Thousands of people gathered to compete at the ballroom Wyndham Orlando Resort this weekend. Esports fans and professional gamers from all around came together to play an array of fighting games. One unlikely competitor, the WWE's World Tag Team Champion Xavier Woods, one third of television's most beloved tag team trio, The New Day, tells me he feels right at home.
Unannounced and unscheduled for an appearance at Community Effort Orlando, Woods showed up to settle a video game rivalry with New Japan Pro Wrestling's Kenny Omega in a ring. But unlike their day jobs, this ring wasn't for clotheslines or chokeslams. It was for Street Fighter V.
Woods, for his part, lost in the rivalry exhibition match streamed on Capcom Fighter's Twitch channel. He told me the defeat left him a bit "salty," but he's having a great and fantastic time just attending.
"I'm kind of upset," he said. "I was very confident going in. I was very confident, even through the middle of it when I was getting beat, that'd I'd come back, and then I didn't. I'm going to go play Dance Dance Revolution to make me feel better."
Woods is no stranger to the gaming world. In his spare time, when not being a WWE superstar, he plays video games with friends and filming it for his YouTube channel, UpUpDownDown. For the past year, Woods has run the channel in part with a team. Unlike many, however, Woods is a natural with games; it's something he says he has done his entire life.
"When I was a child, I wanted to be a pro kickboxer, a pro wrestler and a pro video game developer," he said. "So I got rid of kickboxing because I tried it once as a child, and I was like, 'Oh, someone just kicked me in my temple, and that doesn't feel very good.' But then wrestling, stuff like that happens, but the showmanship and the traveling to different places and everything, it's very, very fun to me. But it's also a very intense grind. It's like my first love, so that's what I wanted to do. But video games were always there for me."
He said games as a kid helped him overcome a bit of social awkwardness -- something hard to imagine for those who have seen him only on national television with his group. Encouraged by his mother, Woods mainly interacted with other children while gaming. That outward expression of himself became more repetitive as his mom set up playdates with other children.
"Without video games, I don't think I'd be where I am today with anything else in life," he said.
Furthermore, his goal for his channel and appearances at events such as this is to show kids similar to him during his childhood that they too can find somewhere they fit in and are accepted.
"I always want to make sure that I'm able to put a spotlight on that for kids who might be in the same position and might feel a little awkward or might get made fun of for reading comic books and staying up till 4 in the morning playing Sonic," he said. "I want to show them that, no, that stuff is awesome and fun and that look, you can go be CEO and make a ton of money, and you can be in an awesome fighting game community."
He said his success as an entertainer stems from seeing what video game characters do. On television, as Xavier Woods and The New Day, he's known for being a funny, upbeat character on the WWE roster. At Wrestlemania 32 in April, he and tag team partners Kofi Kingston and Big E came out of a box of "Booty-O's," a spoof cereal brand made after the trio.
"I want to be heroic like Cloud, and I want to be funny like Crash Bandicoot and Sonic," he said. "There's so many different things. I wish I was agile like Spider-Man and everything we do that draws on the childhood inspirations and the adulthood inspirations, for that matter. They're definitely the reason how I am, how I am today because I was a smaller kid, who was a nerd."
As a child, he said he was beaten up by other kids because he was relatively small, and he has vivid memories of those days. But it made him who he is.
"Having those things happen to me has turned me into what I am today, and now those kids who were mean to me when I was little, they're like, 'Oh, hey, can you sign my action figure for my kid?'" he said. "It comes full circle. You can say success is the best revenge. Having those experiences and then drawing on video games has shown me that I don't ever need to hide what I am. This is me."
As an athlete, Woods is still very much a "nerd." He said he's crazy for games, and it's what he, and now many of his wrestling peers by relation, enjoy. He has gotten his tag team partner, Kofi Kingston, into video games more, so much that Kingston recently bought a PlayStation 4, according to Woods.
"Kofi now has his PlayStation, A.J.'s got a PlayStation, and Aiden English has one, so, like, it's like an arcade backstage," he said. "It's cool because the way our jobs are, there's like a lot of down time, so it's a way to keep moral high in the locker room. It's like any job, there are people you hang out with and people you don't. So I feel like bringing more video games in the locker room has helped bring more people together."
But casual gaming isn't all the WWE superstars are doing. According to Woods, they have an annual in-house Madden football tournament, which is coming up soon this year. Woods said things such as that have made the WWE roster that's involved more of a "brotherhood."
"We're all in a room, and we're all having fun, and it's brought all of us much closer together, which I like because this is, this is our brotherhood," he said. "It's our home away from home. It's our second life since we don't get to see our families all the time, we don't get to do what quote, unquote typical people get to do. This is a way to kind of alleviate being on the road 300+ days of the year."
The gaming future of Woods is still very bright, as well. He said he wants to continue doing UpUpDownDown and produce gaming content, both when at home or when on the road with the WWE lineup.
"I'm really just having fun making content, and I'm hoping with the channel that we can continue to make more," he said. "Like our schedule is that we definitely have four videos a week, but then I'll do unboxings, so that's another extra one. And then if anything drops in the middle of the week, like if I wouldn't be on a schedule show, I'll try to do some more of that."
When I ask him if he has anything to say before we sign off, he said, "Stay in school, kids, and make sure that you play a lot of Street Fighter, especially if you're going to play someone at a tournament in front of a lot of people, so you don't get beat."