Photo by Nick Harris (CC BY-ND 2.0)
You may or may not have heard of the YouTube channel Jelle’s Marble Runs, or its various sporting series: The Marble League (AKA the MarbleLympics), Marbula One, or Marbula E. Perhaps you’ve not heard of the O’Rangers, the Savage Speeders, or Team Galactic, veterans in the League since 2016. And perhaps the reason for this is that each of those teams consists solely of inanimate marbles, staged in elaborate spoof sporting events by two Dutch brothers, all voiced over by a lovable American commentator passionately analysing the ‘tactics’ and ‘personalities’ on display in each event. But get this… marbles can’t catch Covid-19.
And that’s how a marble sports YouTube Channel jumps from 600k subscribers in March to 1.25m in August. In that time, they’ve taken on high-profile sponsors such as Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, Formula E (whose real commentator and editing team were brought on board for their marble series), and, bizarrely, Cravendale Milk.
The channel began humbly, in 2006, with Jelle Bakker, an autistic marble hobbyist whose unemployment left him with a lot of time on his hands. He’d been building marble runs since he received one for his fourth birthday in 1987, and it’s now a hobby he shares with his older brother, Dion. He and Dion founded the Knikkegen Marble League, broke a Guinness World Record in 2009 for the longest Marble Run in the world, and eventually attracted the attention of amateur commentator Greg Woods, and founder of the Fruit Circuit, another Marble racing competition. In 2016, the three united their efforts into the Marble League (then the MarbleLympics) as a parody of the Olympics, coming up with creative solutions to make marbles do sports they should not be able to do. The League increased in popularity until 2018 when, at ~620k subscribers, Jelle Bakker accidentally deleted it. The channel was recreated that year, swiftly regained its previous success by March 2020- and the rest is history.
So here we are, watching them compete. And I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t fantastic content, though you do have to suspend your disbelief if you’re going to enjoy it for more than a few minutes. But, amusing as the premise is, picking a team and watching them compete can be absolutely nail-biting. The competitors are, somehow, always closely matched, so you rarely feel like your team has no chance. And yet the personification of the teams, and the fact that averages are just that- not guarantees- means that no team ever feels the same.
My chosen team, for example, a blue and yellow clad team called the Thunderbolts, are regular visitors to the bottom of the leader boards. Their original cast of characters canonically retired in 2019 after a string of defeats, and were replaced with a new roster that has since performed even worse. As someone who never watched much sport growing up, I never understood standing by a team that so consistently lets you down… but now I do. And I’m feeling these things over marbles. Yet between the charming commentary of Greg Woods, the Olympics-reminiscent camera shots, the dynamic crowd sounds (with team-specific chants), the on-screen graphics, and the perfect editing, it’s wonderfully easy to do so.
Another aspect I love is the design of the events by the Bakkers: how does one hold a surfing event for marbles? They did it, and it’s really quite fun to see how. (If you’re wondering, the marbles rolled down a very steep ramp onto a floating ‘surfboard’ with a little saddle on the back, which would catch the marbles and use their momentum to propel the craft across the water).
I’m consistently impressed by the incongruous quality of their events. The audience in the stadium wear their team colours and wave stop-motion banners in the background (and yes, they are obviously all marbles). Every team has a logo and a chant and a history. The competition gets put on hold for stop-motion flavour events, like the security (blue marbles) breaking up fan riots (also marbles); or a team (marbles) challenging decisions by the referees (believe it or not, marbles). So yes, it’s silly. And yes, you have to be a little goofy to really enjoy it. But it’s fun. And just because the world is ending, our politics are a mess, and we’re all grown-ups who are meant to know how taxes work- doesn’t mean we should do away with the little pockets of innocent fun we have left.