American Ninja Warrior season 13 returns on NBC this week, continuing the long and impressive history of a series that’s become as popular as its Japanese predecessor. Why do audiences—and competitors—keep coming back for more than a decade? What went into some of season 13’s changes, like the decision to lower the age limit? And what’s it like just to work on this show?
Executive producer Anthony Storm is one of the people who makes American Ninja Warrior work, as A. Smith & Co. Productions produces the series. He joined me to answer a few questions about the development of season 13 and the longevity of the Emmy Award-nominated competition show overall. Get the inside scoop here before tuning into the next episode at 8:00 p.m. ET/PT tonight on NBC!
Brittany Frederick: This season you lowered the age limit on American Ninja Warrior. What made this the right time to do that, especially when you already have American Ninja Warrior Junior that targets the younger competitors?
Anthony Storm: American Ninja Warrior Junior really was a lot of fun. We created [that] show a few seasons ago as an opportunity to see how these kids could do on Ninja Warrior courses. They did so incredibly well that we felt like it was a shame that the oldest group on the show was 14-year-olds; with the minimum age on American Ninja Warrior previously being 19 years old, they were basically graduating out of the show after they turned 15. They had to be sidelined for five years and not have an opportunity to compete at all. It didn’t seem to make sense to them, and it didn’t make sense to the fans of the show who were curious as to how these elite teens would do on the big course.
We’re always looking to refresh our show and to have new competitors and faces and stories to tell, so it made sense to allow contestants as young as 15 years old to compete. We actually intended to do it in season 12, but we had to push it a year because of COVID-19. When it all came together, we were curious as to how they would compete and to see if the teens could hold their own with the veteran competitors. Some of these kids were two years old when people like David Campbell first started competing on American Ninja Warrior. We thought it was just fascinating to have a place where 40- and 50-year-old athletes could compete against 15-year-olds, and our curiosity has been rewarded. The teenagers are awesome. It’s incredible to watch.
BF: The show has caught on not only with fans, but you have ninjas who come back year after year to compete again. Why do you think American Ninja Warrior has that kind of longevity?
AS: I think it’s because it’s a unique community. Daniel Gil is a big part of it; he’s the head coach at one of the primary ninja gyms in the country. There are places like that all over the country, and anybody that wants to try and test themselves—or even try to become a ninja—can go to one of these gyms and be welcomed and be accepted by people of all skill levels. They’ll find people like themselves that are trying it for the first time, and they’ll find coaches who have been on the show before and can give expert advice.
Once you’ve tried it, you want to watch the show even more, because you want to see what the new obstacles are and how your coach is going to do. You want to see how your training partners are going to do and think about how you might do if given the chance. I can’t think of too many shows where you can watch it, go do it yourself and then possibly compete on the show someday. That’s a pretty special type of environment.
BF: With so many people who want to come back, plus trying to fit in new competitors, how do you decide on the size of the field for an American Ninja Warrior season?
AS: It does come down to time, and COVID-19 provided a lot of challenges for us this year. In the past, we’ve run over 100 competitors in a day or night. Because of COVID it took more time to do everything on set—wiping things down and being more spaced out and taking more time in between athletes to prepare the course—so we were limited. Normally there are 600 team members, and that dropped down to 400 this year. We only have so many hours in a day, and if we’re shooting an overnight, there’s only so many hours util the sun comes up and we can’t shoot anymore. The crew is on a schedule, so while we’d like to invite thousands and not reject anybody, because it’s always painful to say no, there are logistical and practical limitations on what we can do.
BF: You’ve had some special competitors, too, from IndyCar and NASCAR drivers to someone who ran the course in a Tyrannosaurus Rex costume. How do you fit in things like that without taking attention away from the main competition?
AS: We established early on that the show wasn’t just sports entertainment. There is an end goal where people are trying to win a million dollars, but there’s also a percentage of those who are there to entertain themselves. Some are there to show their family they can do something cool, or to prove they have overcome some other obstacle in their life—be it some sort of medical or health setback or some personal tragedy that they may have experienced—and this is a chance to express their grief and conquer an obstacle they didn’t think they could overcome. Because it’s not just a sports competition, there’s room for this humor.
When outsiders come in and try the course themselves, it helps establish how hard the American Ninja Warrior courses really are. It’s so fascinating to see an elite athlete like Helio [Castroneves] or an Olympic athlete come out and fall early. These are people that can do things that none of us can do in some walks of life, but they come on a Ninja course and they’re as helpless as the rest of us. It helps establish the difficulty and prove just how talented the elites are, and I think it’s important to see that it’s not that easy.
BF: You update the American Ninja Warrior course every season. Where’s the line between making it more challenging, and making it so hard that it’s detrimental to competition?
AS: There’s a trash heap of what we thought were good ideas, that via testing and research and development, we discovered were not good ideas. Throughout the whole last season we’ve been developing and testing obstacles, fine-tuning and ultimately discarding obstacles until we get to a comfortable place. Even when we get to set, we spend days testing the obstacles again. We bring in dozens and dozens of testers that run the course over and over and over again until we get it to a place where we know it’s 1) safe because that’s always our highest priority; 2) challenging enough to make the elite ninjas have to work for it; and 3) not so challenging that the amateurs can’t get through a couple of obstacles and feel good about themselves. That’s a very fine line and a difficult challenge. One of the biggest challenges with the show is building the course.
BF: A Smith & Co. produces a number of other top reality shows, including but not limited to Hell’s Kitchen and Mental Samurai. Have you brought anything you learned from American Ninja Warrior to the production of your other projects?
AS: We did The Titan Games with Dwayne Johnson, and that came after we did a number of seasons on American Ninja Warrior, so there were levels of institutional knowledge that we brought to that show. For all of our reality competition shows with physical strength—for example, some of the shows we’re developing right now for other networks and streamers—all of the knowledge came from our expertise on American Ninja Warrior. We learned so much about what athletes can do, what non-athletes can do, and how to control that space to make it fun and challenging and balance all those parts at the same time.
American Ninja Warrior airs Mondays at 8:00 p.m. ET/PT on NBC.
Article content is (c)2020-2021 Brittany Frederick and may not be excerpted or reproduced without express written permission by the author. Follow me on Twitter at @BFTVTwtr, on Instagram at @BFTVGram.