In the 21st century, the athletes we watch really are the best in the world. Today’s professionals rarely emerge from unexpected backlots or public courts; for decades, the sports-industrial complex has scouted kids starting with middle school, and advancements in international recruiting has never made it easier to answer the hypothetical, “What if a future NBA Hall of Famer is just hanging out in Cameroon?”. Not only that, but decision makers are putting a higher premium than ever on fitness and analytics, to the point that most sports would now be unrecognizable to their earliest greats.
I love watching the Olympics, normal sports like basketball and football, and especially abnormal sports — I had tears in my eyes watching the Westminster dog show agility runs — but they are also incredibly figured out. The people who are good at them are otherworldly, and the joy of watching them stems in large part from the inhumanly precise talents they have intentionally cultivated as the byproduct of decades of thinking about “how to play the game.” I’m pressed to think of anything more boring to watch than the “Curry Flurry” of flawless threes that inevitably happens two to four minutes into the third quarter of every Warriors game. Pro sports are so refined that when a new development in any established sport emerges, it’s something incredibly subtle: a Euro step here, a widened ski stance there. Every fine tuning yields weeks of analysis and speculation about how the effects will cascade out to the various players, teams, coaches, training modules, defensive and offensive field structure. The complexity of the analysis (thousands of hours of TV and hundreds of thousands of words about Steph Curry) almost always outweighs the complexity of the thing changing the game (he is really good at shooting, because he is talented and worked very hard).
The Titan Games, a new sport-like show on NBC hosted by Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson that pits contestants head-to-head in a series of invented games revolving around feats of strength, resists all of this. The participants are plucked mostly from obscurity, people (men and women, from their early 20s to their 50s, though there are no explicit caps) who are super-passionate about fitness. The competitions are a mishmash of made-up feats credited to The Rock’s wild imagination, and are mostly designed to highlight strength, given The Rock’s presence as a terrifyingly strong human. The people on this show are strong as hell, and the show gives them an opportunity to apply it in a way that most strength-focused sports like powerlifting and Olympic weightlifting don’t usually allow. It’s fun puzzles for ripped people, basically.
There is no gendered component to the Titan Games, with women and men performing the same exact activities (the show doesn’t specify, but it doesn’t appear that weights are calibrated differently between the women and the men). While there is no rigid feeder system, not all the Titan Games participants come from nowhere. Three of the women in the first couple of episodes are Instagram-famous strength-training fitspo people I already knew, one of whom most famously trained Kim Kardashian for a few months, and has a following in the millions. But the rest are mostly obscure normal-ish people aside from their physical strength, some with weepy backstories of human triumph like overcoming cancer or family deaths that are narrativized for the show.
What makes the show most interesting is that it’s threaded through with actual new problems to solve. Watching people figure things out on the fly for the first time when there’s no established “perfect” or even “good” way of doing is a refreshing change from watching the elite of the elite try for absolute perfection, and waiting for them to mess up in the tiniest of ways. Sports like powerlifting and weightlifting are closer to where the participants’ skill lies, but these sports too are incredibly precision-optimized; most people who do them don’t compete more than a few times a year, and when they do, it’s to perform only a handful of single attempts at a small range of lifts. The Titan Games, by contrast, is both messy because it’s new, and impressive because it does rely on real skills, applied in unorthodox ways, on giant set pieces like massive chain nets and raised platforms that recall action movies.
The first competitive activity introduced in the series premiere, the “Herculean Pull,” involves two athletes on opposite sides of a solid pyramid threaded through with metal beams. Each athlete must pull two beams out on their own before they each grab one side of a single beam in a tug of war; whoever pulls that beam to their side is the winner. It’s an awkward activity, trying to get leverage and a solid hold on a smooth object to not only pull it out but keep the other person from pulling it through their side. Neither person can see what the other is doing, so there is a little strategy involved in sensing their opponent’s micro-moments of fatigue in order to gain an advantage. It is inherently un-graceful and gritty and makes no real sense; I love it.
Another activity, “Mount Olympus,” involves knocking over a wall, followed by shoving a series of walls up a “mountain” into each other, followed by clambering over a bunch of giant rolling wooden cylinders, followed by punching holes in the wall to make footholds to climb it, followed by cranking a wheel to raise a giant plank into the air, followed by the participants flipping themselves bodily over some walls down a series of metal slides, followed by dragging a literal ball and chain to a concrete box they must bash open with a hammer to retrieve a key thing they carry to another platform and turn in a lock. If this sounds hard to follow, it makes a brutal sense when you watch it; it scratches the Aggro-Crag itch that’s surprisingly stayed with me for the last 20 years.
The insanity only multiplies: “Lunar Impact” involves each opponent on either side of a movable wall trying to push the other off a 30-foot high crescent-shaped platform; “Uprising” ties participants to a pulley weighted with an anvil on the other end, requiring them to run forward and smash the anvil through a series of concrete blocks and then periodically be yanked backward by its weight. There are ten such events so far, with new ones added every episode.
There is not even a lot for the commentators or The Rock to really say about all of this, because it’s not like there’s a identifiable “best way” for the competitors to perform these singular activities. Basketball commentators can correctly point out that Kevin Durant didn’t rotate fast enough on a defensive assignment; here, there are occasional comments about the buildup of lactic acid in muscles and captain-obvious observations about how the participants are trying, and a lot of The Rock being reduced to nothing but “Wow. Wow.” This is fine, actually; if I wanted endless hours of impassioned analysis, I would watch the NBA. Bless the mess that is The Titan Games.
The show is not unlike American Gladiator, except there’s no direct fighting or grappling between contestants. A closer new-sport analog might be American Ninja Warrior, which is fun but also sort of sucks because it’s overly focused on grip endurance and climbing skills, which results in a bunch of people dangling from various things all the time. But the best reference point, to me, are Nickelodeon shows from my childhood like Guts, Legends of the Hidden Temple, and Double Dare. Those shows mostly ended recycling the same activities over and over (The Shrine of the Silver Monkey, the giant person-sized model nose from which families had to dig out red flags) but they remained fun to watch because they were unique enough to resist systematization. There is no real way to prepare for digging a flag out of a giant person-sized model nose, outside of watching a bunch of other people do it on the television, and that is as it should be.
The raw application of power is a traditionally alpha and masculine trait, attributes that have fallen out of favor because they call up images of huge sweaty dudes screaming at each other over rusty piles of 45lb plates. But things are maybe, finally starting to change: The Rock, who regularly posts sweaty gym selfies from his 4am sessions, undercuts his bulky appearance with affability, goofiness, and earnestness. Strength training has started to become popular across all demographics, to my delight. But no strength athletes are household names, and few support themselves with income from the sport. This might be attributable to the fact that its highest incarnation — moving extremely heavy weights up and down — is incredibly boring to watch. CrossFit has its critics, but it has at least made strength-type activities somewhat entertaining with the CrossFit Games, which pits the most accomplished CrossFit athletes against each other in Crossfitty activities like “burn 100 calories on the attack bike as fast as you can” or “do 70 headstand pushups.” Even so, they are pretty rote and straightforward, too focused on making things accountable and fair across competing groups because their customer base is paying, on average, hundreds of dollars a month to their respective CrossFit boxes to train for events many of them would like to win or place at. The Titan Games, on the other hand, eschew accountability for unpredictability, and get a much more fun result.
New events continue to appear in the most recent episodes of the Titan Games, so it’s too early to tell if it will keep being as “new” of a “sport” as it is now. It’s likewise hard to say if the show will ever really catch on, as it lacks a kind of “I could do that” curb appeal that I feel when I watch something like American Ninja Warrior. I definitely couldn’t do these things. But that’s what makes it good.