Formats Unpacked: Dorktown
How a YouTube format takes the restrictions of its genre and turns them into a virtue
Before we get into today’s format, I wanted to let you know we’ve moved our other Storythings Newsletter to Substack. For the uninitiated, every Friday I share ten stories that have inspired the Storythings team throughout the week. I’d love it if you subscribed.
This week’s unpacking comes from Rob Hinchcliffe. Rob is a writer, editor and strategist based in London. A long time ago he founded Londonist.com and he now edits the London in Bits newsletter.
Over to Rob…
What’s it called?
Dorktown (YouTube video series)
What’s the format?
Dorktown is a video series that makes up part of Secret Base, the YouTube channel of the US sports site SB Nation.
In the Dorktown videos, SB Nation Creative Director, Jon Bois (along with his colleague Alex Rubenstein) deep dives into some of the more unusual stories from sports history, with a real focus on statistical anomalies.
The videos, which straddle the line between ‘video essay’ and ‘sports documentary’, vary in length between 40 minutes to an hour and consist almost entirely of narrative that’s voiced over a collage of charts created in Google Sheets and videos created in Google Earth. There’s also quite a liberal sprinkling of smooth jazz.
Now, when I put it like that it sounds awful, right? But in 2020 the New York Times placed an episode of Dorktown in its list of the best TV episodes of the year.
So what’s going on?
What’s the magic that makes it special?
There’s plenty of things that make Dorktown videos watchable (even to people like me, who aren’t massive sports fans). The two hosts complement each other well, and the general tone is never condescending or overly-nerdy. But the real genius of Dorktown lies in the way it takes the restrictions of its genre and turns them into a virtue.
There’s an argument to be made that sports stories are some of the hardest stories to tell. First off, they’re expensive, because most of the footage is owned and jealously guarded by networks who are looking to extract as much value out of the astronomical sums they’ve paid. But even if you have a budget, then you still have to try and convince people who don’t like sport to care about your very sports-centric story; and all those ‘universal’ tales of plucky underdogs and inspirational achievers have been told a thousand times already. Finally, much of what sports is can be reduced to numbers. Scores, times, speeds, angles and rankings. Take away the humans and these are the constituent elements of any sports story. And, as any school child will tell you, numbers are boooooring.
The main way Dorktown overcomes these limitations is through the smart use of visual elements.
Probably the most Dorktowny of these visual tricks is their use of Google Earth. Bois doesn’t just use the tool to orientate the viewer, he uses it as a canvas (layering in and animating around other visual elements like newspaper clipping and 3D models) and as a camera lens, so when the story of one video needs us to climb aboard a small, private plane with a drunk man at the wheel, the horizon of Google Earth begins to tilt left and right and then ‘pull up’ and ‘dive down’. It’s an incredibly effective technique and one that’s spawned multiple tutorial videos with titles like How to Animate in Google Earth (like Jon Bois!).
The other recognisable and smart visual aid that Dorktown employs is the use of charts.
Now, if you've ever had to try and make data ‘fun’ or ‘engaging’ then you know what an extraordinary sentence that last one was. Charts? Interesting? But Dorktown not only uses imaginative and witty data visualisation, it turns those visualisations into virtual objects, stacking them alongside each other so no narrative point has to stand on its own, bereft of context.
As the various graphs and illustrations are added to this iterative ‘game board’ they form a landscape of their own, a landscape that Bois and his co-host can fly their virtual camera through, pinging back and forth between the key players and the important numbers as they spin their tale, allowing the viewer to hang on to certain anchor point when things threaten to get complicated.
At the outset of each video, a blank board is laid out, with empty spaces that the viewer knows will be filled as the various statistical anomalies and peculiarities are brought to life. Bois knows exactly what he’s doing here, and he employs these empty spaces like Hitchcock’s ‘bomb under the table’, labelling them with phrases like ‘This space reserved for the OTHER MAIN CHARACTER in our story’.
At some point in most Dorktown videos there’s an immensely satisfying moment where the ‘camera’ will pull back to show a bird’s eye view of the statistical portrait that’s been created. Before I began writing this article I wasn’t sure why those moments were so satisfying, but now I think it’s because I’m not just being presented with a visual representation of the story that’s been told, I’m also being shown how my own comprehension and understanding has slowly built over the last 30 or 40 minutes.
Well done me! I understand complicated sports things now!
Section 1 - A Short Film from Dorktown was released in June of this year, and varies slightly from the previous output in that it tells a more human interest story, albeit one centred around an American Football match from the 1970s.
Without spoiling anything, the forty minute film shows why the 1976 playoff matchup between the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Baltimore Colts had to end with the Steelers demolishing the Colts… Otherwise people would die.
It’s a 1970s disaster movie told via Google Earth and Google Sheets and I promise you will be gripped.
Before he started making Dorktown, John Bois created a series called Pretty Good (tagline: A show about stories that are pretty good) in which he dissected subjects as diverse as message board fights over how many days there are in a week and the TV show 24. It’s also where he honed his storytelling style.
Other than that, the closest thing to Dorktown’s approach may be the ‘explanation scenes’ in the films of Adam McKay. I’m thinking of Jenga being used to explain mortgage bonds or Anthony Bourdain breaking down Collateral Debt Obligation (both in The Big Short), or the way he employs split screen and sports analogies in the clip from Vice.
It’s always a joy when someone unpacks a format I had no previous knowledge of.
When making films for clients, we’re frequently faced with the challenge of how to tell certain stories when you can’t film or get rights to existing footage. We recently started collecting creative examples of best practice. This is will be an excellent addition to the list!
Make sure you check out London in Bits. Rob has recommended these three stories as a taster:
What happens when you find yourself with nowhere to live during a time when renting in London is next to impossible?
The story behind the YouTube channel that began posting videos of London bus routes from the 90s
Thanks for reading and get in touch if you’d like to unpack a favourite format.