After an abbreviated season with a modified format that aired last fall, American Ninja Warrior is back on NBC’s summer, with the addition of teenage contestants, plus new, tougher obstacles, including one choice (Split Decision). Season 13 is also back to its regular format and will return to Las Vegas for its finals, though the season itself isn’t entirely back to normal, as qualifiers were filmed entirely at the Tacoma Dome in Washington.
As I’ve watched, I’ve had lots of questions: Why did the show add Split Decision and teenage contestants, and did younger competitors change anything? How did the production schedule and return to Las Vegas work this year? Why is ANW using fake audience sounds for both viewers and the contestants?
To find out, I interviewed American Ninja Warrior executive producer Anthony Storm, of A. Smith and Co. Productions, where he’s senior vice president and executive producer. He’s involved in every step of the competition, from pre-production to post-production, developing and testing new obstacles to editing the season, and offered a lot of insight and detail about this season.
How American Ninja Warrior’s schedule changed
Because of C0VID-19, season 12 wasn’t filmed until July 2020, and that meant even the format had to change. “We had to do it all in one location because we had to get it done very quickly,” Storm told me. “What normally would be seven cities, five days each, Las Vegas for a week, all got condensed into one location over 10 days. In order to do that, we had to rethink the competition entirely. We could only invite 150 athletes, we couldn’t have stages because there wasn’t space to build all those courses, and so we just reimagined the competition entirely and and treated it like a unique event.”
That season didn’t air until September, but the delayed start and air date didn’t affect season 13’s production schedule. “What would normally be our off-season—October through January—got condensed basically into December,” Storm said. “So it wasn’t that we had less time to prepare for season 13, it was just that we had less time in between seasons. We had the same production schedule once we began.”
While filming took place in late March and April, and more people were getting vaccinated by then, Storm said that “didn’t have any impact on us, because the safety measures were the same,” including testing people before they flew out and again once they landed, with all people having to test negative within 24 hours of arriving on set.
Although American Ninja Warrior is a summer show, preparation for the next season generally begins almost a year earlier. The basic schedule it follows, Storm told me, is this:
- Fall: obstacle development and casting begin
- Winter: new obstacles are tested, the cast is locked down, locations are signed
- Spring, pre-production: the course is built and tested, and the story department develops the stories it will tell
- Spring, production: the show is filmed and contestants run the course
- Spring and early summer, post-production: the season is edited and then airs
Why teenagers are now competing on American Ninja Warrior
During the first episode of American Ninja Warrior season 13, 16-year-old Elijah Browning completed the course and hit the buzzer, not only making history because of his age, but also finishing in second place overall—behind 15-year-old Isaiah Thomas. Yes, the fastest two contestants were also the youngest.
This season is the first with contestants ages 15 to 18. While the actual casting call specified that contestants “must be at least 19 years of age at the time of your Regional Qualifying Round,” but teenagers who’d participated in American Ninja Warrior Junior were invited to participate. (ANW Junior will return for a third season, but is moving from Universal Kids to Peacock.)
Storm said that producers “were motivated by the success of the teenagers on American Ninja Warrior Junior. We had created this space where they could prove themselves up until they were 14 years old, and then they essentially had to sit on the sidelines for five years until they were 19, because those were our previous age minimums. And we just felt like it was too long of a wait.” He added, “We knew how talented they were, we knew—especially the ones that were training with our elite ninjas, and were side by side with them in the gym—we knew that they could keep pace. So we just felt like it made sense to give them an opportunity.”
Continuing to evolve a 13-year-old reality competition was also part of the consideration. “Of course, you know, we’re also trying to refresh the show, we want to have new faces, we want to have new storylines,” Storm said. “We want to have something new for the audience to look forward to. So that played a part, but it really started with them selling us—by competing on Junior and in the gym—on just how good they can be, and how competitive they can be.”
Did the American Ninja Warrior course or obstacles have to be changed to accommodate teenage contestants, like it did for the Junior edition? No, although producers did test the obstacles with younger testers. “We brought some teenagers into the shop so that we could test the obstacles, so that we could be certain that they can handle that, that there were no additional risks,” Storm told me. “But the reality is that a 15 year old is not that different physically from a lot of our competitors. We’ve had plenty of athletes on this show that were under 5 feet—adults that were under 5 feet. We’ve had athletes that weighed less than 100 pounds. By the way, only a handful of our teens fall into those categories anyway; we’ve got 15 year olds that are 6-foot-1, we’ve got 15-year-old girls that are 5-foot-10.”
“We knew already what they were capable of, and we knew already that there were no additional risks inherent to the process,” he added. Thus, the only major difference is that the teenage athletes had to have an adult with them, and not just on the sidelines: “At least one parent comes to every aspect of what we do: they come to the interviews, to all the b-roll that we shoot. They travel with them everywhere they go,” he said.
Why Split Decision was added, and how it changes in the semi-finals
In the qualifying rounds, contestants now have a choice for one obstacle. It’s called Split Decision, and it offers a choice between two balance obstacles; so far, they’ve been Domino Effect vs. Spinning Log, and Broken Bridge vs. Burn Rubber. Storm called these “fun new challenges” that are “really taking the sport to new level” because it adds a psychological challenge—especially if the contestant has previously attempted one of the obstacles.
“Some of them have fallen on some of these obstacles before, so now they get to choose if they want to conquer their demons, or if they’d rather never see that obstacle again,” he said. “And then if they fall on balance, they always have that thought in the back of their head: What if I had gone with the other one? It’s a real mind twist for them. Normally, it’s purely physical out there, and you don’t have to use your brain; now we’re testing another part, so they get to use their brain and their body.”
During the semi-final rounds, Split Decision will still be on the course, but it’ll move and replace the penultimate obstacle. “When we get to the semifinals, Split Decision is on the back half of the course,” Storm told me. “So right before they get to the final obstacle, the ninth obstacle is [either] the traditional upper body—very challenging upper body, grip endurance obstacle—or they can try a really, really challenging balance obstacle that almost nobody has gotten through in the past. If they’re out of grip entirely and they know they can’t get through it, they can test themselves on this balance obstacle.”
Can American Ninja Warrior obstacles get too difficult?
In addition to Split Decision, American Ninja Warrior season 13 has so far introduced three new obstacles—Overpass, Tipping Point, and V Formation, all of which seem incredibly difficult to me, but then again I can’t even do a pull-up. So it’s incredibly impressive to see athletes who can complete these obstacles. I asked Storm if there’s a tipping point—if obstacles can get too hard.
“We are constantly efforting to stay a half step ahead of the athletes,” he told me. “Because of the proliferation of ninja gyms around the country, our athletes have an opportunity to train year-round. … We have to do our best to make our courses challenging for them. If, for example, we were to run a season-six course out in front of today’s athletes, we probably have about a 75 percent success rate, which wouldn’t be fun for anybody.”
“As you as a viewer understand, the fun of the show is the challenge, and that is seeing how hard the obstacles are. There’s a certain amount of people [who] fail on them, and then you see that, ultimately, they can be conquered. Some people get through some, and some get through all of them. Because the athletes get better, because every season they have another year of training under their belt, we have to make the courses increasingly more difficult. Of course, we always run the risk that they could get too difficult, but we do extensive testing, and we use a lot of really talented testers—both in the shop and on set before we begin production—so that we dial in the courses and and we know that the courses can be conquered, it’s just a question of how many people will step up on that particular day or night and do it.”
I asked if there was a number or percentage they’re aiming for, and Storm said, “We would never want a course where more than 30 percent of the people could conquer it, because then it doesn’t feel as difficult as you would want it to feel.” And “in qualifying, we kind of hoped it’s somewhere between seven to 20 people can get through a course, depending on how many people actually get to compete that day. But really, we just want to create a course that feels really challenging.”
Why American Ninja Warrior is using fake crowd noises
The 2020 and 2021 seasons will be very different, but one thing they have in common is that they were both filmed in locked-down locations—America’s Center in St. Louis last year, and the Tacomoa Dome this year—without audiences in bleachers, cheering on the contestants from the sidelines. But if you watch American Ninja Warrior, you’ll hear lots of cheering and clapping.
First, some of that comes from the friends and family of the contestants, who are now watching via video feeds, and whose images are on big screens next to the course. I was curious if those video screen appearances will continue in future seasons, and Storm said yes. “The screens have been a revelation,” he said, because “in the past, it’s been a challenge for some people to get to our location.” While occasionally a friend or family member would hold up an iPhone with another friend or family member watching via FaceTime, using the screens means that the show has “been able to not only have more people rooting for them on the sidelines, but we’ve able to be able to open it up to people that we never would have gotten. This year, we had so many Olympians and celebrities.” Storm said they may not “have the time in their busy schedules to travel to a location, but they do have 15 minutes to find a link, click on a link, and watch the runs via a device from home.” He said it’s been “really special, and I think we’ll continue to do that even when we have full crowds back.”
What viewers and the contestants hear while they’re running the course is a lot more than just their friends and family on a device, however. “When you’re just standing up there and all you hear is a couple of people on the sidelines cheering in a vacuum, it can be a little bit off-putting, so we pumped in a little bit of crowd noise just to make them feel a little more comfortable,” Storm told me. “And then once we got into post [production], we played around with it a lot. What was most important to us was just giving a sense of energy during the run. We didn’t want [the course runs] to feel hollow. If you watch any other sporting event—the NBA and Major League Baseball—they’ve done a lot of the same, and if you stop and think about it, it’s a little bit weird, like, Where’s that noise coming from? But if you don’t, if you just settle into the viewing experience, it helps.”
“We ride the levels a little. When they get through an obstacle, we give a little more of a swell, when they fall, there’s a little bit of an aww sound. We try to play off of the natural sound that already there, because as you mentioned, there are people on screens, there are people on the sidelines. We try to just sort of accentuate the noise that they’re already making, so it doesn’t feel like it’s completely unmotivated. We never want it to be distracting; we do our best so it doesn’t make you think, What the heck, where did that sound come from or Who is making that noise? But it is a balance, and it’s something that we tweak up until the last second in post production. We’re always futzing with those levels a little bit.”
Do American Ninja Warrior contestants get to practice on the course?
No, they do not. But they do get a demonstration. “They don’t even see the obstacles until they walk out there, so it’s stunning to see how successful they are, all things considered,” Storm told me. He did acknowledge that, because of the proliferation of gyms that have their own Ninja Warrior courses and obstacles, “they may have done something similar in the gym, but not on the scale that that they’re facing right now. And some of them, they’ve never seen any version of it whatsoever.”
Contestants are given a demo so they can see how to properly approach the obstacle and its elements, and so they know what is and is not allowed. “Everyone competing gets walked through the course by the challenge team, and they get to see a done once by a tester,” Storm said. “That’s essentially so that we can discuss the rules, because some obstacles have very specific rules about whether you can use your hands or your feet, or you can touch this or touch that. In the process of explaining all the rules and the obstacles, we demo it one time so they can see the proper way to do it.”
What to expect from American Ninja Warrior’s return to Las Vegas for finals
While all of the qualifying rounds were filmed in one location, at the Tacoma Dome, the show went to Los Angeles to film the semi-finals on the Universal Studios backlot, and it will return to Las Vegas for its finals. “Going back to Vegas was something that we’ve really yearned to do,” Storm said. “That’s what the show is all about is the four stages Mt. Midoriyama, and getting an opportunity to compete for the million dollars. We made every effort to reestablish that, and we’re very excited we were able to.”
American Ninja Warrior season 13’s finals filmed in Las Vegas in May 2021, and even had a small audience. “Every state has its own considerations and regulations regarding C0VID, and some are more lenient than others. Nevada allowed us to come and shoot,” he said. “Things opened up just enough for us to invite back a live audience. So while we did not have a live audience for qualifying or semi-finals, we do have one in the national finals. It’s not the same size audience that we’ve had in years past; there are still some limitations. But there is a live audience, and that’s really exciting. That energy goes a long way, and we were really thrilled to have that environment again.”
“The courses are essentially the same types of courses that we’ve had in seasons past, with lots of new obstacles, of course. We reconfigured them a little bit so that they create their own backgrounds. We didn’t know if we would have crowds, and so we didn’t know exactly what the backgrounds for courses would look like. You don’t really think of it as a viewer, but you see bleachers and an audience behind an athlete, and that looks natural. But if there is no bleacher and no audience and, what do you see? So we built the courses in a way so that there was always another course behind the one that they were competing on. The discerning viewer may recognize that. But other than that, it’s pretty much standard fare—but with a lot of cool new obstacles.”
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Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly identified the location of the semi-final round, which is actually the Universal Studios backlot in Los Angeles.