NXT development system preparing WWE for the future

The NFL has college football, the NBA has the D-League, baseball has the minor leagues and soccer has youth teams and secondary clubs. The list goes on for almost every sport and competition; there's an established path that one can travel, if talented enough, to reach the highest rank in the world.

That wasn't always the case for WWE. In the past, "developmental" territories were used to bring contracted talents up to speed, but there wasn't a defined route for someone whose ultimate dream was to compete at the elite level in the squared circle.

That's where Paul "Triple H" Levesque comes in.

"We needed to create the next generation of talent, and the success [and setup] of the WWE had kind of limited where we were getting these athletes from," said Levesque, the WWE's executive vice president of talent, live events and creative -- and a 14-time WWE world champion.

"People around the world still didn't know how to become a WWE superstar."

When Levesque moved into the realm of talent development in 2011, he had the ability to begin implementing his vision for a modern WWE development system. The reality would ultimately exceed his own expectations.

The first major step was the shuttering of FCW, the previous development territory in Tampa, Florida. In 2012, operations were moved northeast to Orlando. Those remaining in the WWE development system were brought into the newly christened NXT, which aired on a variety of streaming networks, including YouTube and Hulu, over the next two years and provided a platform for young stars like Seth Rollins, Big E and Bo Dallas, who became NXT champions.

The creation of the WWE Performance Center in 2013 was another bold step. The multimillion-dollar, state-of-the-art facility, also located in Orlando, features seven wrestling rings and specialized setups for different types of training. There's also a world-class strength and conditioning program and cutting-edge edit and production facilities on-site.

"I went back and looked at my career and asked, 'If I was a talent today, what would I need to succeed?'" Levesque said. "And I tried to put that all together in one building."

NXT talents now had a home with everything they could possibly need, in direct proximity to the facilities where they filmed their weekly shows. Top-level trainers -- veterans of the WWE and independent organizations from around the world -- were systematically brought in to help mold a growing influx of outside talent into the next generation of stars the business needed.

It was a matter of providing every resource imaginable to these WWE hopefuls.

"We needed to create the next generation of talent, and the success [and setup] of the WWE had kind of limited where we were getting these athletes from. People around the world still didn't know how to become a WWE superstar." Paul "Triple H" Levesque on NXT

"You can't read it in a book," Levesque said. "There had to be a place to go do it, and do it on a regular basis -- to get reps in our business and do it over and over again in front of live crowds. NXT provided that opportunity, and I knew that the bigger I could make that and the better I could make that, the better that opportunity would be for talent to come in [and learn]."

As some of the early NXT champions quickly earned their way onto the WWE main roster in prominent roles, more of the pieces that would ultimately lead to the explosion of NXT's popularity started to fall into place.

The spark that ultimately helped drive the popularity of NXT was the creation of the WWE Network. The live-streaming service allows subscribers access to all of the company's pay-per-view events and thousands of hours of archived content for $9.99 per month.

It was the perfect platform for a budding brand, with its ability to get content out to the kind of audience the WWE Network would ultimately serve -- the most rabid wrestling fans in the world, hungry for something new and exciting.

When the opportunity to hold the first major live event on the WWE Network came around in February 2014, the entire landscape of WWE changed in a single night.

"To me, the turning point is when we did the first TakeOver -- Arrival -- and it was so well-received and so wildly successful, not only for NXT, the brand, but for the WWE Network," Levesque said. "It just changed everything for us, because now, in the United States as well as every place else that we were being seen, NXT had a home and had a global base.

"As it started to become apparent how popular this show was, it became apparent that we could tour outside of Florida and we could go global."

NXT and the WWE Network grew together over the next few years. As subscription numbers surged -- reaching as high as 1.82 million subscribers, 1.454 million of which were paid monthly users around the time of WrestleMania 32 in April -- NXT was pulling in more and more fans on a weekly basis. Live NXT events expanded throughout the U.S., with major NXT cards taking place in New York (during SummerSlam weekend), London and Dallas (WrestleMania 32 weekend).

Another generation of future stars reached worldwide prominence in NXT during that time. Neville, Sami Zayn, Kevin Owens and Finn Balor built up impressive résumés in their time at Full Sail University, where NXT is filmed in Orlando. So did a group of women -- Charlotte, Sasha Banks, Becky Lynch and Bayley -- who would ultimately lead a main roster revolution.

"NXT TakeOver: Brooklyn" was the culmination of a number of different NXT careers. Zayn, Owens, Charlotte, Banks and Lynch had already made main-roster appearances, with Brooklyn serving as a sendoff to the big leagues for most of them.

"When you look back a year ago, it was kind of a special time," Levesque said. "All of a sudden we thought, 'Let's see if we can sell out Brooklyn for SummerSlam weekend.' NXT sold out Barclays [Center] very quickly. If you look at that card, you had Sasha Banks on the top of that card. You had Finn Balor, you had Kevin Owens. Those guys, they all moved on and they're now big stars."

Losing talent is nothing new for NXT. Of the seven NXT champions who came before current titleholder Samoa Joe, all are part of the Raw or SmackDown Live rosters, three have held multiple titles in the WWE and Balor, the latest former champion to debut, is facing off with another former champion, Rollins, for the new WWE Universal championship in his first pay-per-view main event at SummerSlam. The NXT women's champions have an even better record: Three of the four titleholders before Asuka have held either the women's or Divas' championship since moving up to the main roster.

Balor was one of seven NXT talents to move up thanks to the recent brand-split draft, along with American Alpha, Mojo Rawley, Alexa Bliss, Nia Jax and Carmella -- taking another big chunk out of the established roster.

"When we did the draft, I got a lot of questions like, 'Well, doesn't this spell doom for NXT? Isn't this kind of what's wrong, what's inherently flawed in the system, [because] when you create something that is great, [WWE chairman] Vince [McMahon] is going to want to take it, or the company is going to want to take it and put it on the biggest platform possible?'" Levesque said. "I feel the exact opposite way. That's why I'm building talent -- it's to make them as successful and popular as possible.

"They're gone from NXT, but we're still selling out Brooklyn in the Barclays Center, just with a different crop of people. We're selling out Brooklyn now with Shinsuke Nakamura and Samoa Joe, and Asuka and Bayley. It's totally different."

The recruiting process has continued to evolve as those in charge of the process gain more experience and knowledge. By establishing more of a formalized system for bringing talent in and holding tryouts, WWE can now go out and spend the time to scout more promising talent than ever before.

"When we first started out, we were just bringing in bits and pieces here and there, but it actually started working out better bringing in people in groups, and trying them out in groups," Levesque said. "Because then you had a group of people all learning from the same place. The one thing about the Performance Center and NXT is that we have people in there at every level."

Long-time performers like Samoa Joe, Nakamura, Bobby Roode and Austin Aries have the ability to work in the ring as on-the-job trainers to younger, more inexperienced talents hoping to make their way. No matter who remains as the veteran guidance of the roster, NXT can continue to grow and change as each new class enters the Performance Center.

"NXT will constantly be fresh. It's like college football -- you get a new team every few years," Levesque said. "There are somewhere between 70 and 100 talents, men and women, down in the Performance Center, that I feel all have the ability to be WWE superstars. If they don't, then we let them go -- but we feel they all have something to offer. It's about cultivating those [talents] and bringing them up at the right time to compete in NXT."

Levesque has embraced that almost parental feeling of pride toward the "graduates" of NXT. He goes out of his way, both during their time in Florida and after they leave, to publicly recognize their major moments by taking photos and boasting about everything they accomplished.

"I'm giving support to the people that need it as they're coming up, and if me supporting them helps them to be seen differently or gets them seen by a broader fan base, that's great," Levesque said. "That's really what I'm trying to do, expose them and give them that platform to grow and to succeed.

"At the end of the day, that's really what the Performance Center, NXT, all of it is about -- giving them the tools and the platform so they can go out there and live or die, succeed or fail on their own."