Do the X Games Still Matter?

With more avenues than ever for athletes to make money and secure sponsorships, it’s no surprise that the X Games has turned to Metallica to attract new viewers this summer.

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May 13 2015, 4:18pm

Photo by Flickr user NoNo Joe

ESPN announced on Monday that Metallica will headline the X Games next month. The rock band will take the stage for the first time in six years in Austin, Texas. They'll join Nicki Minaj, Talib Kweli, the Glitch Mob, Kid Ink, Pennywise, Deltron 3030, and Joywave at the action sports festival. As the X Games expands its offerings and athletes are more visible than ever though other channels, the three-decade event continues to fight for its role in the action sports world.

Since its inception in Rhode Island in 1995, the X Games has not been shy in its attempts to expand its reach and monetize the events. The company, an ESPN subsidiary, offers products through retail partners such as Target, including scooters, skateboards, bedding, and more. A Global X Games series was announced in 2011 and then cancelled by ESPN in 2013 due to financial restraints as the events failed to garner local interest and advertisers the way U.S.-based events did.

The X Games replaced the television-broadcast global series with the video segment-based Real Series, which debuted in 2010 and now airs on ABC. For the Real Series competition, athletes submit short videos of themselves in action. Winners of the contests are awarded medals at Summer and Winter X Games. This year in Austin, festival goers will have to purchase tickets for the traditionally free event. Prices range from $25 to a $1,300 VIP experience. The expansion comes with its fair-share of critics.

Last year's inclusion of a Major League Gaming tournament drew groans from seasoned action sports vets, as well as fans who asked whether an eGamer deserved the same medal, or even belonged at the same event series, as skateboard, BMX, ski and snowboard athletes.

"I was shocked at first," says slopestyle skier Jossi Wells. The Kiwi is a three-time Winter X silver medalist and represented New Zealand in the 2014 Winter Olympics. He is heralded in skiing circles for zero spinning—taking off backwards and landing backwards without a single rotation—all three jumps in Sochi, a metaphorical middle finger in a judged sport where double and triple flips rule the competition scene.

"I was told by someone at ESPN that [action sports] was the same age demographic as the video game demo so it kind of made sense," says Wells. "It's going to bring in a whole new group of fans to it. Hopefully it'll get them hooked on watching action sports."

X Games Austin last year saw the largest audience—160,000 attendees—in the event's history, despite moving the event from late July to early June. TV numbers, according to Nilesen ratings, for X Games Austin reached 32 million viewers, up 10 percent from 2013. One ESPN insider who spoke with VICE Sports said coverage of the debut of video gaming was among the highest trafficked content on XGames.com.

And while the event broadens its reach, some, such as SNOWBOARDER Magazine editor Tom Monterosso, believe value in the event is dependent on storylines.

"X Games has more impact on the core audience than the Olympics," says Monterosso. "The X Games, as far as a core audience is concerned, still has the ability to be a king-making event, like when Danny Davis this year beat Shaun White and won gold. If Shaun wins, the core doesn't necessarily care all that much, but if someone beats Shaun, like Danny did fair and square, it matters."

In response to the addition of a music festival and video games, Monterosso says non-traditional events have been a part of X Games lore in the past.

"There was also snowblading and modified shovel racing at one point. I don't understand how sitting on a couch moving a little stick around is considered an X Games sport," says Monterosso "If that's the case then I'm going to be a fucking world-class athlete any year now."