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How AEW Succeeds (and Fumbles) with Long-Term Stories

Wrestling

How AEW Succeeds (and Fumbles) with Long-Term Stories

Exploring fan sentiment pre-AEW Revolution (2023)

On the heels of a stellar Revolution event, we settle away from PPV season and back into regular time. Which is as good a time as any to acknowledge what many fans felt have been a lackluster couple of months lately. To do this productively, I thought I’d list the ways that AEW succeeds with their booking style centered around long-term stories. At the same time, I’d explore how I think these coincide with their fumbles and misfires as of late.

Top-tier PPVs

Sting, Men of the Year
Image: AEW

Since live crowds returned to AEW at Double or Nothing 2021, their pay-per-views have been consistently amazing. Yes, the match quality is sensational, and the cards can breathe better without commercial breaks. But further than that, AEW PPVs represent peaks of the biggest rivalries. Story wrinkles from the weekly episodes, along with any questions you may have had, do get resolved at the upcoming PPV.

Adam Page, CM Punk
Image: AEW

‘How will MJF survive an hour against Bryan Danielson?’
‘Is Adam Page doubting himself against CM Punk?’
‘What the hell does “Anarchy in the Arena” look like?’

Our questions and anticipations are resolved in satisfying ways, with respect to how much attention the stories get before a PPV.

For instance, Jon Moxley and Adam Page had a series of matches with no decisive winner. And every week, someone is dismissing their rival. Their Texas Deathmatch at Revolution would encapsulate that active hatred, and reach a sense of finality by the end. Contrast this with The Elite and House of Black on the same card, which had virtually no build (other than vague references here and there). The bout was the show-stealer it was always dreamed to be, but also felt like the beginning of a story between unfamiliar opponents.

Adam Page, Jon Moxley
Image: AEW

The promise of huge resolutions is necessary for memorable stories and deep emotional investment. AEW has five of those huge dates a year to anchor months of new developments. Those five dates have done a lot to earn trust and build a solid reputation. However, as of late, many have also been wary of AEW’s problem of extended, dull valleys in between those dramatic peaks.

Dramatic peaks, dull valleys

Chris Jericho, Ricky Starks
Image: AEW

The payoff for MJF/Bryan Danielson at Revolution was one of the greatest matches in AEW history. But MJF and the Conditions Part 4 (despite the great TV matches it yielded) was far from inspiring. Elsewhere on the card, Ricky Starks/Chris Jericho began full of vigor and a decisive win for Starks. Then, Starks ran through Jericho’s guys every other week, Action Andretti opened his mouth, and the rematch was booked for Revolution two months later. (The worst part is when Starks said he was moving on from this feud so he could have a match at the PPV, and the crowd cheered. And then the rematch was booked.)

Wardlow, Samoa Joe
Image: AEW

Even before that, there was Full Gear 2022. The annual World Championship Eliminator tournament, despite weeks of hefty TV time, landed on the Zero Hour with a semifinal match. Much of the whopping 13-match card was fleshed out roughly 2 weeks before the event. From the tournament, to the return of The Elite, to Toni Storm/Jamie Hayter, to the TNT Championship three-way; huge matches were confirmed with little time to sink our teeth into.

At times, it feels like there’s a lot of fat to be trimmed to get to the good stuff. That’s the ebb and flow of AEW’s booking, and things can’t be stupendously sensational 52 times a year. But adjusting their pacing would do wonders for emotional investment. Wardlow/Samoa Joe/Powerhouse Hobbs for the TNT title sounds like a fantastic idea. But if weeks of build-up went to selling that match specifically, rather than a tag team that went nowhere, interest may have been optimized.

Keeping match series special

The Elite, Death Triangle
Image: AEW

The upside to the ebb and flow of AEW is that many names are deliberately cycled in and out of TV. Whether that’s going from a match, to a live promo, to a backstage segment. Or going back and forth between Dynamite, Rampage, and being off TV. This practice sets expectations that most stories will not be developed in equal detail as the last week. This also organically creates space between any potential rematches, which keeps them feeling special.

How AEW Succeeds (and Fumbles) with Long-Term Stories

Early on in AEW, rivalries like Kenny Omega/Pac, Young Bucks/Lucha Brothers, and Cody Rhodes/Sammy Guevara were established and revisited at varying paces. But every time the series continued, it always felt like there was a need for resolution. Sometimes, rivalries just makes sense like that. Other times, series see personalities change from point A to point B. Death Triangle and The Elite had the wrinkle of Pac coercing Rey Fenix to just cheat. Cody Rhodes and Malakai Black’s entire series was centered around fans’ evolving perceptions toward Rhodes.

Cody Rhodes, Malakai Black
Image: AEW

The potential for sudden, often major changes in wrestlers keeps every installment in a series engaging. AEW often takes sufficient time to book these big matches. With the right people, it can give us amazing, well-paced rivalries like MJF/Punk and Moxley/Page.

Mistiming rivalries

Britt Baker, Thunder Rosa
Image: AEW

When match series are kept special, they communicate consequence and a bond between rivals. However, AEW can tend to ride the line between taking the right amount of time and critically mistiming these rivalries. For every MJF/Punk, we’re likelier to get a Ricky Starks/Powerhouse Hobbs, Britt Baker/Thunder Rosa, Keith Lee/Swerve Strickland, or virtually any Chris Jericho rivalry since 2021.

Every one of these series seemed to have matches designed to be a down payment for other matches. For one reason or another, they just didn’t maintain or elevate the energy of the rivalry. Whether they happen so quickly like Starks and Hobbs, who in two weeks went from 5 minutes at All Out to Rampage Lights Out main event. Or whether they take forever with a destination so obvious, like when Rosa wrestled on Elevation for half a year waiting for a rematch with Baker. Or whether rematches felt like they just happened, or had to happen “a certain way.”

How AEW Succeeds (and Fumbles) with Long-Term Stories

This does not mean those rivalries offer nothing. Sometimes, they just don’t spark. But when they don’t: promos, interviews, and video packages do a lot to propel things forward. Except when Starks already pinned Jericho. Maybe do something, you know, new.

Emotional investment is how they tell their stories

How AEW Succeeds (and Fumbles) with Long-Term Stories

To close, I think it’s important to note what I perceive to be AEW’s primary selling point, the main method by which they tell stories. A phrase I’ve already used multiple times — that being emotional investment. The connection formed with the people we see and the ethos behind AEW.

For instance, we like that AEW talent are always grounded by the wrestling matches. We like that they also appear elsewhere and have their own projects. We like that they use their own voices when they talk and wrestle, for better or worse, because it makes us care about them more. Legends like Sting and Christian Cage. Decades-long overnight sensations like Eddie Kingston and Riho. The Jungle Boys and Willow Nightingales that will soon define the main event scene. We care about how AEW represents pro wrestling people.

If this isn’t enough to hook someone, no changes likely ever will be. It’s not patience. It may simply be preference. But it’s us already caring in the first place, and that tends to payoff in the long term.

How AEW Succeeds (and Fumbles) with Long-Term Stories
Written By

Harvey Garcia is sometimes a poet and freelance writer from Manila; always going to pop for a butterfly suplex, and a good line cut.

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