We’re live from the Cow Palace in Sacramento, California. The house lights of the arena go red. Beside a curtained entryway, fireworks explode. The crowd roars; music blasts over the loudspeakers. Your entrance music: “Walk” by Pantera. It’s loud, it’s heavy metal — perfect entrance music for a wrestler. And in this moment, that’s who you are: a wrestler on his way to the ring for a championship match.
Except, none of this is actually happening. You are simply you: teenaged, awkward, sitting in front of a Dell computer in your parents’ home on Long Island. The kitchen is behind you, dim and quiet. Your parents are upstairs, watching TV or getting ready for bed. But you are glued to the screen, anxiously reading the play-by-play of a fictional match involving your character, which has been painstakingly scripted out by a stranger in another state. Someone you’ve come to know through the wonders of the internet and on whom you rely for perhaps the most fulfilling form of entertainment in your young life.
When I think of e-wrestling, that’s what I remember.
E-wrestling, also known as e-fedding, fantasy wrestling, and wrestling role-playing, started in the 1980s as “play-by-mail” wrestling during the sport’s initial rise to prominence in pop culture.
The most notable play-by-mail wrestling federation was the Imaginary Wrestling Association (IWA), which was featured in Wrestling World magazine. IWA’s play-by-mail system involved filling out an application listing your wrestler’s name, attributes, and move set. The manager of the league would then select or “book” the matches among the league members. The results, which were computed by an intricate system of move values, would be announced in a league-wide bulletin.
In the 1990s, professional wrestling hit its peak popularity during the Monday Night Wars between the WCW and the WWE, then the WWF during its “Attitude Era,” filled with risque language and sexual innuendo. People all over the country had their imaginations gripped by “Stone Cold” Steve Austin, The Rock, Degeneration X, Hollywood Hogan, and the nWo. Super fans found they could bring their dreams of wrestling glory to life online through e-wrestling leagues, which arose from email, message boards, and chat rooms.
I’d sit down in front of my computer after finishing my homework, log in to AOL, open an email draft, and become Triple X.
E-wrestling hasn’t changed much since those early days. It’s impossible to tell how many active leagues there are, given some have as few as 10 members. Leagues open and close constantly. Messageboards, email chains, league rules, and schedules are all formed and then left to die.
As with any kind of cult game or fantasy sports league, there are variations on how the feds are run and structured. In most cases, though, leagues are broken into two major categories: original characters and non-original characters, which are characters taken from real-life wrestling leagues like the WWE. For the most part, leagues with original characters are given more respect since it takes more creativity to come up with your own unique wrestler.
Wrestlers compete by creating “promos” or “role-plays.” Traditionally, these are written or shared via messageboards or e-mail. When writing a role-play, a league member can choose to mimic the promo style of a stereotypical wrestler like Macho Man Randy Savage, who gave hyperbolic speeches about his skill and the pain he was going to inflict on his opponent. Alternatively, they can come up with an original story for their character — something like a one-act play, a short story, or episodic television.
The owner of the “fed” organizes and oversees a roster of “wrestlers,” or members from all over the map. These owners are also responsible for reviewing “promos” and “role-plays” as well as creating the scripts for the matches themselves. Based on which wrestler role-played the best — or in some cases the most — the owner or administrator of the e-fed will determine the winner and write out the ensuing action and drama in that week’s “card” (wrestling parlance for show). Those weekly matches then build to a monthly “pay-per-view,” or put simply, a really big show, where feuds between wrestlers come to a conclusion or are ratcheted up another level. Sometimes, controversially, a wrestler will win a given match even if he or she was not the better role-player. This is usually done in the interest of playing out a plot-driven storyline to mimic the dramatic mechanics of professional wrestling.
The approach to role-playing, and which style is given more value, varies from league to league. But typically, members who can craft a narrative that is funny, entertaining, gripping, or, in some rare cases, poignant, are treated with more respect.
I learned this all first hand. Though I don’t remember how I actually came to be involved in e-wrestling, the experience has stuck with me for nearly 20 years. I joined my first league when I was 13 or 14. The name of the league was Online Wrestling Alliance (oWa). I started “wrestling” as a character called Triple X. The name was a play on my favorite wrestler at the time, Triple H, and pornography, which was still hard to come by as a teenager in the late ’90s.
As soon as I was booked in my first match, I started “role-playing.” I’d sit down in front of my computer after finishing my homework, log in to AOL, open an email draft, and become Triple X. Mimicking what I thought a movie script looked like, I’d write stage directions placing Triple X in an alley or in the rafters of an arena. Then came the dialogue, long paragraphs where Triple X would describe his best attributes and explain how he planned to defeat his opponent and capture the World Championship.
I started writing role-plays multiple nights a week, earnestly trying to win matches and become champion. The league was lightly populated, and through my badly written approximations of wrestler-speak, I managed to quickly rise up the ranks after a handful of weekly matches. Soon, for various reasons, the league folded and my run in oWa was over as quickly as it had started.
But I was hooked on the experience. There was something about sitting down and writing as a character, sending in your words, having them read by someone else, and then hopefully seeing your hard work validated in victory on that week’s card. The former owner of oWa referred me to a league he had been involved with called Almost Illegal Wrestling League (AIWL).
In the AIWL, I took on a character by the name of TNT. TNT was supposed to be a guy who could suplex you through a car window, and I scripted long-winded soliloquies that told the reader just that. However, I quickly learned that writing bad imitations of wrestler-speak wasn’t going to win me any matches. In fact it was going to get me mocked in the league’s AOL chat room and in glowing instant message boxes. What I only realize now, after sitting through liberal arts college writing workshops, was that this was the first real audience I ever wrote for. And I learned quickly that to get people to read what you write, even as a fake wrestler, you’ve got to be original and you’ve got to be good.
I stayed up late and studied the role-plays of the wrestlers that were successful. The champion at the time was called The Rock. Now, this character wasn’t just a Xerox of Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson who was at the height of his professional wrestling popularity at the time. No, this character was a larger-than-life mixture of Ron Jeremy and the Cyclops from the Odyssey. He was listed at nearly 8-feet tall, wore a loin cloth, had an anthropomorphized penis named the Big Rock Dong, and was irresistible to women. The Rock would get into adventures that involved his penis speaking, eating decadent meals, and hijacking a bus.
“His character’s entire schtick was having this over-the-top sexual drive and prowess, screwing anything that came within 10 feet of him,” Ryan Byers, who managed the league for much of its duration from 1998 to 2004, told The Outline in an email. “I understand it might sound like the fantasy of a teenage boy, but he had a way of writing it that was genuinely hilarious.”
The Rock’s stories were only marginally about wrestling, but that was true of some of the best role-players. They imagined a world where wrestlers weren’t reigned in by the rhetorical tropes that had been developed and packaged over the years in major federations like the WCW and WWE.
“Above anything else, I wanted to be entertained,” said Byers, now a 34-year-old attorney in Illinois. “Really, role-plays that went over best with me — and I think the majority of our readership as well — read more like scripts for comedy sketches or short plays than they did anything you would see transcribed off of a professional wrestling show.”
Byers devoted a tremendous amount of time to the league, ensuring that the members received quality results for the time that they each put in. “I have a hard time estimating how many hours I put into the AIWL results on a weekly basis, but it probably bordered on being an unhealthy amount,” he said. “My AOL account was suspended because the high volume of emails that I was sending out — consisting primarily of AIWL shows — led the company to believe that I had to be spamming people. My father had to call into AOL to have the account reinstated. I was 16, and the company representative that he spoke with told him that my account had one of the highest volumes of time spent online that he had ever seen.”
It turns out that e-wrestling still exists, primarily in closed Facebook groups.
Christopher Trottier is a 24-year-old working as cook in Southern Ontario, Canada. He’s been involved with e-wrestling for over 10 years. He currently belongs to at least three e-feds (Ultimate Extreme Wrestling Federation, New Generation Wrestling, and Extreme Answers Wrestling) under various characters. One, a wrestler named, Chris Cage, was inspired by the Mortal Kombat character Johnny Cage as well as real-life former WWE superstar Christian. Another, by the name of Jericho Cross, was modeled after Charles Manson.
“The biggest thing that attracted me was the literacy at the start,” he said. “I always loved writing, and watching people create these characters and tell stories was a fun hobby in a time where I had nothing else going on.” Though he doesn’t follow professional wrestling that closely, he carves out at least an hour a week to write his promos. “It’s like reading a book, but we control the pages,” Trottier said. “You can see the effort put in by people, and see all these unique characters people come up with. It’s awesome as a spectator.”
“The company representative that he spoke with told him that my account had one of the highest volumes of time spent online that he had ever seen.”
In Kentucky, Tyler Boswell, also 24, e-wrestles as well. Working long hours at a Hitachi manufacturing plant outside of Lexington during the week, Boswell still finds the time to participate in two different leagues. He joined his first e-fed three years ago, and the sense of community appealed to him immediately. “It’s just fun,” he said. “You can get with people who are as into wrestling as you are and just be yourself.” Boswell writes his role-plays “every couple of days” without much planning. “It all comes off the top of my head.”
Boswell’s most recent match saw him reach the conclusion of a long-standing feud. At a previous “pay-per-view” his character Bozzy (a cross between Batman villain the Joker and current WWE superstar Bray Wyatt, an occult US Southerner) had lost the federation championship even after recruiting a stable of wrestlers to watch his back and help him retain that very title. In order to settle the score, he challenged that group to a five-on-five elimination match. Unfortunately, the results were not in his favor as he and his team ended up losing. But overall, Boswell was pleased with the lead-up to the showdown. “It’s always a bummer when you lose, but I don’t take it to heart,” he said. “I was happy with the way the story played out.”
When I reached out to Byers for his participation in this story, he reminded me that the person who handled the character of The Rock in AIWL, Ron Olson, died tragically in 2004 in a car crash at the age of 22.
Ron Olson was your average New Englander. He grew up in Tewksbury, Massachusetts, played high school sports, and went on to play baseball at nearby Clark University. But in the AIWL, he was a champion and had set the standard for the level of writing that could be found in a wrestling role-play.
I remember Byers reporting the shocking news of Olson’s death to myself and the rest of the ex-league members via e-mail when it happened. The league had folded, and most former AIWLers had either moved on to other leagues or, like me, had moved on with their lives. Yet, he felt that it was important that we heard about the passing of one of our own.
Being reminded of Olson’s death made me feel sad for a moment, and then foolish. I was, for the second time, mourning someone I had never even met. But we’d spent hours late at night exchanging messages and sarcastic quips in the AIWL chat room on AOL. There was a time when I’d eagerly read his writing and he’d make me laugh — even though they were just role-plays he wrote as a fictional wrestler.
E-wrestling may seem idiosyncratic, odd, or even pointless. But somehow, people still find meaning in sitting down in front of their computers, pretending to be wrestlers, and eagerly waiting to find out if they’ve won or if they’ve lost.