The Impossible Dream: Fake Sports Online

Curator's Note

For an assignment in the Sports on Film class I taught this summer, one of my students posted a clip on the class blog of a seemingly impossible feat: a man rocketing down a multi-story waterslide, launching off the end, and landing in a kiddie pool 100 yards away. A discussion about the clip’s veracity began online and continued in our classroom. This led to our watching several other clips of the “seemingly impossible physical feat” genre, such as a “Liquid Mountaineering” clip of outdoorsmen perfecting their techniques for running on water. That piece, which has racked up over five million views on YouTube, turned out to be a viral ad for Hi-Tec, a line of athletic gear.

Which brings me to the clip to the left, of a young man with tousled hair and baggy shorts making an unlikely basket from an airplane. Having first attracted attention for their home videos of unlikely swishes, the trick-shooting cadre of Dude Perfect have been called up to the big leagues. The former roommates from Texas A+M, who describe themselves on their website as “a group of college guys that follow Jesus,” have recently made a slate of television and internet ads for GMC trucks. The clips each follow a similar pattern: the group contemplating an impossible hoop dream, strategizing about the shot (while holding pieces of paper filled with arrows and diagrams—planning!), and then nailing the superhuman J. These are not game-winners (although they are, quite literally, money-makers), but instead, feats of daredevilry. The clips’ immense popularity is almost entirely fueled by debates over whether or not what is occurring on screen is real. Dude Perfect claims they made the crop-duster shot on their second try.

The increasing prominence of these trick videos raises a number of provocative associations and questions. These works contain the central technological dialect coursing through  the history of the moving image: the camera’s ability to assist and deceive vision.  Of course, trick photography is as old as cinema—Méliès’ was given the sobriquet “cinemagician” for his ability to manipulate time and space with the camera. These videos also recall the idea of the cinematic apparatus as prosthesis, as in the case of Dziga Vertov’s “kino-eye,” which augments human sight and our ability to understand the formerly unseen workings of the world.

In “The Myth of Total Cinema,” André Bazin prophesized that our collective hunger for a realistic representation of the world would result in the production moving images that were indistinguishable from reality. What these trick videos show, however, is that the technological capacity of today’s digital image-making results not in a re-presentation of the world, but in its re-creation. In these videos, the laws of science are rewritten, and the impossible is perpetually leapfrogged over, with style to spare.

The progenitors of these trick videos are the indie sports releases of the 1980s and 1990s. Motocross, skateboarding, snowboarding, and surfing VHS tapes eschewed narrative—not to mention organized competition—in favor of boundary-busting improvisation and death-defying spectacle, usually funded by whatever sunglasses, bikes, and boards were simultaneously on display. Just as these “extreme” sports made the leap from subculture to mainstream, Dude Perfect’s DIY aesthetic, coupled with their undeniable creativity, has catapulted them to national prominence.

Also worth mentioning is how these superhuman acts are tacitly (in the Hi-Tec clip) or explicitly (by the members of Dude Perfect) conflated with religion, particularly Christianity. American athletes are a religious bunch (it is estimated, for example, that between 35 and 40 percent of pro football players are evangelical Christians), and invoking the lord as a bodily presence on the field of play or in the parlance (“Hail Mary”) of the game are over-familiar endeavors to imbue athletes’ physical successes with patina of the miraculous.

It might be said that in these ads, faith trumps physics, while the stakes—and sales—are raised.


Thanks so much for this interesting post on "fake sports." You've introduced me to a whole world of YouTube videos I knew nothing about!

Your post reminded me of commercials featuring professional athletes completing great feats. I'm thinking of the McDonald's Super Bowl ad from 1993, which has Larry Bird and Michael Jordan challenging each other for a Big Mac (across the scoreboard, over the building, and nothing but net). Or only slightly more realistically, LeBron James sinking full court shot after full court shot in a Powerade commercial.

These aren't extreme sports, by any means, but I'm curious about what happens when sports trick videos become advertisements. Watching the Bird-Jordan or James commercials, I'm fairly certain that few people believe these were unedited, single-take productions. How, if at all, does the conversation change when Dude Perfect's clip becomes a GMC ad? What role does their status as "regular guys" have on how their feat is perceived, either on YouTube or on television? 

I’ve watched these clips on television and (I think) wondering about the very questions you bring up. It seems that these types of ads are becoming remarkably common lately. Like Roopika, I was reminded of the Jordan-Bird McDonald’s commercial and the Lebron James Powerade spot. Also, a couple of years ago, Nike created the viral video of Kobe Bryant jumping over a speeding Aston Martin on a Los Angeles rooftop. I recall that in this instance as well as in Lebron’s Powerade commercial, the sports blogosphere was afire with debates as to whether or not the feats were real (even though jumping over a speeding car would surely be a violation of some part of Kobe's contract). In these debates the question of films/video's epistemological potential took center stage. It also should be noted that these instances are a bit different from the commercials you mention because they deal with sports super stars. Wrapped up in the debates surrounding the veracity of the commercials were assumptions about Lebron and Kobe’s apparent “superhuman-ness”--a trope that seems to mark many commercials that feature sports stars in action. It is fascinating to me to think about the hazy line that separates the ads we would not consider to be real (Jordan and Bird hitting shots that bounce off of several buildings) with those that might be real (Lebron hitting full court shots) and how the assumptions we have about the particular player(s) involved shape those doubts and beliefs. I wonder if the curiosity surrounding visual media has also worked to cast doubt upon certain actual feats and what strategies the people who create these texts employ to assert their veracity--whether in the texts or in the supplementary materials that accompany them in marketing and public relations. As far as Dude Perfect's performance, the aspect of the GMC commercial that seems to produce the greatest “reality effect,” if you will—at least when I watch it—is the eruption of screams, hi-fives, and chest bumps that occur after they sink the shot. It seems to suggest that even though they’ve created a treasure map-looking diagram for how the shot will go down, that they didn’t really expect it to happen and, as you nicely point out, are witnessing something akin to a miracle. And thanks so much for researching this group, which is totally fascinating. As someone who lives in a college town I often witness the antics of groups similar to Dude Perfect (though they tend to involve binge drinking). The group, particularly given their Christian platform, reminds me of a combination of the folks from MTV’s Jackass and the Power Team, the group of muscle-bound and mulleted men in great spandex outfits who would do things like break bricks over their head and then draw connections between these seemingly “miraculous” feats and their Christian beliefs. I also think that Dude Perfect's upper-middle-class college guy aesthetic, within the context of this truck commercial, is significant. I wonder if GMC is attempting to market its larger trucks to this demographic, which, as I understand it, would be a considerable shift in age from most truck commercials. It seems the company is borrowing from some of the adventure-themed conventions that mark so many SUV commercials.

Zinman’s compelling post and the thought-extending replies bring to mind some aspects of Roland Barthes’s essay, “The World of Wrestling.” Barthes’s description of wrestling, which he says “is not a sport, it is a spectacle,” identifies the same sort of tension between reality and illusion, and the relationship between the athlete and the audience portrayed by the video clip of Dude Perfect. The impossible dream, on display for us here as a spectacle and in the other given examples, is a classic American myth. The dream is achieved by an individual supported by a group who displays classic American traits, including bravery, ingenuity, physical prowess and, just like the Puritans, are chosen and backed by God to do what they need to do. In all the instances cited in the post and the replies, men are achieving the impossible dream, and many of them, as in the case of the (fittingly) named Dude Perfect, are white.* Most of the audience, presumably, is male and white, too. Interestingly, in the impossible dream myth there always seems to be an object – sneakers, a ball, a skateboard, an airplane – present, which is under the power of the individual or group. Like a totem, this object has several functions: it gives the whole spectacle a sense of tangibility for the spectator; it is a symbol that connects the wider community to the dream’s achiever (wear Larry Bird’s brand of sneakers and achieve your own impossible dream); and it is an extension of the dreamer’s magic, adding to the spectacle’s illusion and attraction for the spectator. The totem is one place where the impossible dream parts ways with Barthes’s wrestling match. For Barthes, the spectacle of the wrestling match “is above all meant to portray … a purely moral concept: that of justice.” But in these cases, what moral concept is demonstrated by the totem or the achievement of the impossible dream? So you jump over a building with a great pair of sneakers or drop a ball into a basket from a flying plane. What you’re left with are the sneakers, the ball, the personal satisfaction of having done it, and the adulation of the audience: a material object and an ego trip. And the audience already has moved on to the next spectacle. And here we find ourselves with one of America’s most serious problems: a national self-centeredness. There’s no playing out of some moral theme for the common good. When downhill skier Lindsey Vonn won the gold medal in Vancouver, she made it quite clear during an interview that she won the medal for herself, not for her country. Although her trip down the mountain was real, with NBC’s help it nonetheless shimmered with the elements of spectacle – otherwise, how else would the audience’s interest be captured? Backed by a strong support group, Vonn demonstrated breathtaking courage and physical skill to achieve her impossible dream for herself. I think Vonn, white and not male (I don’t know her religious persuasion, if any), is a good example here because it shows that the impossible dream does not have to be just a male thing – but it seems to be predominately white. *In contrast, Olympic gold medalist Cathy Rigby, you may remember, endorsed StayFree maxi pads. She demonstrated that female cleanliness could be maintained despite a woman’s athleticism.

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