Bill Miekina is all about the #FigLife.
Miekina is Mattel’s lead designer for the WWE action figure license, working on the brand for the last ten years (and collecting figures himself for the last twenty-five). As the years have progressed, wrestling toys (and the overall action figure market in general) have become more detailed and more articulated. Premium lines have been introduced that are more for ‘collectors’ than they are for play, and Miekina says a large responsibility he’s tasked with now is at a financial level, making sure they can produce the figures the consumer wants without breaking the bank.
“That’s the trick. That’s actually a lot of my job lately, is figuring out if we want to put a high-deco [figure] in one of the lines. Let’s just use Asuka for example, because her deco complexity is very high. Her production cost will be higher, how do you balance that?”
Mattel took over the license in 2010 and marked their 10-year anniversary with a new line called “WWE Decade Of Domination”, featuring 10 WWE Superstars that have been with the company the entire time the toymaker and WWE entered a partnership.
Featuring figures like Kofi Kingston, Natalya, John Cena and Randy Orton in their debut gimmick attire, Miekina says it gave them a chance to go back and design some figures with popular looks that weren’t available or possible back then. Miekina says you’d be hard-pressed to find a toymaker that’s had a single license as long as they’ve had WWE’s, adding that they wanted a fun way to celebrate the relationship and picked characters that have been there since the beginning of the partnership.
“We’re always trying to add and improve our lines. We’re aware of what other action figure companies are doing in terms of other wrestling products and non-wrestling products. Every company now is making superb action figures in the six-inch scale and for awhile we were leading the way, we were the only ones really doing six-inch figures at a certain level and now it’s like everyone was realizing we were ahead of the curve and now they’re catching up and doing some cool stuff as well. We want to make sure that we’re still leading the way and we’re always looking at ways to improve.”
Miekina says one of Mattel’s other goals is to find a way to balance it where no one is getting short-changed in a series and sometimes that choice is made as soon as a character debuts on TV. While he knows the demand is there, sometimes it’s necessary to wait a bit so they can become established on TV and the investment is a wise one. Sometimes, there are immediate successes like Bray Wyatt’s Fiend character, but there are other instances where gimmick changes will impact a design they’ve been working on.
“Yeah there’s stuff that I see on TV where I think that’s really cool but if it’s not a character that’s on TV a lot, can we invest that much into with tooling in a character that doesn’t have a consistent TV presence? Opposed to The Fiend, where there is a big tooling investment but obviously we knew that character was going to be a big deal so you don’t think about it, you just invest. Let’s just say you have a non-established character that requires a lot of tooling, you wait and [know] people will really want this figure but from a corporate standpoint, my responsibility is to make sure we’re not just blowing tooling budgets on a whim. There has to be some logic behind it and a lot of it depends on once we start making a character that when that character reaches shelves, that character is still relevant and also in a similar look. Earlier this year I started working on an Elite Bayley and about a month into it, the sculpting was all done and then about a month in she shows up on the second SmackDown on FOX, she chopped her hair off and killed a tube man. I go ‘Well, there goes that Bayley figure I was working on, we’ve got to figure out something new here.’
Making an investment in such detailed figures now includes adding extra hands and heads or accessories in the premium lines, or more points of articulation as seen in the new Ultimate line. Miekina says this allows for better posing, and the face scans have been a “quantum leap” that’s been very noticeable, especially in the female figures.
Figure photography is becoming more popular online and the rise of wrestling figure podcasts like Fully Poseable and the Major Wrestling Figure podcast has created attention for products and in turn it has generated sales as well. Miekina says shows in this format have been a huge boon for the business, noting that they’ve helped immensely in shining a brighter light on the collector community.
“It was sort of a category where for a long time wrestling figures were popular but they weren’t as spotlighted as much as other action figure brands in collector’s minds and mass retail lines. Now that people are shining that extra spotlight on them through podcasts, social media postings, people are aware of how good these are and how visually interesting they are. Even if you are not watching WWE every week or following every week, just looking at the toys casually you realize that this is good stuff. I think that’s one of the things where awareness is increasing and it’s also reflected in our sales.”
Seeing how involved fans have become, Mattel is introducing a new “WWE Fan Takeover” line that allows the consumer to vote on figures they can purchase at retail and online. Miekina said Steve Ozer, Mattel’s Marketing Manager proposed the line and his job was to make sure they could budget everything and make it work, and that it was something they could “afford to do but also make sure it’s something people still want.” The new Fan Takeover line will be released in 2021 and be distributed exclusively by Walmart; one of the figures includes Johnny Gargano’s “superhero” inspired attire from NXT TakeOver: Toronto.
Nostalgia has also become a big selling point for toy companies, with new waves of figures being recreations of the past or mash-ups of two brands from the “golden age” of action figures in the ’80s and ’90s. Mattel introduced a Ghostbusters line last year, as well as a Masters Of The Universe mash-up. Miekina says he wasn’t a big Masters Of The Universe fan growing up and didn’t have that same attachment that some MOTU collectors would, but once he saw the new WWE-inspired line he was really happy with the final product. While nothing was ever made official, some saw the MOTU line as a “replacement” series for the popular WWE Retro line, which called back to the original figures made by Hasbro in the 1990s. Miekina says distribution problems led to the cancellation of that line and while nothing is planned right now, Mattel hopes to revisit the Retros once they can figure out the best way to get them in consumers’ hands.
“I think it is something we want to revisit down the line. There’s nothing concrete now but of course, we are aware that there’s still a demand for them. It’s just about figuring out the best way to feed that demand.”
All Elite Wrestling just launched their new line of ‘AEW Unrivaled’ figures by Jazwares / Wicked Cool Toys, leading some fans to speculate that this could lead to a battle on the shelves just like we’ve seen in the ratings each week. To the contrary, Miekina says he welcomes AEW’s addition to the action figure market and sees this creating more interest in their market. He says he doesn’t see it affecting WWE’s piece of the market at all and says this might be a case of dedicated collectors buying more figures instead of having to make the choice between the two.
“I think we’re staying competitive even if it wasn’t there. I think it’s going to actually—I welcome it, to be honest with you, because I think the more people that put out wrestling figures, the more interest there is in wrestling figures. It’s good for everyone involved. I’ve seen their figures and they look great. I’m a wrestling action figure collector myself and I can’t wait to have some of those characters in my own collection, so I welcome them in our space.
In terms of them cutting into our market share, I don’t necessarily buy that. If it’s a situation where if you’re going into a store or making a purchase decision, you know you want the characters or you don’t. If you want WWE figures and then you want a competitor’s brand figures, speaking as a collector myself, it rarely is an ‘either / or’, it’s always an ‘and.’ It’s ‘I’m buying this and this and this…’ I have tubs of collectible figures to hold proof to that. There’s other companies putting out figures and I’m looking forward to seeing what they come out with.”
Miekina says one reason the relationship with WWE has been so successful is that the promotion knows that Mattel’s team has life long fans on board. He says there’s a good level of trust that’s been built over the years and it’s been a privilege to work on as much as he has, naming “Macho Man” Randy Savage as a personal favorite. Other perks include having current WWE Superstars reach out to him to share their appreciation for how good or cool the figures are, with Miekina adding that his job is made easier since WWE provides them with visually appealing content to make figures of.
When asked if he can name a starting point to new collectors, Miekina said that it’s “a question without an easy answer.” People will often buy one character and all variants of that figure, or people that just buy women’s, NXT or Legends figures, or whatever piques their interest. Miekina’s advice is to start small with one category and make sure you’re committed to it.
“Just pick a category and start there to make sure your commitment level is there and if you like buying those characters and figures and there are other segments that interest you as well then start to collect those as well. I’m not sure I would try to get everything at once, just because from a financial standpoint that can be pretty challenging, especially now, but I’d probably pick a subcategory and concentrate on that and see if you like it.”