We Asked the Guy Who Operates WWE ThunderDome About the Tech’s Post-COVID Future

Plus: How much of that crowd noise is genuine, and just how quickly did executives settle on the set’s badass name?

Last Updated: August 28, 2020 @ 7:15 AM

Vince McMahon welcomed fans back to live wrestling last week, virtually, via a pricey and impressive setup known as “WWE ThunderDome.” With all due respect to “Mad Max,” Mad Vince might do it bigger and better.

While McMahon is the man ultimately behind WWE’s direction, Duncan Leslie is the guy tasked with making it all work on-site at Orlando’s Amway Center, where the WWE has recently taken up residency.

Leslie, the professional wrestling company’s senior vice president of event technical operations, told TheWrap the intention was to give the WWE Universe — what The McMahons dubbed their world-leading league’s fans — “via technology, the most immersive experience that we could think of.”

That came with a hefty price tag.

“It’s an expensive venture but I think the dividend is well worth it because we’re helping move to some type of normalcy,” Leslie said.

And the investment isn’t just being mentally amortized over COVID times: McMahon, Leslie & co. don’t plan to pack up the set for good once real butts can sit in real seats again.

“We don’t want to just shed all of the learnings and all the accomplishments that we’ve created with the ThunderDome,” Leslie said. “This technology will still be available to us whether or not we — and hopefully soon — have fans in attendance. We developed it, we planned for it, we executed it, and now it’s up to creative to decide how they want to implement it in the longterm.”

ThunderDome’s virtual version of “normalcy” sees “1,000+” fans on LED boards populating the two (or so) sides of the wrestling ring captured by WWE’s hard camera. From their virtual seats, fans can cheer the babyfaces and boo the heels — but here’s a list of what they CAN’T do:

  • No profanity
  • No violence
  • No inappropriate language
  • No inappropriate clothing
  • No nudity
  • No off-color remarks
  • No third-party brand or political messaging

For those who have not yet made it into the Florida arena via webcam, we asked Leslie if there are any differences to what ThunderDome crowd members see vs. what TV viewers watch at home. The answer, probably unsurprisingly, was nope — other than the fact that the live feed to (mostly) computer screens is not slightly delayed like television is.

“They’re seeing the program cut,” Leslie said, which is what you’d see on the arena’s Jumbotron during normal live-attendance times or from your couch a couple of times per week.

As for the audio, that’s a bit less straightforward.

WWE uses what Leslie called “a virtual audience mix” — in layman’s terms, they pump fake crowd noise into the telecast but they can “introduce the fans at home” by unmuting the ThunderDome participants. That option comes with a “slight delay” and “a lot of ambience” at home, he said, but it’s a nice option to have.

Oh, and by the way, that badass name is borrowed from the 1985 Mel Gibson-Tina Turner movie, the third in George Miller’s trilogy.

That was settled on “pretty quick(ly),” Leslie told us.

WWE ThunderDome, like “Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome” back in 1985, feels futuristic (and slightly apocalyptic, considering the pandemic) but what does the actual future hold for the tech? (The WWE ThunderDome technology comes from The Famous Group, an in-demand fan experience company located in Culver City, Calif.)

We asked Leslie if the WWE will try to coordinate fan chants, a regular experience at arena events during normal times, via a chat room. WWE already has a moderator and WWE Superstars hosting the event and providing instructions for ThunderDome participants throughout the evening.

“Maybe down the road there will be more structure if creative and production feel it will enhance the experience, but right now it’s sort of an open playing field for us,” he said.

If you have not yet seen the ThunderDome setup, watch Sunday’s “SummerSlam” opening via the video above. Readers can also catch it weekly on “SmackDown” (Fridays at 8/7c on Fox) and “Raw” (Mondays at 8/7c on USA Network.)