The past few years of Royal Rumbles have been missing something to me. It's not about Roman, Bryan, who the company wants to push, and who we fans want to win. In fact, who wins the match is just about the farthest thing from my issue. For the past few years, the Royal Rumble has been all about who wins. I know that sounds like a weird thing for anyone- and especially me- to be complaining about, and I'm certainly not saying that shouldn't be the most important thing. My problem is that in recent years, it has pretty much been the only thing.
Watching the Royal Rumble for the past few years has felt like a waiting game. We wait to see who comes out at which number, to see when our favorites get eliminated, and we wait to see who wins in the end. We have our Royal Rumble tropes such as the ironman and the Kofi spot and the stare-down of giants, and we wait to see who will be slotted into these roles or what Kofi will come up with this year. The problem is that all of these things are interchangeable. You probably remember which year Sheamus won, which year Roman won, and which year Orton won, but do you remember which year Kofi jumped from the apron, which year he did the pogo stick with the chair, and which year he did the handstand walk? Do you remember which year Roman was the ironman, which year Ziggler was, and which year it was Miz? Or who were the giants that had the big stare-down in any particular year? Could you remember even if you gave yourself a few minutes to think about it and work through the cards of the February and Mania PPVs from that year?
We're sitting and waiting to see who falls in which slot each year, but what should be happening is that we should be actively watching for things. And in order to be watching for things, we need to be given things to watch for, and WWE is not providing that at all.
For the past few years, WWE's build for the Royal Rumble can be sunned up in its entirety, as follows: We are told a Royal Rumble will be happening. Wrestlers then spend the next five or six weeks randomly declaring themselves as entrants to the rumble and arguing (and getting into fights) about who is going to win. That's it. There is no further story than that. It's been this way in the men's Royal Rumbles and it was this way in the women's Royal Rumble as well (with the addition, of course, of us being repeatedly told that history was going to be made... which is not a story). Then, the night after the Royal Rumble, the wrestlers do what they would do after every other PPV, having segments that begin their story for the next PPV... and with very rare exception, these segments and feuds have nothing to do with anything that happened in last night's Royal Rumble.
As I said above, this might sound like a silly thing to be complaining about, but the fact of the matter is that only one person can win the Royal Rumble, which will leave the vast majority of the other twenty-nine with no story of their own to be focused on. Their presences in the Royal Rumble were all but irrelevant. They were just numbers. There was no difference between Apollo Crews, Rusev, Rhyno, Goldust, Baron Corbin, Adam Cole, Aiden English, Dolph Ziggler, and Big E, in this year's Royal Rumble, and any of them could have been replaced with Curt Hawkins or Luke Harper or Road Dogg or Tommy Dreamer or Ron Simmons or MVP, and all that would change was the pop they got the moment they came out. After that point they didn't matter, and we were left to just wait around to see how long they lasted. The only difference between them and the star-studded final six of Nakamura, Balor, Cena, Roman, Orton, and Rey, is how close they came to winning.
Now compare this to Lucha Underground's annual Aztec Warfare match. At least three quarters of the twenty entrants into that match have either some sort of storyline going into it that pays off or advances during the match, or come out of the match with a new story having been set up. When a wrestler doesn't win Aztec Warfare, he or she still has something to show for it.
These stories are important not just for the wrestlers, but for the fans as well. A story set up in advance gives fans something to look for during the match. We all know that none of the members of New Day are going to win the Royal Rumble, but what if their friendly banter on Smackdown about which one of them would eliminate the others and go on to win the Rumble starts to become very real when Xavier takes the opportunity to try to eliminate Big E. by grabbing him from behind and trying to toss him out? Or even by ganging up with someone else to eliminate him? What if you had two partners who weren't getting along recently but had said they would work together in the Royal Rumble... and then one of them turns on the other and eliminates him? Or even just having something as simple as a midcard babyface and midcard heel arguing with each other about who will eliminate who from the Royal Rumble can all of a sudden make the match feel more exciting the moment they come together in the Royal Rumble.
These little stories- or even stories not set up in advance like a temporary alliance being formed and then erased when one member betrays another- also give the wrestlers something to do coming out of the Rumble. Think about last year's Royal Rumble and try to come up with your list of who eliminated who. I think most people will come up with the following list: Goldberg eliminated Brock, Taker eliminated Goldberg, and Roman eliminated Taker. You'll probably also remember that Orton eliminated Roman to win it, and maybe that Roman eliminated Bray right before that.
The reason you remember these eliminations should be pretty obvious: Brock vs. Goldberg and Roman vs. Taker were both WrestleMania matches last year, and the Randy/Roman/Bray elimination are connected because Randy vs. Bray was a WrestleMania match and people were expecting Bray to win instead of Randy, and it's usually pretty easy to remember the runner-up, especially when it's someone that you've been given a good reason remember in that position (like the fact that you're sick of his push and were terrified that he would win the match again). The Goldberg/Taker elimination you probably remember because they're two guys who have never interacted before and it was a big cool moment, plus it was in close proximity to the Goldberg/Brock and Roman/Taker eliminations.
(If you have a mind with a nose for booking you might also remember that they had Corbin eliminate Braun to make Corbin look strong, although the fact that I think most people won't remember that shows how badly they failed with it. But if they had had them cutting promos on each other as the two big scary monsters, you'd probably have remembered it when they came face to face and you'd probably have remembered that Corbin eliminated Braun.)
WWE loves to tell us that the Royal Rumble is "the beginning of the Road to WrestleMania(TM)," but the fact of the matter is that, for almost every single wrestler in the Royal Rumble aside from the winner, it's not the beginning of anything. We got two Royal Rumble matches this year, with sixty wrestlers competing for a total of 2:04:24. We've gotten two weeks of WWE TV since then, and for the fifty-eight wrestlers who didn't win, the only moment we've seen so far that indicates that any of that time mattered in any way was one off-handed comment in a backstage segment with Sasha Banks and Bayley a full eight days after the show.
While the question of "who is going to win?" will always be the soul of the Royal Rumble, booking stories to either set up or stem from events in the Royal Rumble are what give each Royal Rumble its character. These stories are what help us to remember each Royal Rumble individually. They the things that take each Royal Rumble from the same board each year with the same pieces just being moved around to different slots and turn them each into their own unique jigsaw puzzle with the pieces coming together to form a picture that you'll remember for years to come. These stories are a key component of what has made the Royal Rumble so great in years past, and they need to come back if the Rumble is ever going to reach its full potential again.