It’s quite the process to create a perfect American Ninja Warrior obstacle. From the initial designs on paper, through numerous discussions with producers and obstacle architects, it takes a team to bring an obstacle to life. And a lot of testing.
The system of testing the obstacles starts way back in the ATS Team’s warehouse and it continues until just hours before the competition, if need be.
We crashed a testing session just 24 hours before the Semifinals began in Los Angeles to gain a behind-the-scenes understanding of this important tradition. (We can’t share photos of the course with you, so we’ve included some delightfully vague shots from around the set in this article.)
Testing requires many different people to do many different things. The course is essentially divided into two sides. First, there’s the testers’ side. This group of existing and potential future Ninja Warrior competitors are there to take on the obstacles.
On the opposite side of the course, the producers and crew members study each move made on the obstacles and huddle together for hushed conversations about what should be changed.
We joined the testing session while obstacle nine was examined. As we previously reported, obstacle nine of the Semifinals involves the new “Split-Decision.” That means we were looking at a balance obstacle and an upper-body obstacle. Not to scare anyone, but we literally laughed out loud when we saw the balance obstacle. The upper-body obstacle was brand new and needed fine-tuning.
American Ninja Warrior’s Challenge Producer, Adam Sheldon, gave us some perspective on the overall mission of that afternoon’s session.
“Today, we already did a morning session where we tested out the majority of these obstacles, but now we need to dial in obstacle nine,” Sheldon shared with us. “After we’re done dialing that in, making sure we have everything to our liking and specifications, then we’ll do more full course runs where we’ll be able to see what the times look like, how gassed out people will be, and how people will look. All the testers here are a perfect representation of what our actual competitors will be.”
The testers are a group of people who have an undying passion for Ninja Warrior and the course. The testing experience is about camaraderie, pride, experience, and training. The very recognizable group of testers shouted encouragement as each new hopeful stepped up to obstacle nine. Others crouched near the course to study the “beta” as closely as possible.
When Sheldon says they’re a perfect representation of the actual competitors, he means it. That’s because many of them ARE the actual competitors. When a Ninja ends their season early, they can join in on the testing process for the ongoing locations, if they chose to do so.
We can’t tell you their names because that would obviously be a huge spoiler, but we asked some of these well-known Ninjas to tell us why they came back for more after an early fall.
“Honestly, I see it as an opportunity for practice. You get to come and be around all the Ninjas, learn from them, talk about different betas and work things out. Then you get on the obstacle and you push it to its next level too. But you also get a chance to see how it works. How they come up with the rules and all that. So you can use that when you actually get on the show. I think getting that practice in and understanding all those aspects of it will help me in the long run.”
“It’s a great opportunity to test my abilities and test my skills in a non-competitive format and have a great time. The crew, ATS, production, everyone is such amazing individuals and an amazing community. It’s probably one of the most fun experiences of Ninja (Warrior).”
Dave Cavanagh, who was once known as the “King of the Walk-Ons” is now gaining a reputation as the “King of the Testers.” When the long-time competitor didn’t get a call to be on season 13, he decided to become a tester for the year, taking on the obstacles on the Tacoma Qualifiers and the Los Angeles Semifinals.
“It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to know that I’ve never been really good at the reality side of it, the camera side. I’ve always been good at obstacles. The opportunity to do what I’ve always wanted to do, which is try all the obstacles, (testing) just seemed like the next logical step. To show myself that a year’s worth of work was worth it, and I was stronger compared to what happened last year.
It’s been amazing. I’ve gotten to try every obstacle. Usually, you get to try six obstacles if you make it that far and you get to try 10 if you make it that far. So you get to try 16 obstacles. I’ve done, I don’t even know now. It’s got to be in the sixties. Double tries. The hardest versions. The easiest versions. It’s been a learning experience of how my body needs to move for everything.
I always thought that the producers and everyone in charge were almost put off by a bunch of us. Like me, I’m a little rough around the edges. To meet them in a place where it wasn’t me against them, in a way, where it’s more like I’m helping them. They’re actually all really awesome people. They really are looking out for us. If anyone falls, every producer is there looking in the pool, making sure you’re okay. It’s been an eye-opening experience to know that it truly is the Ninjas versus the course, and they’re just the byproduct. The people who have to make sure that it’s not even just a level playing field, but that it’s doable.”
Testing isn’t just a hobby. It’s a lifestyle. Just ask Sara Heesen. She’s tested on four seasons at this point.
“I tested in season eight, every single city, and then National Finals. I competed on the show seasons nine and ten. And then every season after that I’ve been a tester.
It’s fun. It’s fun to get on obstacles this big and this dynamic. Most gyms can mimic some of the smaller moves, but it doesn’t make sense to take up a whole truss system for one obstacle. We don’t get these awesome obstacles in any other gym. I get to see and play and train. It’s usually a bunch of really strong, intelligent people. I get to learn while I do it.
I want to get back on the show. So this lets me test the obstacles that I’ll hopefully be able to get on when I’m in competition and give me a better shot to make it all the way through.”
The testers take their runs seriously. This isn’t light-hearted playtime. There is a visible disappointment when they fail an obstacle. They await their chance at a full course run with the anticipation that used to be felt by the walk-on line. “I’m number 13. I hope they get to me.”
When the competitors arrive at the course, these testers will demonstrate the obstacles for them using the guidelines and rules established by the producers. But right now, the Ninjas are tasked with approaching the obstacle however they see fit. On the other side of the course, the producers and crew quietly watch their every move. What they see here will define the gameplay of that obstacle and the look of the show itself.
Whereas the Ninjas’ side of the course is a flurry of conversation and cheers, the other side of the course is much quieter. When a Ninja whoops with joy after completing an obstacle, the producers whisper together and an ATS team member scales the truss and adjusts the obstacle. Mind you, it’s not to make the course impossible, it’s to make it the best it can be for the Ninjas and the viewers.
Kent Weed, an Executive Producer of American Ninja Warrior, studied obstacle nine intently. We asked him to share what he was thinking about at that moment.
“We’re looking at the amount of moves that they (the testers) have to do, how tired they are by the time they get to this obstacle, how difficult it is. Difficulty level versus ease of accomplishment, versus how much grip they have left. In looking at it, do we shorten a cleat, make a cleat longer? Whether we adjust the tension on the actual board itself. How long is that laché is going to be? It’s all just fine-tuning it, dialing it in to get what we see as the right amount of difficulty.”
During his time on American Ninja Warrior, Weed has witnessed the evolution of hundreds of obstacles. It’s intuition at this point for him. That was demonstrated by his quick response to our question: On a scale of one to 10, how ready is that obstacle?
“Seven. We still have work to do. It was probably a four or five this morning. We’re up to a seven. I think we’ll be at a nine before the end of the day. One more testing tomorrow and we’ll have it dialed in, just like we do with every single obstacle.
You have to take into consideration how many obstacles they’ve (the Ninjas) done up to now. We want to make it hard enough so that if they’re already spent, that they are forced to do the other obstacle. If you’re spent and you don’t have anymore, you can try the balance obstacle, which is going to be very difficult. On purpose. It’s kind of like a ‘Hail Mary.’ I think we’ll see people try it, for sure. I don’t foresee a lot of success on it. But when you do see success, it will be miraculous.”
A little way up the course, the show’s director, Patrick McManus also studied the action. He was less concerned with the success rate of the testers. McManus was carefully mapping out his camera angles to capture every emotional moment on the course.
“I was sitting on the audience's side because I want to see wherever their faces are. I want to get a look at them. They’re going to be looking for their friends and family. If they look over this way, I want to capture that face. On this side, I don’t want to see these camera people in the shots either, so where can we hide them to get a face to tell the story.
Everything I think about is camera positioning. Foreground, background, the subject, the light. Where the connections are. How they connect to the people on the sideline, the people in the monitor, and where their eyes go. Where are they going to look.”
As the temperature cooled with the lowering sun, Challenge Producer Adam Sheldon continued to call out the names of testers, putting them on the obstacles one by one. Each brought their own styles and strengths to the session, allowing the producers and crew to each bring their unique abilities to the process.
Just over 24 hours later, the first Semifinalists would approach the start line to begin their bid for the National Finals. The tireless work of the testing process will be on display when American Ninja Warrior kicks off season 13 on May 31.