Inside the Hypnotic World of YouTube Marble Racers
I talked to the masters behind one of YouTube’s most mesmerizing fads.
May 5 2016, 12:00pm
Gif from Jelle's Marble Runs' video "Big Marble Run Machine: 11000 Marbles"
For just a moment, lose yourself in one of YouTube's oddest preoccupations: marble racing. For millions of people, the videos have acted like a kind of audio therapy or alternative entertainment for years.
"I don't know why, but watching this really chills me out!" one commenter wrote on a particularly calming marble video.
The king of the phenomenon is 32-year-old Jelle Bakker from Amersfoort, The Netherlands. His channel, Jelle's Marble Runs, reigns over the sport, with over 70,000 subscribers and almost 30 million views.
Jelle participates in both of the two major kinds of marble-centered hobbies: making tracks hundreds of feet long intended for racing multiple marbles, and creating marble "runs"—elaborate paths for one glass sphere to follow while spectators watch.
Sometimes he just goes apeshit, and releases a video like this one, where over ten thousand marbles flow through a mesmerizing, almost impossibly large marble paradise that Jelle built himself.
When I asked Jelle why he builds such elaborate marble tracks, he said, "I got one as a gift from my parents, I have a form of autism and I'm really interested in moving things, sounds, lights, etc."
"Is this marble heaven? Where marbles go when kids don't want them anymore?" one commenter asked.
More common are just plain marble races, which have evolved into elaborate tournaments that hundreds of thousands of people watch. While most marbles in the competitions are merely identified by their color, Jelle has taken to associating colors with specific nationalities, so you can easily root for your home country.
Jelle is gifted in two ways: first, he has the technical skills and patience necessary to build insanely large courses, and he knows how to strategically please his fans.
When Greg Woods, another YouTube user, remixed one of Jelle's most popular marble races with his own commentary, Jelle re-posted it, snagging hundreds of thousands of new views. His audiences loved it, and the altered video was picked up by a handful of US media outlets.
Jelle is not free from competition. There are hundreds of amateur marble racers that have turned their houses and apartments into sanctuaries for their masterpieces. Hundreds film their creations in the hopes of gaining some attention online.
One of the biggest is ScottAdamSmith001, a 16-year-old Australian who has made dozens of marble races, including one that goes underwater, which garnered more than 5 million views. He told me that many of his runs, which he constructs with his 14-year-old brother, take up to 20 hours to build.
Some enthusiasts have constructed even more absurd projects, like the Swedish band Wintergatan, who made a gigantic marble-fueled instrument, to the tune of 18 million views.
Among the marble racers I spoke to, Jelle was by far the most imaginative about how far he could take the eccentric hobby.
"My biggest dream is to set up my own museum filled with marble runs and marble races where people can put in marbles and compete each other," he said.