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How does ‘The Challenge’ work? MTV’s reality TV show explained

MTV’s The Challenge has been a staple on the network for 25 years, and it doesn’t seem like it’s going anywhere anytime soon. With nearly 30 seasons and several spin-offs, the reality television competition show debuted in 1998 and has continued to bolster a cult following.

But, for the uninitiated: what is it?

In this article, I’ll break down what The Challenge is all about, how it works, who’s involved, and more. So, let’s get into it.

Although the format changes every season, The Challenge’s paradigm remains virtually the same

The Challenge blends fierce physical and mental competition with social dynamics, and it orbits around a grand prize check. A crop of around 20 contestants — who are usually in their 20s and 30s, and sign on for each season — typically live in a sprawling mansion somewhere around the globe with catered food and all the amenities someone needs to train, relax, and create drama. Although the availability of alcohol has waned through the years, it’s still a factor in The Challenge as well.

With all that being said, the MTV franchise at its core is a reality show. And the nature of The Challenge forces the contestants to make alliances, politic, backstab, and build friendships — think CBS’s Survivor or Big Brother. Cut off from all communication with the outside world (besides the odd phone call), the contestants live and interact with each other for weeks and months on end. This leads to typical reality show drama, like arguments and rumors, and it can even develop into physical altercations.

But, there’s also a game to focus on. And if a player is off their A-game, they could see themselves eliminated from The Challenge sooner rather than later.

If the contestants leave the house, it’s usually for three reasons: they’re competing in a daily challenge, watching or battling in an elimination round, or partying at a pre-arranged venue suited with cameras. Here I’ll break down the typical flow of an episode, and explain the main layers of The Challenge.

Note: every season is different, but this is the sort of pattern MTV and Bunim/Murray Productions follow.

Daily challenge

The cast will leave the house and show up at a location, and they’ll be greeted by longtime host TJ Lavin. He’ll then point to some looming overhead contraption or vehicle racing by that the contestants will have to interact with to win, for example. Each daily challenge requires contestants to use certain skills to come out on top, whether it be puzzle prowess, cardiovascular/physical dominance, iron-clad courage, and/or sheer resolve.

The players will compete in the daily challenge, and it’ll produce a winner — whether it be an individual, pair, or team (more on that later) — and a loser. The loser is usually sent directly into the elimination round and the winner is granted safety from being sent home, as well as another power, depending on the season’s theme.


The reality TV stars then leave the daily challenge location and head back to the house. At this point, they wind down from the extreme stunt or mind-bending puzzle they completed. Then, a crew will undergo deliberation to nominate another contestant or contestants to face off against the daily challenge losers in the elimination round. The daily challenge winners may have some sort of power that influences the nomination period as well — if not straight-up pick them.

Social time

With the daily challenge and deliberation out of the way, it’s time for the players to socialize. In the newer seasons, the contestants will usually travel to a club or venue to party and strategize, or they’ll just hang around the house. This is when Challenge fans see bonds and alliances form, as well as plans to eliminate or derail others.


The final part of the episode typically marks the elimination round. The cast arrives at the set, and they usually stand above and overlook a massive sand pit. There, TJ welcomes the contestants and calls on the daily challenge’s losing team to join him. Then, their opponents are named, and they make their way to the battleground as well. The rest is self-explanatory: the competitors duel in a loser-goes-home match that tests their abilities in some sort of way. Once the dust settles, a winner is determined and the defeated is sent packing.

Rinse and repeat all season

After the cast is trimmed, they depart the elimination arena and go back to the house to await the next daily challenge, all the while strategizing and dramatizing. This cycle is repeated through the season until the numbers have dwindled considerably.

Final challenge

Once only a few contestants are remaining, they’ll compete in the final challenge. It’s heralded as the hardest challenge of the season as it pushes each player to their mental, emotional, and physical limits. However, there is a light at the end of the tunnel: the competitor(s) who comes out on top wins the grand prize, which is typically hundreds of thousands of dollars. The others who make it onto the podium will usually get some coins as well.


After the season is all said and done, the cast reassembles for a reunion show, which is typically taped months after they finished filming the season. There, they discuss the happenings of the house, the challenges, the triumphs, as well as the backstabbing, lying, and gameplay that steered the contestants through the game.

There have been 38 seasons of MTV’s mainline Challenge series with the most recent airing earlier this year

From Road Rules: All Stars to Real World/Road Rules Challenge, The Challenge’s franchise name has evolved throughout the years. And its seasons and formats have changed as well. All in all, 38 seasons of MTV’s mainline series have come and gone, as well as several spin-off shows and specials — with some airing on CBS and Paramount Plus, for example.

Road Rules: All Stars, the MTV series’ first season, debuted in April 1998, and its most recent season, Ride or Dies, wrapped in March. Each iteration is filmed in a beautiful or exotic location. For example, season 15’s The Gauntlet III took place in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, season 18’s The Ruins was shot in Phuket, Thailand, and Ride or Dies was done in Buenos Aires, Argentina.

As alluded to in the last paragraph, every season has its own name and theme that dictates how the game is played. For example, season 34’s War of the Worlds 2 pitted two teams against each other: Team USA and Team UK. The groups faced off every episode and eliminated each other until the remaining competitors represented their respective teams in the final challenge. The season produced a winner and each remaining member of the victorious squad earned their share of $1 million.

It’s not unlike a season to change its format halfway through, though. For example, season 33’s War of the Worlds began with the contestants forming duos, but midway through the season the remaining reality TV stars broke up and began competing as individuals.

But, regardless of the format, some things always remain consistent: players try and win safety through the daily challenge and the field is dwindled via elimination rounds.

The Challenge features recurring cast members, some of which have been competing for decades

Parts of The Challenge mirror other reality competition shows. For example, living in a house while cut off from the outside world: hello, Big Brother. Or, contestants battling it out in grueling games: enter Survivor.

However, the lifeblood of The Challenge is its recurring cast members. Of course, shows like Survivor and Big Brother have had all-star seasons or iterations where some former players return for another chance at reality TV glory.

But, The Challenge leans into its stars. Every season is typically littered with veteran challengers who have competed several times, leading to fans connecting with the show’s longtime players year after year. This leads to the contestants having a storied history with the show, as well as the other cast members, which in turn, adds layers to every season that are shaped by the past.

For a comparison, Survivor’s most prolific player is “Boston” Rob Mariano, a one-time winner who has been marooned on an island five times. Well, John “Johnny Bananas” Devenanzio has competed in 21 seasons of MTV’s version of The Challenge, as well as three spin-offs, and he’s wracked up a total of eight championships.

Or, how about the Ride or Dies winners? Tori Deal and Devin Walker had been on a collective 17 seasons before either of them won a championship.

Lastly, The Challenge pulls cast members from other reality TV staples, something it has always done. It started by recruiting stars from MTV’s The Real World and Road Rules, and it evolved into taking talent from shows like Survivor, Ex on the Beach, and Amazing Race. For example, a mainstay on The Challenge is Kaycee Clark, Big Brother’s 20th season champion. She’s participated in five seasons of The Challenge since winning the CBS show and has one trophy on her mantel.

Perhaps the reason why The Challenge has lasted so long is because of its recasting nature. Fan favorites aren’t just one-and-done in the franchise. If there’s an appetite for a player, and they’re open to the experience, fans can expect to see them again and again.


By: Stephen McCaugherty
Title: How does ‘The Challenge’ work? MTV’s reality TV show explained
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Published Date: Thu, 06 Jul 2023 21:57:18 +0000

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