“Secret Base’s mission is to enjoy fascinating, funny, and weird stories that just happen to be about sports. Many of the stories we tell are true. Some are strange, irreverent experiments that break the fundamental rules. Some we make up out of thin air. In short, we’re having a good time and inviting you along for the ride.”Secret Base
Outside of pro wrestling and, occasionally, MMA, I’ve never been much of a sports guy. I don’t follow football, baseball, hockey, or basketball because I’ve always found them lacking in the kind of drama, theatrics, spectacle, and above all, the kind of inherent weirdness of the combat sports that I do like. At least, that was my (hilariously inaccurate) perception of them. Of course sports of all types have their own sense of drama and a kind of quirkiness that’s unique to them. Sports movies like Rocky (1976), Field of Dreams (1989), Rudy (1993), A League of Their Own, (1992) and Moneyball (2011) have certainly proven that. And how could they not, with their unique rule sets, player interactions, lost moments, and tragedies and triumphs with both high and low stakes?
All of those wacky little tidbits of real sports minutiae are what Jon Bois and the team behind SB Nation’s creative arm Secret Base seek to extoll. Their deep and deeply obsessive love for the bizarreness of professional sports is contagious, and I find that even if they’re talking about a sport about which I have only the mildest of interest (if any), they’re captivating. They force me to challenge my perceptions of sports, but also the fascinating human stories that make sports fascinating to so many people.
The unique thing about Secret Base content is that it rarely uses any actual footage of games or interviews with players or league staff. Such footage can be prohibitively expensive to license (and many of the pro leagues are very stingy about licensing it out, at any price). Bois and company get around this significant hurdle with the presentation of statistics and archival images in what I can only describe as a cosmic horror version of Microsoft Powerpoint. You might be staring at five or more columns of numbers, but the host, especially if it’s Bois himself, imbues them with his disarming humour, steadily building tension, and sardonic enthusiasm for whatever the subject might be that you find yourself breathlessly waiting for another number to appear, and maybe turn red. At times it feels like staring into the code from The Matrix (1999). Arcane lines, numbers and symbols that, somehow, tell the story of a player’s incredible accomplishments or defeats or a particular game or series of games where something happened that hadn’t before, and never would again.
The Secret Base content is amazing to me because I literally* spend a huge amount of my day staring at spreadsheets and charts just like these. Sometimes making them. Bois and company repurpose things like Google Earth and Quicktime to craft stories out of charts, graphs, and uber-minimalist clip art and graphics to tell their stories and the result is a kind of early-90’s synth-inspired presentation that has a way of keeping you engaged by way of making you fill in the blanks, imagining each play or moment in the game rather than having them served up in a video.
Secret Base produces various series, each with their own style and theme. Beef History has a rotating series of writers and hosts, but always deals with, well, beefs. The stories tell about conflicts and chaos of all kinds between players, coaches, journalists and owners which make up some of the most compelling narratives sports can offer. Weird Rules talks about the anachronistic and little-known regulations that produce strange results in a given sport or game, like the fact that backflips are banned in figure skating or the logistics and history behind ‘throwing in the towel.’
You may have actually heard about some of the stories in Bois’ PRETTY GOOD, which is a series of stories that are, um, pretty good. The Dumbest Boy Alive tells the story of a message board discussion about bodybuilding (and, later, the number of days in a week) that somehow manages to capture all the frustratingly weird aspects of arguing online. Rat Poison and Brandy reveals the twisted and often disturbing backstory behind the 1904 St Louis Olympic Marathon. These shortish, bite-sized dives are some of the most compelling content in Secret Base’s portfolio because they can cover just about anything with Bois’s trademark timing and wit, even if they have the most tenuous connections to sports.
The Dorktown series (and their predecessor, Chart Party) is Secret Base’s main output and consists of deep dives into a specific topic that’s of particular interest to Bois and his usual producing partner Alex Rubenstein. I’m talking about a six-part, nearly four hour examination of the History of the Seattle Mariners, the Atlanta Falcons, or Toronto Blue Jays pitcher Dave Steib. These were preceded by some of Bois’s own content, including one of my favourite pieces of media, The Bob Emergency, which examines the careers and trends of athletes of all sports named Bob (not Bobby, Robert, or any other variation). Told in the signature minimalist style, this was my first exposure to Bois and the Secret Base’s particular brand of sports documentaries, and I was hooked.
The Bob Emergency uses statistics to show how the number of Bobs in sports has steadily decreased since the 1960’s, and attempts to connect that with a greater statement about what that means for sports and society as a whole. It is hilarious and touching, sometimes sad and at other times, hopeful. It’ll give you an appreciation, not just for the name itself or breadth of the athletes that carry it, but for the human stories that sports bring to the surface.
“Bobs are special people, and by losing them, we stand to lose more than we can imagine.”
Similarly, Bois’s documentary with Felix Biederman, Fighting In the Age of Loneliness, which connects the history of mixed martial arts to right-wing politics, a loss of individuality, and the mainstreaming of an ‘outsider’ sport is one of the channel’s most captivating deep dives. It’s certainly more serious in tone, but it cuts to the heart of the combat sport in ways that no other documentary on the subject ever has. Amazingly, again, without using much footage from the UFC at all. The minimalist presentation forces you to think and look between the images, and the result, like all the Dorktown projects, is unexpectedly profound.
Fumble Dimension has Bois and Kofie Yeboah try to battle the AI in sports video games to create bizarre results, like trying to destroy the NBA in one of the 2K series of games by giving every single player the lowest possible stats and then simulating several years of play. What if you ran through the career of a UFC fighter that never threw a single punch, kick, or takedown? How many points does one have to score in a single game of Madden (football) before the game begins to revolt?
Other videos have Bois and Yeboah creating the most absurd, unplayable golf course and then, well, playing it. Other than Dorktown, Fumble Dimension is my favourite Secret Base content because the fidelity of the modern video game world is so advanced that game footage, massaged and manipulated by Kofie and Jon, has a cinematic quality. It’s also because it moves the usual sports documentary format into something that feels more like a sandbox.
Secret Base does what the best sports documentaries and analyses do, and it feels especially valuable because that’s what we do here at the Gutter too. They take what should be a trivial pastime and amplify both the trivial, hilarious aspects of it while making clear why so many people treat that sport or that movie or that artistic pursuit as the most important thing in the world. To quote Bois in The Bob Emergency, “there are no dull stories. People are full of wonder. No matter how you study our history, you will always, always find it.” For a bunch of YouTube videos about sports stats, player rivalries, and messing with video games, that’s a profound and deeply hopeful message. One that goes far beyond numbers to an unquantifiably valuable form of storytelling.
Sachin Hingoo has never thrown a perfect game or scored a hat trick, but thinks that this year is his year.