Modern character creators are stunning feats of game technology and design, letting players build nearly anyone — or anything — they can imagine. And for years, pro-wrestling games led the way in this regard. Wrestling creation tools came about years before they became standard in other genres, spawning passionate communities of fans who connected over a shared love of wrestling. They also learned important fashion lessons along the way, in part because of a unique quirk of the wrestling industry.
Unlike many other sports, pro wrestling has never been united under one umbrella organization. Because of this, a single game hasn’t ever been able to feature every famous wrestler, as big names have had their rights tied up in different places. So as a workaround, games have included pieces of outfits inspired by wrestlers from other brands in their character creation options, letting players piece outfits together themselves.
This use of these parts was discussed in a court case when The Ultimate Warrior sued THQ in 2005, arguing that featuring the elements needed to create him in its games — especially his signature facepaint — was trademark infringement. THQ argued the parts were all generic and that no consumer would presume their existence meant the game was officially associated with Ultimate Warrior. Both parties settled out of court.
By that point, though, unofficial replications had become common practice. Starting in the late ’90s, wrestling fans flocked to sites like GameFAQs to share guides explaining how to make wrestlers using lookalike parts. This became known as Create-A-Wrestler trading (or code trading), with a slew of text guides listing the parts and what colors they should be. As the options expanded, wrestling game communities came to focus on clothes rather than clotheslines.
How CAWs became communities
These communities became fashion-focused because of how and when wrestling game creation modes came about.
The first wrestling game franchise to introduce a CAW mode was Fire Pro Wrestling, a series that, with a few exceptions, hasn’t featured licensed real-world wrestlers due to costs and the developers worrying the games would be “too colored” by the licensed grapplers. Instead, the early games shipped with “bootleg” wrestlers and, starting with 1993’s Japan-exclusive Super Famicom game Super Fire Pro Wrestling 3: Final Bout, the series has offered players an edit mode to make their own wrestlers. The first version of this was barebones, only allowing players to clone an existing wrestler and change their outfit color before saving up to 12 of them on the cartridge. Edit mode returned in an expanded form in 1996’s Super Fire Pro Wrestling X Premium, letting players clone a built-in wrestler and slightly change the look and color of a few outfit parts before saving up to 80 of them to the cartridge.
Most American gamers wouldn’t get to experiment with CAWs until WWF War Zone and WCW/nWo Revenge launched in 1998. Revenge’s edit mode allowed players to change a wrestler’s name, put them in someone else’s outfit, and recolor it. It was also an early example of copyright dodging via creation modes, as alongside the WCW wrestlers, the game included Japanese wrestlers with altered names and appearances, encouraging players to use the CAW mode to make them look closer to their inspirations. WWF War Zone featured an in-depth creation mode that allowed players to create a wrestler from scratch using a massive selection of parts, and this mode was improved further in 1999’s WWF Attitude. Players who looked through these creation modes found many parts inspired by non-WWF wrestlers, including Sting’s iconic facepaint and the mask worn by luchador Rey Mysterio.
These jumps in CAW creation perfectly coincided with three other critical developments. The first was the internet’s growing accessibility, with household internet access in America rising from 18% in 1997 to 41.5% in 2000. Secondly, gaming forums were becoming more functional and accessible, with well-known ones launching around this time, including the GameFAQs forums, which debuted in 1999. Lastly, this era was also the peak of the “Monday Night Wars,” a period that saw America’s biggest wrestling promotions, WWF and WCW, fighting to become No. 1, leading to wrestlers frequently jumping between the two. This all led to perfect conditions for CAW communities to grow and flourish as players desperately wanted to keep their games’ rosters up to date.
Two more jumps in character creation came in 2000. WWF SmackDown! 2: Know Your Role for PlayStation featured an in-depth creation mode that allowed players to layer clothing, opening up many new avenues for customization. The same year, WWF No Mercy arrived on N64 with a CAW mode that gave players more parts to work with, including ones inspired by WCW’s Raven and New Japan’s Great Muta.
As these suites grew in complexity, so did CAW trading communities, as players now had more options and could create more intricate designs, making guides necessary for players who wanted to make a specific wrestler quickly.
These communities — be they centralized ones like the GameFAQs forums, wrestling-specific sites like CAWS.ws, or the numerous smaller forums that existed on free hosting sites like proboards and ezboards — were special because of the unique social environment they fostered, an environment that helped users share their love of wrestling and express and explore their creativity.
While those who joined these forums were already wrestling fans, the forums helped them appreciate it on a deeper level, as outside of the CAW trading, there were lively and passionate discussions about the latest pro-wrestling news, events, and games. The CAW trading also allowed users to appreciate the styles of a wide variety of wrestlers. By seeing interesting CAWs, users would get the chance to learn about wrestlers they hadn’t heard of before, including ones who worked for companies they couldn’t watch, giving them a more comprehensive knowledge of and appreciation for the medium.
These forums had a collaborative atmosphere, with users coming together to help each other improve their creations. Threads would often be full of users analyzing pictures of wrestlers to help each other find the parts and tricks needed to create the perfect likeness. Plus, users would often make posts requesting codes or seeking advice for wrestlers they were unsure how to make, with other members jumping in to help, leading to the collective knowledge base of the community rising over time, which led to better CAWs.
Because of this, these spaces often focused more on fashion than gameplay, with the game’s actual mechanics often being a rarely mentioned afterthought. Instead, users focused on how to create the best and most accurate-looking wrestlers rather than the best-performing characters, with users often embarking on in-depth projects to recreate a promotion’s entire roster at a specific moment in history.
While CAW modes from the ’90s and code trading may seem delightfully quaint by today’s standards, these modes stood out not only for their quality at the time, but also because they allowed fans to experiment with fashion and visual design in a low-pressure environment. Personally, trying to recreate the wrestlers I saw on TV using the games’ often rudimentary tools taught me loads about color, texture, and layering. It also taught me that outfits are more than the sum of their parts, with their look and feel changing dramatically if only a single element is removed or tweaked.
CAW modes are commonplace in modern wrestling games, but technological advancements have led to code trading evolving. Since WWE SmackDown vs. Raw 2010, most major wrestling games have allowed players to create or import custom graphics, and share created wrestlers online using a built-in content browser. So developers no longer need to slip in lookalike parts because they can give players the tools and let them make those themselves. As a result, there are still vibrant online CAW creation communities on Reddit and sites like CAWS.ws, giving a whole new generation a chance to experiment with fashion and character design, even if they trade designs rather than codes.