Viral videos of competitive marble racing have run rampant across social and digital media outlets as fans search for sports-like content to consume during the global hiatus.
That has presented a unique opportunity for the Marble League, as the more than decade-old operation is known today – which wasn’t always followed by 650,000 YouTube subscribers, 20,600 Twitter users or 23,800 Instagram accounts.
“The last few days have been absolutely incredible for the whole team,” said Anton Weber, the public relations and community manager for Jelle’s Marble Runs. “We knew that with the unfortunate circumstance of essentially all major sport events canceled – we are big [Formula 1] fans ourselves, for example, and were devastated to hear that the season launch has been postponed – that this might be our chance to shine.”In just three days, the burgeoning stopgap sports league has seen its followers on Instagram and Twitter double, views on YouTube shoot up by 339%, and subscribers on the platform increase by what YouTube only classifies as “>999%.” The races have also seen an increase in popularity on Twitch, a live streaming platform.
The company’s now-viral marble races, which appeared on ESPN’s 2019 ‘The Ocho’ programming, started in 2006 as a YouTube channel called “Jelle’s Knikkers,” which is Dutch for Jelle’s Marbles.
Jelle Bakker, the channel’s namesake, has a form of autism. Bakker enjoyed marbles as a hobby and started by uploading simple runs, never anticipating it would grow to where it is today. His brother Dion eventually suggested the addition of the racing element and turned marble racing on his channel into competitive events, one of which was an Olympic style competition – then called The MarbleLympics during its first installment in 2016 – that has turned into today’s Marble League.
“Marble runs were nothing new to the internet at that time for sure, it was always a popular thing for toddlers to build,” Weber said. “But doing them in an absolutely professional manner, even treating the marbles as athletes and having a world-class announcer, is something that was very unusual at that time.”
Jelle and Dion turned what once was a hobby into a legitimate league, bringing on the Marble League’s commentator, Greg Woods, in 2014 after his own marble racing league, the Fruit Circuit, went under. A few of his fruit-centric stars, however, made the leap with Woods, including the “O’Rangers” and “Raspberry Racers” teams.
Now, Woods works with the 11-person Jelle’s Marble Runs Committee to organize and produce the company’s races.Each marble is assigned a team name based upon color – with names like the “Rojo Rollers,” “Savage Speeders,” “Ball of Chaos” and “Team Primary” – and home courses are created for each, alongside a professional-quality logo to complete the team feel and invite viewers into an authentic fan experience that mirrors that of major sports leagues. Constructing seasons and circuits adds another element of legitimacy to the niche league.
In addition to the traditional Marble League events, Jelle’s Marble Runs launched its latest series, Marbula One, in 2019. The competition mirrors a Formula 1 style tournament, with qualifying rounds and all, in which all of the company’s Marble League teams participate.
After years of steady growth, the league saw an exponential spike in interest as the coronavirus crisis caused global sports cancellations and left fans looking for something to watch from home. The Greenstone Grand Prix, the most recent race in the 2020 Marbula One circuit, premiered on March 15th with a record of more than 11,700 live viewers.
That same day, a U.S.-based Twitter user shared one of the league’s older sand races on Twitter. The video went viral, with the hashtag #comet – the name of the marble that made an impressive comeback – cracking the top five in Twitter trends in the U.S., with celebrities like Pete Wentz from Fallout Boy, Gary Lineker and Bubba Wallace reacting to the video.
The video, shared with the caption, “Day 4 with no sports: Marble1 racing is intense!” has 33.3 million views and almost 781,000 likes. It has also been shown on ESPN’s SportsCenter and several of the sports giant’s international social media channels, including ESPN UK and ESPN Brazil.“We like to think that it is our mission to spread positive vibes, to help our fans escape the madness of the real world, even if it’s just for a brief moment, and to enjoy the little things like our marbles,” Weber said.
With YouTube monetization serving as a primary source of income for the company, alongside its official merchandise store and video sponsors, the surges in viewership have financially benefited Jelle’s Marble Racing tremendously. Coincidentally, their merchandise partner had also invited the company to participate in a 10% sale for the weekend of the 14th and 15th, without knowing what was to come. Their sand racing video went viral during the sale, resulting in a large spike in sales.
Weber said even more than the numbers they’ve seen, the fan response has been the most impressive element of their virality.
“Many fans reached out to us, asking – some jokingly, some dead-serious – if our series would be postponed,” Weber said. “As a result, we made a statement on our social media channels, announcing that we will continue to premiere our videos on YouTube as scheduled. The responses were incredible, our fans were so thankful and encouraging, and we were just happy to see our content creating so much joy in difficult times like this.”
The league plans to continue with its two weekly uploads through the end of the current Marbula One season. Once a champion is crowned, Jelle hopes to prepare the studio for the upcoming Marble League 2020 season, which will begin in May/June.“We like to stay humble, but with the possibility of Tokyo 2020 being canceled or postponed, we feel like there is a lot of pressure on us to make this season absolutely perfect,” Weber added. “What we need to do is to spread the word about the upcoming Marble League while we have the world’s attention. Marble sports may seem like a crazy idea at first, but it’s also a unique form of entertainment that has a lot of passion and heart around it.”