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In a year where there’s no Dew Tour, a truncated Freeride World Tour, and serious doubts about the summer Olympics even taking place this July, the Winter X Games are somewhat surprisingly scheduled to go off this weekend in Aspen, Colo., beginning January 29.
Officials say comprehensive COVID-19 risk mitigation protocols are in place and promise the entire event is aligned with CDC, state, and county health measures to minimize exposure and spread of the coronavirus. Still, it’s a feat this event is taking place at all.
Even more interesting, it’s taking place with absolutely no spectators and less than half the number of athletes were invited to compete—89 versus the usual 180 or so.
Colorado’s Pitkin County, home to Aspen, has logged some of the highest numbers of COVID cases in the state, so mitigation efforts are stringent. In an effort to reduce the footprint of the event, only the ski and snowboard competitions will go off this year; there will be no snowmobile events or competitions.
“Ultimately, we had to lay out a plan we felt we could achieve safely during a global pandemic,” says Tim Reed, VP of the X Games. “It’s unfortunate and we wish we could have everyone—from athletes to fans to music—and we look forward to a time we can get back to more traditional X Games events in the near future.”
While the X Games is typically not an Olympic qualifier, there’s some talk that results could be used to inform rosters for the 2022 Beijing Winter Games, especially since the Olympic qualifier U.S. Grand Prix at Mammoth that was scheduled for February is indefinitely postponed. This seems unlikely, however, given the reduced competition, effectively making this X Games a more made-for-TV extravaganza than usual.
Since most will indeed see it on TV, organizers launched an experience for at-home fans and spectators where they can immerse themselves in a virtual X Games world.
“With X Games unable to host spectators on-site in Aspen, this year’s virtual X Fest will instead bring the fan experience into homes around the globe,” Reed says. “The virtual X Fest is an immersive, interactive environment that complements the X Games Aspen live telecast, and gives fans another way to experience X Games as if they were here on-site.”
Inside X Fest, participants create their own avatars, choosing outfits, headwear, and whether they ski or snowboard, then wander around the fantasy festival designed to resemble the Buttermilk base area.
“Our sponsors have created some really unique experiences,” says Reed, “like a Wendy’s Knuckle Huck Arcade Game, an augmented reality experience to check out the new 2021 Jeep Wrangler 4xe, and a Monster Energy Igloo with exclusive video content.”
You can also watch a live-stream of the competitions within the virtual experience, all while listening to the 2021 X Games soundtrack features artists such as Matty and Niko Slim.
I set my 10-year-old son loose at the virtual X Fest to get a sense of what the digitally native think of the concept. He had fun choosing his avatar and playing Knuckle Huck, and loved the customizable selfie station where you can download the photo or post to your social media. (Note to developers: A halfpipe to slide around in would have made his day. Maybe next year… no, wait, I hope we’re back to normal by then.)
While the X Fest is no substitute for the sensory experience of going to the X Games in person, the athletes getting to compete is enough for now.
“While it’s impossible to recreate the fan experience of being here on site with music and all the energy that brings,” Reed says, “We think this is a great way to connect with fans.”