X Games Kicks Off New Era With First Production as an Independently-Run Company
ESPN sold controlling interest in the event to MSP Sports Capital last year
A new chapter in the history of X Games begins today in Aspen, CO, as the now independently run company hosts its first major event since ESPN sold a controlling stake to MSP Sports Capital in October. ESPN (still a minority owner) and ABC will carry live coverage throughout the weekend, but X Games leadership is also looking to create a more multiplatform, interactive experience to appeal to younger audiences.
“I like to call us a 27-year-old startup,” says new X Games CEO Steve Flisler, “because, even though X Games has been one of the most incredible action-sports and lifestyle-media brands for years, we’re coming at this with a totally new mindset. We want to create a true 360 audience experience that goes beyond the linear-TV broadcast. We’re not thinking of streaming and digital as a second screen; we’re thinking of it as an extended experience. We are inviting our at-home audience to hang out with us and sit and chat live on Twitch or YouTube so that they feel like they are a part of it. And we’ll be doing that 10+ hours a day.”
Onsite in Aspen: Familiar Production Players Return, But With New Goals
In terms of the production operations in Aspen, X Games veterans will see a lot of familiar faces from years past. Echo Entertainment is back to roll out all the technical infrastructure and oversee production for the linear broadcast. Dome Productions trucks are parked at the compound, which is powered by Illumination Dynamics. BSI is back to manage RF wireless transmission across the mountain.
Across the three venues at Buttermilk Mountain (Big Air, SuperPipe, and Slopestyle), there are 53 unique camera positions to cover five sports and two host sets (one for broadcast, one for digital). The camera complement includes a CondorCam point-to-point wired aerial system, three jibs, seven super slo-mos, and four RF FollowCams, which are used by camera operators on skis and snowboards to provide a moving shot from right behind or on board each athlete in the Slopestyle and Big Air. The RF cameras provide dynamic tracking shots of the athletes as they compete. X Games will also deploy an ENG drone to capture beauty shots from around the mountain.
“X Games not only represents one of the most iconic media properties out there,” Flisler says. “It is also synonymous with innovation. The spirit of X Games is that there are no limits — whether it’s the field to play or how we create the broadcast. We are going to continue that tradition and take it to the next level. I’m excited for people to see what we have in store.”
The production team has also refreshed the graphics package that will be featured in both linear and digital coverage. The new look of the motion-graphics and animations packages, he notes, adds a new color palette to the iconic X Games structural elements. X Games is also creating custom graphics and animations for several brand partners, as well as integrating the overall look with its new merchandise line.
“We are building out this weekend-long content experience that will [feature] premium flagship events on ESPN and ABC as well as a more participatory streaming experience,” says Flisler. “We think about it like a macro and micro version of the storyline, where we have a centralized content operation that can serve both rather than bifurcating the linear and digital. It’s an extended experience, so that means that everything — our graphics, music, guests, and the overall presentation — has to be done [in tandem].”
Creating a 360 Audience Experience: Fortress LA Joins the Party
New to Aspen this year is Fortress LA, a production and creative team that X Games has brought in to manage all streaming production. Known for producing live streams of high-profile music festivals and digital events, Fortress LA has been brought in to bring a new mindset to the X Games live-streaming coverage on YouTube and Twitch.
“As we look to grow the streaming [presentation],” says Flisler, “we will take our premium broadcast package and tweak it a little bit [for streaming] with more humor and sound bites to make it feel more raw. The term I like to use is ‘polished scuff.’”
When an athlete wins a gold medal, for example, they will head to the linear-broadcast set for a four- or five-minute interview with co-hosts Selema Masekala and Victoria Arlen — as has traditionally been the case on X Games broadcasts. After that, the gold-medal winner will be walked over to the digital host set (located at the new interactive X Fest Snow festival experience) for a more casual extended interview for the streaming audience.
“That will be more of a casual-style hangout,” says Flisler. “It could be 30 or more minutes. We might even ask them to bring their trainer or friends on with them. We’re going to lean into that kind of style. We made a very conscious decision to build both a linear-TV host set and a digital host set in order to create that 360 audience experience.”
In addition to a dedicated host set, this year’s streaming experience will focus heavily on the music performances taking place throughout the next three days.
“Music has always been a part of the X Games body,” notes Flisler, “but we’re making it a bigger part of the [presentation]. Rather than having one big concert at night, we have seven music acts that will be integrated into the event schedule throughout the three days. And we’re going to stream a majority of those acts right on to Twitch and YouTube. If you hang out all weekend, you’re going to get the competition, but you’re also going to have an entire experience of action-sports culture.”
He adds that gaming also will play a role in the X Games presentation, with streaming segments featuring Microsoft’s Minecraft and Ubisoft’s Riders Republic.
The Future is Bright: Expansion Beyond Aspen, L.A.
Though marking a major milestone, this weekend in Aspen is “only the beginning of a new era” for the X Games,” Flisler says. The organization, he notes, is in the process of building out a “content roadmap” that goes well beyond Winter X in Aspen and Summer X in Los Angeles each year. Instead, the organization is looking to create new events and new disciplines and visit more mountains and skateparks across the world.
“We’re not going to be bound by just three days here for winter and three days for summer,” he says. “We want to build out the whole summer season so that it peaks with X Games during that three-day weekend. I’m excited because [hosting more events] gives us more surface area to experiment and build out the next style of a FollowCam or POV camera or a streaming approach that can be interactive.
“ESPN built X Games from scratch and deserves all the credit in the world for making it what it is today,” adds Flisler. “But we now have a team that wakes up and goes to bed thinking about X Games and nothing else. In terms of broadcasting, it’s all about X Games and only X Games. We have the cornerstone flagships on ESPN and ABC, but we’re looking much bigger than that. I’m excited to have the opportunity to take this iconic brand and build the future of X Games.”