It’s a good job I didn’t write my planned article on what to expect and/or hope for from WWE 2K21, because the game has been cancelled as per a short statement at the end of WWE‘s quarterly investors call from Frank Riddick, interim chief financial officer, who simply said: “there’s not going to be a launch of a game this year”. This follows a YouTube video from Justin Leeper, a previous contributor to WWE games during the SmackDown vs. Raw era, who revealed a week or so ago that WWE 2K21 had likely been cancelled, but that there would be a different WWE game released this year.
There’s a lot to unpack here, so here I am going to delve into what is a very significant story for fans of wrestling games, pondering what led to this moment, what we might expect in the future as a result, and why this may not be all bad news; as a matter of fact, it might be the best thing that could have happened for those who truly love grappling in a virtual form.
Why Was WWE 2K21 Cancelled?
We’ve yet to receive an official explanation as to why 2K21, which had been in development, will now not be released, but it isn’t hard to come up with some answers. The coronavirus which has impacted virtually everything across the world, and will continue to do so for several more months as well as causing an extended after-effect, may well have disrupted development of the game to such an extent that the development team decided there was no point in trying to make this game a reality in time for its typical October release date (for instance, how could cut-scenes be curated when social distancing is the current global mandate?).
However, most people believe that this cancellation could have happened anyway, given that WWE 2K20 was a complete disaster. The basic foundations of the game were reasonable enough as a follow-up to the well-received WWE 2K19, though it still felt like a let-down due to a disappointing legends roster, a heavy reliance on fantasy content that only had limited long-term appeal (which also removed any chances of DLC including new wrestlers in their typical form), a “simplified” control scheme that actually seemed more complicated than its predecessor, a lack of new creation tools and so on. But worse was to come.
Though the series has been known for featuring a ton of glitches, 2K20 took things to a new level with an insane amount of game-breaking bugs. This meant that you could not play through the main single-player modes, as well as making the task of competing in matches ludicrously tough, and it also impacted the visual appearances of wrestlers (you’ve likely seen the screenshot of Becky Lynch having seemingly lost her face, but with her eyeballs remaining). There were so many issues (as well as the pre-order bonuses not being ready for launch, an autographed card being missing from deluxe editions and the Create A Championship mode – which had appeared in several previous games – being delayed for a few months) that it took 2K Sports seven or eight patches just to get things to a respectable level, and even then, glitches remained and still do. Add to that the unexpected further issue of the game becoming literally unplayable once 2020 began (how ironic for a game called 2K20), and you have an absolute calamity on your hands.
Needless to say, the criticism was fierce. Those who had purchased the pre-order DLC were non-plussed that their spendings were for naught. Those who focused on the glitches had to either laugh or cry, but ultimately recognised that 2K20 was in a class of its own when it came to being problematic. Reviews were requested to be held off until a little while after launch, likely because 2K knew what was coming, and when they arrived, they weren’t pretty, as scores were at the lowest level ever for a mainstream WWE videogame. It was picked up by non-gaming news outlets (including BBC News Online), meaning that even those who didn’t care for the franchise were aware of what a terrible release this was. Sony even offered refunds for the digital version very shortly after launch, and physical copies in retail outlets saw their prices plummet in record time, which must have cost WWE/2K millions, and of course this then further impacted sales figures, which had already been declining year-on-year. The sad fact of the matter, though, is that while the glitches received the most attention, WWE 2K20 was still considered to be inferior to 2K19 before that whole situation developed due to the second-rate feel compared to what had been a progressive entry released in October 2018.
Why Was WWE 2K20 So Bad?
So, the “performance” of WWE 2K20 clearly influenced the cancellation of 2K21, with COVID-19 seemingly being the final nail in the coffin; after all, if the series was flying, it’s possible that WWE/2K would have found a way to get a new game out to the masses. But how did things reach such a level for a once-thriving franchise that 2K20 became the last straw, and will be looked back upon as a turning point for all the wrong reasons?
The most obvious explanation is that Yuke’s were either fired or chose to move away from the series (depending on who you believe) sometime between late 2018 and May 2019. Yuke’s had previously developed the games during the SmackDown! and SmackDown vs. Raw days, as well as being sole developers for WWE ’12, WWE ’13 and WWE 2K14. From 2K15 onwards (the first true 2K game; THQ had entered bankruptcy after ’13, so 2K came on board to oversee development of 2K14, but that was clearly a THQ game for all intents and purposes), Visual Concepts partnered up with Yuke’s, and the game clearly felt different. But it wasn’t necessarily a good thing, as the franchise moved further and further away from what had made it so popular in the first place. In the meantime, Yuke’s were becoming increasingly frustrated and also increasingly marginalised as far as their involvement was concerned. Ultimately, 2K19 would be the last game involving Yuke’s, and Visual Concepts took over as sole developers.
Now, if you believe that Yuke’s high-tailed it midway through the development cycle, this left Visual Concepts ham-strung, meaning that they had to decipher a massive amount of game coding in a relatively short period of time, thus causing the endless problems for 2K20; in other words, there wasn’t enough time for them to get it right for 2K20. However, if you believe that Yuke’s were fired and had been let go far enough in advance that Visual Concepts had the full year or thereabouts to produce 2K20, then ultimately 2K’s decision came back to bite them badly. Most might have expected 2K20 to be a step back in order to take a step or two forward for 2K21, but instead it leapt back so far that the next planned entry has now been cancelled.
It should be noted, however, that this was merely the culmination of a worrying and lengthy trend of increasingly-disappointing WWE games. As far back as SmackDown vs. Raw 2008, fans were noticing that as consoles were becoming more advanced, the annual WWE titles were becoming less adept at being updated and improved to a sufficient extent. SmackDown vs. Raw 2009, SmackDown vs. Raw 2010 and SmackDown vs. Raw 2011 were still very entertaining but were not as innovative as their predecessors, and had fallen into the “annual franchise” trap of certain elements being left alone for years at a time. Still, they remained fun to play, as were WWE ’12 (which looked to give the series a reset), ’13 (a title which focused heavily on the fondly-remembered Attitude Era) and 2K14, which gave fans the most enjoyable wrestling videogame since the mid-2000s.
When 2K took over properly with 2K15, though, the decision was made to go down the route of offering a realistic, simulation-based title, which more closely resembled the on-screen WWE action. Their intention was laudable, but the execution was not particularly good, and it could be argued that, of their six true WWE releases, only 2K16 and 2K19 could really compare to the SD and SvR titles. 2K15 felt more like a demo than a full game and was missing loads of former features, while 2K17 and 2K18 offered only minimal improvement. If you look at the franchise’s history, each SmackDown game probably changed around 70-80% of its content year-on-year, with the SvR taking that to around 60%, and later 50%. During the WWE 2K era, though, that percentage has fallen to around 25%-30%, which is inexcusable considering that the game has never cost more money (especially when coupled with DLC), and the entertainment value is nowhere near what it was, hence the global sales figures now being at around a quarter of what they were during the heyday of the series. So, whilst 2K20 has proven to be the straw that broke the camel’s back, this was not entirely unexpected, and merely capped off a worrying pattern that stretches back to before 2K took control, but became much more noticeable once they began to steer the good ship WWE.
When I was reading into the catalogue of issues with WWE 2K20, I stumbled upon something which did not bode well for WWE fans. 2K Sports, a sub-division of 2K, has a bit of a history for working on sports/sports entertainment franchises, having things drop to an unacceptable level, and then pulling the plug. An example would be MLB 2K13, a Major League Baseball game considered to be so similar to MLB 2K12 and so lacking in quality that the once-popular series was brought to an end, thus meaning that the planned MLB 2K14 didn’t happen. Going back a little further, NFL 2K was another series – based on the National Football League, of course – that was abruptly ended. This one wasn’t really 2K’s fault as EA Sports signed an exclusive rights agreement with the NFL to ensure that its Madden series would be the only virtual NFL offering, and the last title, NFL 2K5, was very well-received. However, it provides evidence that 2K Sports is a publisher where major franchises do not exactly reach their full potential, nor do they enjoy a long lifespan.
Their priority understandably seems to be the NBA 2K series, but even this has been plagued by the same laziness that WWE 2K has. NBA 2K still boasts higher quality standards than the wrestling franchise, but even the basketball titles are not immune to news-making criticisms, a major one being the heavy focus on microtransactions that has turned a lot of basketball fans off the series. That 2K recently agreed to once again produce NFL titles in a “non-simulation” manner meant that the already-struggling WWE series would now be essentially relegated to third place in terms of significance.
This has led to fans suggesting that WWE should break away from 2K, especially after seeing how bad 2K20 turned out. Whether that transpires remains to be seen, though Justin had suggested (as I will explain shortly) that this may not happen just yet. It’s also worth noting that publishers often drop game franchises, and sometimes they do so even when things are going very well. Nevertheless, 2K’s reputation amongst sports fans as a whole is not very good, so when examining the evidence, it isn’t a surprise that WWE’s titles have suffered a similar fate.
What About WWE 2K22?
Now we come to the interesting part: trying to work out what the future holds for the franchise. According to Justin, there will be a WWE 2K22, so basically the game is actually being delayed until next year, but since this would necessitate a name change, that’s why 2K21 won’t be a thing. He also noted that it would likely still release for PlayStation 4 and Xbox One rather than the upcoming new consoles for Sony and Microsoft, thus meaning that WWE 2K23 would probably be the first next-gen release for the series. This sounds like another blow for the reputation of the franchise, but let’s think about this for a moment.
A common complaint about the series has been how, due to a combination of general laziness and the amount of time required to produce a top-notch game in the current videogame climate, an annual release has not been of benefit to these games when it comes to quality. By taking a year off, theoretically 2K22 has almost double the amount of time to be developed, which should hopefully iron out all of the glitches and bugs, as well as allowing for many more weeks and months to be spent on creating content that will allow the game to stand out from the most recent entries, which could mean a larger and more up-to-date roster, a bunch of new match types, some new or returning modes and more. This also gives developers the perfect chance to start rebuilding the series; I will write a separate article on how the wrestling videogame genre could be revamped, but in a nutshell, the wrestling gameplay engine has been stale for years now, the minimal roster additions haven’t helped each new title to seem fresh, and the series is still missing several popular features that were prevalent in the PS3/Xbox 360 era, and even the PS2 era. All of these areas should be looked at, and that’s just for starters
As for the game delaying its arrival on next-gen consoles, this isn’t too bad when you consider how the series has launched on consoles in the past. WWF SmackDown! Just Bring It on PS2 was the weakest of the three SD titles up to that point, while SvR 2008 is viewed as the game that began the decline due to the title trying to accommodate everybody on six different platforms (some of which were handheld), and as for 2K15 – well, its title as the worst WWE game ever seemed to be safe and secure forever until 2K20 came along. When you also consider that fans would have to fork out for a PlayStation 5 or an Xbox Series X to get in the ring on a new console, would it really be that bad if we had to wait until 2K23, by which point the developers might actually be ready to make the jump? On a slightly similar note, sales figures were bound to be poor for 2K21 anyway, and sales for 2K22 on next-gen might have been minimal too, so it makes sense to avoid the need for another reset next year and to use this year out to ensure that the series undergoes a major revamp that results in a truly enjoyable title for modern fans to come.
One thing is for sure, though: expectations will be raised due to the additional year, so the devs have to make that time count. WWE 2K22 has to be a true comeback, a phoenix rising from the ashes, a game that corrects problems while innovating and also re-introducing some old favourites. In other words, if WWE 2K22 comes after an extended absence for the series and it also underperforms, then fans will be even angrier than they were with 2K20, and that really could be the death knell for the series.
Could WWE 2K20 Still Be Saved?
There is some irony that the game which fans will have to play for an extra year is the one game they hated the most, but maybe there is still a chance for 2K20 to be salvaged. Now that 2K21 isn’t happening, it is possible that 2K will provide extra DLC for the most recent game, since roster updates that were probably being saved for the next game would have to wait an extra year. It could consist of wrestlers who missed 2K20 (WALTER being an obvious example), it could be performers who have arrived in early 2020 (like Austin Theory), or it could be a mix of returning and new legends to give the roster some extra star power. It could consist of some new attires, or some new arenas, either current or retro. They could even give fans another scaled-down Showcase mode, even if it was another Originals offering.
This could be make-good DLC that enhances the value of the game which we’ll have to stick with for the time being, thus meaning that by the time 2K22 does arrive, the reputation of both 2K20 and 2K Sports as a whole might have been enhanced. Don’t bet on this happening, but theoretically, this could happen.
What Will Bridge The Gap
It’s worth mentioning that Justin said there would be a different WWE game being released this year. In contrast, Frank Riddick seemed to rule out the release of any game whatsoever. However, the WWE Games account on Twitter have suggested some “exciting news” on Monday April 27. So, there’s a decent chance that while the flagship series won’t have an entry this year, a different WWE game might, but what could it be?
If we go off the idea that nothing new is being released, this could link in with 2K20 having extra DLC, or it could see the smart device-based WWE Supercard receiving a full console release as a digital-only offering. It’s also possible that 2K is simply going to re-release older titles in some sort of bundle (though this won’t happen, I would be delighted if some of the THQ-era games – which I assume that 2K bought the assets to in 2013 – were released in a digital package). If we believe Justin, though, that some sort of game will be released, then it could be anything from a scaled-down 2K title to a fantasy-based title akin to the Originals offering. I would personally love to see a retro-themed game, or even a follow-up to THQ’s All-Stars offering from 2011, though the odds of that happening right now are low. For what it’s worth, this year marks the 20th anniversary of the classic Nintendo 64 game WWF No Mercy, but they wouldn’t authorise a re-release of that … would they? Either way, while WWE 2K21 won’t be a thing, something is going to help cover that gap, and I’m intrigued to see what that is, even if I won’t set my expectations too high. We’ll know after Monday, I guess.
What Role Will Competitors Play?
By the time that WWE 2K22 is released, perhaps we’ll have that AEW video game that their fanbase has been wishing for since the company was founded. A game is definitely coming, but when is the question, and the even bigger question concerns who will be developing an AEW virtual title. But given that AEW’s leading stars are avid gamers, they will be well aware of the issues surrounding WWE’s releases, and they will want to give fans a truly worthy release. Therefore, WWE 2K22 will face some true videogame competition for the first time since WCW were still in business, hence the increased importance of 2K22 being a hit.
There’s also the mystery surrounding Yuke’s. Back in May 2019, they revealed that they would provide “internal competition” for WWE 2K, which to me suggested that they would still be releasing a WWE game; however, other sources insist that it would be unlicensed. A tweet by Bryan Williams – another person who previously worked on WWE games – of Yuke’s captured many people’s attention back in July which said: “Had a great day at the office today. I basically had a 6 hour meeting with my co-workers discussing plans for a project that I hope becomes a reality. We played a lot of Smackdown Here Comes The Pain today.” SmackDown: Here Comes The Pain is regarded as either #1 or #2 on the list of the best wrestling games ever, and so this hint at the Yuke’s game being akin to HCTP had many people excited. There has been no new information in the nine months since then, however, and the new Yuke’s game may not materialise for a while. But the release of a modern game similar to HCTP would be a superb alternative for fans, thus potentially presenting 2K22 with a second strong competitor. Personally, if it turned out that Yuke’s were actually working on a WWE game similar to HCTP for release this fall, I would be ecstatic, but I am not getting my hopes up on such a development.
Also consider that while the Fire Pro Wrestling series has never been hugely popular with the masses on a global scale, it has garnered a following amongst die-hard gamers for the pure wrestling mechanics, and Fire Pro Wrestling World did achieve more success and publicity than its previous titles. A new Fire Pro in 2021 could be well-timed to put further pressure on the WWE franchise. Add to that the likes of RetroMania Wrestling (a digital-only release that is coming soon), and all of a sudden, we are bracing ourselves for a potential boom period of wrestling games unlike anything we’ve seen since 1998-2000. The only problem is that the leading wrestling title, WWE 2K, is in a very bad place. If they were to use this competition as fuel to succeed beyond anyone’s expectations, it would benefit themselves, WWE, fans, and even their rivals, who could then further enhance their output to try and one-up the big dog in the yard.
The Future Of WWE Working With 2K
I hinted at it earlier, but many fans have felt for years that 2K didn’t have WWE’s best interests at heart. The calamity that was 2K20 and 2K21 being cancelled seem to underline that with a permanent marker, and so many are wondering if this spells the end of the WWE-2K relationship. An extension on their initial 2013 agreement was signed back in January 2016, but the length of that extension was not revealed. Over four years on and with two mediocre titles, a really good offering and a disastrous title in the interim period, coupled with reported reduced budgeting for production and much less annual revenue coming in, this break would be a good time for WWE to consider whether it really should stick with 2K or if it’s time to shake things up, to quote Vince McMahon.
If the WWE license did become available, I’m sure there would be several takers, with EA Sports being an often-quoted example. Also, WWE likes to champion when it works with big-name organisations, so a WWE-EA relationship is feasible. I’d like to think that in such a scenario, a WWE title would be assigned to a suitable studio in order to avoid a game similar to WCW Backstage Assault, a terrible offering from EA in late 2000. Whomever WWE went with, though, they would surely have more to offer than 2K do right now.
Will this happen? I’m not so sure. Given the uncertainty in the world right now, it’s good timing to ponder future decisions, but bad timing to actually initiate major long-term change on that scale (unless of course an agreement has already been reached previously). What I would recommend is letting WWE and 2K get through this period and seeing what we get from 2K22, and then determining at that point (almost a decade into the WWE-2K partnership by that stage) if it’s best to go separate ways. That being said, if this news meant that a different publisher handled 2K22 (requiring a name change in the process), I wouldn’t complain.
If we look at the situation as a whole, it’s a downer for wrestling fans that the flagship game won’t be released this year regardless of the reasons, and unless there is some sort of filler offering, this will be the first year since 1997 without a WWF/WWE game. As someone who has collected these from the N64 era onwards, it’s actually quite sad, though there are lots of other non-wrestling titles which can fill the void in autumn/winter 2020. It’s also yet another omission in what will eventually be remembered as a year when the world essentially had to stand still, given the splurge of sporting events, musical extravaganzas and far more that have been cancelled. However, when you take emotion out of the equation, this was probably the right call to make.
In all likelihood, 2K21 would have only been a slight improvement on the much-maligned 2K20, and it’s possible that any gains made from 2K21 may have been removed when the series tried to go next-gen for 2K22. The series has needed a major revamp for a long time, and the 2K era has seen its quality levels decrease further, culminating with the dumpster fire that was 2K20. This should allow for some sweeping changes to finally be made, and for 2K22 to correct the series’ many flaws while hopefully introducing new features and bringing back some classic modes (General Manager mode in particular)m thus making this extra year worthwhile. Wrestling fans will be more inclined to buy the game if there wasn’t an offering this year than they would have if the usual pattern remained, so it makes sense from a business standpoint. By the time that 2K22 does drop, there may be some extra competition which might further benefit the quality of the next game and any future WWE titles.
In the meantime, WWE may well decide to split from 2K and start afresh with a publisher who actually want to provide the best wrestling game possible, increasing the likelihood that we’ll eventually get a title that measures up to the top titles from yesteryear. There is also still a chance for 2K20 to be salvaged somewhat if the game receives some extra and unexpected DLC, and if we do get some sort of filler game, it might actually end up being more entertaining than 2K21 would have been.
Whatever happens, it’s clear that something had to be done, and 2K21 being cancelled is evidence that the situation had gotten out of hand. By taking this gamble, the hope is that the series can now have its catalogue of issues ironed out so that a new and exciting era can begin from the release of a flagship title by 2K or a separate party in late 2021. We’ll know more information once WWE Games provide their statement this coming Monday, but my initial sadness and disappointment at the news of 2K21 being cancelled has been replaced by some excitement and optimism. While 2020 may not feature a true WWE game, it may be worth taking that hit for the purpose of the series once again thriving from 2021 onwards. Let’s wait and see, but wrestling fans will be watching very closely, and I am personally looking forward to seeing the path that wrestling games – headed up by WWE – take from this point forward.
How ironic would it be if, after everything that has transpired, WWE 2K20’s massive failure ended up being the trigger for WWE videogames to once again thrive in the years to come?