WWE tag team champion Xavier Woods does not fit people’s stereotypical preconceptions of what a professional wrestler is. He’s got a Master’s degree in psychology and is currently working towards earning his PhD. He’s really into comic books and cosplay. And he spends hours playing video games on the road, in hotel rooms and at the arenas before Raw and Smackdown go live. He’s also a gaming YouTuber.
Woods is not the only gamer in WWE. Numerous pro wrestlers skip the bar these days in favor of late night gaming sessions. But among them, only one is dropping gaming references in the middle of Raw every Monday night and only one of them is reinventing the way we view an entire field of wrestlers, one gaming video at a time.
A self-professed nerd since he was a kid, Xavier Woods (aka Austin Creed) is a member of one of the WWE’s most popular acts, the current tag team champions The New Day. He also somehow has time to run UpUpDownDown, a popular YouTube channel he created. The basic premise: Creed gathers himself and several other WWE Superstars in a room, and they play video games together. They play everything from Madden to Mortal Kombat to Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Turtles in Time. Creed uploads two or three videos per day. They’re a mix of streams, skits, interview bits, and tournament gameplay. His channel has an audience of nearly 400,000 subscribers. The gameplay, though fun to watch, is not the main attraction. The sessions are usually edited down to their highlights.
The video games are an entry point for the real hook: seeing the WWE wrestlers let down their guard and be themselves. It’s a great chance for mid-card wrestlers to shine. It lets WWE performers who might be locked into one-dimensional characters show off a side of their personalities that they don’t get to show on camera. Take Ryback. He’s a musclebound freak on Raw, but he shows a softer side on UpUpDownDown, when he discusses his childhood nickname, Bubba, and playing racing games at Arizona Charlie’s.
Or check out Kalisto, who gives Creed an awkward, impromptu Spanish lesson. We can count, on one hand, the number of times that Kalisto has spoken on Raw. This briefest of clips humanizes him, and makes him more than just another lucha libre guy in the eyes of fans.
Sometimes, in the course of these videos, we learn more personal tidbits about our favorite wrestlers. In this clip starring NXT Women’s Champion Bayley, she discusses how she played a lot of video games when she spent time with her dad. Her parents divorced, and her dad’s girlfriend’s daughter was the same age as her. It’s the sort of casual revelation that rings true for many gamers, who have deep conversations over a Mario Kart race or a Street Fighter II match. Video games have that power to provide a safe, disarming space for vulnerable kids to have fun and be real with one another.
Creed is uniquely qualified to bring the realest side out of of his fellow co-workers. He is the de facto leader and manager of the funniest, most eccentric stable in professional wrestling, The New Day. Together with Kofi Kingston and Big E. Langston, Creed turned a humiliating, career-killing gimmick into something that was uniquely his own.
Black wrestlers are rarely given a fair shake in professional wrestling. Being black is often their only gimmick, and it manifests itself in humiliating ways. Kamala was a cannibal from Uganda. Cryme Time were street hoodlums who stole things. The New Day, as first conceived, was a gospel praise group. The trio were booed, vociferously, for all the wrong reasons. It wasn’t because they were taken seriously, but because they were not.
It seemed like a creative dead end, three more careers sacrificed on the altar of the WWE’s creative team. Slowly but surely, however, the trio started altering the gimmick, and making it their own. It started with little things. They started adding in weird, hip swivels to their dance moves, and they started improvising more of their on-camera talking segments, a liberty granted to few wrestlers on the roster.
They eventually abandoned their church roots altogether, and today, The New Day can be best described as a weird mashup of nerdy jokes and Internet memes. None of this disrupts the show, however. The references and jokes are obscure enough that anyone who doesn’t get them won’t feel alienated or left on the outside. For the fans who do get them, however, there’s a feeling of camaraderie, like sharing an inside joke. Take the moment when Creed played the Final Fantasy victory theme on his trombone. And just last week, Creed referenced his Triforce/Hyrule Crest tattoo on Raw.
Between the video game references, the unicorns and the trombones, the WWE fans now chant, “New Day Rocks!” without a shred of irony. That’s because for all its deliberate corniness, the gimmick feels like something real, something that was created entirely from the heads of the wrestlers who are performing it. And by all appearances, Creed is the ringleader and visionary for this more authentic identity.
The rivalries on UpUpDownDown don’t come off as scripted WWE programming. They don’t feel like put-ons. They’re competitive but in a friendly way. The shit-talking is of the ‘buddy’s basement’ variety. It feels like something authentic. For example, check out this Mortal Kombat X duel between Sasha Banks and Bayley, which ends with Bayley enduring the worst makeover possible.
Or look at this clip, which depicts the finals of a Madden NFL 16 tournament, where Jack Swagger takes on Seth Rollins. The enthusiasm in both of these clips is infectious, personal, and above all, real. It’s friends being friends, and loving what they are doing:
There are the random cameos. Sometimes it’s with the creators of other gaming channels like Cross Counter TV, sometimes with professional gamers like Justin Wong. Sometimes, Creed feuds with video game journalists, like our own Patrick Klepek.
And then, there’s the series of videos that Creed made with Kenny Omega, who works for the top wrestling company in Japan. Here were two wrestlers, from two promotions, conducting a crossover angle over Tetris and NBA Jam. It’s unheard of in professional wrestling. The WWE makes headlines when wrestlers are backstage at each other’s promotions. But here we have a star from NJPW feuding with a star from WWE, in public, out in the open. The Internet allows for a level of spontaneity and randomness that would never pass muster on television.
There’s a lot you can get out of watching Creed at work. On his YouTube channel he’s giving us new insight to a bevy of WWE stars. On TV he’s an unlikely smack-talking, Left4Dead-referencing, Brony champ. His success is a victory for anyone out there who’s ever loved a dorky, nerdy thing and decided not to care who else knows about it.
Kevin is an AP English Language teacher and freelance writer from Queens, NY. His focus is on video games, American pop culture, and Asian American issues. Kevin has also been published in VIBE, Complex, Joystiq, Salon, PopMatters, WhatCulture, and Racialicious. You can email him at email@example.com, and follow him on Twitter @kevinjameswong.