Above you’ll see my view from Sunday's WrestleMania 32, the Super Bowl of pro wrestling that filled AT&T Stadium in Dallas, Texas with over 100,000 warm, screaming bodies. While the action happened in the ring at the bottom left of the photo, I spent most of my time looking up at what I can only describe as an HDTV zapped by Rick Moranis’ magic growth ray in Honey, I Blew Up the Kid.
It’s hard to tell from the photo, in which the ring looks roughly the size of a Mighty Max playset, but the row of seats I shared with friends were, comparatively speaking, above average. We were in the center of the middle tier — dubbed the Silver Section — and had an unobstructed view of the stage and the grand entrance walkway. We could see the entirety of the event IRL, or we could watch a muted live-feed on the 160-foot screen, which until recently held the title of world’s largest high-definition video board. For six hours of professional wrestling we were, it seemed, blessed by choice.
For the first quarter of the card, I actively forced myself to ignore the screen, which pleaded for attention from its position just inside my peripheral vision. I resisted. I’d paid to see WrestleMania in person, not to watch a pay-per-view on a glorified TV. I was determined to watch the real people pummel one another, even if it looked more like two fleshy ants skittering across a cracker. I squinted at the angry insectoids as they quietly traded swooshes with arms and legs — from our spot, you only heard noise from the ring when it was loud enough to be picked up by the microphones concealed somewhere above or below it. Much of the time, jabs and flips and powerbombs landed with a perplexing whisper. Only when a wrestler delivered a particularly violent suplex or performed a death-defying leap from the top ropes — producing a loud thwack over the multi-million dollar speaker system — did I allow my eyes to glance upward at the screen for a close-up instant replay, each wrestler suddenly becoming the size of a ranch house.
I was reminded of a friend who doesn’t own a television. When he visits for dinner, we remember to keep our TV off. Even if the television’s muted or the program is uninteresting, he will watch. The effect is instantaneous, so that we won’t even realize he’s disappeared from the conversation. It’s not that my friend likes TV. No, the problem is that he’s not inoculated. The magnetizing glow, the glossy visuals, and the rapid cutting of perspective that we TV viewers take for granted are, for him, a flood of stimulants.
I felt the same about the video board in AT&T Stadium while watching WrestleMania 32. At some point in the evening, two full matches had passed before I noticed I hadn’t looked away from the screen. My best efforts had failed. Rather than be angry with myself and resist my instinct, I let my attention fix on the giant, glowing TV set hanging from the ceiling, and the show became something different than what I expect from a live event.
Like watching a TV zapped by a growth ray
Watching WrestleMania on the stadium Jumbotron was like watching television while surfing Twitter, except instead of 100,000 tweeting fans I was engulfed in living, breathing, chanting persons.
We all watched the screen, and reacted in unison. When we were pleased we chimed "This. Is. Awe. Some." When were displeased, we shouted something not nearly as nice. As on Twitter, individual opinions were largely drowned beneath the group think. For a new statement to be heard, it had to be shared and repeated by the people around you, gradually spreading across the stadium.
Unlike Twitter, the collective message had the incredible effect of informing what we watched on the screen. When we booed Roman Reigns, the star of the final match, we could see him grimace. And then we booed louder. When we cheered on the middle-aged Shane McMahon, as he prepared to leap dozens of feet from a towering steel cage, we could see him gain his courage. And when he leapt, the cheers struck like a series of thunderclaps, vibrating our seats.
Because we couldn’t hear commentary or even audio from the ring, what happened on the screen and how we reacted became its own conversation. There was no guidance to let us know the importance of a hit. We decided what was good and what was bad, who should win and who should lose. I don’t watch professional wrestling enough to know why I should hate Roman Reigns, who seems like a likable enough man, but I sure booed him. On the big screen, he felt even less like an athlete, and more like a character.
Only when Reigns accidentally dove shoulder-first into Stephanie McMahon, slamming the woman to the ground, inspiring one of the night’s most deafening cheers, did I question what the hell I was participating in.
Commenter culture made flesh
AT&T Stadium was commenter culture made flesh. We didn’t have context, let alone time to digest what was being performed for us. We simply reacted in unison, loudly and passionately enough to be heard. It was intoxicating, feeling enveloped and supported by 100,000 people. Except we weren’t really like-minded; we just repeated what everybody around us had to chant.
On the drive home from Dallas that night, my friends and I received a handful of texts and tweets asking what it was like to attend one of the worst WrestleManias in history. And after a couple days to chew on it, my answer is that I have a newfound respect for the WWE. In a room filled with 100,000 people telling professionals how to do their job — a number of chants expressed who was more deserving to be in the ring — they winced, but stuck to their script. Wrestlers reacted, but the story chugged through the chants.
After the final match, which was booed ceaselessly, the screen displayed a generic WrestleMania footage, releasing us from its gravitational pull. A large portion of the audience pulled out their phones, to provide feedback on a different screen. An interesting thing happened on that tiny stage below after we turned away. The men and women who’d just bore the brunt of the world’s loudest feedback form, gathered with some friends and family who’d made their way to the stage. There, in silence, they shook hands and hugged. The private moment would have been spoiled had it been displayed on the video screen, inviting audience feedback.
I enjoyed watching WrestleMania live on television with 100,000 screaming fans, but the moment I won’t forget passed quietly and without comment.