Thursday in Aspen, Colorado the worlds of action sports and music collide as the winter X Games get underway, running throughout the weekend for broadcast on ABC, ESPN, ESPN2, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and more.
Since premiering as the Extreme Games in Rhode Island in the summer of 1995, the X Games have pushed skate culture, snowboarding, action sports and more into the mainstream for nearly twenty-five years.
The winter games debuted in 1997 with global games following five years later. The worldwide impact of the ESPN creation was cemented upon the inclusion of previously marginalized sporting events into the Olympic games. Snowboarding launched in Nagano in 1998, with skateboarding set to follow next summer in Tokyo, as the Olympics continue to try and overhaul a stale model and appeal to a younger generation of fans.
From day one, music has played an integral role in the success of the X Games, which spawned a Music From the X Games CD series to accompany the ESPN broadcasts in the late 90s.
Athletes train and warm up to curated playlists, are introduced during events to the sounds of their favorite songs and can often be seen on the event course wearing earbuds. Some of the athletes, like snowboarder Shaun White, are musicians themselves.
In terms of the live television broadcast, music helps drive the narrative that unfolds on screen in a fashion virtually unparalleled anywhere else in professional sports. A live DJ is present on site and creates an energetic atmosphere that easily translates to TV.
And, in recent years, live music has become an even bigger component of the X Games as ESPN builds on the role music plays in so many facets of the extreme sporting experience.
“I think that with action sports – with all sports but action sports in particular – music is a really big part of the culture. It’s a whole culture unto itself, right? In terms of fashion and art and do-it-yourself aesthetic,” observed ESPN Director of Music and Cultural Elements, Jennifer Rieber. “A lot of these kids, these are people that grew up training in parking lots and back alleys with their friends and homemade ramps. It’s a very DIY aesthetic. And I think music has always been a really, really integral part of that. So it’s a big part of the X Games for sure.”
As the destination concert festival model has exploded in popularity in America since the early 2000s, it’s had an impact on the X Games. Winter events have taken place in Aspen, Colorado since 2002 and this year, concerts featuring EDM duo The Chainsmokers, Norwegian DJ Kygo, rapper Lil Wayne and electronic artists Louis the Child will take place at Buttermilk Mountain following each night’s events, with intimate indoor after parties following at Belly Up Aspen nightclub.
“The X Games fan is everybody from young kids to people who are bringing their young kids. There’s adults that have grown up on it. So we want to make sure that there’s a really broad sort of entertainment offering happening on site so that everybody has something they can go to and enjoy,” said Rieber. “Even if it’s not your favorite band, who doesn’t get into the energy of a huge live concert on the side of a mountain for 7,500 people?”
Now into its third decade, the continued appeal of the X Games lies in its ability to evolve. There’s new events. Athletes like Heath Frisby, who front flipped a snowmobile, or skateboarder Tony Hawk have used the X Games as a platform to debut new tricks, pushing the events themselves forward. In 2015, ESPN first employed the use of drone cameras.
And the choice of music has evolved too, featuring everything from the hard rock and heavy metal of Metallica to pop stars like Kanye West and Nicki Minaj in recent years.
One of the biggest challenges in keeping the X Games fresh isn’t following musical trends like the recent dominance of hip-hop and EDM on the pop charts, it’s creating a unique experience for fans in an often homogeneous live music sphere.
“It’s such a crowded festival landscape now. You take a look when the lineups start rolling out. Coachella just came out. They’re all going to start rolling out. And it’s really difficult to have literally hundreds of music festivals that happen during the season and have fresh lineups across the board,” Rieber explained. “I want the X Games to look different. It’s a different event. It’s not a music festival – it’s an action sports festival that has a large music component. I also think we have a somewhat particular demo that comes to our event as opposed to a Coachella or a Lollapalooza. So I try to really book for our specific event.”
This year, X Games pushed the in person experience to new extremes, partnering with Aspen Skiing Company on a ski lift and music combo package for the first time.
The summer X Games will take place in Minneapolis August 1-4, featuring live performances by The Blind Shake, Chevy Metal, Incubus Wu-Tang Clan and more.
Those events will take place indoors at the new U.S. Bank Stadium. But, this Thursday, weather is likely to play just as big a role as action sports or music as the X Games begin again in Colorado.
“We are literally building a venue out of whole cloth. I’m hooking up snowcats to a stage and hauling it up a mountain. And all of that is so tenuous and so dictated by the weather. We’ve had years where I’m in tears because there’s no snow and you can’t build a pad. Or I’m in tears because there’s way too much snow and you can’t move it anywhere,” joked Rieber. “I think Aspen kind of sells itself. It’s just such a great venue and a great time. It’s something you can’t replicate. It’s a really special event.”