WWE SummerSlam: WWE Goes All Out at Amway Center With New ‘Thunderdome’ Viewing Experience
State-of-the-art set features LED boards, pyro, lasers, virtual fans, drones
After a months-long hiatus in which events were confined to the WWE Performance Center in Orlando, WWE has returned to big-time arenas with SummerSlam Weekend at Orlando’s Amway Center, its first PPV event from a major venue since early March. In addition, WWE is debuting its “Thunderdome” viewing experience, featuring live virtual fans in shown on massive LED videoboards, as well as an arms of pyrotechnics, lasers, graphics, and drones.
“Being back in a world-class arena like Amway Center, we now have the space to put all of the toys from our toy box. So we’ve added an amazing amount of additional LED displays, lasers, lights, pyro, cameras, and — the thing that we’re most excited about — a virtual audience,” says WWE SVP, Technical Operations, Duncan Leslie. “SummerSlam is really a MiniMania for us, so we already have a very potent infrastructure, and we’ve just built on top of that for this year.”
Friday’s episode of Smackdown and Sunday’s SummerSlam PPV is just the beginning for the WWE ThunderDome, as WWE will continue its residency at Amway for the foreseeable future. Raw, SmackDown, and PPV programming will still be produced on closed sets with only essential personnel in attendance moving forward.
Thunderdome Designed To Take Fan Experience to ‘an Unprecedented Level’
WWE has teamed with The Famous Group (TFG) — which played a significant role in the Inner Circle of virtual fans for the NFL Draft and the ‘NFL 100 All-Time Team’ Mixed-Reality Pregame Presentation at Super Bowl LIV — to create the Thunderdome experience. This presentation, which WWE promises “will take WWE fans’ viewing experience an unprecedented level,” will bring fans virtually to the arena via live video on LED boards using TFG’s proprietary technology.
“The main concept behind the Thunderdome is to add energy [to the event],” says Leslie. “We have a symbiotic relationship with our fan base. So working with The Famous Group and using our technical and design prowess, our plan is to integrate the live audience in this virtual world. And it’s truly like nothing you’ve ever seen before.”
Fans can register for their virtual seat to be part of upcoming shows via www.WWEThunderDome.com or at WWE’s Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter pages. Leslie expects Sunday’s PPV to feature as many 1,000 live feeds of virtual fans lining the stands of the arena.”
In order to deliver the ThunderDome activation, WWE rolled in an additional six tractor trailers full of LED and projection equipment. A total of 16,296,488 LED pixels were added for Thunderdome, including 1458 7mm 600x600mm tiles in seats of arena ((9,331,200 pixels) and 480 7mm 600×600 tiles in Thunderdome truss above ring (3,072,000 pixels). Three 30k projectors cover the ring and 32 20k projectorsfor the Thunderdome (16 live and 16 hot back up). Video screen processing is handled by 32 Nova pro processors (16 live and 16 hot back up), six Nova VX4 processors (3 live and 3 hot back up), 12 CVT’s, and required 2500’ Tac 12 fiber (3 @ 500’ and 1 @ 1000’) and 2500‘ Of Cat 6 ethernet cable.
In addition to WWE’s “normal” touring set (21 production trucks), the Amway Center setup required eight more truck loads of rigging and truss, seven trucks of video product, five trucks of lighting equipment, and one truck of pyrotechnics and special effects. Also brought in to serve the Thunderdome are 32 projectors lining the floor to project onto a fabric “ceiling” that is approx. 100ft in diameter and sits 47ft from the ground, as well as 100+ lasers, and 6100+ pieces of pyro technics
“The reason that we’re so excited about [Thunderdome] is that the virtual audience is going to be real people: each face you see out there is a real fan. That is really motivating us, because the fans are the reason we’re here in the first place. And now we can provide them with an immersive environment and a very enriched experience.”
Beyond Thunderdome: NEP Mobile Units, TowerCam, Drones, More
Although the Thunderdome scene is sure to dominate conversation among fans, there is plenty of firepower behind the scenes as well. NEP’s WWE 1, 2, and 3 trucks are on hand at Amway to produce this weekend’s broadcasts. In terms of cameras, WWE has deployed three Sony HDC-4300’s running at 4X slo-mo and 11 Sony HDC-2500’s, including a jib and Steadicam.
“This set is massive and impressive,” says Leslie. “It’s almost like a talent on its own that we want to showcase. With the additional cameras, our director now has tools that will show off all the elements from almost any angle.”
New to WWE’s complement will be three Sony HDC-P1 camera heads fitted on robotic systems, including a TowerCam overlooking the main stage. With no fans in attendance in Orlando, WWE has also been cleared to use two drones during the live production.
“The TowerCam gives our director a different look that we haven’t had before,” says Leslie. “We have the jib, and we have the Steadicam, but this list will give us a vertical perspective. And it marries very nicely to the drones that we’re using, which we’ve never been able to use in an arena before because of the audience but we’re excited to have here.”
Safety First: Keeping the Crew Healthy at Amway
Leslie has also worked closely with WWE’s medical team to ensure that the crew is as safe as possible at the Performance Center the past few weeks and now onsite at Amway Center.
All crew members are required to wear PPE and maintain social distance at all times while at the venue. In addition, WWE has instituted a rigorous COVID-19 PCR testing policy with all personnel tested regularly throughout the event setup over the past three weeks. There are also daily temperature checks, and a questionnaire must be completed each time staff arrives at the arena.
“We’ve really embraced the new world of safety first,” says Leslie. “Of course, we’ve always tried to be safe, but this is obviously an entirely different level in the COVID world. We’re doing everything we can to adhere because we want our crew and our staff and our talent to feel safe. We believe we’re giving them the tools and the procedures that allow that.”
Since WWE’s NEP mobile units are already some of the largest and most robust in the industry, Leslie and his team have plenty of flexibility to spread out positions and ensure social distance. The production team, for example, has been split between the primary control room in Unit 1 and a secondary control room in Unit 2.
WWE will continue to administer its health and safety protocols for talent, crew, and employees in conjunction with each production following SummerSlam, including PCR testing for COVID-19, social distancing, and wearing masks.
“We have one of the most, if not the most, loyal and talented crew in television production,” says Leslie. “We are so proud to have them back working. We did our best to avail what work we had over the past few months, but it’s nice to see so many familiar faces coming back. We have a family atmosphere out here. We really like working together because there’s such a mutual respect. And, frankly, we’re most excited because it, hopefully, brings some normalcy not only to our lives but to viewers at home.”
SummerSlam Weekend kicked off Friday night with SmackDown on Fox and continues tonight with NXT TakeOver XXX (at the Performance Center) and the main event on Sunday at 7 p.m. ET — both on WWE Network.