This week, WWE refreshed their rosters in the form of the Superstar Shake-up. Superstars were moved from Raw to SmackDown LIVE and vice versa, and called up from 205 Live and NXT to the red or the blue brand. Several of the switches make sense and are enticing, but overall, the 2019 Superstar Shake-up was an abject failure.
The concept of a yearly event to switch the rosters up makes a lot of sense, both in and out of kayfabe. But the manner in which WWE executed it this year was sloppy, nonsensical, and confusing. Back when it was the “Draft,” it was easily one of the most exciting events of the year for WWE fans: Raw and SmackDown‘s General Managers would scout talent, propose trades and make strategic decisions to try to increase their brand’s success at the expense of their competitor. Yes, Raw and SmackDown have always been owned by the same company, but with authority figures for each show whose storyline jobs are on the line, it makes all the sense in the world that SmackDown would try to beat Raw, and vice versa.
And just look at legitimate sports if you need any proof that people care about drafts. Stat nerds, fantasy team owners and huge fans alike all watch the NFL and NBA drafts live, hold parties, and predict what their team is going to try to do. In the age of the WWE Network and social media, it’s easy to imagine WWE producing Sportscenter-type shows where talking heads argue which brand should vie for which Superstar. Trades could be made at all hours of the day, announced via push notification or tweet. It could become a week long event, and one of the most exciting for hardcore fans of the industry.
Under the original brand split, this is nearly exactly how it was presented, under the name WWE Draft. General Managers had advisors and sat in war rooms, reacting to their competition’s choices and adjusting their draft strategy accordingly. Superstars likewise sat together, watching monitors, awaiting their destinies. It created some memorable moments, and lended plenty of verisimilitude to the brand split concept as a whole, helping viewers forget they are watching one company shuffle around their athletes and instead making it feel like a heated competition.
Instead, the draft evolved to the “Shake-up,” where no analysis or even reasoning is given — Superstars just suddenly appear on a show, and that’s where they are now. Well, most of the time — even the commentators are apparently left in the dark, as Michael Cole and Corey Graves wondered aloud several times if Ricochet and Aleister Black appearing on Raw meant that they are now Raw Superstars. I don’t know, Cole — you tell me! We’re just as lost as you are. Any semblance of logic or reason would be greatly appreciated.
Early Tuesday, hours before SmackDown LIVE aired, WWE.com ran an article saying that Vince McMahon was going to announce the “largest talent acquisition in SmackDown history.” This would have been cool, if SmackDown‘s General Manager made that announcement. But instead, it was announced by the man who owns every facet of both brands both onscreen and off — how was Roman Reigns a “talent acquisition” if you have already employed him for years?
In addition to the poor imitation of a draft that the Superstar Shake-up is, nearly every aspect of what we did get was bungled in some way. NXT Tag Team Champions the War Raiders debuted under a laughable new name with no mention of their status as NXT Champions. Lars Sullivan was announced as a Raw Superstar, only to appear on SmackDown the next night — yet again with no explanation. For a lot of Superstars, we’re coming out of the Shake-up with more questions than answers.
WWE misses the mark on a lot of things, but this year’s Superstar Shake-up was, from several aspects, an embarrassment. What should be one of the most speculative, fun, and interesting aspects of the WWE calendar was a confusing, laughable mess that only served to dilute the idea of the brand split at all. If, in storyline, there is nobody actually running these brands, and roster changes happen seemingly at random, what’s the point?