Jon Bois, editor at SB Nation, on making a career of weird sportswriting

Jon Bois discusses the price of lawn chairs for a recent SB Nation video. Photo via Jon Bois

Jon Bois discusses the price of lawn chairs for a recent SB Nation video. Photo via Jon Bois

“You have never read a sportswriter more recently than Jon Bois,” goes SB Nation associate editor Jon Bois’ biograhpical information on his author page. It’s an understated introduction to him, but a fitting one, since Bois is far from your typical sportswriter. Instead of analyzing the trade deadline or making playoff predictions that are proven terribly wrong, Bois stretches sports video games to their breaking point, or writes 40,000-word speculative fiction about Tim Tebow’s travels in the Canadian Football League.

How did Bois go from working retail at Radio Shack and creating fictional AIM transcripts starring professional baseball players in his spare time to getting paid to make even more sports-related weirdness? He let us know, and was also nice enough to give some advice on how one day you could find yourself writing about sports, either in a normal fashion or in a way that turns the subject on its ear.

How did you go from Radio Shack employee to a professional internet agent of chaos?
During my RadioShack days I sort of operated as though I had two jobs, and the second one — writing — did not actually make any money. I’d work 40 hours a week at my day job, and 30 or 40 more at my dumb not-paying job. In 2007, after about five years of writing, I started getting some freelance gigs.

So at that point, I decided to take the leap and subsist entirely on writing money. That was not always the best time in the world, but I stuck with it long enough to get hired on by SB Nation as an editor in 2009. Over the years, I gradually earned more and more room to experiment, and that’s how we all ended up with all this horseshit. It is their fault.

When you decided to make the leap to writing, was it all freelancing? How did you end up at SB Nation? Freelance stories before them asking you to come on full time, or did you just see an editor’s job opening and applied?
I was able to pay the bills with freelancing for about two years (albeit in Louisville, where rent is like $10), thanks in large part to getting a couple regular freelance gigs that would have me contributing something once or twice a week.

I saw a job posting for a weekend editor position at SB Nation. Frankly, I was under-qualified for it, and I had to do a lot of learning in a very short period of time. But I’d heard and read a lot about their intention to build SB Nation into something huge, and it seemed like such an incredible opportunity that I went for it. They decided to give me a shot, and I still feel unbelievably lucky that they did.

Some people’s first exposure to your work was probably fake MLB chatroom The Dugout. How did that start getting traction, in an era before Twitter and Facebook really carried things?
That’s a terrific question. The Dugout got popular 10 years ago, and 10 years may as well be a century on the Internet. If you were making stuff on Old Internet, we relied largely on link-farm sites like Fark to get our stuff out there. Sometimes a big site like Deadspin would link us, which was a very big deal too. There was a lot of word-of-mouth going on, too. Without a single, centralized place like Twitter for people to get together and share stuff, a lot of people just shared stuff with a few friends. We’d earn our readers two or three at a time.

Now I’m so used to New Internet that I don’t know what the Hell I would do if Twitter, Facebook, et al. suddenly disappeared. I’d be completely disoriented. I’d probably saw my laptop in half and see if there was any money in it.

What’s your average day at work like?
I like to get up somewhat early and save the first couple hours of the day for writing at home, then head into our office in Manhattan for the rest of the day. Then, depending on how much work I have to do, I might come back and work a couple hours in the evening.

The change of scenery helps a lot — something as arbitrary as where I sit and whether I’m around other people can change my perspective on something I’m working on. Sometimes I’ll work on something in the morning, go into the office, look at what I was just working on an hour ago, and say, “Oh God, what is this shit?”

What was the reaction when you first pitched Breaking Madden? Were you thinking it would become the big hit it did?
My friend Spencer Hall is also my boss. We share an appreciation for video games, sacrilege, and general lunacy. He lets me do just about whatever I want to do, and he green-lit Breaking Madden instantly.

My first crack at a Breaking Madden-like thing actually dates back to 2005. I set up a scenario, cut a video (I think it was a Priest Holmes touchdown run), set it to a Sigur Ros song … and then I just had no idea of what to do with it. So I just kind of set it aside. Over the years I took a couple more cracks at the “sports video games as dumb machinima” idea, and learned a little at each time. With Breaking Madden, I finally found the formula I wanted.

Have you ever heard from people who worked on the NBA2K or Madden games? Were they complementary? Were they crying and asking you to please stop killing their creations?
I have! I’ve heard from people at both EA Sports and 2K Sports. They’re just amused, really, which is cool.

A lot sports content out there usually involves reacting with a hot take to one event or another. How did you carve out a niche where you can make something like Golf Information or reviewing your old tweets?
So I started up Progressive Boink, my old website, in 2003 with some friends. Basically, our entire objective was to do stuff on the Internet that had never been done before. We were like, “God, look at this, most people on the Internet are just doing the same old stuff. Let’s hurry up and do some new stuff before everyone else gets around to it.” I really felt like there was this short window of opportunity to take advantage of.

That was 12 years ago. Tons of absolutely amazing things are being made on the Internet … but in large part, people are doing the same old shit. This is especially true in the sports corner of the Internet. And I mean, I think “the same old stuff” — op-eds, etc. — can be outstanding if you’re a sharp writer and thinker. I’m in awe, and a little jealous, of some of those writers. But there’s so much in the way of time and energy and resources dumped into the old archetype. Sometimes I’ll see 3,000 words of a writer just kind of meandering through a non-interesting idea, and I’m like, “God, who even wants this shit?”

I don’t really know why so many people are so determined to do the same old shit, but that leaves more room for people like me to do different stuff. I’m happy to pick up those yards.

A guy's head mysteriously disappearing is a pretty typical result in "Breaking Madden"

A guy’s head mysteriously disappearing is a pretty typical result in “Breaking Madden”

You make use of your Twitter followers a lot for your posts, whether it’s Madden rosters or the 19-hour baseball game you simulated. Any advice for people on how to get a lot of followers?
I’m sure there are a million different ways to appeal to someone enough to convince them to follow you. One thing I would say is that Twitter is about a lot more than follower count. It’s a really complicated thing, because it’s about people, who are really complicated.

Here’s an example. One time, President Obama tweeted out a link to a story published elsewhere in our company. Around the same time, I tweeted out a link to something I wrote. I have about 40,000 followers, and the President has 62 million, which is more than one thousand times as many. But they looked at the numbers and were like, “hey, you generated more traffic than the President.” I’m totally bragging, although I don’t know how I can brag about coming out on top via a hopelessly sophisticated process I don’t really understand.

The only point I want to make is that Twitter is weird and nobody knows what the Hell is going on.

What has been the best response you’ve ever gotten to a post? The worst? 
Is it cool if I talk about the funniest? It’s kind of the best and worst all at once.

During football season last year, I tweeted that if you turn the Kansas State logo sideways, it looks like a bird ventriloquist. That’s all I said. I’ve never been the least bit critical of K-State, I’ve never made fun of them, nothing of the sort.

Hours later, some guy who was presumably a K-State fan saw my tweet. And he was just absolutely livid. I can honestly say that nobody in my entire life, whether on Twitter or in real life, has been as furious with me as this guy was. He tweeted at me to “leave [K-State coach] Bill Snyder alone,” even though I did not mention Bill Snyder at all. He saw that I was in Louisville and said, “you were raised in Louisville, Kentucut. Go fuck yourself. You bumpkin fuck.”

This dude had just recently tweeted out a photo of his company badge, which of course provided his full name as well as the company he works for, his office telephone number, et cetera. That’s why I’m not linking to his tweets. But God, that was amazing. I think he really might be the dumbest man in the entire world, and I’m delighted to have met him.

Bois' Golf Information, which allegedly gives you information about golf from Tiger Woods. via SB Nation

Bois’ Golf Information, which allegedly gives you information about golf from Tiger Woods. via SB Nation

Do you have a lot of editorial freedom at SB Nation? Have you ever embarked on a post and had an editor say “No, this is too weird”?
I’m really lucky to have as much editorial freedom as I do. At this point, my editors let me do just about whatever I want to do. A few years ago, I did occasionally get the thumbs-down for an idea I had, and rightly so. But as I’ve continued to pick up experience, I’ve developed a better radar for which ideas are good and which are not.

What’s the best part of your job? And the worst?
The best part is having someone come out of nowhere, completely unsolicited, and tell me how much something I did means to them. There is absolutely no higher honor than that.

There are no bad things about my job.

If someone wants to write about sports on the internet, either in a gonzo or traditional way, what advice would you have for them?
I would recommend that they be prepared to work really hard for a long time, and be willing to go without. Be prepared to put yourself in a position in which you’ve stacked $11 worth of quarters on the windowsill, and you’re sitting there and staring at them and figuring out how it’s gonna get you through the next week. There could be a lot of that.

Make sure you’re standing out in some way. There is an endless supply of writers who are “fine,” which rarely cuts it in such a competitive field. If you want to write more traditional things, just make sure you’re getting razor-sharp. Don’t be boring, ever. And if you’re taking a more unorthodox creative route, let yourself fail a little. Failing sucks, but you have to do it. If you aim high and fall short, it’s almost guaranteed to make you better.

I think learning how to make other media is a very good idea, and maybe an essential one. Learn Photoshop. Learn how to produce videos. Figure out how to make GIFs. I really can’t overstate how much more valuable this will make you, or how much better your stuff will be. Please, please, please, do this.

Online tutorials are incredible resources [to do this]. I learned a ton of it that way. There’s a lot to be said for just going off on your own, screwing around in Photoshop, and seeing what it lets you do. It’s not like you’ll break anything.

One potential downside of being informally-taught/self-taught is that I suspect I sometimes do things the “wrong” way. I bet that if professional designers stood over my shoulder as I worked, they’d laugh at how inefficiently I do things sometimes. There’s still a ton I don’t know.

And finally, I guess, being nice goes a long way. In this business, you will often run into the same people over and over. Be cool to all of them, work hard for/with all of them, and get to know as many people as you can.

Follow Jon for a chance to the be in the next Breaking Madden at @jon_bois. And get more career adivce in your inbox every week, sign up for our email!