How marble racing has become the competitive sport of choice in an age of social distancing

With regular programming on hold amid the pandemic, people are turning to a quirkier option to get their sports-watching fix

Jelle's Marble Runs YouTube channel has seen a huge rise in interest in marble racing during the coronavirus pandemic. YouTube
Beta V.1.0 - Powered by automated translation

We're living in a world with very few competitive team sports to watch due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Where once our televisions were abuzz with live football matches, cricket games and all the latest action from the basketball courts, now it's all gone quiet, as seasons have been cancelled and even the Tokyo Olympics have been postponed until 2021.

So sports fans have turned to an unlikely source to get their live entertainment fix: marble racing.

Turns out, there's a whole industry behind the competitive sport (because that's what it is), and millions of people have been watching the races online.

While it's nothing new, the recent spike in interest began after a video of some marbles rolling around was tweeted out and went viral, receiving more than 35 million views.

Celebrities such as musician Pete Wentz, bassist for Fall Out Boy, and British football legend Gary Lineker, even got involved. Wentz reposted the video, adding that he was on the "edge of my seat".

Tarek Salem, a Bahrain resident and recent marble racing convert, says he first heard about marble racing through a gaming communication app called Discord. "With a huge community base within the app, I stumbled across a post of a marble race and instantly got hooked."

So how does marble racing work?

Well, there's a commentator, but absolutely no human interaction, which makes it the perfect competition for a pandemic where everybody can still adhere to social distancing rules.

A bunch of colourful marbles – they have names such as Clementin, which races for team O'rangers, or Speedy, a member of the team Savage Speeders – race around courses until they're either knocked out or reach the finish line. The tracks are fairly elaborate, with twists, turns and even the odd conveyer belt. There are also stadiums set up around the edge, with an "audience" of variously coloured marbles grouped together.

Where did it all begin?

YouTubers (and brothers) Jelle and Dion Bakker started the popular channel Jelle's Marble Runs back in 2018 and it's had nearly 63 million views since then, with almost 800,000 subscribers, of which 150,000 have signed up in the last month.

Jelle has been into it since he was a child, and so the pair started posting a few videos online of marbles racing around more than a decade ago. When this began to gain a solid fan base (it took a while), they then set up the Marble League, formerly known as the MarbleLympics, in 2016. This led to the creation of other marble racing events, such as Marbula One, which is basically the Formula 1 for little glass balls, and Marble Rally, where marbles race on sand tracks.

It's fun and exciting and offers a different perspective into competition

We're currently in the midst of the 2020 season of Marbula One, which is what has captured new fans' imaginations and enjoyed a huge surge in popularity in recent months. You can watch the matches on YouTube or live stream on Twitch.

In the past, the channel has partnered with Federation Internationale de l'Automobile and even been featured on ESPN and NBC Sports. A few days ago, it got even bigger, as Formula E's Envision Virgin Racing team has teamed up with Jelle's Marble Runs to start the Marbula E series.

This will see marble teams, named after real Formula E teams, compete on scale versions of actual tracks, and videos will go online at the same time the car races were scheduled. Even Formula E's Jack Nicholls is commentating.

The first Marbula E qualifier race went online on Saturday and has already had more than 300,000 views.

What's the appeal of watching inanimate objects racing around?

Salem, who is usually an avid viewer of tennis and football, says: "It's fun and exciting and offers a different perspective into competition. The thought process behind the construction of the tracks is really creative, with a lot of physics involved, making the races more random, with a lot of takeovers. Also, the environment surrounding the track – the stands, the 'fans', the commentator – adds to the dynamic of the races."

It still has the central tenets of sports

Commentator Greg Woods told The Washington Post that the growth in interest around the races is "kind of tough to wrap your mind around", but that the current sports vacuum created the perfect storm to get people into it, "because you can't watch in person. You have to watch it online, at home".

“What really draws you in and keeps you there, even though it’s just marbles rolling with gravity: it still has the central tenets of sports,” Woods added. “Underdog stories. Come-from-behind victories. Upsets. The home team prevailing or not prevailing."

But once regular programming starts up again, will we lose interest in our marbles? Salem says he certainly won't. "I'm excited to see what's to come and look forward to watching plenty more races."