Jelle’s Marble Runs race to fill live sports void

Sports

Many sports fans are losing their “marbles” without live games to watch.

But marbles could actually be the answer to their competitive void. The Marble League—launched in 2016 by brothers Jelle and Dion Bakker in the Netherlands—has seen its YouTube channel of competitive races featuring small glass spheres in the driver’s seat, careening and colliding toward the finish line, accelerate in popularity over the recent months.

“To me it’s definitely a sport,” says Greg Woods, the Marble League’s broadcaster. “It has so many central tenants, if you can get by the suspension of disbelief that it’s marbles. It still has underdogs and come-from-behind wins and upsets and things that put the emotion into human sports.”

Woods announces the action from his home in Iowa. He was captivated by the realness of the Bakker brothers’ creations –constructing complex race tracks; naming the marbles and assigning them teams; following the marbles zoom down the circuit with a camera—that he came up with the clever idea to broadcast the race like he was watching a Formula 1 event. He recorded the audio, posted it to Reddit, and it blew up from there, ultimately catching the attention of Jelle who invited him to broadcast all of the Marble League events. This was four years ago. Woods has enjoyed his hobby but never expected to videos to take off like they have.

“It’s incredible to scroll through tweets and Facebook comments and see people who you would never expect to get into this, rooting for a marble or agonizing over losses,” Woods says, adding that celebrities like former English footballer Gary Lineker, New York Giants safety Jabrill Peppers, and Fall Out Boy singer Pete Wentz are all fans.

This February, Marbula One, a Formula 1 inspired tournament, debuted with 20,000 people from around the world watching last week’s live stream. Jelle’s Marble Runs YouTube page has millions of views and close to 800,000 subscribers.

“What makes this such an escape, which is very pertinent for now, is this is a different world than our sports are governed by. Everything is marbles. The fans are marbles, I’m a marble in the commentator box,” Woods says. “It’s a whole immersive world that’s good natured and light-hearted, but it’s taken with this air of seriousness and makes it easy for people to get into it.”

The final Marbula One grand prix is this weekend. The 2020 Marble League, formerly known as MarbleLympics, starts up again in June. There are qualifying races for 12 open spots, with the top three teams from last year’s league—the Hazers, the Green Ducks and the Raspberry Racers—automatically qualifying. The series highlights 16 different racing events, from sprints to relays, and Woods even hopes it can help fill the absence of the Tokyo Olympic Games, which were postponed until 2021.

“With the IOC moving the Olympics, it puts a lot of responsibility on us this summer for a strong Marble League, potentially the only Olympic-style competition going on. When we do get sports back I’m going to love that, but at same time, we are going to keep going and hope fans stick with us when the vacuum is gone.”

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