November 4, 2021
Culture, Journalism, Sports, Uncategorized
Chris Russell can’t explain why he spends so many hours staring at a monitor, making soccer analysis videos without getting paid for it. It’s probably just to “keep getting likes,” he says.
The popularity of Russell’s videos is a sign of a growing soccer fandom in the United States. For decades, people have been asking when the world’s most-watched sport will catch on in the U.S. But if you haven’t been paying attention, it’s on track to surpass baseball as America’s third most popular sport. And there’s an active online community of superfans like Russell—aka @watke_ on Twitter and TikTok—who are not only obsessed with the U.S. Men’s National Team, but who follow it down to the smallest details.
Russell, a Brooklyn-based freelance media producer, gained nearly 20,000 followers and over 2 million views of his videos on Twitter since early summer. Though he’s not a professional commentator, he is an enthusiast who’s managed to bypass the traditional sports media pipeline and turn his love of the sport into a following of people who eagerly anticipate his videos.
Never before has the U.S. Men’s National Team had such elite athletes, many of whom play as professionals in the top-level European leagues. The team is currently on a quest to qualify for the 2022 World Cup after flaming out in ignominy and failing to make the last World Cup in 2018, missing out for the first time since 1986. Despite that setback, with the explosion of podcasts and social media over the past few years, there are new playgrounds for fans to immerse themselves in the minutiae of their favorite team.
A standard fan commentator’s video breakdown will dissect positioning, passes, and movement off the ball (here’s one). While Russell’s videos share the same format, he’s preoccupied with offbeat moments. His commentary ranges from pointing out a coach’s awkward half-hugs to acknowledging a mom’s expert technique in tackling her toddler who ran onto the field mid-game. Russell’s videos are a relief from the sometimes over-serious punditry that proliferates online. But the self-deprecating Russell would never put it that way.
“I’m actually not that observant,” he says, though he’s clearly a fan of traditional detailed sports analysis and pays homage to the form. When his satire surprises and delights, it cuts through the noise to remind enthusiasts that despite the money and hype, soccer is a game—played often by kids—and meant to be enjoyed.
When Russell recently highlighted a perfect “face slide” and a 360 spin by USMNT player Miles Robinson—things another analyst might skip because neither led to a goal or a defensive save, he offered fans nothing tactical. He understands something about sports fans: sometimes they want to watch a face plant or a slow-motion spin just for the fun of it.
His videos remind viewers of the athletes’ humanity in spite of their celebrity. In a video titled “Angriest USMNT player,” Russell analyzes Gio Reyna, a gifted young star at 18 years old, and his “weird inner fire.” He’s not mocking Reyna but rather observing. The video shows veteran player Tim Ream mentoring the young Gio. Russell reveals a subtle moment when Ream quiets the others in the huddle to let the younger man speak before an important overtime.
“It’s actually kind of moving,” Russell says in his trademark deadpan tone. Ah, yes. For all the videos critiquing 18-year-olds for missed passes or stupid penalties, here’s @watke_ reminding fans that sometimes these are simply young people, growing up in front of us.
Though Russell grew up playing soccer, when asked if he has any soccer heritage in his family, he laughs. “No, I’m an American.” He’d long followed the USMNT casually, but his fandom took off a few years ago when he discovered the informal online community he calls “USMNT Twitter.” He became a “comp maker,” which is when fans rewatch games and compile player highlights into video clips.
The games stopped during the pandemic. So Russell would rewatch old matches. “I can’t watch a game without clipping stuff. If there’s a pattern of enough little things happening, then I do a video,” he says.
A media producer and copywriter by trade, Russell originally thought he would write about soccer. He found that on Twitter, it’s hard to get readers to click on a link, but that people love watching videos. So he began turning some of his written commentaries into video voiceovers.
“Soccer is really interesting, but because it is so interesting, any analysis or coverage of it is far less interesting,” he says. “So I try to create something to address that problem. Even then, you can never come anywhere close.”
Followers may know Russell best for his focus on “shithousing.” In his words, it means “when players do non-soccer stuff to mess with the other team.” Russell, in an example of his manners, wanted to make sure I knew it was common parlance and not a phrase he coined. “I’m not that crass. I want you to know that. It’s an existing term,” he says.
Time wasting, falling on the ground, removing shoes, and talking endlessly to the ref are just some of the absurdities Russell has cataloged in the spirit of good shithousing fun. His first video, since deleted over his fear of getting kicked off Twitter for copyright violations, was called “Shithousing 101.” He recalls that first post, “I think I got kind of lucky. The first one went really well. Otherwise, I don’t think I would have done it again. I would have been too scared.”
Adam Belz, a journalist and host of the weekly podcast “The Scuffed Soccer Podcast,” said that since the USMNT’s failure to qualify for the World Cup, there’s been a change in the perspective of some of the superfans. “There’s a little more of a sense of humor to it now. Watke’s a prime example of it,” Belz says “You know he cares about the national team, but it’s all kind of tongue in cheek.”
The next year is an important one in the USMNT world. Since the disappointment of 2018, fans have been anticipating this moment. On August 31, the team played their first qualifying match, with a total of 14 qualifying games to be played between now and March 2022 for the opportunity to play in the World Cup in November of 2022 in Qatar.
Russell, whose freelance job allows him to work part-time when necessary, says of his soccer hobby, “I am planning to go full energy toward it all the way through the World Cup and see what happens.” Since there are copyright restrictions on World Cup video, that may present an obstacle. But he’s trying to evolve. He’s been a guest on “The Scuffed Soccer Podcast” and will join them weekly over the next month to answer questions about USMNT themes.
“There’s coverage of American soccer, but not a whole lot of it is really detailed for the people who watch a lot of American soccer,” says Russell. “A lot online is directed to a broader international audience. So I think people appreciate it.”
As the superfan community continues to evolve as well, the popularity of Russell’s videos proves there’s a space for gentle mockery of their shared passion. But Russell probably doesn’t think about the lofty insight he’s offering with his humor. After all, he’s just doing it for the likes.