When the Olympics add some silly X-Games event, or when NCAA football tinkers with the overtime rules, my first impulse is to resist. Sports are built on foundations of history and heritage that date to the Pleistocene Era. They’re not supposed to evolve; they’re supposed to be.
Well, that’s stupid—or maybe 75 percent stupid. Sports have a foundation of history and heritage, but it’s not inviolable. Basketball is inarguably better because of the 3-pointer and the shot clock. Tie games in college football were the worst. UFC fighting and Olympic snowboarding, which weren’t around a half-century ago, have millions of fans. And competition shows like Top Chef and Survivor, though not sports in the classic sense, are compelling to watch for many of the same reasons as traditional sports, and they now have their own decade-plus foundations of history and heritage.
Enter Ultimate Beastmaster, a new competition series where teams of athletes from Japan, Mexico, Germany, South Korea, Brazil and the United States compete in an obstacle-course competition with the athletic physicality and TV production quality of a major-league sporting event. Is it a sport if the whole thing happened months ago and you can stream 10 hours of it in one sitting? I don’t know, and I don’t care. I’ve seen two episodes, and I plan on plowing headlong through the rest of it.
Netflix built Ultimate Beastmaster from the ground up to leverage its international market and binge model. The series includes competitors from six different countries plus broadcast teams from those six countries—international comics, sportscasters and pro athletes—with Terry Crews (Brooklyn Nine-Nine) and Charissa Thompson (Fox Sports Live) hosting the U.S. version. In a clever bit of production, the other broadcast crews are in plain sight and add to the country-vs.-country aspect of the competition. They also add some flavor; the South Korean broadcast team is basically a comedy routine, and there are frequent reaction shots to the broadcasters throughout the series.
Is it a sport if the whole thing happened months ago and you can stream 10 hours of it in one sitting?
Scoring is Olympic-style, with competitors accumulating “point thrusters” like a live action Super Mario Bros. In each episode, 12 individuals compete in rounds that gradually narrow down to a champion. The episode winners advance to a championship round at the end of the series. And the series moves fast. In the first episode, all 12 competitors get introduced and go through a full round of competition in a brisk 20 minutes that leaves plenty of time for reaction shots and some drama at the end over who will make it to the next round. Successive rounds have increasingly fewer competitors and move even faster.
The challenges are physically brutal, and the competitors are legit athletes. The Energy Coils event is a Wipeout-y apparatus where competitors jump from platform to platform. Missing a platform means plowing into it chest-first and then flipping backward into a pool that Terry Crews calls “the blood of the beast” (and without a hint of irony). The Mag Wall is a horizontal rock-climbing obstacle where the grips randomly fall off as the competitor moves across them.
Ultimate Beastmaster isn’t going to get coverage in the sports pages, but it checks every box—athleticism, drama, great production, the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat—for what you want to see in your TV sports. It’s all on demand, so you won’t have to time your bathroom breaks to commercials. And it’s on Netflix, so there are no commercials. Call it “alternative sports” or “competitive reality” or “professional sports” or whatever you like, but figure that out on your own time. I gotta get back to Episode 3.
Read Scott Porch’s story ‘This Was the XFL’: An Exclusive Clip and a Postmortem with Charlie Ebersol.