austin to win on Sunday) who often ends up winning at the Pay-Per-View. Determined wrestling fans have tested the theory out and it’s usually right in about 80% of matches. As always, card subject to change.

3029093-20160307_wm32-keyart_match_kalistoryback_1920x1080--983d76314f9262b3c351e91fbcefe253Pre-Show: United States Championship Kalisto (c) vs Ryback

This year’s edition of WrestleMania has three pre-show matches scheduled. The pre-show is two hours long (ugh) and one of those hours will be shown on the USA Network and both hours will be on the WWE Network. The first match, as of this writing, pits the US Champion Kalisto against the bruising Ryback. The story-telling for this match has mostly resided on the lesser shows like Smackdown and Superstars. Kalisto, after trading wins with Alberto Del Rio, has been a mostly quiet champion. It’s hard to understand what the future for him is. How much is the WWE behind him as a champ or is he just a place-holder? Meanwhile, Ryback has made a slight heel turn and traded in his air-brushed attire for black trunks prompting chants of “Goldberg” from the audience. The lack of real story development is what probably landed the match on the pre-show. It also raises questions as to why this match isn’t the big ladder match for a minor title instead of the Intercontinental Championship match. I think a lot of behind the scenes guys have always envisioned big things for Ryback, so a win here seems likely for the big guy. Who knows if the program between the two will continue beyond WrestleMania? Match-wise, this one could surprise. Kalisto, for all of the questions around his character and story direction, is a great in-ring talent and Ryback has come into his own (when he’s not trying to wrestle like a cruiserweight). I don’t think they’ll be given enough time to be a true show-stealer, but I expect a solid bout, though the threat of a squash win is always in place in this type of match-up where one guy has such a huge size advantage.

Opposite Momentum Winner:  N/A

Prediction: Ryback

Wrestlemania-32-10Pre-Show:  Brie Bella, Paige, Natalya, Alicia Fox, and Eva Marie vs. Lana, Naomi, Tamina, Emma, and  Summer Rae in a 5 on 5 Tag Match

This is a classic “It’s WrestleMania and we need to get everyone involved” match. Basically, all of the women wrestlers on the main roster (plus two who mostly wrestle on NXT) not involved with the Divas Championship match are in this one. As a fan, these matches kind of suck because the storyline leading up to it is nonsense, or nonexistent, and the matches are usually filler. As a human being, it’s understandable why the WWE wants to get everyone involved. For a lot of wrestlers, being left off the WrestleMania card is devastating for multiple reasons. Unfortunately for Brie, this is probably her last match before she heads off into retirement (unless she decides to wrestle one more match the next night on Raw) and it’s probably going to be a lackluster one. Including Eva Marie with the babyfaces is also bizarre as everyone hates her. I don’t know if it’s bad story-telling or if if she’s supposed to be hated by her teammates. Anyways, the prevailing storyline leading up to this match is Lana vs. Brie. As such, I expect Brie to “do the honors” (the tradition in wrestling where an outgoing star puts over a rising one) and take the pin here with maybe some treachery from Eva being involved. It’s also possible Brie and Lana face-off in a one-on-one match on Raw to close things out, or she takes on Eva Marie if there’s a double-cross at WrestleMania.

Opposite Momentum: Lana, Naomi, Tamina, Emma, and Summer Rae

Prediction: Lana, Naomi, Tamina, Emma, and Summer Rae

HDGdNr4vPre-Show: The Usos vs. The Dudley Boyz

Our last pre-show match pits the babyface duo of The Usos vs. the newly anti-table Dudley Boyz. Borrowing a bit from Mick Foley’s old anti-hardcore gimmick, the Dudleys have given up on tables and turned heel determined to be perceived as something more than a mere nostalgia act. Meanwhile, The Usos are just The Usos and have been in and out of the tag team title picture for years now. Not much is expected from this match, and if it is indeed the final match of the pre-show, it could be pressed for time. If the WWE wants us to take the Dudley Boyz seriously, then they could really use a win here as they’ve mostly been glorified jobbers since they made their return. Longterm, I have no idea what the plan is for this feud, but it seems like The Usos are better equipped to handle a loss than the ECW vets.

Opposite Momentum: The Dudley Boyz (though it’s pretty flimsy)

Prediction: The Dudley Boyz

The Main Card

28aaf_wrestlemania_32_andre_battle_royalThe André The Giant Memorial Battle Royal – Various

This is the male match designed to get everyone not involved in a feud onto the card. Debuting at WrestleMania XXX, the Andre The Giant Battle Royal seemed like it was going to be a one-time thing and also a stepping stone for the victor, Cesaro. Instead, Cesaro’s post-Mania push fizzled and the giant trophy awarded to him was rendered a silly prop. The following year, The Big Show emerged victorious making it kind of a lifetime achievement award for the modern era Giant. This year, I expect the match to also be a reward for an aging wrestler looking for one last moment of glory. Aside from that, there’s not much to say about it. WWE has left the final few slots in the match a mystery, so there could be some surprises or maybe Legends cameos. Regardless, expect a pretty mundane battle royal that lasts ten minutes or so that has no longterm storyline implications.

Opposite Momentum: Not Big Show and not Kane.

Prediction: Mark Henry, who is expected to retire at some point in 2016.

20160324_WM32-keyart_MATCH_8man_1920x1080--70dc5220e7bb48fa403c6d116518156aLadder Match for the Intercontinental Championship: Kevin Owens (C) vs. Sami Zayn vs. Dolph Ziggler vs. Zack Ryder vs. Stardust vs. Sin Cara vs. The Miz

This is another “get everyone involved” match, but at least the participants and the gimmick may lead to an above-average match, potentially a show-stealer. Expect these guys to go all out and try to make this a memorable match. Pretty much all of them are still looking for that “WrestleMania Moment.” While Ziggler, Miz, and Stardust have been here before, Ryder has been with the company for years but never given a chance to shine at a WrestleMania outages of the battle royal at WrestleMania XXX. For the incumbent Owens and challenger Zayn, this is their first go at WrestleMania (in Zayn’s case it’s his first PPV with the main roster), for the longtime real-life buddies this will probably be a big moment for them in front of the biggest crowd they’ve ever seen. Unfortunately, I can’t help but think that this match would be far better as just a one on one bout between Owens and Zayn, continuing their NXT feud which was cut short by Zayn’s real life injury. The US title match would be better off in this spot as the big cluster-fuck match. As it stands, four of the competitors here are extreme long shots to win and a program between Zayn and Owens seems inevitable. It’s possible WWE views that feud as one that doesn’t need a title involved, but that would be a mistake. Zayn got the best of Owens on Raw, so he’s the opposite momentum long shot. Poor planning aside, I am looking forward to this match though I also know that the current climate in WWE means this ladder match has no chance of approaching the Attitude Era ladder matches but it should still be fun. This match should tell us how behind Owens the creative staff is. Owens seems like a future main eventer, and by future I mean soon. A big win here at WrestleMania could help to solidify his standing. A loss in such a chaotic environment could also be seen as a win for him as it frees him up to chase the big one, though like I said earlier, a program with Zayn seems like the next step.

Opposite Momentum:  Kevin Owns

Prediction:  Kevin Owens

wwe-rumors-wrestlemania-32-matches-final-card-ladder-match-intercontinental-title-match-order-kickoff-main-event-styles-jericho-670x377AJ Styles vs. Chris Jericho

This would normally be a classic blow-off match if not for the fact that there isn’t a classic feud-ending gimmick involved. No cage, no unique win conditions, it’s not even no DQ. This is a feud that has been going on basically all year, with the two trading victories before the newcomer Styles picked up a rubber match win. That lead to a brief pairing of the two that last just long enough for WWE to print “Y2AJ” t-shirts before Jericho turned on Styles. There’s no real opposite momentum prediction here as no one really got a leg-up on the other on Raw in a convincing fashion, but expect Styles to come out ahead as he’s the guy expected to hang around while Jericho probably goes back to podcasts and Fozzy gigs. These two guys have a chance to steal the show with a mat-classic on par with Savage/Steamboat, but absent a title, I don’t expect the two to be given enough time to deliver that good a match. Hopefully they’ve held back some spots just for this occasion to elevate this one beyond something we’d see on Raw.

Opposite Momentum: N/A

Prediction: AJ Styles with The Styles Clash

20160315_WM32-keyart_MATCH_NewDay_LON_1920x1080--716572d60de9dac6f4d7d0b626de49e9Handicap Match:  The New Day vs The League of Nations

The New Day enters this match as Tag Team Champions but the belt will not be on the line unless a change is made last minute. It’s also a 3 on 4 handicap match presently but there’s always the possibility of a surprise entrant. The League of Nations debuted earlier this year as a stable and seemed like they were primed for success as a powerful heel faction. Instead, they’ve been afterthoughts ever since Sheamus dropped the WWE Heavyweight Championship and Del Rio the US Championship. An injury to Wade Barrett has mostly kept him on the sidelines but it’s strange it’s taken them this long to get involved with the Tag Team Championship. Meanwhile, The New Day has been one of the hottest acts in the company even though they’re supposed to be bad guys. The audience has latched onto them and started cheering them and they’ve embraced those cheers and become a true baby face squad. Since the titles aren’t on the line, and the League of Nations needs a big credibility boost, I expect them to prevail. If not, they’ll be effectively buried absent a creative finish if they can’t take advantage of the numbers.

Opposite Momentum:  The New Day

Prediction:  The League of Nations

Dean-Ambrose-vs.-Brock-Lesnar-WrestleMania-32No-Holds Barred Street Fight:  Dean Ambrose vs. Brock Lesnar

While the majority of matches preceding this one have suffered from some creative missteps, Ambrose vs. Lesnar is not among them. While one could argue that one, or both, participants should be in the main event this rivalry has been rewarding and this match is perhaps the most intriguing. Lesnar has been billed as unstoppable, often only losing when a triple threat stipulation keeps him from being a part of the decision. When Ambrose has challenged him physically he’s been unsuccessful, which is why this one is being sold as an anything goes match with Ambrose loading up his “red wagon of doom” with various instruments of destruction on Raw. They’ve kept these two from getting physical leading up to the event, so no one has an edge or non-edge heading into this one. I expect a very physical confrontation, and hopefully WWE lets them get as hardcore as they want to otherwise all of the build-up will look silly. With the way Lesnar is booked, it seems unlikely that Ambrose can win here without some outside interference. The Wyatt family lurks, and they don’t have a match anywhere on the card. A Bray Wyatt vs. Lesnar feud has been teased several times so it would make sense for him to cost Lesnar a match here. Perhaps with Lesnar getting decimated so he can be off TV for awhile, per usual.

Opposite Momentum:  N/A

Prediction:  Ambrose

wrestlemania-32-the-undertaker-vs-shane-mcmahonHell in a Cell for Control of Raw:  Shane McMahon vs. The Undertaker

The match that came out of no where. I was pretty excited to see Shane come back a few weeks ago, like apparently everyone else, but I was not happy to see him booked against The Undertaker. This is a spot that could be used to elevate a younger guy, especially if rumors of Undertaker’s imminent retirement were true, but instead it’s just a quick and cheap way to add some star power with a returning Shane to a card decimated by injury. Hell in a Cell is also a match I’d like to see put on hiatus for awhile. The creative aspects of the match have been exhausted and few have come close to matching the original Hell in a Cell match and its follow-up. The stipulation here is that if Shane wins he gets control of Raw, and effectively control of the whole company. If Undertaker loses then this is his last WrestleMania match. That part of the stipulation is an empty threat as if Shane gains control of the WWE there’s nothing stopping him from reinstating The Undertaker. And since he’s just doing what Vince tells him to do, Shane really has no reason to hate Undertaker. That stipulation was just a last ditch effort to add some motivation for Undertaker and it failed. As far as the ending of this one goes, it’s anybody’s guess. It seems far-fetched to expect Undertaker to lose to a non-wrestler at WrestleMania, but since his streak ended a few years ago, perhaps it’s in the cards. After all, who cares if he has one loss or two at WrestleMania? The number people cared about was zero. Undertaker could pull a fast one on Vince and allow Shane to pin him, a returning John Cena could somehow get involved, a returning Cesaro, the Wyatts, etc. And no one would be surprised if it turns out Shane and Vince are in cahoots and maybe this was a way to force Undertaker out? That wouldn’t make any sense, but that has never stopped WWE in the past. Maybe the best outcome would be Reigns getting involved on Shane’s behalf, with Shane doing the same in the main event to create a Shane-Roman alliance going forward. I do hope for a Shane victory that keeps him as a baby face because the era of the heel controller of the show has been around way too long. In the end though, I think this match is what it is, a one-off for Shane to liven things up for WrestleMania only.

Opposite Momentum: The Undertaker

Prediction: The Undertaker

20160308_WM32-keyart_MATCH_charlotteshasha_1920x1080--eb9510721be038b7c73cef69ecd758a0Divas Championship Triple Threat:  Charlotte (C) vs. Sasha Banks vs. Becky Lynch

I am not one for hyperbole or prone to exaggeration, so it’s saying something to call this the most important match in the history of women’s wrestling as far as the WWE is concerned. For as long as I’ve been alive, the women’s division has either been an after-thought or a way to inject some sex appeal into the show. Ever since NXT proved the women could be just as entertaining as the men, there’s been a push for the main roster to showcase the women in a legitimate way. It should come as no surprise then that all three participants are graduates of NXT. Charlotte is the heel, daughter of The Nature Boy, she’s had a nice little run with the belt. Banks is the heir apparent and one of the most over stars in the company. Like The New Day, she’s basically a heel that the crowd adores, making her a baby face. Confused? Becky Lynch is the wild card. Every bit as talented as the other two, she’s never held the NXT Women’s Championship and has been riding in the backseat while Charlotte and Banks drive the bus. If rumors are true, this will also be the last match for the Divas Championship as it will finally be tossed aside in favor of a new WWE Women’s Championship. The ending seems too obvious, but oftentimes WrestleMania is fairly obvious as WWE likes to have its fan favorites emerge victorious on the biggest show of the year. For that reason, I see a Sasha Banks victory. She will be the one to carry the Women’s Division into the future and it seems like WrestleMania XXXII is the best way to spotlight her and get the Sasha Era started (especially since the main event seems destined to disappoint). My fantasy booked hope is to have Banks win with a rematch occurring the next night on Raw in the main event to further drive home the fact that the Women’s Division is an important part of the card. In truth though, I could see any of the three women emerging victorious Sunday night.

Opposite Momentum:  Becky Lynch

Prediction:  Sasha Banks

maxresdefault-1200x675WWE World Heavyweight Championship:  Triple H (C) vs. Roman Reigns

It’s possible this match isn’t the main event as the crowd revolt against Reigns continues. Triple H is supposed to be the heel in this one, but the crowd’s disgust with Reigns being forced upon them for over a year now just seems insurmountable. Reigns is not a bad wrestler, but his character is kind of bland. I don’t detest the guy, but he’s not my pick for champ. Still, I wouldn’t go so far as to boo him, and that makes me a part of the minority, I suppose. The dilemma facing the WWE with this match is if it stays on script and has Reigns go over Triple H they risk having 100k people ending WrestleMania with a rain of boos descending on the ring. That’s fine when a designed heel prevails, but the joyous celebration in the ring would not mix well with such a scene. The alternative is to have Triple H win, but I don’t think that’s really in the company’s best interests either. Last year, with the same problem, WWE inserted Seth Rollins into the main event at the last minute to have him steal the belt from Brock Lesnar by pinning Reigns. There’s no Money in the Bank briefcase this year to save them, making the most likely outcome some kind of a crazy finish that sees other baby faces get involved to maybe give Reigns a rub. However, when WWE tried that last year with The Rock, of all people, the crowd still unleashed the boo-birds on Reigns. It would seem a heel turn for Roman Reigns would be best, but is WWE ready to give-up on Roman Reigns as the top baby face in the company not named John Cena? Probably not.

Opposite Momentum:  N/A

Prediction: Roman Reigns

 

There you have it, my picks for the entire WrestleMania XXXII card. Honestly, it doesn’t look like a great show on paper but maybe low expectations will help. The only matches I’m looking forward to are the Women’s match, the Ladder match, and Ambrose/Lesnar. The card is so loaded that there’s going to be some victims of time. I’m interested in the outcomes of the main event and the Hell in a Cell match, but I don’t think either match will be exceptional. Here’s to hoping that WrestleMania will be the start of a new era, one where creative actually listens to the audience and gives them more of the wrestlers they really want to see, and less of the ones they don’t.


Mario Superstar Baseball

Mario Superstar Baseball (2005)

Mario Superstar Baseball (2005)

Super Mario first made his mark in the sports world through the game of golf. Golf has been a game video game publishers have often tried to emulate and Nintendo likely thought their brand would sell better with Mario in a starring (though understated) role as opposed to some new character. Mario has since appeared in numerous golf games for Nintendo and would add tennis to his resume on the Virtual Boy and Nintendo 64. It was also on the Nintendo 64 that the Mario Party games debuted where Mario and his buddies got to show off a bunch of skills no one knew they possessed. Come the era of the Gamecube though, and Mario’s sporting exploits exploded. One such resulting title is Mario Superstar Baseball.

During the mid-2000’s the sports landscape changed. EA Sports, having felt undermined by 2k Sports and their $20 game NFL 2k5, made a deal with the NFL to secure exclusive rights to the NFL brand. 2k would follow suit by doing almost the same thing with Major League Baseball. The only difference was that 2k’s deal with MLB made them the sole third-party publisher of MLB games allowing the first-party developers the ability to utilize the MLB license for their own games (hence why MLB The Show has appeared on Playstation consoles ever since). Nintendo first attempted a baseball game with Red Sox designated hitter David Ortiz as its cover athlete, but for whatever reason, the game was cancelled. Rather than start development on another MLB title, Nintendo instead chose the cheaper route and once more tabbed their mascot for a baseball game.

Mario Superstar Baseball is, naturally, an off-beat take on the sport of baseball. It’s not the first title to do so. There was SNK’s Super Baseball 2020 in the early 90’s, and Midway (having found success with NFL Blitz) released their own exaggerated take on the sport: MLB Slugfest. Mario though could bring something different to the sport in the form of its unique world full of warp pipes and piranha plants. In some ways, the foundation had been laid by Mario Golf: Toadstool Tour, also for the Gamecube, and Superstar Baseball just needed to adapt those features to the game of baseball.

Characters from the Mario franchise play ball in some familiar locales.

Characters from the Mario franchise play ball in some familiar locales.

Probably due to the existence of miniature golf, it’s easy to envision how one could make golf gimmicky but fun for a video game. With baseball, it’s not quite as obvious how such features could be added without feeling forced. Namco, the developer of Mario Superstar Baseball, focused on a small core of characters to focus on while supplementing the team rosters with lesser characters. These main characters consist of the team captains and one co-captain, and they usually have the more impressive special abilities unique to the game. Mario, and brother Luigi, can both use their fire power to enhance their pitching and their hitting. As a pitch, the fireball is blazing fast and tough to square-up. When used as a hitter, if Mario or Luigi successfully put the ball in play it will retain its flaming properties and make it hard to handle for the fielders. Peach and Daisy can both make their ball disappear in a puff of flower petals, Donkey Kong and Diddy Kong wield a boomerang like banana, Yoshi and Birdo an unpredictable bouncing egg, and Bowser and Bowser Jr. call upon their pal Bullet Bill to take the place of the baseball. Wario and Waluigi have this weird, gassy, multiplying pitch that is best scene than explained. The support characters include the likes of hammer bros. and toads, all of which can use special moves but they just slightly enhance their fastballs/hitting as opposed to doing something unique.

The other main way for Namco to apply a Mario coat of paint is with the stadiums. Mario’s home turf plays like a generic ballpark, but Bowser’s is ringed by lava with fireballs shooting across the outfield. Donkey Kong’s is a jungle setting with a croc-infested creek running through it and Peach’s castle stadium has music boxes floating in the air. The unique features of the stadium probably only come into play once or twice a game (which range from 3, 5, or 7 innings) but can bring about fortune but often misfortune for the player. The game is not as wild as other Mario sports titles, but given the actual game it’s adapting, Namco did a solid-enough job in this area.

Special abilities, like Mario's fireball pitch, work better against human opponents than CPU ones.

Special abilities, like Mario’s fireball pitch, work better against human opponents than CPU ones.

The mechanics of the game are largely reminiscent of old school baseball games from the Nintendo and Super Nintendo era. Batters can be moved in the batter’s box at any point during the pitch and the break of each pitch is determined by just pressing any direction on the controller. Pitches can be charged for added velocity, and also for less velocity to disguise a change-up, and varying speeds and break is vital to having success (just like in real baseball). Each team can possess up to five “stars” which allow for the use of special abilities like Mario’s fireball pitch. Stars can be replenished at random times during a game when the player is presented with a “Star Chance” during an at-bat or by striking a star panel on the playing field with a batted ball. Fielding and base-running are also rather old school in their controls, with throwing to a base requiring a direction be pressed on the analog stick. Modern games just map the bases to a specific button, and unfortunately Mario’s game can at times lead to throws to the wrong base. Players can also dash in the outfield, or on the bases, and attempt diving or leaping catches. Most characters have a floaty feel to them making leaping catches a little easier than they would be in an MLB game. Also, characters have special abilities unique to them that often show up when they’re in the field. The powerful guys, like Donkey Kong and Bowser, have powerful throwing arms while Yoshi can catch balls with his tongue. This dynamic helps make each player feel different with some naturally being more suited for one position over another.

The game has various modes such as exhibition, home-run derby, and other mini games based around pitching, hitting, and base-running. The meat of the game though is found in its single-player mode where the player selects a team and barnstorms around a map taking on the other teams before eventually facing Bowser’s team. During the games though, opportunities will be presented to the player such as “get a hit” or “steal a base.” If successful, the player will earn a star allotted towards an opposing player. Get enough of these for a player and you successfully recruit him or her to your team. Recruiting the team’s captain will prevent you from being able to play that team again, so the idea is always to try and recruit all of the other players first before getting the captain. If the player manages to win via the mercy rule, then all recruitable players are recruited at once. On the map, Bowser Jr. roams and his team will contain a collection of any players the player failed to recruit giving another option for recruitment. There’s also a store where items can be purchased that temporarily make the game easier. The mini games are also playable a set number of times which is primarily where the player earns money.

There are lots of players to recruit and improve your team with in the game's single-player mode.

There are lots of players to recruit and improve your team with in the game’s single-player mode.

By recruiting new players one can better optimize their roster. To prevent players from simply loading up on the best, an affinity feature was added to the game that makes certain players work better as teammates of others, or not work well at all. Mario, for example, is more likely to make an errant throw to first base if Bowser is the first baseman. If it’s Luigi instead then he’s less likely to make an error and will also throw quicker. This incentivizes the player to pair up certain characters at key positions, such as double-play partners or outfielders with the catcher for those throws home. Each character, captains and all, also have goals and achievements associated with them. The minor characters may only have 3 or so of these while major ones as many as ten. Some are easy, like score a run, and others quite difficult and dependent on chance. Donkey Kong, for example, needs to hit a home run with both Diddy and Dixie Kong on base for one of his and Mario needs to pitch a perfect game (no hitter allowed to reach base) for one of his. Achieving all of these goals for a character unlocks their star form, which is just a better version of the character. It adds a compelling layer to the game and incentivizes the player to use every character, though the quirkier ones can become aggravating. Building and customizing a team becomes a lot of fun, especially for those who like to tinker, so much so that I wish there was even more depth to it. The goal of the game is to be accessible and fun, but a more robust single-player mode might be even better.

The single player game is surprisingly deep, and the play is quite fun, but the game does have some short-comings. The controls, touched upon earlier, are an issue. Hitting and pitching is simple and intuitive enough, but the base-running is overly complex leading to numerous base-running errors and frequent instances of a runner being doubled-off. Some of that is also due to the field of play being rather small compared to other baseball games and the propensity for line drives being caught by infielders. For a game that’s supposed to be kind of a “wacky” take on baseball, there’s a lack of home runs as well with only the most powerful characters being reliable sources of round-trippers. The game seems to want the player to make use of the item store for super powerful bats if they want to see the ball leave the yard. The special abilities of the captains are also pretty hit or miss, with most of them being a miss. Mario’s fireball pitch seems to work okay on easier difficulties, but on hard the AI never seems to miss. Peach’s disappearing change-up pitch seems to be the only reliable and useful one with Bowser and Donkey Kong’s pitches being so bad they’re not worth using. I don’t think I’ve ever managed to strike out the AI with Donkey Kong’s banana pitch. Wario and Waluigi’s pitch is pretty much just as bad. When used at the plate, all of them are a bit more reliable. The AI will still sometimes feel like it’s cheating with how easy it finds Peach and Daisy’s invisible ball when put in the air, and Donkey Kong’s banana ball is still awful. Wario’s is one of the most effective in terms of introducing an element of chaos to the game as it splits into two balls, with one being the actual ball and one being a fake, and if it’s a fly ball the AI (or another human player) is forced to commit to one or the other. This can make decisions such as whether or not to tag-up or send runners an exciting one.

Not all characters can be expected to use standard equipment.

Not all characters can be expected to use standard equipment.

I love baseball, and I love baseball video games, and Mario Superstar Baseball is probably my favorite when it comes to off-beat baseball games. It’s also one of my favorite Mario sports titles, and even though it has its share of problems, it’s a very enjoyable game. It’s single-player mode is surprisingly addicting, though like most Mario titles, the actual gameplay experience is better when played against other human opponents. Unfortunately, its sequel, Mario Super Sluggers for the Wii, failed to address the faults the game had. In many ways, it was a step back. The single-player game was simplified and less interesting and the power-ups weren’t improved at all. There was also the inclusion of “waggle” controls which felt unintuitive and tacked-on. Rather than swing the wii-mote like it was Wii Sports, the game wanted the player to just move the controller back and then forward emphasizing rhythm. It was unfortunate the game came out so poorly, and if you’re someone interested in a Mario baseball title the Gamecube original is the way to go. I’ve never heard any rumblings of a new entry in the series, but it sure would be nice if Nintendo gave the go-ahead for a 3DS sequel as it did with the golf franchise. For now, Mario Superstar Baseball is sort of an annual tradition for me, where I dust off my Gamecube and settle in for a fun time either by myself or with a buddy whenever the baseball season comes around.


WrestleMania XXXI Preview/Predictions

WM31PosterIt comes every year along with the spring. The “Showcase of the Immortals,” the grand-daddy of them all:  WrestleMania. Ever since WWE Chairman Vince McMahon concocted the idea for a wrestling (ahem, sports entertainment) show with the same prestige as the NFL’s Superbowl it’s been an annual tradition. The event has had its ups and downs over the past 30 years. WrestleMania III famously set an indoor attendance record in Detroit with Hulk Hogan taking on Andre the Giant in the main event, and yet, the wildly popular Attitude Era, was kicked off with Stone Cold Steven Austin defeating Shawn Michaels for the WWF Championship in front of a modest crowd of 19,000. The massive stadium shows have really only come back in the last ten years, and along with it, WrestleMania’s prestige. WrestleMania XXX was the best of the WWE Pay-Per View events in 2014, and that’s how it should be.

WrestleMania XXXI is arriving with a little less pomp than it has the last couple of years. The card for WrestleMania XXVII was not spectacular, but The Rock was hosting and had some real heat with John Cena. The following year, the two locked horns in the main event of WrestleMania XXVIII and would do so again at WrestleMania XXIX. Last year, Daniel Bryan was red-hot as he road into the Superdome for WrestleMania XXX, though arguably the event will forever be associated with The Undertaker and his loss to Brock Lesnar, his first loss at WrestleMania in 22 appearances. This year, the main event is champion Brock Lesnar taking on the up and comer Roman Reigns. The WWE fanbase is not as behind Reigns as the company probably expected they would be, with fan favorites like Bryan, Dolph Ziggler, and Dean Ambrose trapped in the undercard. Despite that though, the card has come together pretty well and there’s a chance for some classic WrestleMania moments. There’s also the chance the whole thing could blow up in WWE’s face. This is an important show for WWE as the company needs to keeping adding subscribers to its WWE Network. There’s a strong chance a lot of people jumped on board for WrestleMania season and plan to cancel after March (last year, a six month commitment was required to keep this very thing from happening but that restriction has since been removed) and a good showing could keep people around a little longer. I am cautiously optimistic about WrestleMania XXXI so let’s get onto the card and how I see things unfolding (note: I avoid online “dirt sheets” so I’m insulated from what is rumored to happen).

The Andre the Giant Battle Royal – Pre-show Match

NXT star Hideo Itami will make his WrestleMania debut during the Andre the Giant Battle Royal.

NXT star Hideo Itami will make his WrestleMania debut during the Andre the Giant Battle Royal.

Last year, the WWE debuted the Andre the Giant Battle Royal and the win went to Cesaro, who stole the spotlight by slamming The Big Show over the top rope. This year, the match has been moved to the pre-show and given that Cesaro quickly found himself buried on the undercard following his victory there’s less enthusiasm for the match this year. The biggest storyline going into the event is the growing rift between The Miz and his personal assistant, Damien Mizdow. There’s also a minor feud between Kane and Big Show while Ryback has been showcased as a potential winner on Raw and Smackdown. Sheamus has had numerous teasers air over the past month advertising his imminent return to the main roster and it’s possible he’ll be a surprise entrant. NXT star Hideo Itami won a tournament on Thursday that puts him in the match as well.

Prediction: Mizdow turns on The Miz and eliminates him, but he eventually is eliminated by Ryback who picks up the win. Itami gets a chance to shine while Curtis “Axelmania” Axel gets taken out before he enters the ring.

Tag-Team Championship Match: Tyson Kidd and Cesaro (C) vs The Usos vs Los Matadores vs The New Day

Cesaro and Kidd have been one of the few bright spots in a lackluster tag division.

Cesaro and Kidd have been one of the few bright spots in a lackluster tag division.

The tag-team division has been rather bland for the past year+ as The Usos dominated 2014 with little competition to play off of. Some of that has been poor writing and booking as there’s talent in the division, but with so much time devoted to long-winded promos on Raw focused on the main event talent, a lot of the undercard has suffered. Even though 2014 didn’t go well for Cesaro in singles competition, he and Kidd have made for a pretty entertaining tag-team and they have good chemistry in the ring. The New Day has been a flop, Los Matadors a side-show, with The Usos seemingly representing the only threat. There’s been no flow to the tag-team division all year, so given that, the match has a bit of a chaotic vibe. This match could be a nice opener for the show if given enough time (and really, that shouldn’t be an issue considering the show is booked to be four hours long), but it also could come across like a typical Raw match. If a match is to be squeezed for time, it will be this one.

Prediction: WWE could put the belts on The New Day in an attempt to jump-start a program that the promotion spent a lot of time hyping. The safe bet, and most likely outcome, is for Tyson Kidd and Cesaro to retain.

AJ Lee and Paige vs The Bella Twins

Apparently WWE couldn’t settle on an opponent for Divas Champion Nikki Bella so we’re getting a tag-team match pairing her with her sister Brie against former champs Paige and AJ. Paige and AJ spent much of 2014 feuding with each other and they enter this match on rocky footing. Much of the build-up has been focused on those two at the expense of their opponents as well as on the Give Divas a Chance social media movement. Because of that movement, it seems likely these women will be given a solid amount of time and a legitimate chance at having a good match, as opposed to being a five-minute after-thought. I’d rather see a traditional one on one bout where two ladies are given the chance to steal the show, but we may have to wait until WrestleMania XXXII when (hopefully) NXT stars Charlotte and Sasha Banks are on the main roster.

Prediction: I’d actually love it if the nefarious Bellas took-out AJ before the match and one of those aforementioned NXT ladies took her place. That’s no slight on AJ, she’s just been a part of WrestleMania’s past, unlike Paige. The NXT women, and their incredible matches throughout last year, are the driving force behind the whole Give Divas a Chance thing and it would be great to see one of them be showcased at the event. Absent that though, I’m predicting Paige and AJ’s inability to cooperate leads to defeat, setting up a feud going forward while Nikki is free to focus on Charlotte, who I expect to debut on Monday’s Raw.

Intercontinental Championship Ladder Match: Bad News Barrett (C) vs Daniel Bryan vs Dolph Ziggler vs R-Truth vs Dean Ambrose vs Stardust vs Luke Harper

The mega-popular Daniel Bryan will be looking to win his first Intercontinental Championship at WrestleMania XXXI.

The mega-popular Daniel Bryan will be looking to win his first Intercontinental Championship at WrestleMania XXXI.

Barrett defeated Ambrose at Fastlane, the PPV event that preceded WrestleMania, and following the conclusion of that match, Ambrose made off with Barrett’s belt. Since then the belt has traded hands amongst the competitors in this bout despite no one actually winning the belt from Barrett. It was funny at times to watch, silly as well, but it’s hard to argue with this outcome. All of the guys in this match, even the often forgotten R-Truth, are extremely talented and if one match is likely to steal the show it’s clearly this one. Toss in the chaotic nature of a ladder match and this easily becomes one to get excited about. Some fans are ticked that a guy like Daniel Bryan is suddenly battling for a lesser title than the WWE Heavy Championship, but with Brock Lesnar being a part-time champ it makes sense to elevate the prestige of the mid-card belts.

Prediction: And that’s just what WWE wants. Bryan wins and becomes Smackdown’s fighting champion and a feud with Ziggler seems imminent. Those two could bring the house down if allowed and perhaps finally the Intercontinental Championship will seem like an important title, which it really hasn’t been for years.

Randy Orton vs Seth Rollins

This one is a classic grudge match between two personalities who hate each other. Orton was off of television for months to sell an injury at the hands of Rollins. Following a return at Fastlane, Orton played coy with Rollins before finally snapping a couple of weeks ago. Orton is a good worker, not a great one, but he’s fully capable of having a great match when paired with a complementary talent. Rollins definitely qualifies as he’s become one of the most electric competitors in the business. Strangely though, he’s still largely untested on the big stage when it comes to singles competition, with his best work often taking place in six-man or triple threat settings. Since the stakes in this match are so low, it’s also possible this match gets is a victim of time constraints if any of the earlier matches go on longer than expected.

Prediction: This one is hard to predict. Orton could use a big win, but Rollins could too. The wildcard is Rollins’ Money in the Bank contract which gives him a title match whenever he chooses to exercise it, meaning he could potentially end the night as WWE Heavyweight Champion. If that were to happen, then I could see Orton winning kind of like Owen Hart beat his brother Brett to open WrestleMania X, only for Brett to go on and defeat Yokozuna for the WWF Championship in the main event. I think the likelihood of Rollins ending the night as champ is low, so I expect him to go over Orton here.

United States Championship Match: Rusev (C) vs John Cena

For the past year, Rusev has been the unstoppable monster heel of WWE. No one has pinned him or made him submit yet, and his anti-US rhetoric makes him kind of a throwback heel. He’s fought mostly lesser stars, until last month when he took on, and defeated, John Cena. Cena has shown off a mean-streak since in getting Rusev to agree to a rematch at WrestleMania. Oddsmakers think this one will go Cena’s way, but I’m not sure.

Prediction: It seems hard to fathom that John Cena could lose twice in a row to Rusev. Last year, he was in a similar situation as he took on an up and coming monster heel in Bray Wyatt. Cena won that encounter, but it just doesn’t make sense to me for him to beat Rusev. Cena does not gain anything by beating Rusev, I’d prefer to see WWE save Rusev’s first loss for a less-established guy who can gain instant credibility. Someone like Adrian Neville, who’s expected to be promoted from NXT, would make sense. Cena does not. I expect Rusev to win, possibly by DQ so Cena can save some face.

Bray Wyatt vs The Undertaker

The last time wrestling fans saw The Undertaker it was following one of the most shocking moments in wrestling history.

The last time wrestling fans saw The Undertaker it was following one of the most shocking moments in wrestling history.

The Undertaker losing at WrestleMania XXX was one of the most shocking moments in WWE history. At the time, I wasn’t sure it was the right move to have Undertaker lose to an already established guy like Brock Lesnar, but credit WWE for handling Lesnar well since then. Undertaker, meanwhile, has not appeared on WWE television since then even during the build-up to this match with Wyatt. Last year’s match with Lesnar was not a good one, due in part to Undertaker suffering a severe concussion during the match, but also due to Undertaker being 49 years old. It remains to be seen what he has left in the tank, even with a year off. And as much as I like Wyatt, I’m not sure he’s the kind of talent that can carry a hobbled Undertaker through a match. Expect a lot of posturing in this one.

Prediction: WrestleMania XXXII will be held in Dallas, Texas. Even though Taker has been famously billed as being from Death Valley, it’s fairly common knowledge that he’s actually from Texas. Therefore, I expect Undertaker to compete next year in what may very well be his retirement match. As such, Undertaker losing here and heading into next year 21-2 seems unlikely. I expect either an Undertaker win or a non-finish. If Wyatt and Taker deliver a great match, it’s possible next year we’ll get a rematch where Wyatt gets the win. Or it’s possible that Undertaker competes against another Texan, like a returning Stone Cold, or we could get The Dream Match which pits Undertaker against one of the guys competing in the next match…

Triple H vs Sting

After years of waiting for the right moment, Sting will make his in-ring debut for WWE against Triple H at WrestleMania XXXI.

After years of waiting for the right moment, Sting will make his in-ring debut for WWE against Triple H at WrestleMania XXXI.

After flirting with WWE for years, Sting finally appeared in a WWE ring this past November at Survivor Series, foiling the plans of Triple H’s Authority stable in the main event. Since then he has appeared sporadically, but the last month has been a busy one for the Stinger as he and Triple H have built up this match. Unfortunately, the wait for Sting to appear in a WWE ring has been so long that he’s now past the age of 50. These two men, combined, are over 100 years old and the quality of this match is very much in question. Hopefully, the prestige of the match-up is enough for them to feed off of because it would be a shame if Sting’s first, possibly only, WWE match was a poor one. Triple H, despite being a part-timer himself, has continued to look good whenever he does lace up his boots. He’s in great shape, and his ability to carry Sting through a match is likely the main reason why he’s in this position as opposed to The Undertaker.

Prediction: It seems almost pointless for Sting to finally appear at WrestleMania only to go down in defeat. Even though the opposite momentum rule, where wrestling often follows a predictable booking pattern of having the guy who looks strongest leading up to a big match lose, strongly favors Triple H, I still envision a Sting victory. Because these guys are as old as they are, it’s possible there will be a lot of interference in this one to slow things down. In the end though, Triple H taps to the Scorpion Deathlock. And if all goes well, maybe we see Sting next year against Undertaker.

WWE Heavyweight Championship Match: Brock Lesnar (C) vs Roman Reigns

Uncertainty clouds the main event of WrestleMania XXXI, which is how it should be.

Uncertainty clouds the main event of WrestleMania XXXI, which is how it should be.

Much to WWE’s surprise, Roman Reigns’ victory in the Royal Rumble was greeted with boos. Even a rare appearance by The Rock couldn’t change things. Since, WWE has tried to repair Reigns’ image with the fanbase, pitting him against Daniel Bryan in the main event at Fastlane and by limiting his mic work. Reigns has done well in this role and he is an up and coming talent. Maybe the spot will prove too big for him, but he and Lesnar make for a pretty solid pairing. The issue there is that “solid” isn’t what you want for a WrestleMania main event. Lesnar has been the absentee champion. His part-time contract with WWE means he’s been booked as an attraction. It was a risk putting the title on him, but he’s been so good in his role that it’s hard to argue with the results. The belt has real prestige, and whoever knocks off Lesnar is going to get a big boost in credibility from such a feat. I think these two are going to have a very good match, probably not the match of the evening, but a damn good bout.

Prediction: Up until this past week, Lesnar’s status with the company was very much in question. His contract was going to expire after WrestleMania, making his defeat at WrestleMania XXXI seem almost guaranteed (which is one reason why so many fans were upset when Reigns won the Royal Rumble as the perception was whoever won that match would be the next WWE Champion) as he teased a return to UFC. Speculation about Lesnar’s future ended though when he announced on ESPN that he had resigned with WWE and was closing the door on his MMA career. Now, it seems, the tide has turned completely and many now expect Lesnar to retain at WrestleMania. There remains the possibility that WWE will turn those jeers aimed at Reigns into a full-fledged heel run having Lesnar’s manager, Paul Heyman, turn on him helping Reigns claim victory.  I don’t think that will happen, but it is a possibility. WWE has spent so much time building up Lesnar this past year that it just doesn’t feel like the right time to have him go down in defeat. Lesnar retains at WrestleMania.


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