A recent scroll through my Instagram feed featured no less than 10 separate “sports content” handles re-purposing the same LaMelo Ball put-back dunk highlight against the Pacers with a stupid, less-than-creative caption like “LAMELO PUT BACK: TOUGH.” That was it. The whole post. The entire focal point. It was an Instagram highlight of a hyped-up player who has been proving his worth thus far in the NBA but is in no way as good as a player like, say, Ja Morant, who gets less hype.
Merely 30 minutes after posting it, the video had 2.4 million “likes.”
Most of these Instagram accounts, which range from House of Highlights to Overtime to – at this point SportsCenter itself – are certified highlight reel dump sites that pander towards youth culture and easily boast of upwards of 20 million followers. People consider any video posted today to be a “sports highlight,” no matter what it consists of. From a photo of The Rock in a fanny pack to backyard hoopers doing impersonations of their favorite players to guys flipping playing cards across a room into paper clips, if it’s at all funny, competitive or impressive, it gets featured. Back in the glory days of ESPN’s SportsCenter, you had to wait until the end of the “Top Ten” segment to see a guy in his driveway hitting a 150-foot behind-the-back full-court shot off the top of his neighbor’s garage while wearing a furry costume...
Now, that type of content is available every third post. And here’s what’s wrong with it.
How Instagram Hype Machines are Changing the World of Sports
What Language Are We Speaking?
On the rare sports apps that actually feature feats of true athletic prowess, app users post comments, fan pages promote their own similar handles, and uneducated social media “sports junkies” consistently toss around the same words to describe how they are feeling about a video they just watched for the 150th time. It is especially annoying in the basketball world, where certain “phrases” make constant appearances in the thousands of comments below every image or video:
“NGL (Not gonna lie) – THAT WAS HARD” – Oh, thanks for telling us you’re “not gonna lie.”
“LaMelo Bout to be GOATED bruh.” “GOATed” – a word that will soon be entering the Webster’s Dictionary to describe someone who is about to become the “Greatest Of All Time” at their chosen profession.
And the most overused, annoying, and simple-minded internet bullshit expression of the past three years:
[caption id="attachment_10087" align="aligncenter" width="2560"] LaMelo Ball dribbles through his legs once – “Oh, he DIFFERENT.”
I Know Internet Slang
Instagram users love finding a phrase and immediately turning it into the next “woke” description to explain how a guy can pull off a crafty in-game move. Ten years ago, it was “dope.” Five years ago it was “clean.” Three years ago, it was, “savage.” These words appeared in every hip-hop lyric, NBA player description, and 2K player bio – without most of the folks using this term understanding that words like “Savage” initially surfaced as a derogatory term.
As a person who has hosted a TV show on the history of slang language (America’s Secret Slang – History Channel 2011-2014) I have full-blown knowledge of how etymology and word meanings can change over time, so if you use words from the past in a new context today, I am not upset with that... What I am upset with is how the Armchair General Managers of today’s sports world buy into these apps and Twitter memes and re-use the same content and descriptions for EVERY SINGLE HYPE VIDEO, whether on Instagram or one of these sports content apps.
“He Different” is the “Savage” of today’s modern online sports hive culture. Sure, you can add a few words to make it seem like your knowledge of the player is a little DEEPER than say, the guy who only follows 12 of these highlight apps on his phone, but the results are still the same...
Zion Williamson dunks on someone? HE JUST DIFFERENT.
Steph Curry drops a defender and hits a 40-foot three-pointer? STEPH CRAZY DIFFERENT.
High school phenom Mikey Williams goes through the legs in-game for a dunk? Oh, MIKEY JUST BUILT DIFFERENT.
Look. Not everybody is DIFFERENT. Some guys might be athletic, others very good, but they’re not “different.” The only NBA players who are “built different” are Bol Bol, Boban Marjanović, and Tacko Fall. Being able to windmill dunk at age 15 is impressive, sure, but it doesn’t mean you’re gonna be punching your ticket to the Naismith Memorial Hall of Fame. It’s just a clever way of content factories marketing EVERYTHING.
This is why kids love it. Information is available at your fingertips every second of every day. And the sports news cycle moves so fast I bet you can’t even tell me who the Miami Heat beat in the Bubble Playoffs last year to face the Lakers. (Spoiler alert, they beat the Celtics – I had to look it up.) When I was a kid, I had to call a phone hotline after 10:30 at night for sports scores. And I would fight to stay up late to watch SportsCenter like it was my religion. Nowadays, my 14-year-old son couldn’t tell me what channel SportsCenter is even on.
[caption id="attachment_10088" align="aligncenter" width="1242"]
This guy is actually built different.[/caption]
The Rise of Overtime Sports
Perhaps the most successful and famous of these social media titans (Besides Bleacher Report – which has the Turner Networks behind it) is Overtime Sports – the most ubiquitous sports content app going today. With initial investors like Kevin Durant and David Stern, they first shot to the top of the content game when they featured an absurd 17-year-old Zion Williamson swatting some poor kid out of a high school gym. A mention in Sports Illustrated blew them up, and today they are responsible for numerous massively successful basketball reality shows that follow young hoopers dreaming of the NBA.
They have single-handedly destroyed modern sports TV programming with shows like the Julian Newman series (an over-hyped smaller-than-average point guard and his family), the Mikey Williams show (who everyone predicts to be the next huge NBA star), and others, including players like Jalen Green, RJ Hampton, and a sharp-shooting kid named Gabe Cupps who is only famous because he once challenged LeBron to a three-point shooting contest during an AAU warm-up when he was playing on the same team as Bronny James. (More about the James family in a minute.)
[caption id="attachment_10089" align="aligncenter" width="812"]
This kid is apparently the “future of basketball.” Can we let him go through puberty first?[/caption]
Upending Sports Content For the Next Generation
Overtime has single-handedly upended sports content for the next generation. After a highlight in a high school game, kids “throw up an O” trying to make the app highlight reel. Phrases like “Pop a Chocky” wind up in Overtime’s captions so as they can seem “down” to their subscribers. (This is a term for drinking chocolate milk BTW.) And their in-house on-camera host “Overtime Larry” is a marble-mouthed personality with access to all the young players. (Making him a Chris Berman of social media – but without any semblance of a journalism degree.) Because of this app, kids care more about unproven high school players than they do about legitimate 5-star recruits who are past their prep years and wallowing in G-League misery.
For my money, the rise of Overtime is one of the most BRILLIANT entertainment stories of the past decade. I guarantee you that in 20 years, they will talk about Overtime Sports changing the sports content game the way they talked about ESPN doing it in the ‘80s. The difference is, when ESPN started, they had the elite sportscasters, the coolest graphics, and the ONLY outlet on TV dedicated to 24/7 sports. An all-sports network coming out back then required hundreds of millions of dollars in investment, talent securing, sets, and high-tech film equipment. Now, if you want to post sports content, all you have to do is set up an Instagram account, hire an editor and casually find the next “Zion blocking a guy out of bounds” video from some small-town high school basketball court to hype up.
Too Much Too Soon
Most of the high school hype machines that apps like Overtime are classifying as “different” will all end up in the G League or overseas. This is another problem for what this attention does to players’ expectations. The pressure is on from younger ages than ever for players to succeed and become stars. Obviously, this is not a new trend, as Sports Illustrated has been putting high school phenoms on their covers long before the internet was even a blip on Bill Gates’ computer screen.
However, how many of these kids actually went on to achieve professional sports glory? Not many. Case in point: Have you ever heard of Texas pitching phenom Jon Peters? Kansas high school hooper Mike Peterson? Where is pitcher Hunter Greene? Even Jabari Parker, who SI dubbed the “best player out of high school since LeBron,” has been wallowing in NBA mediocrity for most of his career. The last high school player SI put on the cover was 15-year-old Emoni Bates, who is projected to be the number one pick in the 2022 NBA draft, but, the sad fact is, 99 percent of these kids with their own reality shows, tons of hype videos, and 15 million Instagram followers won’t end up playing at the highest level.
One such high school stud is Mikey Williams. He is a fun basketball player who always puts up big numbers when squaring off against the best young players in the nation.
Like most of these preps, he’s in his third high school in as many years. He jumps out of the building, wears trendy short gym shorts, and actually poses for videos and photos while sitting on a THRONE. (This coupled with his signature scowl makes this kid somewhat hateable, but so far his game backs it up). Now nobody knows if Mikey is going to be anywhere close to a professional basketball player. But for now, he is technically, what today’s “professional basketball players” look like. He’s got the reality TV show, the press coverage, NBA friends, and high-level athletic apparel sponsorships. He echoes the hype that swirls around the other most famous high school hooper who has become the most over-covered NBA rookie on every single Instagram app... the aforementioned LAMELO BALL.
Ball in the Family
Say what you want about the Ball family, but LaVar changed the entire structure of pro basketball. LaMelo was driving a Lambo and wearing $40,000 chains at age 16. His brother Lonzo had a rap single about LaMelo that was actually kinda nice. LaMelo played professionally overseas, bypassed college, pissed everybody off, and is now a very good rookie in the NBA. Of course, by the amount of coverage that these apps give him, you’d think he was a first-ballot HOF point guard, but the bottom line is, Ball content is KING and has been for a while.
The Ball in the Family TV show was the basis for the empire that Overtime has built. Through social media and trash talk, the Ball family has also managed to prove that the college basketball system is teetering on collapse. Sure, it may work for players like Ja Morant who work for four years to become mature stars by age 22, but for flashy social media stars like Melo, college is considered a huge waste of time. NCAA officials are going to need to figure out how to pay their players or the entire college game is going to disappear altogether.
If you aren’t following any of these apps, start with Overtime, House of Highlights, NBAMemes, and Whistle Sports. Any more than that, and you’ll just see the same thing over and over. ESPN and SI have adjusted their entire approach to try and evolve with these applications, so chances are you already follow them. Prepare for way too many LaMelo highlights, memes, and videos of LeBron James and his entire family working out, eating Taco Tuesday, and dancing to TikTok videos. Eventually, you will see an Instagram hype video of a 9-year-old kid dropping a #Jellyfam layup on some poor 3rd grader during a YMCA game. Of course, you will eventually get sick of all this hype-based content. But in the end, you may actually end up adding your own comment to the hundreds of captions that exist below the Instagram hype video of the 9-year-old future NBA superstar...
Just don’t write, “HE DIFFERENT...”