Turning Sports Statistics Into Riveting Cinema

Toward the end of “The History of the Atlanta Falcons” (2021), a seven-part, nearly seven-hour documentary, the writer-director Jon Bois describes a surprise 82-yard interception return by the Falcons cornerback Robert Alford, executed with just minutes left in the first half of Super Bowl LI, in 2017, as “one of the very most impactful individual plays in all of N.F.L. history.”

Almost any other filmmaker would have been content to leave it at that. But Bois shows his work. On the sports statistics website pro-football-reference.com, Bois explains, there is a metric called expected points that “estimates how many points an offense should be expected to score on a drive before a particular play and after that play.” Subtract one from the other, and you determine the play’s overall impact. Alford’s interception return resulted in negative seven points for the New England Patriots on a drive that should have earned them three, for a differential of 10.7. Bois pulls up a chart graphing the differential “of all 8,982 individual plays in Super Bowl history.” The Alford touchdown, we can plainly see, ranks as the third biggest of all-time.

This was not an exaggeration for rhetorical effect. When Bois says that a play is “one of the very most impactful,” he means it.

Bois is the poet laureate of sports statistics. His documentaries, including the acclaimed “The History of the Seattle Mariners” (2020) and the recent Charlotte Bobcats-themed “The People You’re Paying to Be in Shorts” (both streaming on his YouTube channel, Secret Base) are packed with charts, graphs and diagrams scrupulously plotting wins, losses, points, home runs and field goals with a rigor that borders on scientific.

“I was one of the weird kids who actually liked high school algebra,” Bois said recently in a video interview. “And as I grew up, I just loved the statistical side of sports. The ability to condense sports into a bar graph or a pie chart or a scatter plot — in a way, you can watch a thousand games in 10 seconds. It’s like a little time warp.”

A longtime sportswriter and editor with SB Nation, the respected sports-industry blog owned by Vox Media, Bois, 40, has emerged as a singular voice in documentary film — in part, he explained, because of the style he “stumbled into” as a result of his “limited technical abilities.” A self-taught video editor without a background in motion graphics, Bois, unusually, makes most of his video work within the satellite imaging app Google Earth, importing images directly onto Google’s 3-D environments and using the satellite maps as a kind of virtual sandbox. It looks a little like a PowerPoint presentation ported into a street-view map, with huge blocks of text floating above pixelated renderings of roads and baseball stadiums.

The style is unmistakable. The camera seems to float in the air above graphs and charts, and, as Bois or one of his collaborators narrates, we’re treated to old photographs, quotes from newspaper clippings and the occasional grainy clip of archival game footage. And all of it is scored to mellow, synth-laden yacht rock and smooth jazz. It’s as if Ken Burns had adapted “Moneyball” with a soundtrack by Steely Dan.

“In an era of impersonal and interchangeable internet content, Bois has a signature all his own,” said Jordan Cronk, a film critic and founder of the Acropolis Cinema, a screening series in Los Angeles. “Unlike other journalists who have tried their hand at filmmaking, Bois found a cutting-edge form for pop-encyclopedic explorations of sports history, combining a YouTuber’s flair for storytelling with a tradition of hyper-analytic essay cinema.”

Bois acknowledged that “for better or worse, it doesn’t look or sound like anything else out there.” And to him, it’s most important “not to be better than anybody, but to be different from everybody.”

No less unique are the kinds of stories Bois and his regular co-writer and producer Alex Rubenstein choose to tell. The teams, players and seasons they focus on are not typically well-known, lacking the obvious drama of underdog success or rags-to-riches glory. The Mariners, Falcons and Bobcats are not perennial favorites or inspirational fodder. Their lore is esoteric and offbeat.

“We realized no one in a thousand years would do a movie on the history of the Mariners or the history of the Falcons,” Bois said. “Those stories would not get tackled like they deserve to.”

Bois’s level of exacting detail can be overwhelming and, in the course of generous running times, occasionally exhausting. But his work isn’t for stats nerds who want to geek out on numbers. In fact, his approach has the opposite effect: The films’ depth makes them more accessible. You don’t have to know anything about the Mariners to enjoy his nearly four-hour documentary about them. You don’t even have to know anything about baseball.

“He manages to use statistics not as background support for dramatic entertainment but the most foregrounded and visually stimulating element in his narratives,” said Jake Cole, a film critic with Slant Magazine.

As Bois put it, he and Rubenstein are “making sports documentaries for people who don’t watch sports.”

“I find it not only a great honor but also a hell of a lot of fun to be able to bring this cool, weird, often stupid world of sports to somebody who otherwise didn’t get the invite,” Bois said.

Essential to that experience is getting swept up in the vicarious thrill of an unfamiliar team and its mundane drama. Bois and Rubenstein manage to compress decades of often tumultuous history into a few hours of densely packed nonfiction, describing the dramatic account of an obscure team’s rise and fall (or fall and further fall) on a momentous scale. After watching one of their films, you inevitably feel an intimate connection with the subject: You know every heartbreaking Bobcats loss and every hard-won Mariners victory. It’s a gratifying entrée into a world ordinarily reserved for homegrown fans.

Bois doesn’t necessarily come to these stories as a fan himself. His latest, “The People You’re Paying to Be in Shorts,” is about the 2011-12 Charlotte Bobcats, a short-lived team that was somewhat infamous among basketball fans for its record-breaking awfulness and that broke N.B.A. records for losing streaks before reclaiming its previous name, the Hornets, in 2014. (The team had been the Charlotte Hornets from 1988 to 2002.)

But Bois was quick to admit that he is no expert on the N.B.A. To pull off this comprehensive look at a truly lousy season, he brought on the producer Seth Rosenthal, who specializes in basketball, and spent countless hours poring over old copies of the Charlotte Observer, reading “every single thing they wrote about the Bobcats” during that period. “I realized that I didn’t have to be an expert in basketball,” Bois said. “But I can randomly be the world’s foremost expert in this one season of one team,” he added, using an expletive for the abysmal Bobcats.

The result is a documentary that makes you root for this wonderful assortment of oddballs despite recognizing how amazingly terrible they are. He gets into the nitty-gritty of contract negotiations, career field goal percentages and N.B.A. draft lottery odds in a way that makes the numbers utterly riveting, and he finds the cosmic beauty in the contrast between the worst team in league history and their principal owner, Michael Jordan, the greatest player of all time. It’s not just that you wind up knowing more about an obscure team. You wind up moved by them.

“I operate by the general theory that there is always a story,” Bois said. “I could throw a dart at any season of any team — the 2005 Timberwolves, the 1987 Astros, whoever, and I could find something. There’s always something there no matter what.”

He paused a moment. “Although,” he reconsidered, “the weirder and more awful the team is, the better.”

Source link