Those who know me pretty well know that I’ve been pretty into rock climbing for the last few years. It started as an unrealized urge while I lived in Nebraska where there are no mountains, and quickly ballooned into an obsession when I moved northwest. Now I’m set between the mountain ranges of the Olympics and the Cascades.
One additional aspect of this obsession that I picked up along the way is watching competitive climbing on YouTube. When the IFSC’s bouldering season starts I make sure to watch every event. I’ve never been a big sports watcher, at least not since I gave up on baseball as a child in the ’90s. Nevertheless, I occasionally like to absorb the best bits—the story of a high school football team making a dramatic comeback is a cliché, but I was still captivated recently by a friend’s personal account.
Of course, as a designer, I can’t help but look at the sport through the lens of design. What makes it so fascinating? What makes it so thrilling? Here are a some of the reasons I came up with.
Semi-finalists have to solve four brand-new problems in five minutes each.
During the semi-finals, IFSC splits the screen into quarters, and on each screen are two routes. That means you’re watching up to eight different climbers trying solve eight different boulder problems all at the same time. Some people hate this, because it’s hard to keep track of everything. Even the commentators will sometimes miss out on satisfying victories or big falls. But it also means there’s almost always something going on on-screen somewhere.
Like the shot-clock in basketball, because there’s a hard limit on time, there are lots of opportunities for buzzer-beater thrills. A climber has ten seconds to top the route or they’re going to miss out on a podium; can they do it?
During finals, the format changes a little bit. The competition has whittled down the number of climbers, so it switches to simple half-screen views: one half for men and one half for women.
The timer also changes, giving the climbers four-minutes-plus to solve the problem. What that means is they have to be on the wall by the time the four minutes run out. After that, they can take as much time as they need to top out or fail. It totally changes the dimension of the excitement. Now it’s not about beating the clock, but giving one last, honest feat of strength.
Every climbing event has route-setters that custom design routes for each location. That means you can contemplate the routes and watch climbers piece them together to see if you were right about how to solve them. Plus, you can debate with your friends what was set too hard or too easy. Sometimes the difference between one extreme and the other is just a tiny thumb-catch.
There are different styles of climbing, and different kinds of boulder problems. Some have to be powered through. Others have to be balanced over. Many are a combination of both. Climbing style versus problem style will always generate chatter.
Finally, something that I hope does not get overlooked is that men and women climb together at the same event. There’s no women’s event followed by a men’s event. They will not climb the same routes, but you get to watch and root for both at the same time. In a time when most popular sports are dominated by men, I appreciate this equality in the sport of climbing.
If you like watching sports, you should definitely give competitive climbing a chance. Besides that, it’s a young enough sport that it’s not locked into awful cable subscription packages. All of the IFSC’s stuff is available on their YouTube channel.