Professional basketball, soccer and hockey games were suspended. Major League Baseball canceled the start of its season, and the Olympics have been postponed. But at least one sport remains: marble racing.
Videos of competitive marble racing have gained widespread attention as nearly every sporting event, major and minor, has been placed on hiatus because of the coronavirus pandemic.
“It sucks us into another world, another dimension without war, misery and negativity,” said Dion Bakker, a founder of the YouTube channel Jelle’s Marble Runs.
The world of marble racing recently got a boost from a tweet featuring a video of marbles rebounding along an outdoor sand track. Celebrities such as Pete Wentz, bassist for Fall Out Boy, drew attention to the video, which has been viewed more than 35 million times.
But marble games are not new.
Marbles have been rolled, thrown, dropped and flicked all over the world for thousands of years. Historically, they’ve been made of a variety of materials, including baked clay, onyx, porcelain and now typically glass.
Dion Bakker, 38, and his brother, Jelle, 36, started the YouTube channel in 2006, posting simple videos of marbles rolling down tracks. The brothers added racing years later to keep viewers engaged.
“We brought the competition element when we made marble rallies in the sand dunes,” said Dion Bakker, referring to the recent viral video.
Other YouTube channels, such as M&H Racing and Fubeca’s Marble Runs, also post racing content, each with hundreds of thousands of subscribers.
Greg Woods, 31, of Iowa, a commentator for Jelle’s Marble Runs, said the races provide the same emotional experience as sports with human players.
“There are still underdogs and upsets — something to cheer about,” he said.
The Bakkers’ YouTube channel, which gained more than 150,000 subscribers last month, has partnered with Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile and been featured on ESPN and NBC Sports. The videos draw about 10 million views per month, with nearly half coming from the United States, Dion Bakker said.
Jelle Bakker has been making marble runs since he was 4 because he liked the colors, movements and sounds of the marbles, his brother said.
Mr. Woods stumbled upon his first Jelle’s Marble Runs video in 2016 and was struck by the starting lineup and the marbles’ names. For example, Team Galactic are transparent spheres with brown and silver swirls and the O’rangers are solid orange.
Mr. Woods, a car racing enthusiast with a background in public health, posted a commentary of that run on YouTube. Jelle Bakker contacted him, and Mr. Woods has been the channel’s official play-by-play announcer ever since.
“There’s really no handbook for how you call these races,” Mr. Woods said. “Certain things you can pull from auto racing and human sports, but there’s only so many ways to describe how marbles roll.”
Marble-racing fans, estimated to be in the millions, take an active role in creating the sport’s culture.
Jelle Bakker sets the scene, but thousands of fans analyze stats, share memes, build elaborate back stories and discuss the marbles’ “personal” lives on the channel’s subreddit.
Occasionally, Jelle Bakker orchestrates a moment that mimics human behavior, Mr. Woods said.
Once, a marble streaked across the track, delaying an event, before it was escorted off the premises. Another time, a fight broke out in the audience among rival fans.
The marbles’ teams have home tracks. There are referees and a stadium of fans — all marbles. When the races begin, gravity pulls each glass ball, 16 millimeters wide, down a winding track to the soundtrack of a cheering crowd.
Time Check, an all-male a cappella group at Marist College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., has even recorded chants for each of the marble teams.
The team behind Jelle’s Marble Runs has since expanded to 15 people. In addition to the Bakker brothers in the Netherlands and Mr. Woods in the United States, there’s a composer in Greece, a graphic designer in Belgium, a manager in Germany and others in charge of frame-by-frame analyses.
“We had no expectations when we started filming marble runs,” Dion Bakker said. “We thought we would stop eventually, but it was a big success.”
Jelle’s Marble Runs turns a profit through sponsorships, partnerships and ads, and now showcases several categories of events.
The Marble Rally is a basic race downhill: first to the bottom wins. Then there’s Marbula One, a multi-lap race inspired by the real-world Grand Prix. Marbula E, a collaboration with British motor racing team Envision Virgin Racing, is a new addition to the channel’s lineup.
And finally, the main event: the Marble League, formerly called MarbleLympics, is an annual “Olympic-style” extravaganza with more than 15 team and individual events, including hurdles, relays and underwater races.
Depending on the event, a race can last anywhere from a few seconds to a couple of minutes.
Marble League 2020 was scheduled to begin in June and overlap with the Summer Olympics in Tokyo, which have since been postponed to July 2021.
With about two months until the opening ceremony for Marble League 2020, Dion Bakker said he’s already heard from panicked fans who said they “can’t survive” the wait.
The races are meant to be an escape from the real world, Mr. Woods said. Jelle’s Marble Runs tries to operate outside the realm of Covid-19, reminding the online community to avoid talking about the virus.
“I don’t think we totally realized the role sports played in our lives until it was gone, and what that meant emotionally,” Mr. Woods said. “When you don’t have that outlet, I do wonder if it’s something that people look for: the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat.”