In the mid-'90s, the World Wrestling Federation faced tough times. Its "New Generation" Era product couldn't compete with the products turned out by rival wrestling promotion World Championship Wrestling and upstart independent promotion Extreme Championship Wrestling. WCW's ultra-hot New World Order angle took the wrestling industry by storm and ECW's focus on brutal violence and edgy storylines captured an adult audience turned away by the WWF's product.
What did the WWF do to save itself from the verge of destruction? Why, it did what all great companies do: it copied everyone else's ideas — and did them better.
The WWF took a few pages out of the ECW playbook and injected extreme violence, overt sexuality, and general vulgarity into its programming. The move offended and shocked the parents' groups who had grown used to the company's family-friendly programming during the days of Hulk Hogan and André the Giant — but the edgier content also drew in viewers in numbers the WWF had never seen before (and hasn't equalled since). Pay-per-view buyrates shot through the roof and TV ratings rose well above the ratings for WCW; the WWF had reclaimed its throne.
The official start of the Attitude Era, as marked by WWE's official timeline, is March 29, 1998, the date of WrestleMania XIV, where "Stone Cold" Steve Austin defeated Shawn Michaels for the WWF Championship (in what would be Shawn's last match for four years, due to an injured back). Austin and Michaels actually had planted the seeds of the Era before WrestleMania: Austin's famous "Austin 3:16" speech at King of the Ring 1996 (as well as his submission match with Bret Hart at WrestleMania 13) shot Austin into superstardom, whereas Michaels' involvement in the "Montreal Screwjob" at Survivor Series 1997 and his role in the formation of D-Generation X helped build the atmosphere that fostered the Attitude Era (a notable assist also goes to the aforementioned Hart and his match with Austin, and to Mankind, whose feud with The Undertaker brought more extreme matches into the WWF).
However, without a certain event, the Attitude Era may not have occurred. There was The Kliq. Kevin Nash and Scott Hall signed with WCW. A legendary event, known as the "MSG Incident" or "The Curtain Call" happened at their last scheduled WWF appearance. Shawn Michaels, Triple H, Kevin Nash and Scott Hall embraced in a group hug before Nash and Hall went to WCW. This was a major break in Kayfabe since the people involved were enemies at the time. Hall and Nash could not be punished since they were leaving the company. Michaels could not be punished since he was WWF Champion at the time. This left Triple H who was the only one who could be punished. Triple H was supposed to win the King of the Ring in 1996 but was punished for his involvement in the incident. Therefore, "Stone Cold" Steve Austin was made the winner at the event where he gave the infamous "Austin 3:16" speech.
The WWF also licensed a video game by Acclaim called WWF Attitude, released in 1999 to much fanfare after the popular WWF War Zone. Rather than sprites, the visuals were photo-realistic (for the time) 3D, there was tons of speech and voice samples, many wrestlers and outfits to unlock, and a great, in-depth "create-a-wrestler" mode. When it was released, it was considered the best wrestling game on the market, with THQ being the only ones close enough to touch it with their WCW entry. WWF Attitude managed to capture much of the spirit of a Raw episode or PPV broadcast during the Attitude Era, hence the name, and at the time it was praised by many. However, the gameplay was considered stiff in its time, as well as the date of release. Though it included many of the face and heel wrestlers accurately, there was no The Big Show and not many match types (for one, there was no "Hell in a Cell"). Arena customization was exclusively locked from the years 1997 to 1998. When Acclaim's license ran out, THQ picked it up and made the popular Wrestlemania 2000 and No Mercy games, also based on the Attitude Era, to which the latter was considered one of the greatest wrestling games in the medium. They would also produce SmackDown!, which would later become Smackdown VS Raw. WWE '13 features the Attitude Era heavily as the main focus, with 2K16 also having a decent focus.
Famous events and matches associated with the Attitude Era include:
- An interesting Tone Shift that led most wrestlers to self-examine and develop their characters due to the cutthroat competition with Turner's WCW. The most successful examples were often Face Heel Turns:
- For most of the Attitude Era, heels outnumbered the faces, with Shawn Michaels and (more surprisingly) Bret Hart as the main villains between WrestleManias 13 and XIV.
- Vince McMahon transitioned from a mere commentator to the dickhead boss "Mr. McMahon".
- Dwayne Johnson used this opportunity to transform from high-flying face Rocky Maivia into The Rock.
- The Ringmaster became "Stone Cold" Steve Austin, a beer-fueled whoop-ass machine. (Basically becoming a working-class wish-fulfillment character.) He quickly became a crowd favorite despite his intentions.
- The Undertaker switched his "American Badass" persona from face to heel, turning face half-a-year later and reverting back to the Deadman persona a year after that.
- "STP" became Thurman "Sparky" Plugg became Bob "Spark Plug" Holly became "Hardcore" Holly.
- In a subversion of the subversion, Mick Foley became Dude Love, a fake face.
- The aforementioned WrestleMania 13 match between Bret Hart and Steve Austin, which managed to perfectly execute a rare Face/Heel Double-Turn: Austin (the heel) and Hart (the face) both turned after the match was over, with Austin becoming a badass face and Bret becoming an America-hating Canadian heel (he remained a face in Canada and other foreign territories, though).
- SummerSlam 1997 — Owen Hart botches a piledriver on Stone Cold Steve Austin, which causes Austin to suffer a broken neck. As a result, Austin goes from a well-rounded wrestler (on par with Bret Hart) to a brawling wrestler, forcing a shift of his wrestling style. This would create the "main event" style of wrestling that would dominate the WWF for years to come.
- Badd Blood 1997: The first "Hell in a Cell" match, which featured Shawn Michaels going up against The Undertaker (as well as the debut of Kane).
- The formation and rise of D-Generation X, on the road to...
- Survivor Series 1997 — The Montreal Screwjob.
- Royal Rumble 1998 — During a Casket Match with The Undertaker, Shawn Michaels severely injures his back while falling on the casket. This would end Michaels' in-ring career during the Attitude Era. The injury also cemented the inevitable loss to Austin amongst smarks who knew Michaels would lose because he was too crippled to go on.
- The aforementioned WrestleMania XIV WWF Championship match between Austin and Michaels.
- The entirety of the Austin/Vince McMahon feud, widely regarded as one of the best feuds of all time in professional wrestling.
- Sable taking her top off to reveal hand-shaped pasties. (And Lawler's subsequent reaction.)
- D-Generation X invasion of a WCW live event with a tank.note They also managed to raise WCW's ire by showing up to their headquarters in Atlanta, Georgia.
- On the April 13, 1998 episode of Raw, Vince McMahon snaps and challenges "Stone Cold" Steve Austin to a main event match that night. The match never happens as a brawl occurs before it could begin, which is in turn interrupted by Dude Love. However, the idea of a "Stone Cold" Steve Austin versus Vince McMahon main event causes Raw to finally beat Nitro in the ratings after 82 weeks. Raw had a 4.6 rating versus Nitro with a 4.2 rating.
- The second "Hell in a Cell" match, where The Undertaker tossed Mankind off the top of the sixteen-foot-high cell onto the Spanish Announcers' Table (and produced one of the most-used video clips in the company's history). The sight of Foley crashing through the table became this era's equivalent of Hulk Hogan slamming Andre The Giant to the mat, although Foley's later fall through the roof of the cage into the ring below was far more damaging (and far less rehearsed).
- The Survivor Series 1998 main event: rising face The Rock aligned with Vince McMahon to screw Mankind out of becoming the WWF Champion (the first of WWE's many allusions to the Montreal Screwjob in the years that followed it), which gave rise to The Corporation storyline.
- January 4, 1999: Mankind's first WWF Championship victory, which coincided with the infamous Fingerpoke Of Doom segment from WCW. This prompted half a million viewers to tune Raw, turned the tide of the "Monday Night Wars" in the WWF's favor, and secured WCW's downfall until its closure in 2001.
- The debut of Paul Wight, formerly "The Giant" in WCW, who broke through the ring during an Austin/McMahon cage match at the February 1999 pay-per-view St. Valentine's Day Massacre, and threw Austin through the cage (costing Vince the match in the process). He later became the Big Show.
- The formation of the Ministry of Darkness, led by The Undertaker.
- The death of Owen Hart, the first major death of a wrestler while employed by the WWF, which led to his widow filing a lawsuit against the company.
- The debut of Chris Jericho on Raw Is War in mid-1999, making him one of the first major defections from WCW to the WWF.
- The debut of SmackDown! on the UPN network.
- The Raw Is War segment known as "The Rock: This Is Your Life!", where Mankind paid tribute to The Rock, his then-tag team partner. This segment remains the highest-rated professional wrestling segment in television history (with an 8.4 rating).
- No Mercy 1999, which included the first tag-team "Ladder Match" between "The Brood" members "The Hardy Boyz" (Matt Hardy and Jeff Hardy) and Edge & Christian; and Chyna winning the Intercontinental Championship from Jeff Jarrett in his last WWF match (making her the first woman to ever hold the championship).
- The debut of Kurt Angle, a Real Life gold medal Olympian from the 1996 Atlanta Summer Games.
- Steve Austin being run down in a parking lot by an unknown assailant (later revealed to be Rikishi, working on orders from Triple H) and taken out of action for ten months at Survivor Series 1999 (the vehicular assault was the Kayfabe explanation for Austin taking time off for neck surgery).
- The Kayfabe marriage between Triple H and Vince's Real Life daughter Stephanie McMahon, which resulted in the "McMahon-Helmsley Faction/Regime" and Triple H becoming one of the WWF's biggest heels (the couple would later marry in Real Life).
- Stacy "The Kat" Carter briefly flashed the crowd at Armageddon 1999 following an "Evening Gown in a Pool" match, marking the first instance of intentional nudity on WWF programmingnote
- "The Radicalz" — Chris Benoit, Dean Malenko, Perry Saturn, and Eddie Guerrero — all appear on RAW just a few weeks after being released from their WCW contracts in early 2000.
- The retirement of Mick Foley at the hands of Triple H at No Way Out 2000 (and their instant-classic "Street Fight" at Royal Rumble 2000 a month prior to Foley's retirement match).
- The Rock ending Triple H's reign as WWF Champion at Backlash 2000, marking the first time The Rock becomes WWF Champion as a face.
- Steven Richards forms the Power Stable Right to Censor, consisting of Bull Buchanan, Val Venis, The Godfather (renamed 'The Goodfather') and Ivory. The group was a Take That! to the Parents Television Council protesting the smuttiness and edgy content of the Attitude Era, and ironically helped phase out many of the things Moral Guardians were complaining about.
- The Undertaker returns in his new "American Badass" persona, after having been away from WWF programming for several months.
- The Hardy Boyz, The Dudley Boyz, and Edge & Christian compete in the first "Tables, Ladders & Chairs" match at SummerSlam 2000. Notably, the genesis of this match evolved from the earlier "Triangle Ladder" match at WrestleMania 2000.
- Steve Austin wins his third Royal Rumble in 2001, setting up...
- WrestleMania X-Seven (WrestleMania 17), which aired on April 1, 2001. The WWF had purchased WCW and many of its wrestlers' contracts, weeks prior to the event, and it had also hired on former ECW mastermind Paul Heyman as a color commentator (following the departure of Jerry "The King" Lawler) following ECW's bankruptcy. The Monday Night Wars had ended, as had the need for an Attitude Era. At X-Seven, Steve Austin defeated The Rock in the main event to win his fifth WWF Championship... with the help of his long-time arch-nemesis Mr. McMahon.
People point to WrestleMania X-Seven as the end of the Attitude Era for a lot of reasons. (One of which being that everyone affiliated with WCW was relegated to silently watching WrestleMania from a skybox... could there have possibly been a more poetic visual than that?) WCW died the week before, ECW died shortly after, and the Austin/McMahon feud ended that same night, yet the industry had changed in a short amount of time.
Mileage varies on the quality of the WWF/WWE product after the end of the Attitude Era (since the company has lacked the competition that created the necessity for the Attitude Era), and when (or even if) it began to go downhill, but few can deny that the wrestling world hasn't been the same since.
Followed by The InVasion Angle.