The first Survivor Series, held in 1987, came on the heels of the success of WrestleMania III, as the then-WWF began to see the lucrative potential of the pay-per-view market. The first event capitalized on the big time feud between André the Giant and Hulk Hogan, who wrestled each other at WrestleMania III. Survivor Series was originally created to be a "Thanksgiving tradition" as the first eight Survivor Series events took place on either Thanksgiving Day (1987–1990) or Thanksgiving Eve (1991–1994). Since 1995, the event has been held the Sunday before Thanksgiving (save for the 2005 and 2006 events, which were held after Thanksgiving). On February 11, 2010, WWE stated that Survivor Series would be rebranded, but in June, the event was added back onto WWE's pay-per-view schedule.
With the return of the brand split in 2016, the yearly event has focused on direct competition between the brands. In 2016, 2017, and 2018, the competition was between the Raw and SmackDown brands, similar to the Bragging Rights events that WWE held for two years during the first brand split. Beginning with the 2017 event, the theme of the present Survivor Series events in particular are brand supremacy; in addition to traditional Survivor Series elimination matches featuring Raw's men and women against SmackDown's (2016 and 2018 also featured matches with the brands' tag teams going against each other), there have been multiple other interpromotional matches on the card as well involving the brands' champions going against each other in non-title matches to determine the superior champion (e.g., the superior world champion). Raw won the competition in 2016, 2017, and 2018, with a 3–2 victory in 2016, a 4–3 victory in 2017, and a clean sweep 6–0 victory in 2018 (the pre-show match, which SmackDown won, was not counted that year). In 2019, WWE's developmental territoryNXT was promoted to being WWE's third major brand and was added to the brand competition for the 2019 event. That event in turn featured the first three-way Survivor Series elimination matches for men and women. NXT subsequently won that year's competition over SmackDown and Raw with a 4–2–1 victory. NXT was not featured at the 2020 event due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Outbreaks of the virus had occurred at both of NXT's home arenas, Full Sail University and the WWE Performance Center, prompting WWE to exclude NXT wrestlers from the event to avoid potential transmission of the virus to members of the Raw and SmackDown rosters. Raw won the 2020 event with a 4–3 victory over SmackDown.
The event is traditionally characterized by having tag-team elimination matches, pitting teams of four or five wrestlers against each other. These matches are generally referred to as "Survivor Series matches." The WWF had several elimination tag-team matches earlier in 1987, albeit with three-man teams and the feuds loosely related. In an early break from the norm, the 1992 event had only one tag team elimination match. The 1997 event saw the Montreal Screwjob, while the 1998 event was the first without any elimination tag team matches, instead focusing on an elimination tournament for the WWF World Heavyweight Championship. The 2002 Survivor Series (which also did not feature any elimination tag team matches) is notable for the debut of the Elimination Chamber match.