Going viral: How trick-shot artists went from college kids to YouTube sensations

Say, friend, looking to make a change in your life? Hoping to get fabulously wealthy and become rich enough to buy a yacht right out of college? Want to travel the world? Go viral and become Internet-famous?

It can happen.

Frisbee trick-shot artist extraordinaire Brodie Smith's disc videos have amassed more than 35 million views on YouTube. The dudes from Dude Perfect have tallied more than 110 million views of their basketball trick shots!

How'd they do it?

1. Fight Back Against Boredom

The greatest ideas tend to come when we're doing, or dodging, something else.

In 2011, Brodie Smith was a recent grad of the University of Florida whose only claim to "fame" was having attended the same high school as Tim Tebow. Smith was teaching ninth-grade algebra in Gainesville, Fla., during the day and throwing the Frisbee on the weekends. A veteran of Florida's national championship Ultimate Frisbee club, Smith still slung the disc as a hobby. But one day, looking at Ultimate Frisbee instructional videos on the Internet, he realized something:

"These videos didn't portray what the sport was to me," he explained to Yahoo! Sports. "They were showing incorrect form. They weren't a whole lot of fun. So I decided I'd film a few videos of my own."

The Dude Perfect guys weren't quite as altruistic, though perhaps almost as bored. Coby Cotton and his friends, all students at Texas A&M, were hanging one afternoon in 2009 trying to think of anything to avoid studying for finals.

"We were doing what you do in college, avoiding work," Cotton says, laughing. "We decided to try to throw this hook shot over a tree and into a basket."

Somebody went and grabbed a video camera.

2. Grab A Video Camera

Dude Perfect's first video is a garage band's first song, all noise and giddy enthusiasm. Here, check it out:

They're doing the exact same stupid things we all did with basketballs, only they're actually making their shots. (More on how hard that is later.) And for that reason, the video exploded. Hours after hitting the web, the Dude Perfect guys – their name comes from the gleeful shouts they'd make when they canned a shot – found themselves fielding a call from Good Morning America. In two days, they'd gone from college kids avoiding studying to nationally-famous tricksters.

Only in America!

Smith's route to Internet fame wasn't quite as sudden, but he too began carving out his own path, starting with his debut performance. He wandered the University of Florida campus, where no garbage can is safe from a sudden aerial assault:

How exactly does a video go viral?

There are plenty of would-be video consultants who will happily charge plenty to tell you what you probably already know: It's a combination of luck, skill, timing and the right web sites promoting you. In their earliest work, Dude Perfect and Brodie Smith hit that sweet spot from fifty yards away, and they stuck with a formula that worked:

a. Recognizable location or prop.
b. No camera trickery. We'll know.
c. A group of friends to cheer like loons when you hit
d. That perfect deadpan "Yeah, I did that" expression.

Oh, and …

e. Make the shot. It all kind of falls apart if you don't do that.

All right, you're all set. What's your first idea? And your next? And your next after that … ?

3. Keep pushing the envelope

See, throwing a ball in a basket or a Frisbee in a trash can is great for a few views (or a few million, if you're lucky), but how exactly does one move that ball forward? Seen one wild shot, you've seen 'em all, right?

Not exactly. Not if you take your game to a bigger stage, which is exactly what both Smith and the Dude Perfect guys did. For Cotton, the tipping point came when Texas A&M allowed them to film in Kyle Stadium for "the world's longest basketball shot." They did, and this was the result:

That video got picked up by a little outfit by the name of Yahoo! Sports, and within hours the Dude Perfect guys had established themselves as the most famous dudes ever to sling basketballs from the upper decks of SEC stadiums. Hey, everyone needs a niche.

One of Smith's marquee moments came with this impressive speedboat toss; there are so many ways this could have gone wrong, and so few for it to go right:

In recent months, Smith's taken his game worldwide. The flying disc trick shot translates across all languages, and so Smith has traveled to China, Dubai and India. In this Yahoo! Sports exclusive, Smith gives us all a preview of what he'll be bringing us next:

But hey, maybe traveling the world isn't in your budget. So if you can't beat 'em, join 'em. Hey, it's worked before:


Yes, you're thinking, all this notoriety and travel and trickery is wonderful, but what about the real question: How exactly do you make money with trick shots, anyway?

Well, for starters, you're tapping into one of the broadest audiences on the Internet. ComScore estimates that in January 2013, 83.5 percent of the U.S. Internet audience viewed video online. Ads accounted for just over 20 percent of all videos viewed, and about 2 percent of all minutes viewed.

It's those ads that are the key to making money online. YouTube offers display ads on both its videos and its pages, and it pays its partners per view, a sliding scale that runs in the ballpark of $3 for 1,000 views for well-known contributors. You can do the math; that's not a bad little chunk of change for YouTube's million-hit club. (Of note: As popular as Dude Perfect and Brodie Smith are, Dude Perfect's 110 million lifetime video views wouldn't even crack the top 5 for January.)

Still, YouTube is a fickle mistress; you're only one better-than-yours video from being yesterday's views. So you've got to diversify. Smith is a one-man industry, selling Brodie 21 clothing and gear, and offering clinics and workshops to groups both large and small. He charges anywhere from $250 to $1,000 for a clinic, depending on the size of the organization, and brings in more than half of his revenue from non-YouTube sources.

The Dude Perfect guys have also gone multimedia; their empire includes a mobile-phone game, assorted clothing and "Go Big" – their very own book. Plus, they're not above taking a few bucks for a corporate viral video, like the following toss from a Goodyear Blimp:

Granted, setting up (and re-setting) trick shots can be a time-consuming endeavor, so it's nice to have a steady stream of income. Smith estimates that his indoor shots take between one to five tries; outdoors with wind, he'll take 10 to 15 shots to get the perfect video. Cotton says his success rate is about the same, but notes that Tyler Toney, the team's trick-shot artiste, is getting much better at nailing shots the first time out.

So there you have it. Easy enough, right? You're grabbing for your video camera right now, aren't you? (We are.) Shoot, this time next week you could be right here in this space and we'd be talking about you. That's the beauty of all this: you can't really expect or predict it.

"I never chased money or fame," Smith says. "I chased my passion. If you're truly passionate about something, you'll find a way to make it work for you."

As Cotton is talking about the Goodyear Blimp shoot – you can only make a couple attempts, and then the blimp has to turn around and go for another pass – he offers up a line that neatly sums up the entire trick-shot ethos:

"You can't really practice for this," Cotton says. "You've got a narrow window to get it done."

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