Feel like you’re about to lose your marbles?
Maybe you have already lost them.
Fear not, fellow quarantined and sports-less friends.
Say hello to “Jelle’s Marble Runs,” the hypnotic, hygienic, and hugely popular series of unexpectedly gripping and fiercely competitive marble races and survival tests created and produced by the marble-ous Bakker brothers, Jelle and Dion, from The Netherlands.
Viewership is surging on the “Jelle’s Marble Runs” YouTube channel with more than 700,000 subscribers. Over the last 30 days, the stockpile of more than 130 videos of Marbula 1 (as in Formula 1 for marbles), Marble League, and Sand Marble competitions with play-by-play and piped-in crowd noise in packed “arenas” have garnered more than 6.5 million views, with nearly a million views last weekend alone.
A year ago, the channel had around 3 million views a month.
At this fraught moment on our spinning blue orb, when the sports industry is on hiatus because of the coronavirus pandemic, these videos of tiny, multi-hued glass spheres racing and bumping against each other have rolled to our rescue.
The “sport” is a sensation, and Dion Bakker is close to stunned at the reaction.
“It’s been almost chaotic what’s happened since the virus took hold,” said Bakker, 38, from Onderdijk, The Netherlands “People like it, so that’s great that people have found relief just watching our videos. We’re thankful, and it’s amazing to experience.”
The indoor contests are filmed in Nijmegen, The Netherlands, where Jelle, 36, has built his own Marble Run Museum. Jelle, who has autism, is the creative mind behind many of the contests. He polls fans for new ideas – if there is unanimous consent, he will proceed.
The existing marble run sports landscape consists of gravity-fed courses and staging areas with three types of marble competitions.
Marbula 1, a Formula 1-like race track set-up of curved and sloping tracks with roller-coaster-like pulleys at the bottom to transport marbles back up to the top for another lap.
Here in late March, we are in the midst of 2020 Marbula 1 qualifying heats.
The Marble League (or “Marblelympics” before the IOC complained that “-lympics” was a copyright infringement) features elaborate last-marble-spinning funnel survival runs, underwater tank races, surfing, block pushing, balance beam, collision derby events, and even rafting, where teams of marbles “cling” for dear life as their plastic raft careens through rapids and bounces off patches of weeds.
In June, the 2020 Marble League kicks off. No doubt it will include opening and closing ceremonies like previous Marblelympics, with the tiny electric candle with the fake flame you used to find on restaurant tables representing the ‘Marblelympic’ torch.
Then there’s the Sand Marbles league, which is, simply, marbles racing each other down channels carved into the side of a sandy hill.
Just like in a televised ski, race car, sprint or 1,000-meter track event, all the competitions are narrated by a breathless announcer, Iowa’s Greg Woods. Always ready with clever commentary, Woods is not shy when it comes to calling out strategic miscues just as he’s excitable at late surges, empathetic with falls from grace and aghast at fights in the stands.
Woods never breaks character, even when the action breaks as it did during the 2019 Marblelympics when a streaker marble dashed onto a relay course – the competition resuming once the interloper was escorted off in stop-motion sequence by a couple of burly blue-hued security marbles.
Except for one time, not a single hand, finger or any part of a human body is ever seen – marbles bound out of their gates which open automatically like at the top of an Alpine ski race.
When a body part once made it into a video, the fans howled.
“Oh my god, the fans went crazy when that happened once,” said Dion Bakker. “We are usually very careful.”
The competitions are staged among marble teams named after their colors, transparency, and inner swirls: the Crazy Cat’s Eyes, the Raspberry Racers, and the Green Ducks, t name a few.
The Jelle’s Marble Races universe is a colorful and bustling one, and there is a merchandising arm to it as well, with hoodies, t-shirts, snapbacks, posters, pillows, and stickers.
Dion Bakker has been receiving an increasing volume of inquiries from brands and sponsors eager to get involved and get their names and logos in high-visibility spots in signage spots in the stands and along the track.
The demographics of the marble run audience skew heavily male – 87 percent or more, according to Dion Bakker, with age distribution in the sweet spot coveted by advertisers: 40 percent of viewers are ages 25-34, 25 percent at 18-24 and nearly 20 percent ages 35-44.
Bakker said their races are targeted toward adults (in part because it’s unlawful to monetize products marketed to children), but the brothers are aware that their races have struck a chord among audiences of all ages and in all corners of the world, especially in the sports-starved United States.
“We get a lot of reactions from fans about our sport and I feel how the situation is in the United States right now," said Dion Bakker. "Everything everywhere is down. This is the only sport right now and that’s why a lot of people are picking it up.”