I first noticed it back in 2011, during WWE's version of the Summer of Punk.
Not the pipebomb promo, although that will undoubtedly always be looked back on as the moment that started what some (including this writer) call the "Reality Era". On Monday, June 27th, CM Punk pulled back the curtain so that the entire WWE Universe could see what "smart" fans, those who read newsletters and discussed pro wrestling on the internet, had long believed to be true.
More interesting than the "Voice of the Voiceless" laying claim to his role as smark ("smart mark") savior was in the weeks that followed, when no less than WWE poster boy and scorn of the internet, John Cena, began appropriating the lingo of the hardcore fan. Within weeks of Punk's game changer, the Champ was in the ring talking about how he heard the cries for him to "increase my work rate, add to the 'five moves of doom' and let my heel persona shine through."
While that program never reached the full, mainstream attention grabbing potential that many in and out of the business thought it could - whether that was due to the Straight-Edged one's lack of crossover appeal, the WWE and/or HHH getting greedy or it simply not being the right pop culture moment - we can certainly look back on what was started in 2011 and how it has blossomed in to what we're seeing now.
Much has been written about how Vince McMahon's promos about Daniel Bryan were basically a recitation of what the internet thinks it knows about Vince's preferences; how he only wants to push players that look like NFL linebackers or circus strongmen. That spun out to the wedge between Cena and Bryan being that the former was an "entertainer" while the latter was a "wrestler", another common internet wrestling community (IWC) critique.
The pièce de résistance came Monday night, when HHH/Chief Operating Officer Paul Levesque fully integrated the smark narrative about his real-life personality (he's an egotist) and backstage tactics (if he thinks he can get away with it, he'll throw dirt on anyone starting to get popular) into the explanation for his betrayal of Daniel Bryan on Sunday night at SummerSlam.
Given all that, evidence that the company clearly believes that not only have they learned their lessons from their Summer of Punk and that the stars have aligned this time - right guy, right moment - is it too much to consider that they also used what we think we know as storytelling devices in a couple of other instances?
And to a lesser extent Hunter's turn, but those of us who follow the pro graps scene the way others prepare for fantasy football drafts saw all of Creative's signs that Randy Orton would be cashing in his red briefcase at the Los Angeles pay-per-view (PPV) and decided, "nah...too obvious".
Until we thought about it some more and thought, "maybe they're being so blatant to make us think they wouldn't do, so that means they're totally gonna do it."
Hardcore fans, maybe even more than newer or casual fans, really want to be surprised. We even have a word for it in our vernacular: the "swerve". WCW and their former creative head Vince Russo lived and died by the swerve, and their spiritual successor TNA still relies on it way too heavily. We've been conditioned to expect it, and WWE showed enough potential plays so we'd feel the gut punch of the one that was staring us in the face all along.
While the part they'll play in the Corporation Evolved (I think they should go all in on the new kayfabe and just call the McMahon-Orton alliance "This Business-ah") isn't set in stone, having two matches with high profile opponents and playing an integral role in the closing segment of Raw doesn't seem like how you treat guys you hate so hard right now.
Rumors started swirling last month that the trio were getting heat for a variety of insider transgressions. While I don't doubt that there's a grain of truth to them - there's an old wrestling truism that all the best angles and characters have a basis in real personalities, relationships and situations - I do think that the persistence of the stories leading up to such a big program was just more 21st century misdirection: go ahead and think that we don't have a direction for Dean Ambrose, Roman Reigns and Seth Rollins. They did get a little big for their britches and were put in their place, and we'll use that to lull you into forgetting about them or work you up into outrage about how evil we (who also happen to be the big bad in our next money storyline) are.
Those of us who spend many of our waking hours thinking about pro wrestling love when we can sink our teeth into actual insider information. It's great when we can read the tropes and correctly pick an outcome, like we were trying to do with the Viper and his guaranteed title shot. But reading a sourced report about backstage politics, whether it be from a veteran like Dave Meltzer or a spyware-infested website, makes us feel different, and smarter, than the casual watcher of WWE television.
We're invested, and we're always going to want to know more. WWE is now using that instinct to take us where they want us to go.
The biggest pro wrestling company the world has ever seen is currently doing a lot of things right. They're blessed with a wide variety of talent and deep pockets to do whatever they can think of to use their roster.
But the most creative, most impressive thing they've done in the last few years is adapt to the social media/reality show world of global pop culture. And not with touts or tweets or apps, but with a willingness to use every storytelling tool at their disposal and to play with their audiences preconceptions and beliefs in order to deliver the most satisfying entertainment experience possible.
Whether we saw it coming or not.