Matt Iseman Cheers on the ‘College Madness’ of ‘Team Ninja Warrior’

Matt Iseman
Angela Weiss/Getty Images
PASADENA, CA - JANUARY 14: Matt Iseman arrives at the 2016 Winter TCA Tour - NBCUniversal Press Tour Day 2 at Langham Hotel on January 14, 2016 in Pasadena, California. (Photo by Angela Weiss/Getty Images)

It may be a huge week for football, but fans of American Ninja Warrior know that it’s always prime time to run some obstacles. So the Esquire Network is giving us something to give thanks for with the premiere of Team Ninja Warrior: College Madness, a co-ed competition that gives the insanely fit jocks from schools across the country the chance to stick it to their biggest sports rivals. Florida takes on Georgia. Michigan meets Ohio State. Oklahoma versus Texas A&M. It’s an all-out grudge match set on the world’s most whacked-out course and overseen by Akbar Gbajabiamila and his AMW hosting partner Matt Iseman, who gave us the rundown on what sounds like one hell of a championship season.

American Ninja Warrior took you from coast to coast and so many stops in between. Was that the same for College Madness?
This one we filmed at Hollywood Center Studios. It’s pretty cool because we filmed it outdoors in almost like the driveway or the plaza of this place and it was actually a great setup. They had a bridge going across where people could watch from and we had Downtown L.A. as our backdrop. Last season we shot it in Long Beach in these shipping containers. It was very industrial. And I will say the worst part was driving down there. You’re literally fighting semi-trucks that are loading up these cargo things.It was definitely a step up this season. [Laughs]

How tough is the course? On Ninja Warrior, a lot of the competitors spend all year training for this stuff. This is college students who don’t have backyard courses or all that time, even.
I will say that was a big concern. You have to be 21 to compete on American Ninja Warrior, which rules out most college kids and then like you said, a lot of people have dedicated months if not years training for it, so we opened it up. We sensed that there were young people really wanting to get into it. Team Ninja Warrior was amazing last season and we thought about how to step it up. How do you expand on rivalry and then we came up with the college teams idea. Not we. The big bosses did. I wish it had been me! And these are all new athletes: None of them have been on any Ninja Warriors before. But we were concerned going into it as to how well they would perform and we were blown away. In the first episode, we have a woman, I think from Texas Christian who was like a competitive cheerleader-turned-power lifter, and I don’t want to spoil anything, but I will say like she [crushed] the Warped Wall! It’s so amazing to think how just a couple seasons ago that was the barrier. That was the glass ceiling for women. Now someone who really has never trained obstacles was able to top it.

Is that because people are training so much harder?
Oh yeah. And the level of athleticism I just think is growing on the show. You know, people said the ANW course got a lot harder and it had to!

Did you guys adjust the course?
I’ll give you a little inside baseball. The next Team Ninja Warrior, which is coming out in 2017, and College Madness were shot on the same course. There were small alternations we could make. If you really look you’ll see there were smaller tweaks that might’ve made an obstacle a bit easier, but the Warp Wall is the same, the gaps on a lot of the swings are the same. We wanted athletes to succeed, but at a certain point we did need them to step up and perform and they really did.

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How did they audition?
We sent out the feelers to the colleges to gauge the interest. We talked about maybe a digital series if we could find any kids, but we started getting submission tapes and saw that people work out so differently now…we had a lot of people that were on the rock-climbing team at their schools or gymnasts or cross-training fanatics. And we saw a lot of people who we thought that they may not have trained for American Ninja Warrior, but they’re training their bodies to be ready for these obstacles. We thought this could be a train wreck where people might get through one or two obstacles, but we ended up with the most competitive races we ever had. It’s only the two seasons, but they’re have been hundreds of runs. The most competitive ones are in College Madness.

Amazing. I guess youth isn’t completely wasted on the young.
It’s annoying how healthy and fit and how many fries they can eat! I think some were probably even out playing beer pong all night, too. [Laughs]

Let’s talk about picking the rivalries…

Obviously these are all new athletes, but people know the schools! So Florida is competing against Georgia. Two big rivals. You know that people are gonna pick a side. And another thing we saw was a lot of alums come out. Fans were everywhere!

MIT is not a school I think of for jocks.
I went to Princeton and I consider myself to be somewhat of a nerd, but MIT? Their team was with people who had a lot of climbing experience. I don’t want to spoil it, but I like to say, “If you like Revenge of the Nerds, you’re gonna enjoy MIT’s run on Team Ninja Warrior.”

As a Denver native, were you really invested in the Stanford/Colorado competition?
So I grew up going to Boulder with my dad for games at Folsom Field. But the other school I got into besides Princeton was Stanford. [Laughs] But it was so fun watching CU and Stanford, and the UCLA/USC match. The crowd was very impassioned during that one.

How do the teams split the course? Or do they compete as one unit?
It really was cool. There is a head-to-head element of Team Ninja Warrior that is such a shift in the competition.You have the challenge of completing the course, but it really changes the athlete when someone else is there and they can see them. What’s even worse is when some gets a lead then try to be cautious, but then the other person can blow by them. It’s non-stop, unlike in America Ninja Warrior where they can take a moment to bring it down quiet and talk about their families. There’s no chance to do that in Team Ninja Warrior. You’re constantly going.

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Are they kind of tagging each other through the course?
Oh, it varies per round. In the first round, there’s three people on each team and each athlete gets a run at a full six-obstacle course. At the end of every episode, we have a relay to show who’s the champion of that episode and who moves on to the finals. Then it becomes non-obstacles and then it’s a three person tag team. That is where strategy comes in. Where do you put that athlete? Where do you put the person that’s a little taller? Where do you put the person with the rock climbing background? You see they really have to come up with strategies because it can make a huge difference where you put an athlete on this course. Also, men and women are competing on the same course. It’s equal footing and that is awesome.

AMW is now an Emmy nominee and a certified hit, you have Team Ninja Warrior coming back next year and this College Madness. Has all of this led you to try any of the Ninja Warrior gyms that have popped up around the country?
[Laughs] It’s awful. At the end of last season on American Ninja Warrior I went off a trampoline and dislocated a bone in my foot! I consider myself to be an athlete. I will admit that I’m not in the best shape of my life, but I’m in decent shape. It’s just these athletes make it look so easy! But one of our athletes out here has a gym in his backyard in LA, so I went out there and was immediately reminded why I should stick to hosting. [Laughs]

Team Ninja Warrior: College Madness, Tuesdays, 8/7c, Esquire Network