The first ever Mixed Match Challenge kicks off live on Facebook Watch, as RAW’s Finn Balor and Sasha Banks team up to face Smackdown Live’s Shinsuke Nakamura and Natalya in the first round of the historic tournament…
Finn Balor & Sasha Banks (“Boss Club”)
Shinsuka Nakamura & Natalya
(Winners via submission: Balor & Banks)
It would have been easy to consider Mixed Match Challenge as something of an afterthought, as far as WWE‘s weekly programming is concerned. With seven hours of new content each week across their four main shows (RAW, Smackdown Live, 205 Live and NXT), there’s already a lot for fans to consume and many would argue that a new limited run series consisting of 20 minute episodes airing exclusively on Facebook Watch (for its first-run live airing, anyway) probably isn’t priority viewing. If you felt this way prior to the first episode of the show, you were wrong. If you felt this way after the airing of the first episode, then we can’t help you.
In many ways, Mixed Match Challenge is the most important project WWE has taken on since the launch of WWE Network and everything that came with it. They’ve aired pre-shows and such via their social media platform in the past, but Mixed Match Challenge is the first show they’ve produced that is entirely built around the social media platform they are airing on (Facebook) and, if successful, could open up a whole new area of broadcasting for them moving forward.
Facebook Watch has had a quiet launch, particularly given it isn’t available outside of the United States at the time of writing, and many experts analysing Facebook’s new streaming service have been somewhat underwhelmed. It lacks an identity, according to many, and most people aren’t even aware of its existence. The fact that Facebook, a global beast, hasn’t made it available worldwide also suggests a lack of happiness on their part with how it’s turned out.
With Mixed Match Challenge, Facebook has teamed up with a company desperate to always impress. WWE are incredibly focused on appearing to be a leader in the digital media market, and are always looking for ways to use that to add value to their content, particularly as they prepare to enter negotiations for their next television distribution deals in significant markets for them. There had been lots of talk of a Facebook or Amazon entering the bidding for WWE‘s flagship shows, and whilst such a scenario seems unlikely, its very likely that a successful run for Mixed Match Challenge on Facebook would have USA Network worrying enough that they may add a few extra million dollars onto their offer. Even in the UK, Sky might be watching the show closely.
The business opportunities created by Mixed Match Challenge are there for all to see, but what wasn’t immediately obvious was how WWE would present this show as a television production. Were we going to get a typical 20 minute WWE production, just aired on a new platform, or were we going to get something different? The answer sits somewhere in the middle, which the in-ring content and match graphics having the gloss that makes WWE look like blockbuster entertainment, but backstage segments and video packages being pulled directly from their superstars social media platforms, with text overlays and such that made them look very much like the kind of videos we all find ourselves watching endlessly on Facebook each day. Or at least, I do. Even cheesy cut out images of the superstars taking place in the match, taken from a freeze frame of videos featuring them, felt like a huge departure from a normal WWE broadcast, but perfect for a social media video in 2018. Before the bell had been rung to officially begin the tournament, WWE had already demonstrated an understanding of their target audience and broadcasting platform that I’m not sure I’ve ever seen from them.
For international audiences, their first experience of this show will likely be on WWE Network, where it will go On Demand each Thursday. It will be interesting to see how the snapchat filter videos and cheesy photos that worked so well on my iPhone translate to a TV show being viewed on a giant television screen. Those watching the show for the first time, ten years down the line, will likely be shocked by how the show looks, not realising it was designed to be consumed on everything but a television. Regardless, in 2018, this entire presentation is incredibly fun, different for WWE, and most of all just damn entertaining.
Given the talent involved, it seemed very unlikely that the match would disappoint, but there was always that niggling feeling that WWE would once again prioritise everything except the in-ring action, leaving us with a short and somewhat underwhelming match. Thankfully, any such concerns were misplaced, and this first round match had decent time to tell a good story and show some good spots.
The topic of inter-gender wrestling has been much discussed the past twelve months, with many of the big female names on the independent wrestling scene spending a majority of their ring time battling male wrestlers. For some, it’s wrestling at its best, whilst for others its either uncomfortable watching a man being physically violent toward a woman, or they simply don’t find the idea of a woman being competitive with a man to be realistic. Whatever side of the fence you sit on in this debate, there was never any doubt that WWE would not allow their male and female superstars to make physically violent contact with each other. Or certainly not male on female, at least. Given the market they work within, WWE are absolutely right to take this position.
With that said, we certainly were given some wonderful moments of interaction between the men and women here. Nakamura catching Banks mid-air, as she went to dive to the outside to hit Natalya, was brilliant, as was Banks’ response (“Are you kidding me?!”). Natalya hitting the ropes to make Balor drop off the turnbuckle, thus likely preventing Balor hitting his finisher on Nakamura, was perfect too, and I really liked Banks’ last second save as Balor was about to be successfully pinned. They were little moments of interaction and, whilst some will claim their were all in favour of the women hurting the men, this viewer found each moment exciting and different. They pushed the boundaries of their match limits very well, and deserve credit. In fact, I think it boosts interest in what we might see in the upcoming episodes, or at least it does for me.
The match had superstar power, with Banks and Balor looking like megastars throughout. Natalya showed as much enthusiasm for the match as her opponents too, and that is something that has been great to see from all the competitors ahead of the launch of this competition. There is a real enthusiasm amongst the talent for this show and their position on it, and given they seem to have free reign to use their social media platforms in whatever way they deem fit to increase interest in the show, it feels as though the shackles are off for many of them, and they can just have fun. That certainly came across in this episode.
Mixed Match Challenge is an exciting show, and has the opportunity to leave a very impressive legacy when it’s all said and done. If Facebook and WWE are happy with the numbers, which seems almost guaranteed given it airs for free and WWE does massive views for all its videos online, one sees the potential for more limited run series’ like this, or perhaps even the expansion of this tournament into an actual weekly short-form show. The possibilities are endless, and I’m absolutely strapped in for the ride.