— -- To hear Paul Levesque talk about NXT is akin to hearing a father beam with pride about his firstborn son.
By day, Levesque is the WWE's executive vice president of talent, live events and creative. By night -- though much more infrequently these days -- he's 14-time world heavyweight champion Triple H.
But for all intents and purposes, Levesque is the heart and soul behind NXT, WWE's developmental territory, which has grown to become a legitimate third brand, providing in-house competition for Raw and SmackDown.
Created in 2012, NXT was designed to develop new talent and, in Levesque's words, "bring in a new era of WWE." But even the father of NXT himself has been surprised at how quickly it has grown into something more.
"It's hard for me to imagine that just a few short years ago, NXT was kind of just a concept that we had," Levesque said. "How quickly it has become something so much more than that."
With an old-school feel to the way it's booked and presented, the brand has created a cult following, offering hard-core wrestling fans a much different product from what WWE has traditionally aired on television in recent years. In fact, Levesque outright refers to NXT as the "bedrock" of the WWE Network, where it exclusively airs.
In response to Thursday's announcement that 2K Sports is releasing a collector's NXT edition to their "WWE 2K17" video game, limited to just 50,000 copies on PlayStation 4 and Xbox One, Levesque took time to answer questions on a number of topics, including NXT's growth.
Brock Lesnar appears on the cover of "WWE 2K17," and you recently praised his performance at UFC 200. What does his ability to cross over do for WWE's brand?
It's huge. I think any time that you can have a WWE performer that can cross over into something else and have that kind of a night or a performance, whether that's making a movie or television show or competing in the UFC, that's huge. To me, it speaks to the amazing athlete that Brock Lesnar is. To be able to come back at such an elite level after a fairly long period of time doing something different and be that dominant is just amazing to me.
We have said it a million times about Brock but I think it's worth repeating. He's a once-in-a-lifetime athlete that comes along and is just -- you can see it when you look at him. Guys don't come along that quick, that big, that fast, that aggressive and with that mentality. He is a once-in-a-lifetime combat athlete. Certainly he helps UFC, banking on Brock Lesnar's name in the very beginning of him becoming a UFC star and showing his dominance in it. And now it's the same thing, back and forth. They benefit from it, we benefit from it and it has been great. My hat's off to Brock, he's an amazing, amazing athlete.
In your eyes, what is the difference between the creative and booking in NXT compared with the main brands?
I think for me that was part of the goal when we were creating NXT, to not just recreate Raw or SmackDown and kind of have some variety and give them something different. To me, our industry is kind of like music. There are all different kinds of genres in music and with Raw and SmackDown you are trying to hit the most mainstream level of enjoyment of the product that you can, sort of like in pop music. NXT is a bit more of a style of music. It's a bit more intimate; it's a bit more designed to hit our hardest-core fans and give them something that they will enjoy.
To me, at the end of the day, that's the core of what we do. But it's still understanding that Raw and SmackDown are completely different where you are trying to hit the biggest audience possible. I'm excited that people like NXT so much, obviously, but I'm excited that we have that variety. If it was all the same, I don't know that the interest level would be the same, and that's part of the magic of what [NXT] is. It's different. One is not better; they are different.
Considering you are no longer presenting NXT exclusively as a developmental brand, how will its future be affected by the upcoming brand split?
It's funny that when people talk about it to me, some will say, 'Well, isn't that the downfall of NXT because when a superstar becomes big enough that he's immediately going to be taken away from you?' I feel that's the strength of the brand. If you look at the growth of NXT in the last couple years, there are points in time when people said, 'Oh no, these characters are getting called up and [NXT] is doomed.' We made somebody else the lead characters of the show and that's the challenge and the beauty of it. It's always fresh, it's always different, it always feels like there is something new going on to me.
With NXT being different, it complements Raw and SmackDown. You have the opportunity to see these guys come in and make a name for themselves on a bigger platform. They can grow themselves while helping to create NXT's brand. Then, if you're following NXT, you're ahead of the curve when they come to Raw and SmackDown. You know everything about them and their backstories. It's like being a fan of the band before they hit it big. You have that claim to fame. And to our most passionate fan base that's an exciting vibe that we have. I think that's why social media is so strong for us -- it's people that want to be ahead of the curve.
With NXT being your baby and brainchild, what does it mean to you personally to see these superstars get to the next level and see them included in "WWE 2K17"?
It's huge for me. I feel sometimes like a dad with NXT, watching characters come through here and see stars come in with either no level of skill at what we do or an amazing level of skill and I watch them change from the time they walk through the door to become something more. WWE, no matter how you slice it, it's just different. It's a different world, different product and a different environment. And it's a different learning curve. You see it with talent coming in how some adapt and learn faster than others. Watching them adapt and grow, somebody like Finn Balor change and morph and become so much more, it's an amazing experience. I look forward to the opportunity of getting to see them grow through the years.
Look at Seth Rollins or Dean Ambrose or Bray Wyatt over the years and watching all of it come out of here and blossom and grow into something more is an amazing opportunity. And it's especially with the women. Watching Charlotte, Sasha [Banks] and Becky Lynch and the women who have come out of NXT sort of change the industry for themselves has been hugely rewarding.
Bret Hart recently took offense that your rating in "WWE 2K17" was higher than his. How aware are you about any rivalries in the locker room between superstars regarding the video game?
[Laughs]. I have not heard that. I'm sorry, there was a report that somebody was upset that their video game ranking was lower than mine? I don't even know how that works to be honest but I suppose there is.
I see guys arguing about stuff all the time in the locker room and video game rankings would probably be part of that. I know that they are very competitive with each other in a lot of ways so it wouldn't surprise me. Trust me, the locker room can make anything a competition.
You have competed against top superstars around the world. How rare of an athlete and performer is NXT star Shinsuke Nakamura in your eyes?
I have watched a lot of guys over the years and there are certain talent that you're just drawn to, and that's charisma and X factor and all those things. Shinsuke brings something to the table that I haven't seen for a long time. He brings a level of charisma, a level of showmanship, that you don't see a lot of times with guys that have an aggressive style, with the striking and skill set, that he does. He's an amazing athlete.
I think he's somebody I had my eye on for a long time as far as being part of WWE as a whole because I think he's that different level of performer. He's one of those guys that is harder to explain what he is because when you start to begin to say it, it doesn't do it justice. You kind of just have to say, 'You just have to see him.' Once you see him, you want to watch him again. He's that kind of performer.
In this new era of WWE entering the brand split, what do you think Raw and SmackDown can learn from NXT and vice versa?
It's hard to say that you learn something directly from a specific brand. I feel like the business constantly changes. What fans want constantly morphs and changes. Characters that worked 15 years ago wouldn't work today. Performers that were huge 10 years ago wouldn't work today. It's constantly morphing and constantly changing. I think they will all learn from each other.
I think when you see things succeed in SmackDown, they will begin to morph into Raw, and vice versa with NXT and all of it. To me, that's the exciting part about the brand extension. It creates a lot more opportunity for a lot more talent and a lot more ideas to be put out on the table and performances to take place. That gives the NXT universe much greater variety to express what they like and dislike. I think the brand extension is going to be the ultimate opportunity for the fans to express themselves more than ever and morph and change [the product] to what they want.