NBC’s American Ninja Warrior season 15 is winding down, starting its finals in Las Vegas on Monday. Before this season began, NBC promised “the biggest changes in show history.”
That was accurate. Those changes not only left us with one-hour episodes most Mondays, but dramatically changed the actual game.
The changes that came to the semi-finals will continue into the finals, and make Mount Midoriyama’s four stages easier to complete than ever.
Before the semifinals, I wrote about how much I disliked these new qualifying rounds. Judging, completely unscientifically, by comments on that story and from fans on Reddit and elsewhere, these have not been popular changes.
Instead of watching athletes who made it through the qualifying rounds tackle the semifinal course on their own, the show became American Ninja Warrior: Ninja vs. Ninja.
Winners of races (and the two losers who went the farthest) moved on to the Las Vegas finals; everyone else went home. Worse, an athlete who made it to the buzzer after their race opponent would be eliminated, while another athlete who, say, fell on the second obstacle would go to the finals if their opponent fell before them.
The match-ups don’t always seem fair, either. Sometimes the contestants are of similar sizes and ages, other times not at all.
I was curious how those match-ups were created, and asked NBC for clarification. A spokesperson told me:
“Ninjas are ranked on a traditional bracketing system. We look at finishers, who are all ranked by time. Beyond that, if a player made it through a lot of obstacles in good time but did not finish the course, there is a chance they can also make it through provided not enough competitors complete the entire course.”
A bracketing system places the top-ranked person against the lowest-ranked person, and so on. The ninjas were told in a pre-season letter that “the fastest Qualifier will race against the slowest. #1 vs #24, #2 vs #23, etc.”
American Ninja Warrior’s new format has taken the focus off athletes tackling the course, and is no longer rewarding those who make it the farthest, the fastest. That’s dramatically changed the show—and ANW has other major changes to come.
ANW 15’s winner faced a very different Las Vegas course
The changes made to American Ninja Warrior season 15 do not stop at the semi-finals. The Las Vegas finals are also “getting butchered,” in the words of The Sasuke Nerds.
Yes, the format for the four stages of Mount Midoriyama have also been changed dramatically:
- The fastest people will go on to stage two, even if they don’t finish stage one
- Stage two will be races, just like in the semi-finals, with winners—and the fastest two losers—going on to stage three
- A guaranteed number of people—the winners of the stage-two races—will attempt stage three
- As before, anyone who finishes stage three will attempt the 30-second rope climb
This change makes it significantly more likely that someone will make it to stage four, with so many people guaranteed to make stage three. (I’ve read reports of both 24 and 26 people going from stage one to stage two, which would mean either 12 or 13 people at stage three.)
One of the weird but special things about American Ninja Warrior was that its courses were so challenging that it often did not have a winner.
It took until season seven before anyone even got to stage four, and then not again until season 11. Last year was different: Only five people in the show’s entire history made it to stage four before season 14, and then, incredibly, five people made it during season 14.
An NBC promo already spoiled/revealed that American Ninja Warrior season 15 will have a $1 million winner. Whoever that is will certainly have made their way up that rope by themselves, though the format changes certainly made it easier to get to that rope than ever before.
The bad news about American Ninja Warrior season 16
The good news is there will be a season 16 of American Ninja Warrior. Season 15 started filming in mid-March, and after the qualifying and semi-final rounds filmed, the qualifying and semi-final rounds for season 16 were filmed.
Filming seasons back-to-back saves reality TV productions and their networks considerable amounts of money. By doing two seasons worth of casting, pre-production, and filming all at once, using the same sets and same locations, they get two seasons for far less than they’d spend on two individually filmed seasons. That’s why Survivor has filmed back-to-back seasons since Samoa in 2009.
Both ANW seasons filmed at Universal Studios in Hollywood, and then, in May, filmed their finals in Las Vegas.
Finally, another big change is that we will be shooting both Seasons 15 and 16 of ANW this spring. In LA in March, we will shoot Qualifying and Semis of Season 15, followed a few days later by the Qualifying and Semis of Season 16. Then, in Vegas in early May, we’ll complete Season 15, and then Season 16. Some ninjas will be invited to compete in both seasons, and some only in one.
The letter says the format will change “this year,” which means that, yes, both seasons filmed this year will use that new format.
So while some obstacles will change, American Ninja Warrior season 16 will be identical in format to season 15. I think we can hope and dream that producers and network executives would have made adjustments based on how things went in season 14, but the fundamental changes are here to stay.
One lingering question is when season 16 will air. With the WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes, that increases the need for other content to fill prime-time. NBC has already announced its fall schedule, but could we see ANW 16 in spring?
If that happens, could that mean a possible American Ninja Warrior season 17 would film in spring 2024 for a summer premiere—and undo all of these bad changes? Right now, that’s a distant fantasy. What is clear is that we’re stuck with whatever ANW has become for two full seasons.