If you've ever watched Netflix's Floor is Lava and walked away dreaming of building your own course or measuring out how far an eight-foot jump really is, congratulations, host Rutledge Wood says you understand what this game is all about.
Floor is Lava operates on the concept that needs little introduction: It's the primetime version of the game where you jump from coffee table to couch without allowing your feet to touch the ground. It's intended to evoke a familiar memory, and if the show's metrics are any indication, it's completed the mission. In June, Floor is Lava became one of the most-watched shows on Netflix, making it the first time a game show has ever achieved the honor.
"The whole purpose of this show was for so many of us to go back to that feeling we have as a kid, getting to play this fun game in our living room and just use your imagination," Woods tells Inverse.
Floor is Lava is a lighthearted, attainable take on shows like American Ninja Warrior. Here, athleticism is just as celebrated as a well-timed wipeout. Very few sports allow you to laugh at failure — missed baskets and strikeouts aren't exactly funny. Floor is Lava is supposed to showcase how fun it can be to mess up. When players disappear beneath the lava, the show is edited to imply that they'll never be seen again. As they seemingly melt away, Wood cracks a well-practiced dad joke.
"It's kind of a pinch of Night at the Museum with a dash of you know, your crazy aunt's attic," Wood says. "Let’s be honest, this whole show is bananas."
What makes Floor is Lava a sport – As we've seen with previous Not Sports, these competitions are elevated to sports status by being given codified rules (in some cases begrudgingly). Similarly, Floor is Lava provides a structure, this time to a childhood game.
Teams of three compete against one another to cross a themed course as fast as possible. As the clock ticks down, stairs to the exit become submerged in "lava," making that final jump all the more tricky.
That time pressure element does a lot of work in turning "the floor is lava" from a child's game into an adult's sport. The game was always about strategic decision making, the Netflix adaptation is about making decisions under impossible conditions.
Crucially, players are working with incomplete information. As show co-creator Irad Eyal told The Hollywood Reporter, it's impossible to see the whole course from the players' perspective. This means that participants are often making educated guesses as to the best route across the lava.
They have to use that incomplete information to balance two conflicting incentives – the more people make it across the course, the more points are up for grabs (a case for slower, deliberate moves). But the longer it takes, the greater chance another team has of beating your overall time – and, if you lose a player along the way (as most teams do) a faster time is a valuable asset.
These are high-level tactical decisions that are also being made as lukewarm lava spews in the player's face. Contestants, including doctors, often make ill-advised leaps onto slick surfaces minutes after their teammates have fallen.
Jacking up the pressure forces participants to move quickly – and even those with the most physical skill don't succeed. The courses have foiled former Stanford gymnasts and UCLA basketball players.
"We saw people that were jacked – they were for absolute heroes in the gym — and they were the first ones in the water," Wood says. Ultimately, he explains, it takes teamwork, creativity, and strategy to win.
It takes teamwork, creativity, and strategy to win
One by one the most athletic disappear beneath the lava, which Wood says is "magic lava we got on craigslist – about 80,000 gallons or so." That's not exactly true — it's actually a secret, proprietary recipe that required months of scientific workshopping. What's certain is that the lava is "as warm as lava should be," Woods says, aka not something that's actually going to burn you.
The Michael Jordan of Floor is Lava – Wood is clear that athleticism will only get you so far in Floor is Lava. It's a strategic game, but the best players mix athleticism and creative thinking.
Wood calls Lajuan, a player from an episode where contestants take on a lava-filled planetarium, the Michael Jordan of the show for those reasons. Lajuan's breakout moment comes when he spots a button on top of a fake Apollo capsule, dives to a far-flung rock, and sets himself up to press a hidden red button, opening up a whole new avenue for his teammates.
That moment has earned him elite status in the eyes of Wood. "He was the one who just coasted through and made it look effortless and awesome," Wood reminisces.
The Spirit of Floor is Lava – In the time of "peak TV," it's perhaps surprising how massively popular this show is. Maybe that's because in the US sports are still, for the most part, canceled. Still, Wood credits the viewership to something more powerful — nostalgia.
Floor is Lava is an undeniable callback to a childhood game that feels warm, fuzzy, and familiar in uncertain and scary times. The show is also designed to feel attainable for normal people. It's not like American Ninja Warrior where it's abundantly clear that you'd have to become a quasi-professional athlete to survive the course.
"I think we wanted it to be something that anybody watched and would go, 'okay, I gotta try that,'" Wood says.
The goal was never to professionalize a childhood game – even if they do offer a $10,000 prize for the winning team. Instead, it was about making something that was just physically and intellectually challenging enough to make an adult think twice, and just crazy enough to still feel like a kid's game (a secret key might be hiding in a pizza oven).
"I mean, it's just silly," Wood says. "But I think that that was the goal is to make it intricate and silly at the same time."
NOT SPORTS is an occasional series from Inverse. Do you have something that's not a sport but almost a sport you'd like to see featured? Fill out a suggestion form.