Compete against the course, not each other
Ninja Warrior pits people against an insane obstacle course, not each other. American sports could get a clue from this event format.
I happen to be a huge fan of Ninja Warrior. Ever since I saw the first episode on G4TV, I was hooked. Ninja Warrior, also known as Sasuke, took place in Midoriyama, Japan, and featured people from Japan and all over the world competing against an obstacle course which is redesigned to be more difficult every time someone beats the course. Only 3 people in history have beaten the entire course.
You may have already noticed from the above description what sets Ninja Warrior apart from most American sports: Contestants compete against the course, not each other. The entire idea behind the show is to conquer the obstacles and beat the course, not the other people. I struggle to think of any popular sport in America where the object isn’t to beat another person or team. Football, basketball, baseball, wrestling, boxing, golf and even the Olympics are all about beating someone else. Not only is it all about being better than someone else, sore losers abound, and for many fans there is greater appeal in the rivalry than in the sport itself.
One of the reasons my whole family watched every Sasuke aired is because of the way the contestants interact. They train together, they give each other pointers, and no one is angry when another competitor gets further in the course than they did. They cheer one another on, because the course is the real opponent, not the other men and women. (And there’s another point: Women were welcome to compete in Sasuke, even though there was also a women’s only version called Kunoichi.)
It’s always exciting to watch the contestants attempt to defeat the course. There is such determination, and the other competitors cheer them along, and even offer tips after they have failed a particular obstacle. In what American sport would a player tell the next guy how to do it better? It wouldn’t happen. American sports competitors keep their winning tricks to themselves, and are more than happy to see the next guy fail. In Ninja Warrior, a failure of one is sad for all, and anyone’s success is a thrill for every competitor.
Another thing you’re not likely to see in American sports is the ability for anyone to give it a shot. American sports are typically for those who dedicate their lives to it, and do nothing else. The majority of Sasuke competitors have real jobs, but compete in the twice-yearly event as often as possible, training in their off-time from work. All types of people compete, from TV announcers to gas station attendants, models, comedians, teens and even the elderly. The three men who have won Ninja Warrior are a crab trapper, a fisherman and a shoe salesman. Can you imagine an American sports team letting a fisherman or shoe salesman get in on the action? Not likely.
Americans could take a hint from events like Ninja Warrior and it’s spinoffs. Instead of being so self-centered and always trying to beat someone else, why not create sporting events that truly test one’s skill, and where the event itself is what must be defeated, rather than another person? It would be a bit of a shock to the American sports enthusiast, but I think it could gain appeal. It’s a shame that it’s our cultural way to want to be number one and look down on others rather than have a common goal and be supportive of others.
The variety or Ninja Warrior is also something that’s appealing. Unlike most American favorite sports, Sasuke changes regularly. Football, baseball and the like get very repetitive and boring. Here we tune in to Ninja Warrior not only to watch these amazing people compete, but to see what madness the creator has laid out on the course this season. There’s always something new, and so the show stays exciting.
Overall, I think Americans could learn a thing or two from this show. Perhaps we could try to shift events from being about beating other people and more toward beating the event, or excelling at the sport. Take a cue from Sasuke competitors, and help others become better where you have failed, rather than being happy that they didn’t do as well as you. Train the next generation to do better than you, and be happy to see someone new shine, rather than greedily holding on to the spotlight for as long as you can. With changes like those, sports might actually be worth watching.