20th Winter X Games Kicks Off Today

A flashback to the origins of ESPN's signature extreme freeskiing event

Twenty years ago, ice climbers, snow bikers, snowboarders, shovel racers, and 38,000 spectators flocked to Snow Summit Mountain Resort in Big Bear Lake, California, to witness the birth of the Winter X Games. Today, more than three times that number will descend on Buttermilk Mountain in Aspen, Colorado, to watch the world's most talented extreme snowsport athletes compete over the next five days at the 2016 Aspen X Games.

Since the first winter X Games in 1997, other competitions like the Dew Tour, Red Bull Cold Rush, and U.S. Grand Prix have become mainstays. But as the Winter X Games evolved over the past two decades, the event earned its reputation as the center of the freestyle universe.

David Wise crushed a rightside double cork 1440 mute grab at the 2015 Winter X Games. PHOTO: Joshua Duplechian/ESPN

David Wise crushed a rightside double cork 1440 mute grab at the 2015 Winter X Games. PHOTO: Joshua Duplechian/ESPN

In 1998, when X Games moved to Crested Butte, Colorado, for its second winter, the organizers decided to add men's freeskiing. The following season, they included a ladies event (though women weren't invited to the SuperPipe until 2005), and later dropped climbing, biking, and snow shovel racing to focus on an expanded roster with big air and slopestyle.

In 2002, the games moved to Buttermilk, and by 2004, there was enough demand nationwide to broadcast the events on ESPN and ABC, with live reporting by ESPN's flagship news show, SportsCenter. Organizers brought the X Games to Tignes, France, and are taking the show to Oslo, Norway, in February for a hybrid competition with summer and winter events. As winter action sports and the X Games franchise have grown in popularity, so has the number of spectators—a record 115,000 people gathered at Buttermilk in 2015.

The first Winter X Games of years past looks little like the present extravaganza, which offers a full festival experience and performances from deadmau5, KYGO, and Nas, among others. Metallica headlined the Austin X Games last summer and attendees dropped $1,300 apiece for VIP tickets. Now, there's a three-day long Halo World Championship. These embellishments and monetization of the event has drawn eye rolls, but, if the snow shovel races from the early days are any indication, the X Games have always been about embracing trends.

Still, for skiers, it’s a proving ground. It’s where Tanner Hall and Simon Dumont became household names. The sport has new titans, like superpipe champs David Wise and Maddie Bowman, and slopestyle veterans Joss Christensen and Gus Kenworthy. And still, there are hardly any underdogs—that's kind of the point.

X Games Aspen 2016 will be televised to over 365 million homes across 215 countries. ESPN, ABC, and multiple digital platforms will host 16 hours of extensive coverage. Find the live stream at WatchESPN.

Here's a full schedule of Aspen X Games 2016's events on skis:

Thursday, Jan. 28
Men's Ski SuperPipe Final 6 p.m. (MST)

Friday, Jan. 29
Coors Light Men's Skier X Qualifying 9 a.m.
Coors Light Women's Skier X Qualifying 9 a.m.
Women's Ski Slopestyle Final 12:30 p.m.
Mono Skier X Qualifying 2 p.m.
Women's Ski Superpipe Final 6:30 p.m.

Saturday, Jan. 30
Mono Skier X Semi's/Final 11 a.m.
Coors Light Men's Skier X Heats/Semi's/Consolation/Final 2 p.m.
Coors Light Won's Skier X Heats/Semi's/Consolation/Final 2 p.m.
GoPro Ski Big Air Final 8:15 p.m.

Sunday, Jan. 31
Men's Ski Slopestyle Final 10 a.m.