American Ninja Warrior Executive Producer Talks Lowering The Age Limit To 15, Safety Precautions And More

American Ninja Warrior is back on NBC for a new season of some of the most nerve-wracking, gravity-defying, and mettle-proving action on television. Season 13 delivers some new brand new twists, including some competitors who are much younger than usual, not to mention some new obstacles. Executive producer Arthur Smith recently spoke with CinemaBlend about American Ninja Warrior Season 13, and he opened up about the age limit being lowered to 15, how ANW is handling safety and more.

Produced by A. Smith & Co. and airing on NBC as a summer staple, American Ninja Warrior kicked off Season 13 in Tacoma, Washington at the Tacoma Dome with six challenging obstacles for the newest batch of ninjas to attempt in their fight to make it to the top of the Warped Wall. For the first time, competitors as young as 15 were eligible to run the course, and the premiere proved that youth doesn't mean that they're at a disadvantage. I spoke to executive producer Arthur Smith, and he explained the criteria for including younger teens in the new season:

We saw this teen invasion coming, and I think the show kind of feeds itself. And it's interesting, what's happening. This is our thirteenth season, as you know, and you could feel the sport of Ninja just growing exponentially. And the massive turnout that we've had, and then combine that with starting American Ninja Warrior Junior. We've done two seasons of that and the third season's coming on Peacock later this year. And it's just the growth of the sport. We've been watching not just what we do, but what happens all year round. There's local ninja competitions, and there's ninja gyms everywhere. We had already identified some of the people who were stars, I think all of which have been on Ninja Junior. There may have been a couple who haven't, but most of them are from Ninja Junior, but at least the ones who excel.

The young competitors who ran the American Ninja Warrior course in Season 13 weren't all strangers to the American Ninja Warrior franchise thanks to American Ninja Warrior Junior, which welcomes contestants between the ages of 9 - 14, although split up into age groups so that the 9-year-olds aren't up against the 14-year-olds. That's not the case with American Ninja Warrior, however, and the teen newcomers are facing the same challenges as the longtime competitors. ANW has become a phenomenon by this point, and the time had come for the age limit to drop. Arthur Smith elaborated on casting younger teens in Season 13:

Even though we do quite a lot of qualifying, and a lot of episodes, and hundreds of people get to run the course, there's always a ton of applications. We go through our process and try to put the best athletes with great stories forward, but it's always a difficult choice to narrow it down. And there's only so many spots. Even though there's 400 spots, when you consider the tens of thousands of people who try out for the show, it's always a difficult process. But yeah, we kind of saw it coming. We were allowed some of the youngsters. And if you saw the first episode, I think three of them finished in the top five. And there's more great ones to come. It's just remarkable how talented they are. But... the great ones are still still out there, like Joe Moravsky and Lance Pekus. I can’t remember who said [but] they've been hearing the footsteps coming.

The teen competitors lack the experience that some of the American Ninja Warrior superstars have by this point, and are in fact not even done growing yet, but that doesn't mean that they don't have what it takes to conquer the course. In case any viewers doubted that the youngsters could keep up with the adults, the Season 13 premiere alone would have been enough to dispel that notion. Not only were a few of the teens among the top competitors of the night, but the fall of veteran ninja Daniel Gil proved that nobody is ever guaranteed the chance to race up the Warped Wall when there are so many variables.

Of course, some teens are still inevitably going to fall into the water, just as some adult competitors do, and I for one practically get sore just watching people attempt some of the obstacles. The new V Formation alone took down a lot of ninjas, including Daniel Gil. Executive producer Arthur Smith explained how the American Ninja Warrior team works to guarantee the safety of competitors, which now includes much younger ninjas than ever before:

Safety is always first. Safety is always first. We always are very protective of everybody who comes on that course. And there's a lot, a lot, a lot of guidelines. Ninja for us is a year round thing. People watch the show, it starts in May and ends in September. We are casting during the winter, and we are developing obstacles all year round. And it is an all-year-round thing. As soon as we get off the air, we're planning the next season. And with us it is always safety first. There's a warehouse that we have where we prototype every obstacle, there's testers. Test, test, test, we test constantly, constantly testing. Then we build it, then we tweak it. And there's a safety team. And there's a test team. There's a ton of work that goes into obstacle development. This year, I think there's two dozen new ones. So we're always trying to reinvent or come up with new ones.

Even though viewers can always pretty safely bet on the Warped Wall at the end of courses in a season of American Ninja Warrior, there were already some new obstacles in the beginning of Season 13, and the executive producer revealed that plenty more new ones are on the way. And they've all been extensively tested before they were incorporated into the new season once production kicked off, so no matter the age of the ninja, racing toward the Warped Wall shouldn't result in any kind of injury. That doesn't mean it'll be easy for competitors, however, especially in light of the new twist that they're facing in the middle of the course. Arthur Smith shared:

And the other thing that's cool this year, beyond the teen invasion, is for the first time this year the athletes have a choice. There’s a moment in the qualifying course, called Split Decision. And that's where you have to decide which balance obstacle you're going to take. Coming up in the city finals, we have it again. And in the second half of the course, you have to choose between a really difficult balance obstacle, and a really difficult obstacle that tests arm strength. And I don't want to say what's gonna happen, but it's interesting, because every person is different. You know, some people, the balance ones scare the crap out of them. And then on the other hand, some people at that point in the course maybe they had no arm strength left, and they may choose to go the opposite, the balance one. There's no easy choice, just like there's no easy choice in the qualifying with the two balance ones. So we like that. We like that. You get to a point you got to make a choice. We thought that was another fun element to this season.

Competitors were facing two balance obstacles in the Tacoma qualifiers, and even though they didn't have to run both of them, they had a different kind of challenge to face: making a choice. Racing through the course without stopping to think isn't an option in Season 13. Does that mean one option is harder than the other, and getting to choose makes completing the course easier? Or more difficult? Arthur Smith weighed in on whether Split Decision makes the American Ninja Warrior course easier or harder, saying:

Definitely harder. Definitely harder. I think that there's enough that's going through their head in terms of how they're managing. You do have to think your way through the course. I mean, so much of getting through it is concentration. And every year we get surprised by one of our superstars. It happened the other day with Daniel Gil. I can't remember Daniel Gil not hitting a buzzer. He gets a buzzer every time he's on a course, and he missed. So much of it is focus and concentration. Just when you think there's something easier, or you've got it handled, you slip up. And so adding another wrinkle where they have to focus, something more to think about, anything that requires more focus, something else, definitely makes it harder.

It wouldn't be American Ninja Warrior if it was easy, and the show has found ways to get more challenging year in and year out. Daniel Gil was one of many who went down on the V Formation obstacle in the Season 13 premiere. In fact, even he looked surprised when he lost his grip and fell into the water, well short of the buzzer. The Split Decision makes things even more unpredictable, and what's not to love about that?

See what happens next on American Ninja Warrior with new episodes of Season 13 on Mondays at 8 p.m. ET on NBC. Summer TV season is getting into full swing, so be sure to check out our 2021 summer TV premiere schedule for your primetime options.

Laura Hurley
Senior Content Producer

Laura turned a lifelong love of television into a valid reason to write and think about TV on a daily basis. She's not a doctor, lawyer, or detective, but watches a lot of them in primetime. CinemaBlend's resident expert and interviewer for One Chicago, the galaxy far, far away, and a variety of other primetime television. Will not time travel and can cite multiple TV shows to explain why. She does, however, want to believe that she can sneak references to The X-Files into daily conversation (and author bios).