Let me set a scene. The exact details aren’t important. So let’s call the year 2002.
It’s a Sunday afternoon in suburban Delaware. Football season. The Philadelphia Eagles are on TV and things aren’t going well for the Birds.
In the family room, there’s the rest of my family: my dad, mom, and brother. They’re watching, upset their favorite team is losing, but handling it fine.
Me…not so much. I’m 11 years old and have been sent to watch the game in our basement, plopping down inches from a tiny TV. I’d been relegated there because if I couldn’t (wouldn’t) stop yelling — like screaming, pitching a fit — then I wasn’t going to get to hang around the family. Fair enough. Who wants to enjoy an afternoon of an 11-year-old hurling insults at refs and belting “catch the DAMN ball” at receivers?
All that’s to say, for much of my life I devoted a lot of passion — let’s be real way too much — to sports.
Nowadays, I’ve left a lot of that behind. After 20-some years of playing, watching, consuming, and having sports consume me, I began devoting far less time to that world. It just wasn’t worth my energy. I still follow my favorite NBA team, but that’s about it for my traditional sports viewing these days.
Traditional is the key word. Because I’m here to argue that MTV’s The Challenge is America’s finest sport. It has filled the sports-sized hole in my media diet. The NFL? Nope. MLS? Come on. MLB? Maybe in 1965. NBA? OK, I love the NBA but The Challenge is appointment viewing unlike countless NBA games.
So, what is The Challenge? For the uninitiated, it’s a witch’s brew of classic reality TV, something akin to an unholy mash-up of Real World, American Gladiator, Survivor, Love Island, Fear Factor, Big Brother, and Ninja Warrior.
The season finale of the current season dubbed The Challenge: Double Agents airs Wednesday on MTV at 8 p.m. ET.
The series debuted in 1998 and began as a way for MTV to milk the popularity of Real World and Road Rules. They got the pseudo-celebs from those reality programs to show up in a house, get drunk, then compete in some physical and mental challenges. Back then, many of the events had sexual undertones that were more like overtones — such as using body heat to melt a block of ice while wearing bathing suits. Eventually, at the end of the season, somebody was declared the winner. Simple enough.
The competition now — and, most importantly, the competitors therein — hardly resembles those humble beginnings.
The fifth great American sport
It used to be reality stars were on The Challenge. Now challengers just happen to be reality stars. Let me explain: You better show up like a fucking pro if you want any shot at winning, or even sticking around.
Each season has different variations and twists, but the beats these days remain the same. A man and woman are usually paired together. They compete against other pairs. Each episode, for the most part, features an immunity challenge, a vote, then an elimination battle where either a man or woman challenger goes home. Eventually a handful of teams make host TJ Lavin’s final, where they must run long distances, eat gross food, solve puzzles, and complete wild challenges.
The weekly challenges, and the final, have evolved. The days of boozy games of dodgeball are over. This season competitors have wrestled on 18-wheelers, smashed into one-another in a tiny corridor (a famous elimination dubbed Hall Brawl), and jumped out of airplanes,. They’ve also solved strange puzzles, flown drones, and answered trivia.
The best competitors are jacked, in-shape, practiced in puzzles, and well-versed in the, let’s say intricacies, of reality TV. They’re build like Gods and petty like Real Housewives.
Lolo Jones — an all-world athlete who participated in both the summer and winter Olympics — got steamrolled so bad in the current season that she straight-up quit. You can’t just be strong or fast. You have to do be able to do confusing puzzles while tired, cunning enough to manipulate votes, enough of an asshole to double-cross friends, in-shape enough to run long distances, quotable enough for the producers, and have a strong stomach to boot. Oh, and you and have to live in dorm-like accommodations with your rivals, totally isolated from society for weeks at a time. Some Olympians legit stand no chance.
“I know I’m going to get some flack for this, but The Challenge is more difficult in certain regards than than professional sports,” said Johnny Devenanzio, a Challenge competitor who is really only known by his infamous moniker Johnny Bananas. “From a mental standpoint, you take any other sport: football, baseball, soccer, basketball. While the competition may change, teams may change, the X’s and the O’s are always the same. The game is the same. The Challenge, we never know what we’re going to do from day-to-day. One day we could be dangling off a building, the next day we could be diving underwater and solving puzzles. The next day we could be off the front of the tank, trying to grab flags with exploding ordinances.”
If there’s anyone to talk with about the rigor, demand, and shifting landscape of The Challenge, it’s Bananas. The Real World: Key West alum is the undisputed G.O.A.T. of The Challenge, participating in its infancy through last season. He’s since moved on to hosting NBC’s Celebrity Sleepover and other shows, but he won last season’s title and didn’t rule out a comeback in our interview. Overall, Bananas has won a record seven times, raking in more than $1.1 million in winnings. No other competitor has won more than three titles, although fellow Challenge legend CT Tamburello could inch up to four, should he win in this season’s finale that airs Wednesday night.
CT and Bananas are sort of like the barn-storming baseball players from decades ago who made the sport professional. Bananas recalled lifting rocks to get a workout in — there was no in-house gym back in the early seasons. Folks back then were more worried about training their livers than their muscles.
“It’s now got to a point where it went from that to now, we show up and if you’re not, you know, a borderline professional athlete, you’re not going to be able to hang in these challenges,” Bananas told Mashable in a phone call. “It’s been a great evolution… It went from the most popular reality television game show, to now something that competes with other sports out there.”
What makes The Challenge great?
OK, so with the basics understood, here’s a quick 6-point list as to why The Challenge is America’s finest sport. (And to be clear there are more reasons but I’ve got limited time here.)
1. The actual competitions are physical and fun.
You know the best parts of pro sports? The bone-crunching tackles in football? The high-flying X Games? Disrespectful dunks in the NBA? That’s pretty much all The Challenge does. It’s all killer, no filler.
The rules and action change to make the competition as entertaining as possible, from season-to-season, episode-to-episode. The NFL might switch a rule here or there. The Challenge might re-use classic games, but it will always surprise you.
“You have to adapt, you have to change,” Bananas said. “Whether it’s an elimination or whether it’s a challenge, you have one shot to do something that you’ve never done before. And if you don’t do the best then you could possibly be injured, you could be eliminated and sent home. You can be carried on someone’s back like an infant. That happened to me before.”
Note: He was referencing a classic run-in with CT that you must watch at about 0:53 below.
But that’s the thing. Bananas was calling back a classic sports moment. CT carrying Bananas is like Michael Jordan hitting a last-second shot. Everyone who’s seen it remembers it. I asked Lavin, the longtime Challenge host and a former pro-BMX athlete, if he remembered the most impressive moment from the show. He didn’t hesitate.
“That’s easy: Bananas Backpack,” he said. “I thought it was gonna be a real hard struggle. … CT made him look like a little kid. It was craaazy. Him cyborging out of that thing. I was like, ‘Dude, that is the wildest thing I’ve ever seen in my whole life.'”
And The Challenge is never the same thing twice. You know, roughly, what a basketball game is going to look like. The hoop isn’t suddenly going to start shooting fireworks off and the floor is made of trampolines. The Challenge you just never know. And even if a person is a physical beast, they might have to do math-based puzzles or eat ram’s testicles. Nothing is ever guaranteed.
2. The stunts are sick.
If you’ve never seen a person deathly afraid of heights have to jump out of a plane and memorize things from the ground as they go, well, then you’re missing out. The show has evolved to include, cinematic set pieces that frankly rule to watch. Each season seems to get bigger.
“We’re emulating stunts that are befitting of the big screen,” said Emer Harkin, the executive producer and showrunner of The Challenge, in an interview with Mashable. “Our stunt team are the same team who are behind Mad Max and the stunt team behind Suicide Squad.”
3. The subtext isn’t subtext at all.
These days it feels like the NBA’s most popular season is the offseason — when players move teams and everyone speculates about what’s to come. In The Challenge that’s part of the draw. Yes they compete in sport-like activities. But recruiting a strong partner, or backstabbing an old friend, or pissing someone off to get them out of the game — it’s all done under the camera’s eye. All the crap we love speculating about with so-called real sports are done for all to see. This season, for instance, we got to see CT ditch his partner, Big T, after they were the sweethearts of the entire season. It’s like if Steph Curry abandoned the Warriors for the Lakers in the middle of the playoffs.
4. The shit talk and drama.
So this is kind of like the subtext point, but pro sports is inching ever closer to reality TV. Google around. Sports fans love rumors, love triangles, and perceived fights among teammates. The Challenge, frankly, is just better at all this. It is unabashedly reality TV with a sports veneer. It’s the best of all worlds. It’s like all the best pro athletes played each other, then got drunk together, then of course fought each other, then had to live together in dorms together. This season I got to watch CT, a grown-ass dad talk shit while Tony Soprano-ing deli meats out of a container. If that isn’t art? If that isn’t sports,
And these days The Challenge is pulling competitors from all over. If you’re a physically fit person on Love Island, Big Brother, Survivor, or any other show, you’ve got a shot at The Challenge. So every person in the competition is a pro at having their lives filmed.
And guess what? That’s all part of the game. If you can’t hang as a reality star, as a drinking partner, as a member of the house, then you can’t hang. The veterans will eat you alive. Ask Lolo Jones.
5. It’s edited.
I saw this tweet the other day. It’s true.
If you’re not thinking about the editors 85% of the time you’re watching a reality show, you’re not even watching.
— mike castle (@magicmikecastle) April 12, 2021
The Challenge is no exception. Everyone I spoke with assured me the competitions were on the up-and-up — it’s not pro wrestling — but there are editors on the show. And they make things as interesting as possible. They make villains and heroes. They set up twists and the pride before the fall. You get a good story layered onto the sports. There will be a nice arc and build in each episode and season.
“I suppose our show, in a way, is like the Marvel Universe isn’t it?” Harkin said. “We have our villains, we’ve got our fan favorites, we’ve got new cast, we’ve got cast that return that you haven’t seen in a while. Honestly I really approach it like we’re building a new movie franchise each each season.”
6. There is something everyone.
Do you like football or boxing? The Challenge has violent physical action. Do you like the Fast and Furious franchise? The Challenge has real-life stunts. Do you like Bravo reality TV or, hell, the shit-talking of NBA Twitter? The Challenge has capital-D Drama. Do you like Love Island? The Challenge steals characters from the show and makes them compete.
My point is, you might have people like The Ringer’s Bill Simmons and ESPN’s Dave Jacoby, who recap the show in hilarious detail with sports expertise, and helped push the idea that the show is a major sport. Or you have my fiancée, who doesn’t watch sports, but is obsessed with The Challenge and roots for CT like I cheer for the Philadelphia 76ers.
It is the finest American sport because it is for everyone.
You get invested. When I tell you I rooted for Bananas’ unlikely, nearly impossible seventh win as an older vet last season, I mean I was literally cheering. Yelling and fist-pumping at my TV. Simmons, a Boston sports fan bordering on deranged, noted he cheers for Leroy Garrett — his favorite Challenger — like he’s a Boston franchises. There is no CT slander allowed in my home because my fiancée will not have it.
Even the rich and famous love it. Rihanna for one. And Drake for another — the rapper actually DM’d Lavin just to chat about the show.
“I was like, ‘Yeah right there’s no way, somebody hacked his account.’ I just ignored it,” Lavin said. “And then he hit me up again. I was like what! I left my number like, ‘Cool FaceTime me.’ Sure enough, he FaceTimed me. … He’s a fan of the show and now we’re bros.”
The way sports are going
I think you get my point by now. But think about sports and sports media — they’re all catching up with The Challenge. Yes, there are debate shows about traditional sports, but The Challenge is built around screaming, drunken conflict. And yes, “real” athletes trash talk and scheme, but we don’t see it all and it is tamped down by the massive amounts of money at play. Pro athletes need to upkeep a veneer of professionalism. Challengers have to be ruthless and have to scheme to survive. If you ain’t cheating, you ain’t trying.
Sports are becoming more and more entertainment based. TV contracts are the engine driving the pro sports machine, after all. But The Challenge is the best sport because it admits — yes this is entertainment first, cut and shaped and dramatic, but with and underpinning of a fair fight among talented athletes.
It is perfect and better than your favorite sport. If you don’t like sports, guess what? I bet you’ll still love it.
But just don’t get so invested that you yell and scream and get sent to watch away from your family. It’s not life or death — it’s just sports. Kind of.