A number of its quirkier sports from its early days crashed and burned (we miss you, street luge) and the icons who initially captured America’s attention are growing old (Tony Hawk, a rare extreme athlete with crossover appeal, turns 50 next year).
But the X Games are still shredding and by most measures are bigger than in 1995, when ESPN debuted the extreme sports spectacle on ESPN2, the network it had launched in part to attract a younger demographic of sports fans.
This week, when the X Games make their first stop in Minneapolis and are expected to attract more than 100,000 fans over four days, the tricks will certainly be crazier (please don’t try at home a double backflip on a motorcycle), the ramps will be taller (the most daunting drop-in ramp is 82 feet high) and the event will have more of a festival feel, with live music and interactive art exhibits.
Today’s biggest stars in the skateboard, motocross and BMX disciplines — from Nyjah Huston and Pamela Rosa, to Lizzie Armanto, Jackson Strong and Ryan Nyquist, to name a few — possess the style, skill and fearlessness that are captivating a new generation of enthusiasts.
At their core, the X Games, now in Year 23, are still all about athletes blowing our minds with breathtaking tricks, said ESPN’s X Games vice president Tim Reed.
“The biggest thing we have always tried to focus on is producing an authentic event that allows the athletes to show up and find an environment where the courses we are building lend themselves to them doing very cool, progressive things,” Reed said.
He would know. Reed grew up in Newport, R.I., where the first two X Games summer events were held in 1995 and 1996. And as an avid snowboarder who had also dabbled in skateboarding, he was a stoked spectator those first couple of years.
Two days after graduating from Yale in 1997, he flew to San Diego for a two-week internship at the third summer X Games, checking in athletes and handing them credentials when they showed up to compete. Soon after that, he landed a full-time job in athlete services and went on to work in operations, on the competition staff that designed courses and then in content strategy before getting promoted to his current role.
ESPN, wanting to give extreme sports a mainstream platform while also getting sports fans in a coveted younger demographic to flip over to ESPN2, announced in 1994 that it was starting the Extreme Games, which were rebranded as the X Games three years later.
In the early years, the annual X Games were two weeks long and weren’t televised live like they are now. There were a lot more extreme sports showcased back then — some of them short-lived, like bungee jumping, a team adventure race and street luge.
“It was tough to know then exactly what was going to come of it,” Reed recalled.
Finding the right audience, events
But there was a curiosity about extreme sports, with families and more traditional sports fans rubbing elbows with fanatics from the surf and skateboard culture at the X Games. The inaugural X Games in Rhode Island had an attendance of 198,000, according to ESPN. In the first eight years of the summer games, which were also held in San Diego, San Francisco and Philadelphia during that span, they averaged more than 200,000 spectators.
Event organizers eventually figured out what fans most wanted to see. In the summer, the buzzed-about events are skateboarding, BMX biking and motocross. And the X Games have continued to make their courses bigger and the ramps and obstacles taller.
The 365-foot-long megaramp built for competition at U.S. Bank Stadium reaches as high as an eight-story building, allowing competitors to reach speeds up to 40 miles per hour. Athletes fly onto a 27-foot-tall quarterpipe on the Big Air course. Motocross quarterpipes are 18 feet tall. Each competitor’s aim is to fly higher, take more twists and turns and execute tricks beyond their predecessors’ wildest dreams.
“If you put the events side by side [then and now],” Reed said, “just the sheer size of the jumps and the courses, you would clearly see that things have progressed over time.”
In 1999, Hawk finally nailed his 900-degree midair skateboard spin in a competition, which was a breakthrough moment for the X Games. In 2002, Mike Metzger nailed back-to-back backflips on his dirtbike. And in 2006, after the summer games took up residence in Los Angeles, motocrosser Travis Pastrana landed the first double backflip in competition.
“A big part of our growth is tied to the athletes,” Reed said. “Tony Hawk doing his 900 in San Francisco. … You look at what Travis Pastrana did over the years with motocross and [other extreme sports]. So we had this great combination of iconic athletes, awesome events and distribution. I think that really helped the growth and awareness.”
Next wave of extreme stars
Those icons also inspired the next wave of young extreme athletes, the ones fans will see soaring and spinning inside U.S. Bank Stadium this week. One of them is Alec Majerus, the Rochester, Minn., native who is among the competitors in skateboard street.
Majerus, around the age of 10, got his hands on a VHS tape of highlights of Hawk and others competing in the X Games. He watched it over and over as he became consumed by skateboarding, often riding on Minneapolis sidewalks.
“I never really thought I was going to be doing this someday,” Majerus said. “I thought everyone in the X Games were like superheroes when I was a little kid.”
A few current competitors have shredded into the mainstream, including Huston, a standout in skateboard street who has been interviewed by Forbes and profiled by GQ. But the X Games, which have experienced a decrease in attendance since 2002 along with dips in TV ratings, are looking for their next crossover star such as Hawk or Shaun White.
Some of the extreme sports themselves, though, have gained a much wider acceptance since 1995, with many more youngsters across the globe climbing on dirtbikes and skateboards. That helped lead to the addition last year of skateboarding to the 2020 Tokyo Summer Olympics, 22 years after snowboarding made its Winter Olympics debut.
“The landscape has changed a lot,” said Steve McCann, a semi-retired BMX biker from Australia. “A lot [of media] is going online. Action sports has changed a lot to more online content, social media stuff and YouTube. … [The sports are] gaining more relevancy and people are building more parks with more places to ride around the world.”
Reed, after two decades in an official capacity with the X Games, isn’t sure what the future holds for the venture he grew up with. But he does know they can never stop evolving.
“For us, it’s staying in tune to what the audience wants to see, what content they want to watch and really, for the brand, staying relevant to a young audience,” Reed said. “I think that’s the ongoing challenge that we will have to stay on top of.”