Mixed Match Challenge brings fun back to the WWE

More so than any other team, Alexa Bliss and Braun Strowman embraced the opportunities of the Mixed Match Challenge to take creative risks -- like the double team Twisted Bliss that Bliss hit from atop Strowman's shoulders. Courtesy of WWE

For WWE fans of a certain age, syndicated weekend TV shows were the starting point of a lifelong fandom. The matches were often short, highlighting the stars of the day as they took on local talent or lovable losers. One of the best parts of those shows was getting to learn more about these characters and investing in their stories.

That type of storytelling and character building has also been a big part of the first round of the Mixed Match Challenge -- and it's made the show fun and different from anything else the WWE's doing right now. They've taken cues from old syndicated shows like Superstars, polished them up for a modern audience and presented them in a format that allows them to connect to a whole new generation of wrestling fans in a simple, straightforward way.

Whether it's the promo videos in a little box in the corner of a screen, or the full-blown vignettes shot on location, backstage or in whatever other space they can find, we've learned more about the characters of the 12 participants in this tournament in its first six weeks than we've gotten in years of weekly TV. It's simultaneously over the top and an opportunity for a more natural, conversational style of promo that feels far less packaged and overproduced than Raw or SmackDown -- and it's been very effective.

Admittedly, the WWE and the world in general are vastly different than they were two or three decades ago. With five-plus hours of live TV most weeks (and 10-plus hours during pay-per-view weeks), to say nothing of taped shows like NXT and Main Event, the pace at which stories have to be written and the amount of people on the roster both work against much nuance -- and the depth of characters tends to suffer sometimes. But the WWE's experiment with Facebook Watch was a chance to try something new.

When the WWE announced the Mixed Match Challenge tournament in December, few knew exactly what to expect, beyond it airing on Facebook Watch. But as details began to emerge, and the field started to fill out, it became clear that the WWE was treating this as more than an experiment in how they offered content to fans -- it was also an opportunity to tell stories in a different way.

Each of the 12 teams, which feature one man and one woman, got a video in which they met their partners, and the videos continued on various forms of social media as each of the characters tried to feel out their partners to find the right ways to coexist. Teams like Sami Zayn and Becky Lynch campaigned to be together, husband and wife pairings like Jimmy Uso and Naomi and Rusev and Lana made sense, and other pairings -- even seemingly unnatural duos like Bayley and Elias -- fell into place.

Some of these videos leaned on the verge of outrageousness and silliness. Zayn tried turning Lynch evil through the use of his hat, and Lynch used Tony Chimel to prove there was still goodness in Zayn. Asuka and The Miz, on opposite sides of the good/evil spectrum, bonded over their confidence and successes. Alexa Bliss and Braun Strowman worked the little/big dynamic to perfection -- both in promos and in the match itself.

Shinsuke Nakamura and Natalya bonded over their eccentricities and Natalya even let Nakamura wear Jim "The Anvil" Neidhart's pink Hart Foundation jacket to the ring for their match. Bobby Roode and Charlotte Flair had almost matching ring gear already, to say nothing of their pre-existing ties to Ric Flair. Finn Balor and Sasha Banks were a natural fit with their similar roles and swagger on Raw. Carmella dove headfirst into the shenanigans of Big E and the New Day. Bayley tried to play the guitar but couldn't quite get through to Elias. And Mandy Rose, a last-minute replacement for an injured Alicia Fox, turned out to be the perfect muse for Goldust.

And then there's the matching gear for teams like Carmella and Big E, or Lana and Rusev. There are so many rabbit holes to go down, in fact, that needless to say you could get lost on YouTube, Facebook or Twitter with hours of entertaining content outside the matches themselves. Trust me, I've done it.

By taking the time to tell a different story for each team, in videos that seem far less heavily scripted than WWE's weekly programming, real personalities shone through and -- believe it or not -- it felt as though everyone involved was having genuine fun by throwing themselves into this event. The last time there was an outlet for WWE superstars that felt this genuine was the now-defunct show "Talking Smack", which offered an open microphone and a chance for anyone who wanted to take a shot at something new or creatively challenging.

Real emotions are one of the easiest ways for fans to connect to wrestlers, and yet those moments are often sorely lacking when words are being read directly off of a page. The six matches thus far have been a bit more over-the-top than the typical WWE style, and also harken back to more of an 80s and 90s style -- but it works.

The broadcast itself has been built for a live experience through Facebook Watch, but funny enough, that hasn't been the most common way for fans to consume the Mixed Match Challenge. There were more than 135,000 live viewers in the opening week, but with that live broadcast limited to fans in North America, the weekly viewership has settled to around 65-70,000 live viewers per week. But there's optimism to be found in the total number of views for each video once they've been archived. Each of the six first round matches has at least 1.7 million total views on Facebook alone, with Elias & Bayley vs. Rusev & Lana hitting 4.5 million views; each match is also made available afterwards on the WWE Network. Sandwiched between two hours of SmackDown and an hour of 205 Live, it makes sense that a lot of viewers would simply go back after the fact.

WWE is clearly in a moment where they're willing to take risks -- the changes in the presentations of Raw and SmackDown prove that. While there's a lot yet to be learned from this event, and from other experiments to come, elements of the Mixed Match Challenge's presentation are already being integrated into Raw and SmackDown.

If they could take more time to build up characters and allow superstars more creative freedoms, we could well look back at the Mixed Match Challenge and point well beyond this 12-week run as the start of a newer, more fun era of the WWE.