There are a lot of things about this summer’s X Games that look different from any previous year, from two big new disciplines—skateboard and BMX megapark— to a new home for live streaming on ESPN+.
In fact, this week’s X Games competitions—which kicked off Wednesday and will continue through Sunday, July 24—are only a fraction of the action sports content that ESPN plans to make available on its ESPN+ service, as part of a broader initiative to create a hub for action sports content, which has historically been fragmented across many networks and streamers.
For the second consecutive year and due in large part to the pandemic, Summer X Games is operating as a closed contest across three Southern California locations—pro skater Elliot Sloan’s backyard complex, the SloanYard (new this year) and Axell Hodges’ motocross compound Slayground, both Monster Energy athlete training facilities, as well as California Skateparks’ Training Facility (CATF).
On Wednesday, Sloan opened SloanYard—which recently received a facelift courtesy of Skatelite and features a 100-foot vert ramp and a mini megaramp—for skateboard vert and vert best trick, as well as two new disciplines, BMX and skateboard megapark.
In March 2020, Sloan and BK Designs finished the return section of the setup, which means a typical run now includes four tricks instead of two.
Early Wednesday, vert veteran Jimmy Wilkins took his fifth consecutive X Games vert gold medal, the most in X Games history, in the first skateboard event of the week. The host with the most, Sloan, took gold on his own ramp in vert best trick, throwing down a Cab heelflip 720.
The BMXers kicked off the megapark events, with Nitro Circus stunter Ryan Williams (RWilly) taking gold with a never-before-done frontflip kickless windshield wiper.
Last month, Williams told me about his own training complex, RWilly Land, in Australia, and how it’s helped him progress his riding, with “dozens” of world-first tricks in his bag waiting to be debuted.
In skateboard megapark, Sloan hoped to win a second gold in his backyard, but instead it was Edouard Damestoy who came out on top, becoming the first French skateboarder to earn an X Games gold medal. Sloan made the podium again, however, with silver.
All events will stream live on ESPN+ and will be available on demand once they’ve concluded. Additionally, on Saturday, events in the 1 p.m. to 6 p.m. ET window will be broadcast live on ABC, and Saturday evening events can be viewed live on ESPN2 in addition to ESPN+. However, all the linear windows are tape delayed, so live events are exclusive to ESPN+.
The opportunity to simulcast X Games on ESPN+ marks the first time that ESPN has been able to offer all X Games events—including those that haven’t been historically available in their linear windows, such as prelims and lead-up events—in one place.
X Games has a younger-skewing demographic, explains Tim Reed, VP of action sports programming, and ESPN has tried to serve those viewers with live lead-in content on YouTube, TikTok, Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. But by putting all that content on ESPN+, the network can direct its audience to one platform for the first time.
“We’re still saying super active on all our social channels, more with clips and highlights and promos and trying to create content that works well for those platforms,” said Reed. “But ESPN+ presented a great opportunity to simplify the message and get all our events in one location.”
According to VP of digital programming John Lasker, half the audience engaging with ESPN+ is under the age of 35, which is well-suited to the target audience for X Games and the action sports category overall.
Compared to ESPN, the subscriber base for ESPN+ is also largely balanced between men and women, which is largely attributable to the platform’s existing content, especially in college sports. More than 10,000 events per year on ESPN+ are exclusively women’s sports.
X Games’ investment in women’s events, largely on the winter side but anchored in summer by women’s skateboard park and women’s skateboard street, also dovetails with the ESPN+ demographic, both in terms of its existing subscriber base and also in the potential new subscribers those disciplines could bring to the service.
One year out from the Tokyo Olympics, skateboarders Sky Brown, Sakura Yosozumi and Kokona Hiraki on the park side and Leticia Bufoni, Momiji Nishiya, Rayssa Leal and Funa Nakayama on the street side have become household names. Casual viewers will be able to catch their events on tape delay on ABC this weekend, but fans who want to watch them live will be funneled to ESPN+.
And X Games is just the beginning of ESPN+’s action sports strategy. Lasker attributes the big picture goal to the successes ESPN has already seen with other sport categories, particularly soccer. X Games is the latest action sports offering, but the platform has already hosted the Red Bull Cliff Diving World Series and the first stop of the Street League Skateboarding (SLS) Championship Tour, with the next two stops and the the Super Crown championship in Brazil to come between now and November.
“Within soccer, there isn’t a singular league that’s synonymous with the sport; we’ve been able to accrue a large set of rights and events across a number of leagues and rightsholders to put together a comprehensive offering, particularly within European football,” Lasker said.
“Action sports is in a similar vein. We have a preeminent brand with X Games, but the offering to a fan is likely incomplete without going deeper and being more expansive. What we’ve done here with things like Red Bull and Street League, where we’ve seen success is where it’s not just about that one thing or that one day, or for X Games purposes that one weekend, but rather a sustainable and high-qualify offering.”
The end goal is that ESPN+ becomes indispensable for action sports fans, the way it has already become for fans of soccer, UFC, the NHL and the PGA Tour. As a subscription add-on, fans of those sports still need a streaming TV provider to access live events. But many events, from select NHL games to most X Games programming, are exclusively available on ESPN+.
Users can toggle by sport or by league; currently, X Games is available as a league, but in the future, the action sports offering could be strengthened by making skateboarding, BMX, etc. available as standalone sports, and creating an SLS league landing page.
For action sports specifically, one major benefit of streaming live on ESPN+ as opposed to in an ABC broadcast window is the flexibility. Think about Tony Hawk attempting the 900 in 1999 after 10 failed attempts. If it aired today on a major network like ABC, the competition might have to be cut short to adhere to strict broadcast windows.
“For X Games and other things there’s less religion around having to hit certain times to be on the air and off the air; you can breathe a little bit and play with commercial formats,” Lasker said.
“You have a little more flexibility if you want to go a little longer; there’s a little more freedom there than if we’re locked into an ABC window and we’ve got more rigidity,” Reed added.
It’s especially beneficial in an event with a jam session format, like skateboard megapark, because it can give each rider at least one additional run as the clock begins to run down. That makes for better television, as claiming major tricks like the first 900 or Gui Khury’s first-ever 1080 doesn’t happen on the first attempt.
Even prerecorded events benefit from flexible scheduling. On Tuesday, the Real Street best trick contest was filmed live as a 30-minute jam session at an undisclosed legendary skate spot in Southern California and will be broadcast and judged on ABC and ESPN+ on Sunday. Featuring Nyjah Huston, Yuto Horigome, Dashawn Jordan and Jamie Foy, it promises to be a heavy competition.
“Talking about flexibility, a 30-minute contest ended up going almost an hour, and every skater got 20-25 attempts on the rail,” Reed said. “It felt like a really core authentic skate session for all the guys. And then you can either cut it down a little bit and make a tighter edit or, for those hardcore fans that would want to sit through 200-plus attempts on the rail and these skaters just battling to land one trick, you have the whole thing.”
There’s a harmonious marriage that can be achieved between events simulcast on a digital streamer and a live network broadcast. It gives hardcore fans what is, in essence, an all-access pass, but it doesn’t take away a casual viewer’s opportunity to tune in to a few hours of action sports once a year during its tentpole event.
There may be diehard X Games fans used to watching competitions live on YouTube who will complain about some content being locked behind a paywall, but Lasker and Reed hope fans see it as the most comprehensive X Games offering to date, a one-stop-shop for every lead-up event and competition.
“We’re still doing 15-plus hours on the ESPN networks this week; the linear distribution simulcast onto ESPN+ remain a big part of X Games moving forward,” Reed said. “It’s a little bit of a best of both worlds situation; we can be on broadly distributed ESPN networks but also show up in the growing platform that is ESPN+. It’s great we get to be on both at the same time for what is a good chunk of our events this weekend.”
The full X Games TV/streaming schedule and where to watch every event can be found on X Games’ website.
Thursday’s schedule features moto X events at Hodges’ Slayground, while the action will move to CATF over the weekend for the skateboarding and BMX park events, as well as the broadcast of Real Street best trick.