The show had its origins as a more straightforward competition prize offered by G4TV, who ran the English-subtitled Ninja Warrior. The opportunity to compete has grown to a large group of hopefuls who got the best time on an obstacle course.
It initially evolved into an elaborate competition after a preliminary elimination round. The contest set up three groups of five to go against each other in various obstacles, usually items inspired by Midoriyama and including a physical strain between obstacles. The team to have the lowest combined time has to send two of their members to compete against each other to determine who goes home. Unique to reality shows, and certainly in the spirit of Ninja Warrior, is that despite the spirit of competition, all of the people involved rooted for each other and looked to build the strongest team to show off in Japan.
In 2012, the format of ANW changed. There are no longer bootcamps, just tryouts. Tryouts were held in regional competitions, first in qualifiers (in which the top 30 advance to the next round.note , then in City Finals. The top 15note from each region was guaranteed a spot in Mt. Midoriyama in Las Vegas, with the remaining twenty-five slots filled by Wildcards. There is no time limit for the qualifier, the city final, or stage 3 of the finale, but stages 1, 2, and 4 of the finale are timed. The top prize is currently $1,000,000 (a sum that has doubled each season from the initial $250,000). The ANW Finals runs exactly the same way as the Sasuke version, with 100 finalists competing across four stages.
In January 2014, NBC aired a 2-hour special called "USA vs. Japan". Instead of a straight Ninja Warrior run, this takes elements from the earlier seasons of ANW. Both teams compete against each other in 1-on-1 races. All of the warriors get to run the stages, even if they wouldn't have been able to in normal competitions. However, the winner of each Stage was determined on a best 3-of-5 in 1 vs. 1 matches. The winner of the Stage got the equivalent number of points as the Stage number. So Stage 1 was worth 1 point, Stage 2 worth 2 and Stage 3 worth 3. Stage 4 served as the tiebreaker if both teams had 3 points at the end of Stage 3, and it is truly 1 vs 1. The winner of each match was determined in one of three ways:
- Whoever cleared the Stage the fastest.
- Whoever cleared more obstacles if neither cleared the Stage.
- If both competitors fell on the exact same obstacle, whoever reached that obstacle faster.
On September 15, 2014, NBC hosted the very first "USA vs. The World", which included Team Europe. The scoring is slightly different. Instead of best 3 of 5, a victory in each of the heats scored them points equal to the stage number. There were three heats per round. In that special, Team Japan again finished without any points, and Team Europe eked out a win over Team USA by 0.31 seconds in the tiebreaker.
As of September 14, 2015, the show has had its first ever winner crowned in Isaac Caldiero, the first competitor to complete stage 3 and the second to complete stage four, beating out his competition Geoff Britten's time by 3.86 seconds.
The second "USA vs. The World" special, with the same rules as the first, aired on January 31, 2016. In this special, Team Japan once again failed to score points, and Team USA beat Team Europe 108.
On January 29, 2016, NBC and formerly Esquire spun-off ANW with Team Ninja Warrior, featuring many of the fan favorites of ANW. In 2018, Team was renamed ANW: Ninja vs. Ninja, and the show moved to USA Network.
On May 2, 2018, Universal Kids announced the second ANW spin-off with American Ninja Warrior Junior, with 200 children who are superfans of the show tackling the course for the first time.
It can be expected that a lot of tropes applying to Ninja Warrior can be applied here.
American Ninja Warrior provides examples of:
- The Ace: Every season, the person who went the farthest in the national finals clearly qualified as this.
- Levi Meeuwenburg until season 4. In the first season, he went the farthest, making it to Mt. Midoriyama Stage 3 but fell on the fourth obstacle. He was the first competitor and had been to the actual course more than anyone. No one doubted that he would make it and was generally a fan favorite both here and in Japan.
- In season 4, Brent Steffensen, who went the farthest in Mt. Midoriyama that season, became the first person ever to complete the Ultimate Cliffhanger, the fourth obstacle in Stage 3, beating the record set by Meeuwenburg in the first season. He would later fell in the sixth obstacle, the Hang Climb.
- Later in season 5, the person who went the farthest that season, Brian Arnold, broke that record when he made it as far as, but fell on, the eighth & last obstacle, the Flying Bar.
- Joe Moravsky in Season 5. He made it to Stage 3 of Mount Midoriyama, a very impressive feat for even ninjas with years of experience, and it was his first year. Even more impressive is that he is a weatherman, not exactly someone you'd expect to be that good. He would later reach Stage 3 again in season 6, where he went the farthest than anyone else.
- Isaac Caldiero and Geoff Britten absolutely qualified when they became the first men to complete the entire course, with Caldiero edging out Britten's time in stage four to become the first American Ninja Warrior.
- Action Girl: Every season, many women tried their luck on the competition with varying results. Ever since later seasons the number of women participating in the competition grew larger and larger with each season. Most notable of these women, include:
- Kacy Catanzaro, the first woman ever to successfully climb the Warped Wall and complete a qualifying course. She would later clear a Regional Finals course, becoming the only woman ever to accomplish that to this day. She did all this in the sixth season.
- Also in season 6, rock climbers Michelle Warnky & Meagan Martin also successfully climbed the Warped Wall and completed a qualifying course for the very first time. Later in Mt. Midoriyama Stage 1, Martin became the first woman ever to complete the fourth obstacle, the Jumping Spider, but she timed out on the Warped Wall.
- Stuntwoman Jessie Graff, who in season 7 completed a qualifying course as well and made it until the ninth obstacle in a Regional Finals course, becoming the second woman (after Catanzaro) to made it to Las Vegas without being wildcarded. Later in Mt. Midoriyama Stage 1, just like Martin in season 6, she timed out on the Warped Wall.
- Eventually, in season 8, Graff reached Mt. Midoriyama without being wildcarded for a straight second year in a row. She passed all obstacles in Stage 1, including the Jumping Spider and the Warped Wall, and hit the buzzer, becoming the first woman ever to complete Stage 1 in Mt. Midoriyama.
- Other notable female competitors include Jesse Labreck, Tiana Webberley, Sarah Schoback, Natalie Duran, Joyce Shahboz, Alyssa Beird and Jeri D'Aurelio.
- Almighty Janitor: Isaac Caldiero, the first winner of the competition, works as a bus boy, a fact that was mentioned by the commentators several times during his run on Stage 3.
- Alternate Company Equivalent: The Wolf Pack can be seen as the American antecedent to the Black Tigers of Sasuke.
- Bald of Awesome:
- 2014 saw the debut of Kevin Bull, who has alopecia. He set one of the fastest times in Venice qualifying, then in the finals became the first of only four contestants to conquer the Cannonball Alley obstacle (using his feet!), as well as one of only two to actually complete the course (the other being veteran David Campbell, who is also bald).
- Brent Steffensen, the first ever competitor to complete the fourth obstacle in Stage 3 in Mt. Midoriyama (in season 4), is bald.
- Later in season 5, famous bald rock climber & ANW veteran Brian Arnold also completed the fourth obstacle in Stage 3 and went even farther than Steffensen the previous year, reaching the eighth & final obstacle but falling on it (Steffensen fell on the sixth obstacle the previous year).
- Celebrity Edition: Celebrity specials were produced for the Red Nose Day charity telethons in 2017 and 2018, pairing up various celebs with notable Ninja Warrior competitors. The standout celeb was Stephen Amell in 2017, who did as well as any regular competitor and even insisted doing the salmon ladder, despite it not being part of the Celebrity Edition course, since he was known for doing it on his own show. The regular show occasionally has celebs show up to compete as well; they're mostly pro athletes but Brennan Mejia from Power Rangers Dino Charge also once had a go.
- Chuck Cunningham Syndrome:
- Levi Meeuwenberg, one of the top competitors in the early years of American Ninja Warrior, no-showed Season 3 to do stunt work, showed up in Season 4 only to be eliminated by the first obstacle, and then retired to Michigan to become a farmer and was never mentioned again.
- It could be said that much of ANW's early history has been retconned out of series canon. None of the 10 competitors who qualified for Japan in Season 1 are still competing today, and the few that competed in the later seasons were barely mentioned.
- Speaking of the Season 1 qualifiers, Travis Furlanic was one of 100 to qualify for the Las Vegas finals in Season 4, but a background check revealed that he had a DUI on his record, which disqualified him from the tournament. His absence was never explained and he has never returned to the show.
- Clifftop Caterwauling: Many competitors will scream in triumph after hitting a buzzer, from the top of the Warped Wall, the tower of a city finals course, above the cargo net of Stage 1, etc.
- Cultural Translation: Despite the reality-show competition the only difference between the shows is that American Ninja Warrior has, well, American competitors. And the whole competition is more strength based than the Japanese version.
- Curb-Stomp Battle: In the 2014 special "USA vs. Japan", the Japanese all wiped out, with the final result 6-0 USA.
- Heck, the next 2 "USA vs. The World" specials both have the Japanese team failing to earn any score as well.
- Darkhorse Victory: The first "USA vs. the World" special had one (the European team winning the tournament despite having no experience on the course).
- Defeating the Undefeatable: Stage 3 remained unconquered for seven years before finally being successfully completed by not one, but two competitors in September of 2015, with first Isaac Caldiero and then Geoff Britten finished to advance to stage four. Both men would proceed to complete the final stage, with Caldiero edging out Britten's time by just shy of four seconds, becoming the first ever American Ninja Warrior.
- Department of Redundancy Department: "Mount Midoriyama", the name given to the Japanese course and later the Las Vegas national finals course, translates to "Mount Green Mountain".
- Double-Meaning Title: The Wedge is where you have to hop a bar wedged in a wedge-shaped gap
- Down to the Last Play: In "USA vs. the World", Team USA and Team Europe competed in the tie-breaking stage 4. Sean McColl, of Team Europe, eked out a victory against American Travis Rosen by a very slim 0.31 seconds.
- Dramatic Unmask: David "Flip" Rodriguez, a competitor who wears a half-mask while competing on ANW and freerunning, during the Season 7 qualifiers. It worked, as he cleared the qualifying course, although perhaps subverted by the fact that he is for all intents and purposes a regular guy under the mask. Flip later revealed he wore the mask because of cripplingly low self-esteem due to the fact that he suffered Domestic Abuse as a child.
- Ensemble Cast: Since there are so many competitors, no one competitor is really considered The Ace anymore. Generally, 1 to 2 competitors in each region get the most hype, but there are still many competitors who put on great runs and gain the respect and adulation of the fans, particularly walk-on contestants, or contestants with inspirational stories.
- Possibly averted by Kacy Catanzaro in Season 6.
- Filler: Some profiles. One particular example of filler was a two minute-long profile for someone who went out in three seconds.
- Fun T-Shirt: Most competitors wear custom T-shirts to the course. Their loved ones will often wear shirts matching theirs as well.
- Game-Breaking Bug: Has been known to occur on several occasions, although most often the affected runs are re-taped and never mentioned on television.
- Golden Snitch: Averted in the international team competitions. The round structure is 1-2-3-Tiebreaker.
- Harder Than Hard: Despite nearly 1,000 people trying every year, it would be seven years before anyone completed the entire course, when Geoff Britten and Isaac Caldiero finally climbed the mountain. You'd have to be as strong as a rock climber just to clear Stage One.
- I Know Mortal Kombat: One participant in 2014 said he honed his skills playing Dance Dance Revolution. Subverted when he went out on the second obstacle of the qualifier.
- Incredibly Lame Pun: Both hosts, but more often Akbar, use the competitor's profession to make a terrible pun on nearly every run. Some examples:Akbar: [competitor was a school teacher] She deserves an apple!!Akbar: [competitor was a stand-up comedian] The joke has been on *him* the last few seasons!!Akbar: [competitor was a cowboy] He is back on that horse!
- Last of Its Kind: The only remaining program of G4TV still in production.
- Le Parkour: Practiced by numerous competitors, not surprisingly.
- Looks Like Jesus: Isaac Caldiero, the first American Ninja Warrior. In his debut, two years before he became the first man to win the compitition, he actually showed up dressed as Jesus.
- Marathon Level: The Third Stage, an untimed stage made up solely of upper body obstacles, has been known to take upwards of 10 minutes to attempt, compared to the relatively quick nature of the other stagesnote . Until the seventh season, it's never been beaten on American Ninja Warrior, and only one competitor in six years got to the last obstacle. However, it was defeated four times in USA vs. The World in Season 6, although those competitors didn't necessarily have to clear or even attempt the First or Second Stages to get there.
- Perhaps with the longer city finals courses in recent years; most competitors take upwards of 5 minutes and some take nearly 10 minutes to complete all 10 obstacles.
- In September 2015 stage 3 was finally conquered by Isaac Caldiero, who managed to beat the stage on the regular show, and he managed it in less than four minutes.
- McNinja: All the competitors, especially when their real-world occupations or gimmicks are emphasized, such as "Cowboy Ninja" Lance Pekus, or "Ninja Weatherman" Joe Moravsky.
- Naked People Are Funny: When one competitor, Nate Mitchell is up, a streaker who goes by the name, Johnny Rocket goes onto the course, and does surprisingly well making it to the ramp. The commentary between Matt and Akbar is hilarious with Matt laughing and cracking jokes and Akbar being disgusted and wanting the guy off the course. Naturally, security grabbed him and took him off the course before he could finish.
- Obvious Rule Patch: During "USA vs. The World", Tim Schieff, captain of the European team, ran straight up the Warped Wall from the transition off of the Halfpipe Attack, effectively extending his running space by several feet. This caused the Halfpipe Attack to be redesigned into Sonic Road.
- The new obstacle in Season 5, Jump Hang Kai, was made to stop competitors from just climbing over and rolling down the Jump Hang.
- O.O.C. Is Serious Business: Indeed. For many years, David "Flip" Rodriguez had been known to many as a Cool Mask wearer, and always wore it on the course. He was also known for his incredibly fast speed while on the course. However, this eventually cost him big time when, in Season 6, he suffered a shocking elimination on the Jump Hang. For the rest of that year, Flip suffered from a huge Heroic BSoD- but that's not the OOC part. That came the very next season, when Flip decided to reinvent himself. The first thing he did when he got onto the course? Take off the mask. It was so shocking at the time that both Matt and Akbar lampshaded it repeatedly, stating that Flip's Dramatic Unmask was a sign of a whole new Flip. And as you can guess, Flip Took a Level in Badass that year.
- Pint-Sized Powerhouse: Kacy Catanzaro, who was 5'1" and weighed under 100 lbs. While she had one of the slowest clear times on the Regional Final, the fact that she cleared it is impressive.
- Jon Horton, who is also 5'1", became the smallest man to scale the Warped Wall.
- Tyler Yamauchi was the first to clear the higher Warped Wall at the height of 5'1" and the shortest person to ever beat Stage 1.
- Before him 5'2" Dustin McKinney was the shortest to beat Stage 1.
- Platform Hell: Rare real-life example.
- Recurring Element:
- The Quintuple Steps (previously the Quad Steps) and Warped Wall have been in every city qualifying course (although they are modified for Vegas: The steps are smaller and there is only half the run-up length for the Warped Wall), and the Salmon Ladder has been in every city finals course since Season 2.
- Otherwise, this has been averted over the years, as many obstacles change over time. In Season 4 (the first season with multiple qualifying courses), only a few obstacles on each course were changed, compared to Season 7, where only the above three obstacles and the Invisible Ladder were constant on each course.
- Modified as of season 8, the steps now escalate, and the Warped Wall was increased by 6 inches.
- Season 10 added the "Mega Warped Wall" for the Qualifiers. This wall is 18 feet high. The regular Warped Wall is still there.
- Obstacles in Mt. Midoriyama that appear every year include: the Jumping Spider and the Warped Wall in Stage 1; the (modified) Salmon Ladder in Stage 2; the Ultimate Cliffhanger (which is modified in later seasons), the Hang Climb and the Flying Bar in Stage 3; and the Stage 4 rope-climbing course.
- Sequel Series: Evolved from American Ninja Challenge, a segment on G4's Attack of the Show, in which a few Americans were chosen to go to Japan to compete on SASUKE, the Japanese version (making this a Spiritual Successor as well). Obviously turned Up to Eleven when 10 Americans went to compete in Japan in Season 1 and later 100 went to Las Vegas for the American-specific finals starting in Season 4.
- Shirtless Scene:
- Many of the men run the course with bare torsos, giving viewers a lot of delicious eye candy. Some shed their shirts while running. Discussed in Season 8 by Matt and Akbar, who mention that some men don't wear shirts because they believe shirts make them more slippery on obstacles like the Log Roll.
- Lampshaded in the season 7 premiere, where one of the commentators says, "Fear not, ladies. We have no shortage of man-candy here tonight!" after one of the more attractive contestants failed the second part of the course.
- Soft Water: The reason the course is constructed over a pool. Unfortunately, this was subverted in the 2012 season. One contestant fell from an obstacle, hit the water, and ruptured his eardrum.
- Spin-Off: Jump City: Seattle, a competition between Freerunning teams which featured many ANW alumni. Possibly subverted when several competitors from the former (namely, Drew Drechsel and David "Flip" Rodriguez) became elite competitors on the latter.
- Team Ninja Warrior was created in 2015, featuring 3-person teams of popular competitors from the parent show, in head-to-head racing along parallel obstacle courses. In 2018, it was renamed ANW: Ninja vs. Ninja.
- Spartan: Ultimate Team Challenge, created by the producers of ANW, is perhaps a looser definition. The show was created due to the popularity of ANW, aired on the same network, was heavily cross-promoted with ANW, and featured several ANW stars in several episodes. The actual Spartan Race events, however, existed long before the show was created, and are not related to ANW.
- American Ninja Warrior Junior was announced on 2018. Set to premiere on October 13, 2018, the competitors are children who are superfans of the show, mentored by fan-favorite ANW competitors.
- Tempting Fate: There's a surprisingly large frequency of the announcers commenting on how well a contestant is doing and that contestant falling within the next few seconds.
- Ticket-Line Campout: In addition to regulars and people who auditioned, there's also a walk-on line for people to wait and hope they get in. It's usually referenced or shown when one of those walk-on competitors gets to run the course.
- True Companions: The competitors are extremely good sports, and are supportive of each other when they fall. Many of them train together in teams. Heartwarming when they are there for the competitors who take their losses hard.
- Underdogs Never Lose: Many Walk-Ons (competitors that were not selected through scouting and wait in line and hope they make it in) actually do surprisingly well despite trying the course for the first time. Kevin Bull is widely considered a hero for Walk-Ons for his 2014 performance. In Season 8, notably, many walk-ons became the first to hit the buzzers in the qualifiers.
- Ever since Season 5, events where rookies (competitors entering the competition for their very first time) completing courses with insanely fast times and/or reaching amazingly farther in a course or Mt. Midoriyama than expected have becoming pretty much pedestrian.
- Up to Eleven: The basic premise of the second half of Season 8's All-Stars episode, it took several iconic obstacles and made supersized versions of them, such as a Warped Wall that was 5 feet taller, or a Salmon Ladder that was seven stories tall.
- Then Season 10 debuted the "Mega Warped Wall" for the City Qualifiers. Competitors may attempt the 18 foot Mega Wall for a chance at $10,000. However, they got only one chance at the Mega Wall, and, failing that, one chance at the Warped Wallnote .
- Wham Episode:
- Arguably the Venice qualifiers (and subsequently city finals) from Season 7. A particularly devastating obstacle, the Hourglass Drop, caused competitors to fail at never-before-seen rates. Only 7 people cleared the qualifier and only 1 person (who obviously Took a Level in Badass) cleared the city finals course, both record lows. The hourglass took out so many people that several competitors who failed to clear it the second time were still able to move on to Vegas.
- September 14, 2015. Not one, but two men finish a course that has been unconquered for seven years, with Isaac Caldiero being crowned the first American Ninja Warrior.
- Season 8's Los Angeles city final had an absolutely brutal obstacle called The Wedge. Only two competitors, Josh Levin and Jessie Graff, were able to complete it.
- Season 8's Vegas finale featured Jessie Graff becoming the first woman to ever defeat Stage 1. The video of her run has been viewed well over 4 million times.
- In the "USA Vs The World" special aired between Seasons 8 and 9, Graff broke her own record by becoming the first woman to defeat stage 2 (although due to the differing rules of "USA Vs The World", it was an untimed version of Stage 2.
- Wolverine Publicity: Many veterans are given greater focus than the rest, but the "Ninja Couple," Brent Steffensen and Kacy Catanzaro stand out the most, especially after Kacy skyrocketed in popularity for being the first woman to climb the Warped Wall and complete a City Finals course.
- Yank the Dog's Chain: Andrew Lowes seemingly cleared the First Stage in Season 5, only to be told after a commercial break by co-host Jenn Brown that the judges ruled that he had ran out of time.
- You Go, Girl!:
- Kacy Catanzaro, and how! She is the first woman to EVER complete a city finals course and qualify for the Las Vegas finals, and the fact that she is just 5 feet tall and 100 pounds takes the trope Up to Eleven.
- Before that, the first woman to conquer the Warped Wall.
- Jessie Graff, a stuntwoman who was the first woman to sit on top of a leaderboard, and only one of six people who completed the devastating Hourglass Drop. She did this again in Season 8 by conquering the astoundingly difficult Wedge. Then she became the first woman to complete Stage 1 of the Final.
- Meagan Martin, after a string of bad luck in city finals courses, conquered Season 8's finals course in Indianapolis, coming in eighth place.