Contest snowboarding always draws scrutiny, and X Games Real Snow is no exception. It’s easy to call out the elaborate builds, flips, and stunts inherent to the event, and there are valid points to be made on that front. But at the same time, there’s no better platform for showing mainstream audiences the world of urban riding, and no better opportunity for street shreds to expand their reach. Looking more closely raises important questions, some easy to answer and others more persistent. Here’s what you need to know about X Games Real Snow –David MacKinnon
• The first Real Snow contest was held during the 2010-11 season following the success of the Real Street Skateboarding. The “Real” series was created to showcase film parts and include high-profile athletes who don’t gravitate towards traditional contests. Canadians Simon Chamberlain, Louif Paradis and Nic Sauve all participated in the first Real Snow event and Dan Brisse took home the first gold.
• Riders choose their filmers, paying them from a budget paid upfront by X Games. While ESPN declined to share budget specifics, our sources put it right around $12K CAD. It’s up to the riders to decide how much of that goes to filmers, hotels, gas, equipment, etc.
• Prizing has changed over the years. Back in the day, both the winning edit and the fan favourite took home $50K. In recent years, first prize has been $20K and fan favourite $5K (that’s USD, so think $33,500 Canadian total purse). Second and third are more representative of the modern urban rider’s lifestyle, conflating pay with “the experience.”
• Getting invited into Real Snow isn’t easy. Riders come up for consideration in several ways, putting out a progressive part, emailing their homie at X Games, or having sponsors or agents or team managers reach out and lobby on their behalf. Do event sponsors have some say in who competes? Yes—they'll suggest riders, and no doubt X Games is thinking about their revenue streams at some point in the selection process. Do event sponsors buy spots for their athletes? Strictly speaking, no. Final decisions come down to an unnamed panel of experts at ESPN/X Games, and there’s no guarantee made to corporate sponsors that their rider will get in.
• Winners are invited back to the competition the year following their win. Yes, Frank Bourgeois was invited to compete in 2020. He declined the invitation, ready to move on after four appearances and three wins. In 2020, Frank’s opportunity to defend would have gone to 2019 silver medalist Anto Chamberland, but he was injured. Moving down the list, the invite went to Craig McMorris, who placed third in 2019.
• Athletes assume all responsibility for making their video parts. That means any trouble with the law, hospital bills, or long-term injuries are the rider’s problem. Bit of a tough pill to swallow when by our math each athlete costs ESPN just under $19K CAD in prize money and production budget. That’s a little less than the average cost of getting treatment for a concussion in America. Wearing a helmet is straight fiscal responsibility at that point—maybe free health care is giving Canadians an advantage?
• The format has changed slightly over the years, with the number of riders and the length of the edits seeing subtle tweaks. These days, gold, silver, and bronze medals have been awarded by a judged panel, which has included Louif Paradis, JP Walker, Bode Merrill, Pat Moore, and a host of other big dogs. Riders also vie for the fan favourite, in a public voting frenzy.
• Edits are scored on five equally weighted categories: creative use of terrain, technicality, amplitude/gnarliness, production value, and overall impression. Within these categories, there’s room for the elements that matter in a video part to play in. Spot and trick selection, style, the creative direction of the edit, even elements like size of the build and whether it's a natural speed map on to the judging categories and affect each rider’s score.
• Music is a key element of a Real Snow edit. Song selection can affect scoring in both the video editing and overall impression categories, so getting it right is important. ESPN makes a music library available to competitors and will help riders through the process of clearing music rights if they want to use a song from outside of that catalogue. However, the expense falls to the rider if they choose to go that route. The restrictions inherent to song selection have led to creative solutions, with riders tapping into talented friends and family members to produce sounds specific to their edits. For example, two of Frank Bourgeois’ winning edits featured his brother’s soundscapes.
• Deadlines are strict. When the window closes, you’ve got to make do with what you’ve got.
• ESPN retains the rights to all footage in perpetuity, which means that the riders don’t own their Real Snow edits. However, it’s possible for riders to use their clips in other projects—for example, Frank Bourgeois and Maria Thomsen used footage from their 2019 Real Snow edits in Absinthe’s Isle of Snow. “I paid my filmers pretty well,” says Frank, “so it was super easy for me to just give it to Justin [Hostynek].”
• The full Real Snow broadcast airs multiple times across ESPN’s nine television networks before going live on YouTube. In the past three years, individual non-winning parts have averaged 25,617 views. At the time of this writing, Frank’s winning part from 2018 had 165,984 views, his 2019 winning part had 67,655 views, and Rene Rinnekangas’ 2020 winning part had 292,720 views.
“To be part of X Games was always a dream. It seemed impossible until the Real Snow edits started dropping. And when I got invited it was unreal. Sharing that with my parents, who supported me for so long, was just amazing. Then to be re-invited a few times and push myself to make a better video every year was very motivating. I was getting support through the event to buy more equipment, pay some friends to help shovel, and hire an extra filmer. All that helped me push myself, push the sport, and make some moments I’ll always remember.”—Anto Chamberland
For all there is to poke at, Real Snow puts out a fantastic product. It’s engaging, and it’s snowboarding progression. Full broadcasts of the event are worth watching and easy to find. They give a window into the process and highlight the importance of the filmers and artists who contribute to the edits. Chances are good you’ll be inspired in ways that benefit your own snowboarding. There’s a lot to like about Real Snow—even if they still haven’t invited Mammouth Durette.