With no fans on-site, X Games Aspen creates a virtual X Fest
‘We had an opportunity to do something different and it really took a leap of faith,’ ESPN official says
The Aspen Times
When X Games event producers at ESPN decided to move forward with the 2021 event at Buttermilk Ski Area in Aspen without fans on-site, they didn’t want to completely abandon the X Fest that normally runs concurrently at the mountain’s base area.
Amid the ongoing novel coronavirus pandemic, they decided to take it virtual.
“We had an opportunity to do something different and it really took a leap of faith,” Matt Gizzi, senior director of sports brand solutions at ESPN parent company Disney, said this week.
And so, at midnight on Thursday on the eve of this most unusual X Games, the doors opened on the virtual X Fest.
It’s an immersive, interactive environment aimed at giving a taste of the on-site experience that isn’t available this year. Its developers believe it will be the primary way some experience X Games this year, and may also be a second-screen experience complementing the main ESPN broadcast.
“We were looking for some sort of creative solution to not just give up as live events are going away for the fans,” said Gizzi. “Over the past year, we started to see the trends and we wanted to find a way that could fit for us and our events. We landed on trying to come up with a virtual way for a fan to experience the X Fest.”
For the past 20 years of X Games in Aspen, X Fest has transformed the base of Buttermilk into a snowbound carnival of capitalism and shenanigans. This is where increasingly elaborate tents have popped up from sponsors and vendors, giving away swag and experiences to the hordes of X Games fans. It’s here where you might’ve done a powdersurfing board demo, watched a ski movie in Studio X, where young fans lined up athlete autographs. It’s here you chugged the free energy drinks and munched complementary snacks, where college kids covertly over-consumed their contraband. There have always been giveaways and competitions here — everything from obstacle courses to dance-offs, from the U.S. Navy’s pull-up contest to Great Clips’ free haircuts and styling in years past.
The on-snow action might be the main draw at X Games, and the concerts may have increasingly been what lured visitors in recent years, but no matter the reason you’re there, X Fest is integral to the in-person X Games experience.
The virtual version aims to approximate that.
Free to play, it runs straight from a browser — no app or download required — and allows you to roam freely about the virtual fest. When you enter, you customize your avatar — choosing whether to be a skier to snowboarder, picking the color scheme of your outfit, whether it fits snugly or Henrik Harlaut-style baggy or somewhere in between, whether you wear a helmet or beanie, and so on.
The environment is a sort of fantasy version of the base of Buttermilk and the terrain of X Fest at the X Games venue. Developers used photos and video from X Fest’s past to build this world.
You’ll see familiar features like the firepit at the entrance to the Inn at Aspen, you’ll spot see the Panda Peak and Summit Express lifts in the distance, the Big Air jump and the Superpipe (of course) looming above, with a lineup of booths not unlike the ones that normally fill the base area during Buttermilk’s biggest weekend.
There’s a big screen here where you can watch live streams of the competitions as well as playlist of X Games highlights and content – during a reporter’s tour before the site went live, it featured skier Alex Ferreira narrating one of his gold medal Superpipe runs.
Like the in-person X Fest, there is some product-pushing from sponsors, some sweepstakes and some more experience-based stops along the way.
As your avatar skis around X Fest, others pass along ideas of where to go and what to do. Over in the Jeep section, you can go inside the company’s new hybrid vehicle. At the Wendy’s booth, there’s a retro arcade game set-up, where you can compete in the Knuckle Huck comp, sending yourself off the knuckle at the bottom of Buttermilk and attempting to land a trick (a leaderboard will keep track of high scores throughout X Games weekend).
Inside Monster’s igloo-based “chill media zone,” you’ll find curated snowsports clips. At a National Geographic photo booth, you can explore a recent greatest hits collection of images. On the Geico music stage, where The Chainsmokers and Kygo and Lil Wayne have reigned in person, you’ll find music trunks and roadies to help you explore some new music from X-friendly artists and labels (during the tour, it featured tracks from No Trace and White Rose Moxie).
As is the goal with all things at the eternally youthful X Games, the producers simply wanted to make it cool.
“We wanted to make it feel like it was an actual part of X Games, not just an add-on because, ‘Oh, you had to do it for sponsors,’” said Gizzi.
It was built for ESPN by a team of developers and artists at the Wisconsin-based experiential marketing agency GMR, who began work on the virtual X Fest about two months ago when ESPN decided to move forward with its no-fan, bubble-style X Games for 2021.
Through your avatar, you can also find X Games merchandise areas and a spot to take a photo of yourself and tag it with X Games-related stickers, ready-made for sharing on social media — a way to replace the obligatory Superpipe selfie. GMR creative director Cam Schultheis called the photo opp “an artifact of the COVID year for people to share.”
There’s also a bulletin board where you can click and find info on the latest X Games news (as well as posters from the past two decades of X). And there are also many Easter eggs and hidden features. You might find a yeti in the woods, for instance, or a tie-in to the “Rocket League” video game.
X Games producers believe the virtual experience will draw interest and engagement from fans throughout the weekend as people lern about it through social media and the live broadcast. But they’re not counting on attendance anywhere near the 100,000-plus that regularly come through X Fest in-person over X Games weekend.
“If we have even 10% of what our attendance was interacting with this, I think that’s a win,” Gizzi said. “I don’t think anyone has cracked the code on replacing live events for fans and engagement.”
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