The Evil Geniuses Behind American Ninja Warrior
For a second, Eric Bivoino hangs in midair. He's young, fit, and trying not to land on his handsome face. Bivoino, a part-time stuntman, is in the middle of a challenge that the makers of the TV show American Ninja Warrior call Downhill Pipe: Hanging on to a steel bar, the warrior slides like a human roller coaster down two curved metal rods and then launches into a predictable vector. He's supposed to grab a rope and swing to safety. But even though his hands reach out for the dangling rope, it remains just past his grasp. Bivoino lands on the ground with a heavy crunch.
In this nondescript warehouse a half-hour north of Los Angeles, Bivoino is testing the Downhill Pipe for possible use on American Ninja Warrior. The show — the nation's top-rated obstacle-course competition and a summertime hit for NBC — needs to test its aspiring ninjas and surprise its viewers with a constant barrage of new challenges. For the 2015 season, premiering this month, the producers have brought in stuntmen, parkour experts, and former competitors to test-drive dozens of new obstacles (kept top secret so no aspiring ninja can get an edge). The obstacles need to have just the right amount of difficulty — the goal is for only 20 percent of contestants to finish the preliminary courses held in six cities across the country. Ultimately, only 24 new obstacles will make the cut. So on this February afternoon, the top brass watch Bivoino's every twitch like they're judges at an Olympic diving competition.
"We have to keep up with the ninjas," says Kent Weed, who's been the show's executive producer since it started five years ago. He's wearing a green polo shirt and has the mien of an aging surfer. "The minute we create a new obstacle, the ninjas build it in their backyards and you see it pop up on YouTube. So we have to stay fresh." Weed, a veteran producer of reality game shows like Hell's Kitchen, used to test every obstacle himself — the last barrier against anarchy in the ninja world — but he gave it up after a serious eye injury. He will still jump in if he thinks an obstacle is too easy: If a reality-TV producer in his fifties can handle it, he reasons, then it's obviously not tough enough for the ninjas.
American Ninja Warrior originated in Japan, where, under the name Sasuke, it's had 30 competitions since 1997. (There is also a U.K. spin-off, and dubbed versions of Sasuke are syndicated worldwide.) Thousands have climbed ropes, scaled walls, hoisted themselves up "salmon ladders" — in which contestants use a single movable rung to lift themselves a foot at a time — and balanced on increasingly unstable surfaces in an elaborate four-stage obstacle course. In 2012, the show was adapted for NBC's prime-time schedule. Now contestants take on a preliminary course in regional competitions while striving to advance to the finals in Las Vegas, where they face off against the final challenge, dubbed Mount Midoriyama.
This year, 40,000 people applied to be on American Ninja Warrior. About a quarter of them submitted videos showing off their skills at clambering up walls and swinging through homemade obstacles. (The show has launched its own fitness craze: There are now gyms all over the country specializing in Ninja skills and obstacle courses.) Roughly 800 contestants are chosen to compete in the qualifying rounds. "We see a lot of stunt people, former athletes, and ex-military," says J.J. Getskow, the show's lead course designer. "We don't want to put something out there that everybody just walks through."
So far, the show has debuted more than 100 obstacles. Before arriving, contestants have no idea what course they will encounter, so they train to be ready for anything. "There's a lot of different physical attributes necessary to be a ninja," explains Anthony Storm, a co-executive producer. "Speed, agility, balance, upper-body strength, grip strength. Each obstacle tests one or some of those." Grip strength is the show's X factor: It's not something athletes typically focus on improving, but it's essential when you're swinging above a water tank or holding on to a polyurethane ring with your fingertips.
Despite the element of surprise, producers do have a semi-set pattern for sequence. The Quintuple Steps is always first, the Warped Wall sixth, and Salmon Ladder eighth. "And for the second obstacle, we generally have some not incredibly taxing upper-body challenge," Storm says. "That one is about separating the athletes from the wannabes. Almost everyone can physically get past the second obstacle, but if you're nervous, you're probably going to fail it."
Here at the warehouse, Bivoino picks himself up and returns to the start of the Downhill Pipe, where he is lifted high above the ground by a forklift. He launches himself down the slope again — and this time Bivoino nails the timing, grabs the rope, swings forward, and hops onto a platform for a victorious dismount.
"Did you feel like you were actually finding the rope?" asks Storm.
Bivoino nods, doing an instant replay in his head. "I had time," he reports.
The toughest obstacles get reserved for the finals in Las Vegas — in six seasons, no American has reached the end of the course, so no one has yet claimed the $500,000 prize for finishing. Producers would love for someone to win, but they aren't about to make the obstacles any easier to see the first American make history by topping Mount Midoriyama.
"The first time I scaled the Warped Wall and hit the buzzer, I went to my knees and cried like a little girl," says Joe Moravsky, one of last season's top contestants. "Because of that moment, I feel like I've lived."