Seeing people watching a game. With 100,000 friends.

With the lights set and the cameras rolling, the production team gives Joe Smith his signal. In five seconds, he’ll be broadcasting live to a few thousand people. Mr. Smith’s mind, however, is elsewhere. “Slate is definitely the best way to build a roof,” he mutters to his co-host, Jay Mottershead, as the countdown reaches three. “All these years, they haven’t made it.”

And with that, they are in the air. They will remain that way for the next four hours, essentially uninterrupted: a test for the duration of the broadcast, staged in an underground studio, all brick and industrial lighting, in the middle of Manchester’s hip Northern Quarter.

Before they’re done, they’ll have touched on topics as diverse as: the somewhat alarming frequency with which Mr Mottershead has nightmares; the declining popularity of lemon curd; and the story of a man who goes to Mr Smith’s gym solely to read old copies of Cars magazine.

Every now and then their casual, somewhat anarchic conversation is interrupted by what should be the purpose of the evening’s activity: keeping up with the match between the football team they are fans of, Manchester United, and the Danish champions, FC Copenhagen.

After all, that’s what will draw over 100,000 people to their livestream over the course of those four hours. However, it is the distractions and the side roads and the train of thought about roofing that will keep them there.

The concept of watching two people watch a soccer game may sound like a distinctly postmodern form of entertainment, a close cousin to the gaming streams proliferating on Twitch and the unboxing videos that for some reason captivate kids on YouTube.

In football, however, the form has deep roots. After all, the idea of ​​making most games available on television is relatively recent. In Britain, home of the Premier League, many matches are still being ruled out in the interests of protecting stadium attendances.

Unable to show these matches, broadcasters have had little choice for years but to find creative ways to keep viewers up to date with what’s happening in them. Most have opted for the format pioneered by Sky’s “Soccer Saturday” — launched in the 1990s — in which a series of former players sit in a studio and watch feeds of the games that only they can see, keeping viewers up to date on key moments. live(Think of the NFL’s popular Red Zone channel, but without actually seeing anyone play American football.)

The form of the show that Mr Mottershead and Mr Smith present Stretford Meadowthe Manchester United fan channel they co-own – or its counterparts on outlets such as The Redmen TV (Liverpool) and We are Tottenham TV (self-explanatory) – is essentially the same. However, the function is different.

Most of their viewers, Mr Mottershead said, also watch the games, legally or illegally. “They turn down the commentary and listen to us instead,” he said. They do this because they want a much more specific product: the Stretford Paddock audience, for example, only wants updates on Manchester United, not news about someone else playing at the same time.

And, crucially, they want those updates to come not from the compromised and biased mouthpieces of the mainstream media — what they see as pensioners protecting their friends and business interests, or commentators with vague but clear biases against their club — but from die-hard fans like themselves. “We can disagree on things,” Mr Mottershead said. “But we all want United to do well.”

Yet after more than six years of mentoring viewers alongside Mr. Smith, Mottershead has come to the conclusion that fans aren’t just drawn to having their obsessions satisfied and their prejudices confirmed.

What his viewers are looking for, he thinks, is simple. They want someone to watch the game with them.

The part of the football industry that is made for and by fans is by definition tribal. Each club essentially exists in its own silo. The biggest names in Manchester United’s content universe will be largely foreign to those who follow Liverpool, just as celebrated Arsenal podcasters will have little to no resonance with Tottenham supporters.

The crowning glory is Mark Goldbridge, the 44-year-old livestream queen of football and the genre’s one and only crossover star. It’s not just that his fan channel, The United Standcurrently has 1.77 million YouTube subscribers. It’s a fact that almost every time Manchester United loses (or draws, or concedes a goal), he can probably reach millions more.

Footage from Mr. Goldbridge’s streams goes reliably viral: rants that alternately splenic, wild NSFW., and vaguely surreal. He’ll cry that Manchester United’s defence has “all the resilience of a papadum catching a bowling ball”, or that the club has accidentally employed “a team of slow giraffes”.

What exactly it is about Mr. Goldbridge that has made him so prominent is difficult to determine, and he offered no clues: he declined through his representative to be interviewed for this article, on the grounds that he is currently exploring opportunities outside “the viewing space.”

In interviews, Mr. Goldbridge has admitted that there is an element of cringe comedy, along the lines of David Brent or Alan Partridgeto his delivery. Peter McPartland, a host on Toffee TV, a channel dedicated to Everton, agreed. “He has an awkwardness that makes him funny,” he said.

Whatever it is, it is undeniably effective. “He’s built an empire,” said Paul Machin, a founder of The Redmen TV, the Liverpool fan channel. The problem is not so much his success, other presenters said, but the copycats he has inspired.

“People see his videos go viral,” Machin said, “so now there are a lot of Manchester United viewing nights where people you’ve never seen before are kind of express their anger.”

The economics of the Internet theoretically encourage virality. In an industry where there is a direct correlation between clicks and revenue, going viral is seen as the biggest prize the ultimate goal of all online content.

Those who make their living from fan channels, however, see that kind of attention less as a goal and more as a danger. “We don’t want that virality,” said Ben Daniel, who founded We Are Tottenham TV with his brother Simon in 2017.

Clips that break tribal lines usually do so by attracting a significant share of “hate watches,” he said — opinions from fans of other clubs who enjoy another team’s suffering. But those aren’t people who hit the like button or subscribe. Virality, it turns out, brings the wrong kind of fame.

On the face of it, the rewards for watchdog fame are slim. YouTube’s algorithm is biased towards shorter videos, not hour-long broadcasts. The platform’s chats, which allow viewers to attach payments to their comments or questions, generate only a few hundred dollars in revenue.

The benefits are largely second-order. They’re worth doing, Mr. Smith said, because they can boost subscriptions. Most of the time, though, they do this because “it would be weird not to: the game is the culmination of everything we talk about.”

He and Mr. Mottershead are old hands by the standards of the genre: Stretford Paddock has been participating in watchalongs for almost ten years. Most of the newer versions have their roots in the pandemic, when social distancing rules kept fans from attending games in person.

Before that, fan channels focused on offering supporters who couldn’t or couldn’t attend matches a digital version of the experience: a taste of it from outside the stadium and from within the crowd, before, during and after the matches.

With the empty stands that was not possible. The only thing left was to provide a running commentary on the matches that they, like any other fan, watched on television.

When fans returned to the stands, however, broadcasters found there was still a significant audience hungry for that kind of in-game coverage. “It was so popular that we couldn’t let it go,” Mr. Machin said of The Redmen TV experience.

The makers of the Premier League watchalongs said they all appeal to roughly the same audience, distinguished only by tribal loyalties: fans aged between 16 and 35, though a sizable proportion are slightly older. A slim majority live in Britain, but there are healthy constituencies in Ireland, the United States and Australia, as well as whatever country a given team’s stars call home. Tottenham, for example, has a sizeable following in South Korea thanks to the club’s beloved captain, Son Heung-min.

They all watch, too, for much the same reason. “People want to feel that connection to their clubs,” Mr. Machin said, no matter where they live.

Watchalongs create a different kind of bond: a form of what psychologists call a parasocial relationship. Viewers want their prejudices to be reinforced. They want to know how other like-minded fans react to the games. But they also want the digressions, the asides about roofing and nightmares and cultural appropriation when it comes to hairstyles.

After all, they are watching from home, all over the world, each locked in their own little silo. What they want, more than sharp insight, expert analysis or even a cheap laugh, is a connection with people who are doing exactly the same thing.

Mr. Mottershead and Mr. Smith try not to give them detailed commentary. They try to recreate the feeling, Mr. Mottershead said, of “watching the game with your mates.”

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