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9 questions about American Ninja Warrior qualifying rounds, answered

9 questions about American Ninja Warrior qualifying rounds, answered
American Ninja Warrior competitors Yvette Ontiveros and Andrew Lowes, with hosts (inset) Matt Iseman and Akbar Gbajabiamila. (Photos by Brett Deering/NBC)

American Ninja Warrior tonight stops in Oklahoma City, the fourth of five cities the show will visit this season for its qualifying and, later, city final rounds. These are the start of a journey that, for some, will end at Mount Midoriyama in Las Vegas.

But how do these early rounds come together? How are the ANW contestants cast? Who builds the obstacle courses, and how long does it take to film?

Answers to those questions and more are below.

How are cities and locations chosen?

Cities compete to be included in American Ninja Warrior, for both the exposure and economic impact. Once selected, possible locations—usually with visually striking backdrops—are scouted.

For Oklahoma City, the state capitol was chosen.

While the production received a free permit to use the capitol grounds, the location required “buy-in from the governor, buy-in from the Senate leadership, buy-in from the House speaker and then handle practicalities like parking spots, shutting down traffic, all of that,” Oklahoma senator David Holt told The Oklahoman.

What impact does the show have?

Tonight’s episode was filmed May 13 and 14, but production at the Oklahoma state capitol spanned May 6 to May 17, from set up to tear-down.

Earlier this year, The Oklahoman reported on the production’s economic impact, both in terms of the money the show spent and money it received:

  • an estimated 200 crew members were involved, including locals, such as caterers
  • “the show’s crew booked 850 room nights during their stay”
  • each contestant brought up to 10 people, bringing an estimated 1,300 people to the city
  • the Oklahoma Film and Music Commission gave the show a $115,000 rebate, which is 35 to 37 percent of expenses, which would mean production expenses were roughly $319,000.

How do I get tickets to see ANW?

When the show is in production, free tickets to observe tapings of the city qualifying and finals are available from On Camera Audiences.

Currently, there are waitlists available for the June 20 and 21 tapings of an all-star special in Las Vegas.

Who constructs the ANW course?

Executive producer Arthur Smith told RealScreen, “The obstacle course that we build is massive. It’s bigger than a football field and the one in Las Vegas is four football fields, so there are a lot of logistics in putting them together. There’s a lot of testing to make sure they’re safe. There’s a warehouse where the obstacles are all prototyped. They’re all tested and we’re making sure that they’re safe.”

A company called ATS Filmworks tests obstacles and then builds the courses. Their work—both testing and construction—is highlighted in this video.

How are contestants chosen?

Most of the contestants are cast by produces, having applied to the show. Besides their athleticism, they’re cast for the usual reality TV reasons, such as their personal stories. Many contestants now return to the show year after year.

More than 75,000 people applied for season eight, RealScreen reported.

Those who aren’t cast can attempt a walk-on, but as producer Brian Richardson told Mental Floss, “You sleep in a tent for a week or more outside the course, with no guarantees. We usually only have time to run 20 to 30 people from the walk-on line. Sometimes people spend a week camping out and never get to run the course.”

About 100 contestants are cast for each qualifying city, and then another 25 or so run the course as walk-ons, depending upon how much time is left.

What’s the experience like for contestants?

Unless they make the finals, contestants aren’t paid and they pay their own way, according to a contestant has competed on every season.

Ryan Stratis explained in a Reddit AMA two years ago (when, at that point, he’d competed five times) what all of this was like for ANW contestants:

“1) For the regional try outs you have to pay your own way. You may get selected to run the course but everything is out of pocket expenses. If you make it past the regional try outs and into the finals then all expenses are paid to the trip out to Vegas. 2) You’ll need at least 5 days for the regional try outs. 1 to travel to the location 3 for the actual competition and 1 more day to travel home. Vegas could last up to a full week. So make sure you have some leave saved up from work! 3) After failing and having to wait a whole year is one of the hardest parts of the show. Sometimes you fall on something respectable on the later stages, sometimes you fall early on in the prelims, either way its a long wait. For me I enjoy spending time with other ninja competitors and training with them helps to stay focused on the next try outs. Its good to learn from your past mistakes but not to focus on them and the negative emotions associated with it. Took me a few years to figure that out!”

Do contestants get to practice the course?

Stratis also explained that contestants don’t get to practice, but are given a briefing on how each obstacle works. He wrote on Reddit:

“No practice of obstacles is allowed during try outs. Only way we can practice obstacles is if we build replicas and train on them through the year. On game day we are read the rules for completing each obstacle and tester shows us how to do it and then it’s up to us after that!”

How do the hosts record their commentary?

Hosts Akbar Gbaja-Biamila comes from the NFL and also is an NFL Network analyst, while Matt Iseman is a former surgeon turned comedian who went on to be part of the Style network reality show Clean House and will be on The New Celebrity Apprentice with  Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Of the roughly 125 people who go through the course on a single night, more than half of those runs will be called live. “Akbar and I will call 60 to 80 of those runs, knowing you’ll see maybe 13 on camera,” Iseman told me when I interviewed him about Team Ninja Warrior, the Esquire spin-off.

The others are recorded in post-production. “We’ll pick those up in post if need be—physically, we can’t call that many, and you try to guess which ones are going to be great, but you never know,” he said.

Last year, Iseman attempted the course:

It’s not just the course that challenges its hosts, but the show’s intense schedule. When the show filmed its Las Vegas finale, there were two nights of filming for the finale, followed by a taping of Team USA versus the World, and then a fifth night for an all-stars special.

As a result, Matt Iseman “actually had to go to the hangover haven, the place where you get IVs for fluids, beacuse I was losing my voice, to get anti-inflammatories,” he said.

How has a show with so much failure succeeded?

So many of the American Ninja Warrior runs end in failure, most of which end that contestant’s chance that season, and the show itself didn’t even have a winner until last season.

Yet the show’s popularity is increasing. NBC said the show’s ratings were up 10 percent last year compared to 2014, and 22 percent compared to 2013, and thus “the summer 2015 season was ‘Ninja’s’ most-watched ever, with its average of 7.1 million viewers.”

“I think there’s something special about it: the fact that you have to be—I don’t want to say flawless, but you just can’t make a mistake,” host Matt Iseman told me. “On American Ninja Warrior, that’s one of the things where you can’t take your eyes off of it, because at any second, any moment—not just a run, your season can end. A year’s worth of work. And they know it. It adds to the pressure, and inevitably what’s great is seeing great stumble.”

Iseman said there’s also a positive message here, too. Viewers are “getting to see the growth, and seeing how these stumbles don’t mean the end. They get frustrated, but they don’t quit. It’s been a great message for kids to see,” he said. “When we’re in the booth, we don’t predict, we have no idea who’s going to well. Because you don’t know—you just don’t know who’s going to stumble and who’s going to rise.”

Next, read: Behind the scenes of American Ninja Warrior’s qualifying and city final rounds

Drew Drechsel, Jessie Graff, American Ninja Warrior

American Ninja Warrior celebrities Drew Drechsel and Jessie Graff. (Drew photo by Quantrell Colbert/NBC; Jessie photo by David Becker/NBC)

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About the author

  • Andy Dehnart

    Andy Dehnart is the creator of reality blurred and a writer and teacher who obsessively and critically covers reality TV and unscripted entertainment, focusing on how it’s made and what it means.

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