The Game of Skate format for the Aug. 1 "World of X Games" event at the ESPN campus in Bristol, Connecticut, is all about leveling the playing field. There will be no MegaRamp, no massive concrete bowls or 12-stair handrails or even simple ledges to grind. Instead, eight of the world's top street skaters will face off in a head-to-head, trick-for-trick contest on a flat stretch of ground, as skateboarders have done for as long as any of them can remember.
"I've always loved playing a Game of Skate, ever since I was a little kid," said six-time X Games gold medalist and 2014 ESPY Award winner Nyjah Huston, who's better known for his prowess on big rails than his flatground skills. "The cool thing about it is it helps each skater playing learn new tricks, so you're always pushing each other to progress."
The game, based on the basketball-court classic H-O-R-S-E, has long been a staple at playgrounds and skateparks. It was formalized in 2003 for the Eric Koston éS Game of S.K.A.T.E at the former Action Sports Retailer (ASR) industry trade show in San Diego and turned into a pro tour soon after. The event made a brief appearance as an X Games medal event in 2011, and has been a hit at events like Battle at the Berrics in recent years.
The basic rules are simple: The offensive skater tries a trick. If he lands it, the defensive skater also has to land it; if he misses, the next skater becomes the offensive skater. If the defensive skater misses a trick, he gets a letter. First to spell S-K-A-T-E is out.
Huston says he practices flatground tricks every time he steps on a skateboard and has competed at Battle at the Berrics (he lost to Mike Mo Capaldi in the second round earlier this year), but admits he's coming into Bristol as an underdog.
"I definitely wouldn't say I'm the best flatground skater out there: Chris Cole and a lot of these other guys are amazing and have all sorts of weird tricks," Huston said. "I'm just going to come out there and wing it -- it's not like I'm specifically training for Game of Skate -- but I have some tricks up my sleeve, too. I've been to the ESPN campus before and it's a really cool place, so I think it will be fun. I'm not putting too much pressure on myself to win."
Getting weird is part of the game, too. To one-up each other, skaters will be digging deep into their bags of tricks. Some of them may be inspired by old but difficult freestyle and street maneuvers from the '70s, '80s and '90s, while others will be looking to bring never-been-done tricks. With Huston, Cole, PJ Ladd, Tom Asta, Billy Marks, Brandon Westgate, Shane O'Neill and Capaldi competing, the odds of seeing something odd are pretty good.
Jason Rothmeyer, who was pro for Santa Cruz and Foundation in the '90s and has a good flatground game himself, will serve as head judge in Bristol. He says he's looking for clean landings on every attempt -- all four wheels down, no toe drags or hand drags -- and expects to see some surprises.
"All these dudes have a lot of weird stuff wired, tricks that probably wouldn't even exist if it weren't for Game of Skate," Rothmeyer said. "Look at a trick like the nollie double flip or the switch laser flip: PJ Ladd can do them, Chris Cole can do them, I betcha Nyjah Huston can do them. They've all learned them so they can get through. Then there's stuff everyone's got way up their sleeve: I call them 'enders.' Every one of these guys has at least two enders they can probably end a game with if they get the opportunity. I've seen Chris Cole land 540s on flatground and I bet nobody else can do them, and you've got guys like Shane O'Neill landing switch double 360 flips in Street League contests. I have a feeling it's going to get good, fast."
There are several basic strategies: Save your best tricks until you need them, or come out swinging.
"Some dudes come out and straight bring it, right out of the gate -- but that's risky," Rothmeyer said. "If you're gonna do that you better not fail, because the next guy is going to see how it's going to be and answer back in kind."
Marks, for one, plans to stick with tricks he feels confident with and wait for his opponents to make mistakes.
"I try to learn new stuff that I haven't seen any of them do," he said, sizing up his competition. "It could honestly go either way. One bad day for someone and they're done."
Game of Skate is "where skating starts for everyone, where everybody learns every trick," Marks said. He is confident it will make for good television, even for fans new to skateboarding or new to the contest format. "It's really easy for random people watching to follow along: it's exactly like H-O-R-S-E," he said.
Rothmeyer expects a cutthroat competition, but says the best Game of Skate events are also about mutual respect. In other words, watch for direct competitors to be rooting for each other in the moment. Skateboarding is like that.
"My favorite memory of the game is playing against Mark Gonzales in '91, right after the 'Blind' video came out, at like 2 a.m. in a strip mall parking lot," Rothmeyer recalled. "He was like any other skater coming up on a Game of Skate, like, 'Hey, can I get in?' I remember he did a really good 360 flip and we were really tripping out. I'm hoping we can have a good contest in Bristol, but with some of that same spirit."
Ronnie Creager, who will be traveling to Bristol as an alternate and is currently the ninth man looking in on an eight-man contest, is drawn to the Game of Skate format because any kid can play it against any other kid and still have fun.
"All the tricks on a skateboard originate from the sidewalk because that's the easiest and most accessible place to learn things," Creager said. "The flat ground is where it begins and in some ways it's still where you see true progression in skateboarding."
According to Creager, Game of Skate is ultimately a game of percentages. Certain moves -- like that 360 flip that wowed Rothmeyer back in '91 -- are practically can't-miss tricks for a lot of today's skaters, so there's not much point in breaking them out in a contest.
"It's a balance, because you don't want to waste your time on tricks everyone does, but you don't want to be out there throwing Hail Mary tricks until you have to," Creager said. "I'm always making lists of tricks I have on lock, things I need to learn, and things I can maybe land if I really need to reach to shut somebody down."
Tune in to the Bristol campus Game of Skate, Aug. 1 at 10 a.m. ET on ESPN3.com, and in a one-hour "World Of X Games" special, Aug. 10 at 5 p.m. ET on ABC.