By Mandi Bierly
Updated February 05, 2014 at 09:38 PM EST
Mahala Gaylord/Getty Images

The opening ceremony for the Winter Olympics is on Friday, but a few events actually begin Thursday. Among them, snowboard slopestyle, which makes its Olympic debut in Sochi after years of wowing crowds at the X Games with its combination of slick rails and big-air jumps. The sport has already grabbed headlines now that Shaun White has withdrawn from the event — a day after jamming his wrist on the course that has also claimed a broken collarbone and a concussion from other athletes during practice — to focus on his quest for a gold medal three-peat in halfpipe. (He wasn’t expected to medal in slopestyle.) EW spoke with commentator Todd Harris, who’ll handle snowboard play-by-play for NBC in Sochi, before White’s announcement. Here’s why you still want to tune in.

For those who’ve never seen slopestyle, let’s start with video of Canada’s Max Parrot earning X Games gold in Aspen last month:

Now that you’re in…

Why it will be great TV: “It kinda goes back to the soul of snowboarding. Not to sound too trite, but it’s slopestyle, and it gives everyone an opportunity to put their own style on something. I’ve heard it said that slopestyle is like a blank canvas, and you turn these athletes loose and they can do whatever they want on it,” Harris says. “I think of guys like Sage Kotsenburg, who’s such a stylish rider as it is, and then he gets to go out there and lay down two great runs on this course. He’s a fluid rider. He makes it look so easy. If you watch Sage Kotsenburg ride, it looks like, ‘Oh, I can do that,’ until you get on a board and go, ‘Oh, I could never do that.’ I just hope we can capture the size of the jumps and how difficult the rail sections are.”

Don’t underestimate the rails: Canada’s Mark McMorris, still the gold medal favorite in Sochi, cracked a rib at the X Games last month. It was on the rails that Norwegian medal favorite Torstein Horgmo broke his collarbone practicing in Sochi, ending his Olympic run. “A lot of those rails are 10-15 feet off the ground, and it’s no wider than six inches, so using gymnastics, take a balance beam and put it 10 or 15 feet off the ground above some snow, travel about 25 miles an hour, and then try to balance on it while you’re sliding your board,” Harris says. “It’s tricky stuff, and if you come off it, there’s not a lot of room for error.”

But, of course, you’re watching for the jumps: Here’s a look at Norway’s Ståle Sandbech at the X Games last month.

What you’re looking for: “There are some guys that don’t excel as well on rails, and they really have to focus on picking up points on the jumps, and then there’s guys that really aren’t big air specialists, and they try to garner more points up top,” Harris says. “It’s the overall impression: Someone who puts down a run that a newbie to the sport can look at and go, ‘Wow, that’s impressive.’ That’s the beauty of slopestyle: Someone who’s not a seasoned snowboarder can watch a run and think, ‘That was amazing.'”

Men’s snowboard slopestyle qualification begins Thursday at 1 a.m. ET, followed by women’s at 5 a.m. ET, and will live-stream on before NBC starts its primetime coverage later that night. The men’s semifinal and final take place Saturday, and the women’s on Sunday.