A lot has happened since 2K released its ill-fated WWE 2K20 game in October 2019. The world is a different place, console gaming has moved on, and even fans with long-term memories have begun to forget just how bad the game was when it launched. In truth, even repeated patches couldn’t save it. The constant negative coverage eventually forced 2K to issue refunds to players, discontinue ongoing support for the game, and leave servers for its predecessor online so players could continue playing that instead.
If WWE 2K20 had been a higher-profile game, it could have been a disaster for the company. It would have made headlines around the world in the same way that the broken state of Cyberpunk 2077 did when CD Projekt Red launched it in 2020. To CD Projekt Red’s credit, the company is still trying to fix that game six months on from its launch. To their detriment, various aspects of it are still broken even after the latest fix. In that way, 2K’s task is easier because they’re moving on to a new game rather than patching up an old one. For better or for worse, WWE 2K22 is in late-stage development and should be on the market within the next six months.
The problems caused by the 2K20 version of the game that 2K and WWE agreed to effectively skip a year and move on to 2022 instead. There was no WWE 2K21. Instead, the company released another WWE-themed game called “WWE Battlegrounds” instead. It was a more cartoonish, arcade-focused take on the over-the-top action that happens inside WWE’s wrestling rings and wasn’t well-received by fans. The general consensus upon the game’s release was that although players appreciated a change in approach after the failure of 2K20, they wanted a vastly improved version of the same game. “Battlegrounds” was an amusing distraction but wasn’t acceptable as a replacement. 2K22 has a lot of ground to make up when it arrives – and its job is harder than that of any previous instalment in the long-running franchise.
In the “real world” of wrestling, WWE is no longer the only game in town. All Elite Wrestling has now firmly established itself as a rival company and is broadcast in a prime time slot on American television with syndication around the world. AEW is the younger, “cooler” company and will soon have video games of its own. One of them, a casino feature that uses AEW stars as window dressing, is already available. There’s a little bit of symbolism in the existence of that game. WWE was also scheduled to produce a series of slot games in partnership with a company called Bluberi and have them available in places like 21.co.uk sister sites and others by the end of 2020. That didn’t happen. AEW beat them to the punch with games and might yet beat them to the punch with the first high-quality wrestling game for the new generation of consoles. The company is working with the designers of the highly-rated N64 classic “WWF No Mercy” to create an official AEW in-ring video game and aims to have it available by either late 2020 or early 2021.
WWE has already suffered the embarrassment of AEW Dynamite beating WWE NXT in head-to-head television ratings on Wednesday nights, compounded by the further embarrassment of AEW managing to produce and publish an online slots game while theirs fell by the wayside. Vince McMahon and his company are unlikely to tolerate a further failure by 2K – especially not when they’ve had over a year to learn from the failures of 2K20. This has to be the best version of the game we’ve seen in the past decade. Nothing else will suffice. It has to use all the benefits of the new generation of consoles and give players a genuinely enjoyable game that replicates the look and feel of WWE television. Only 2K know whether they’re on track to do that, but the stakes have never been higher. If they get this wrong, they’re likely to lose the rights to produce WWE video games forever.
At this early stage, there isn’t much to say about the game other than it looks great in the brief trailer that 2K has seen fit to share with us so far. It shows is a super-realistic Rey Mysterio going toe to toe in the ring with Cesaro – both of whom are strange choices for a commercial given their comparatively mid-card standing in WWE. We know from a statement that 2K released in April 2020 that they asked for an “extended timeline” to produce the new game to allow them to focus on quality and fun. Fans hoped that the extended timeline might mean the development of a new game engine. WWE games have been using the same engine since the days of the PlayStation 3. The trailer suggests that the old engine is still being used, which isn’t ideal. We might be wrong about that, but some of the animations seen in that trailer look very familiar.
A reliance on the dated engine might be accepted if fans get some of the features they’ve spent years asking for. Right at the top of the list is “GM Mode,” which would put players in charge of running either the RAW, SmackDown, or NXT brand. The feature was last seen in “SmackDown vs RAW” for the PlayStation 2 in 2008. Its removal caused dismay at the time, and its return has been hoped for in every version of the game released since then. If 2K wants to quickly win fans over, giving them a GM Mode would be the easiest way to do it. An expanded roster, a new “Showcase” mode, and drastically improved graphics and animations are all on the wish list, too. After being given two years to work on the game, there’s no reason why 2K couldn’t and shouldn’t have got these things right. If this isn’t the best looking, most detailed, and most immersive WWE game of all time, the blame has to be laid squarely at their door.
Based on the release dates of previous games in the series, it’s likely we’re looking at either September or October for WWE 2K22. On schedule, that should put them ahead of AEW’s game. If it’s awful, expect the AEW game to comprehensively outsell it. Even if it’s good, the existence of the AEW game is going to have an impact on its prospects. This is probably the last chance the WWE 2K series is ever going to be given to get things right. The countdown to finding out whether they’ve managed it has already started, and the clock is ticking.