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Wrestlemania XL weekend already has its first champion thanks to WWE 2K24

Cody Rhodes stands on a ramp in WWE 2K24.
2K Games

Before the first bell of Wrestlemania XL has even rung, WWE has a new champion.

As part of this week’s WWE World fan event, the wrestling promotion held a special WWE 2K24 tournament in Philadelphia. The competition paired six Superstars up with celebrities, who fought in digital tag team matches to earn the shiny 2K Championship. It was a much friendlier kickoff to this weekend’s heated event, which includes street fights and ladder matches.

More than that, it acted as a good reminder of why the 2K series’ current iteration works as well as it does. In just a few short matches, the tournament gave way to some natural in-ring storytelling that had a crowd of fans gasping and cheering. It all ended with a dramatic conclusion that gave Wrestlemania weekend its first championship coronation — even if it was a Philadelphia Screwjob.

Getting pumped

The WWE World event, housed in the Pennsylvania Convention Center this weekend, is a multiday fan event filled with interactive activities and merch. The show has a main stage that hosted several events this week, including a panel with Rey Mysterio and an appearance by Cody Rhodes. The WWE 2K24 tournament would close out Thursday night after a Q&A session with The Rock (who showed up two hours late, claiming he was delayed after watching videos of the Philadelphia Eagles’ playoff loss).

As the crowd impatiently waited for the Final Boss’ arrival, I caught up backstage with the WWE talent on hand who got in some pre-tournament matches. Competitors included Kofi Kingston, Johnny Gargano, The Miz, Jey Uso, Zelina Vega, and Bayley. Each was paired with celebrities, from Gabriel “Fluffy” Iglesias to rapper Wale. Kinda Funny’s Greg Miller served as a suitably grumpy referee for the event, too, playing the part of a loudmouth heel convincingly.

This was my life when I was a kid!

While the WWE 2K series is an escapist fantasy for most players, it’s more like a job simulator for the actual performers featured in it. When I asked wrestlers on hand what it felt like to play a game like this from the other side, “surreal” was a recurring answer.

“It’s almost surreal,” R-Truth (who served as a coach for his Awesome Truth tag team partner, The Miz, during the tournament) tells Digital Trends. “I do play games with my kids at home and I enjoy playing because my character is in the game. To see where it’s started from to where it’s at now with everything down to the graphic detailing of tattoos and eyebrow rings and piercings, it’s phenomenal.”

Hulk Hogan and Andre the Giant face off in WWE 2K24.
2K Games

While R-Truth notes that it’s hard for a video game to truly capture the spirit and emotion of performing in front of a massive live audience, he praises the 2K series for capturing the nuances of WWE wrestling. The New Day’s Xavier Woods, who hosted the tournament alongside Tyler Breeze, agrees with that strength. For him, the surreal part comes from seeing his real persona come to life alongside his custom creations.

“This was my life when I was a kid!” The New Day’s Xavier Woods says. “Playing these games, and making myself, and creating stories and how you win the championship. Now, I’m legitimately in the game. But what’s even more intense for me is that they took my Create-a-wrestler and put him in the game this year … It’s cool to have me and what my actual persona is in wrestling, and then the childhood me of what I thought I was going to be in wrestling.”

So, what’s the most realistic thing about WWE 2K24 according to a wrestler? “The frustration of not being able to beat Roman Reigns,” Woods says.

No mercy

After a long delay thanks to The Rock, the tournament finally kicked off on Thursday night. The setup was simple: The six teams were split into a three-match tag-team bracket, with the three winners all facing off in a final elimination match. As soon as the opening matches kicked off, I was reminded of what makes the series special. There’s emergent storytelling that comes out of its matches, which mirrors the real product surprisingly well.

In the first match of the night, The Miz and his partner punched their ticket to the finals in a lively opening bout against Team Bayley. That win quickly set Miz up as a babyface for the tournament with a respectful victory. The second match had an entirely different narrative, as Johnny Gargano beat Jey Uso and Wale in mere seconds after Wale couldn’t kick out of an immediate submission attempt (the rapper would place the blame on dead controller batteries). That would paint Gargano, the current “champion” of Xavier Woods’ UpUpDownDown YouTube gaming channel, as the fearsome force to beat.

In record time! #TeamJohnnyGargano progresses in the #WWE2K24 Showdown Tournament!@JohnnyGargano @fluffyguy @WWEUsos @Wale pic.twitter.com/488nCs3BDS

— UpUpDownDown (@UpUpDwnDwn) April 4, 2024

When a WWE 2K match is operating as planned, it can produce some surprisingly thrilling results. The third match would pit Zelina Vega and Kofi Kingston against one another in the closest match of the night. The digital match, operating under Tornado Tag rules, was a tense back and forth, complete with clutch reversals and razor-thin pinfall attempts. It got the crowd on its feet, who hooted and hollered at the legitimately dramatic moments. In the end, the trash-talking Kingston, alongside partner Robbie Fox of Barstool Sports, would come out on top, setting him up as the tournament’s cocky heel.

The most cogent bit of storytelling happened before the finale, when The Miz challenged Johnny Gargano for a shot at his UpUpDownDown title in a one-on-one match. Gargano begrudgingly obliged, leading to a spirited bout that created the perfect lead-in for the proper tournament ending. The three teams joined up for an elimination-style match, where the last person standing would win it for their team. Both Miz and Gargano’s celebrity pals went out first, leaving the two at a disadvantage against Kingston and Fox.

Perhaps still feeling the steam from their last match, Miz and Gargano would go at one another. That allowed Team Kofi to pick the bones of their weakened opponents and walk away with a clean victory. It’s the kind of well-scripted win-ring story you’d see in a WWE match, one that naturally emerged through play. The fact that the audience ate it up like a real match speaks volumes to the simulator’s current power.

Of course, it wouldn’t be a wrestling tournament without one last swerve. The 2K Championship is not a tag belt; it’s a solo championship. In a surprise twist, Kingston and Fox would have to go head-to-head to determine the true champion. Greg Miller joined, controlling Cactus Jack as the in-game referee. A brewing stage with Kingston during the show played out in-game, as Miller deliberately screwed Kingston over during a pinfall with a fast three count for Fox.

And so, Wrestlemania XL weekend got its first champion: Robbie Fox.

And your winner of the @wwegames #WWE2K24 Showdown is @RobbieBarstool! pic.twitter.com/HOaQNsbMtd

— UpUpDownDown (@UpUpDwnDwn) April 4, 2024

While it was a surprising outcome, it was logical booking within the small digital universe the competitors wove over two hours. I could trace the characters and storylines, enjoying the chaotic tournament as a spectator sport. It’s the same reason I’ve spent countless hours watching simulated matches in MyGM mode over the last few years; even computer-controlled fights produce some genuine entertainment. That’s the surreal joy that R-Truth points to.

WWE 2K24 is available now on PS4, PS5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X/S, and PC. If you’re looking to watch some real matches, tune in to Wrestlemania XL this weekend, streaming live on Peacock.

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Giovanni Colantonio
Giovanni is a writer and video producer focusing on happenings in the video game industry. He has contributed stories to…
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