Within the realm of art made specifically for the internet, there are few people pushing its boundaries and exploring its possibilities like Jon Bois. The creative director for the website SB Nation, Bois has constantly adapted and refined his approach to telling sports stories. This is a project he began in earnest with his 2014 article series “The Tim Tebow CFL Chronicles,” which represented his first step in constructing connected narratives. Bois’s sensibility is perhaps best captured by his masterpiece 17776, a serialized work of speculative fiction published in July 2017. Following a trio of sentient satellites observing humans play future sports, it’s told through simple text conversations, faux documents, GIFs, videos, and more. It is frequently funny, often melancholic, and ultimately hopeful, beautiful in its portrayal of a far better world almost devoid of fear.
Since 2015, Bois has been producing various YouTube series for SB Nation, such as Pretty Good and Chart Party, which straddle the line between video essay and full-on documentary. His videos are friendly and funny, yet informative and detailed. Frequently working with unusual and unexpected subjects, the clean presentation ensures that the viewer remains engaged, enlightened, and occasionally moved. He demonstrates a keen sense for constructing narrative, a unique wit and flair, a refreshing lack of condescension, and total empathy for his subjects.
Bois utilizes voiceover, webcam video, Muzak, stock footage, and what has become the crux of his video-making: a form of animation generated by placing images into Google Earth and navigating around them. Each video exists within these surreal spaces, jumping between data points that exist as physical objects as an argument develops. The now-discontinued Pretty Good, “a show about stories that are pretty good,” had a broad scope, with episodes about anything from the story of “Lawnchair Larry” to the insanity of 24. Chart Party has a more specific beat, with each video concentrating on a different statistical aspect of sports. Over the course of the series, which began in July 2016, Bois has evolved his style. His 2019 videos demonstrate an immense leap in scope and ambition. Before, the average Chart Party episode ran under 15 minutes, but the three most recent are all over 40, with an attendant increase in attention to detail.
“The search for the saddest punt in the world” studies the 46,377 punts that have taken place in the NFL in the 21st century so far. In order to visualize this intimidating amount of numbers, Bois creates a three-dimensional chart, with the X-axis representing the year, the Y-axis representing the field position, and the Z-axis representing the needed yards from a first down. This is no mere representation, but an active part of the video, buttressed with virtual fly-throughs and frequent markings, like circling a specific subset of points. Bois continually refers back to it, even as his arguments spin further and further off. In his videos, he never removes any charts, but instead adds to them as each episode progresses. This strange digital mise-en-scène reflects the viewer’s building understanding of the subject at hand.
Just as crucial is Bois’s playfulness. During a handy explanation of the pertinent rules of football, he includes a display reading “Alternate Programming: What Football Fans Crave,” a purposely stereotypical and farcical presentation that includes demolition derbies, people looking angry for no apparent reason, and a man running through the woods on fire. This sense of humor extends to the manner in which each video’s central device is depicted. Here we have “The Surrender Index,” which is mocked up on an old cassette recorder and generates via mathematical formula the relative “cowardice” of each punt. (He dubs it “a tool I built to communicate my disgust.”) The back half of the video is then dedicated to the ten mathematically determined “saddest punts,” each of which Bois describes with aplomb.
That knack for storytelling is brought to its greatest point yet in the most recent Chart Party videos as of this writing: the two parts of “The Bob Emergency,” which together run 84 minutes. This installment examines the steep decline in the number of athletes who professionally go by the name “Bob” (as opposed to “Robert”). From that unlikely premise, Bois gives a rundown on a multitude of athletes in practically every organized sport in America over the 20th century, from the unfathomably great achievements of pitcher Bob Gibson and long jumper Bob Beamon in 1968 to the mediocre basketball player Bob Sura.
Perhaps the Bob story which best represents Bois’s compassionate cross-section approach is that of the totally unknown boxer Bob Cyclone, who in the 1950s racked up 0 wins and 13 losses. The videos are built around a bar graph depicting the number of active Bobs in sports each year, a virtual mountain of Bob. This one Bob is dwarfed against such a backdrop, but Bois latches onto his persistence. He closes this anecdote with these words, spoken without a note of condescension: “But he was a Bob. He played a note in this symphony. He mattered.”