WWE is worried about All Elite Wrestling.
If nothing else, that was proved last night when WWE ran its annual Survivor Series show in Chicago.
AEW debuted last month on TNT and WWE, upon hearing the announcement, would move NXT to the USA Network a short time later, programming the show head-to-head against AEW’s Dynamite program.
Last night at Survivor Series, WWE matched up RAW, SmackDown and NXT talent against each other. It’s their yearly battle for “brand supremacy,” which is a dumb premise, but last night it was an eye-opening revelation.
NXT won the night, winning four matches. SmackDown won just two and Raw pulled up the caboose, winning just one match.
NXT looked like a star-studded roster, with wins over engrained WWE stars. Was this WWE’s attempt to build up the NXT roster as being on a level playing field with the main-roster talent? It sure felt like it.
That’s quite clever on WWE’s. They’re in a war on Wednesday nights, and until this past week — ironically when RAW and SmackDown talent were on the show — WWE was losing that war.
Building up the NXT roster to be equivalent to the main-roster talent is necessary for the war against AEW. The byproduct of that, however, is that it could come across as WWE defining down its main-roster talent. That shouldn’t be too much of a concern with the way WWE executed the NXT wins at Survivor Series, but it’s an issue that could persist if the angle continues onto this week’s television shows.
Regardless, NXT didn’t look like the outcast last night. Instead, it looked like the place where the best wrestlers are competing. NXT wrestlers beat main-roster champions. They won elimination matches. They not only looked competitive, but they also looked superior.
While that’s a step in the right direction for WWE’s battle against AEW, I’m not convinced that they can build up that roster with just one night of matches. It takes time. Hot-shotting NXT to some wins on one pay-per-view isn’t as impactful as good long-term roster building.
That’s WWE’s biggest challenge, though. Up until now, NXT was the third “developmental” brand, no matter how many times Triple H tried to say it was just a third “touring” brand. It was on WWE Network, not cable television, and its house shows were in smaller venues than typical WWE house shows.
The hardcore NXT fans, who are probably the same fans who are fans of AEW, always looked at the NXT roster as a bigger deal than the main roster. Convincing those fans isn’t the problem.
AEW has had challenges building a larger audience than its hardcore base, and WWE’s challenge is legitimizing the NXT roster to the same “casual” audience that AEW is trying to capture.
Last night was a step towards that for WWE, but it can’t stop with just one show. When NXT wrestlers are “called up” to the WWE roster, they need to be treated like main-roster stars. They need wins.