what is this
On July 5, 2017, Vox Media's sports-focused site SBNation published an article by Jon Bois entitled "What football will look like in the future – 17776."
The meta description for the article reads, "It's clear that the sport of football needs to change. And the $64,000 question, my friends, is simple: 'how?' Something is terribly wrong. The writing's on the wall: youth participation in the sport is down, thanks in large part to their parents' concern for their health. In recent years, the NFL ... "
The article with the slug "17776-football," however, does not contain an update on the impact of CTE research on the popularity of the gridiron game. Upon clicking the article and attempting to read the first paragraph, the words "Something is terribly wrong" repeat, expand in size, and eventually completely obscure the screen.
This is the portal to a hypertext fiction that racked up over four million page views as an increasingly devoted group of football fans and nerds alike checked for updates to the story over the next ten days.
An internet culture writer by the name of Dr. #Content has written a comparative analysis of 17776 with Jon Bois' earlier works for SBNation, many of which blur the boundaries of sports writing, fiction, and internet art.
Dr. #Content astutely draws out how across works like The Tim Tebow CFL Chronicles and Breaking Madden, Bois consistently delights in the futility of human progress. E.g., in 17776, humanity has achieved immortality, reached its technological apex, and has nothing to do but play increasingly bizarre iterations of the game formerly known as American football.
Across his work, Bois also plays with and questions the complexity of our ultimately inconsequential societal structures surrounding both work and play, and the asymptotic definitions of progress, society, work, and entertainment.
The first embedded video in 17776, "what year is it," establishes the world of the fiction by scrolling through all of the US Presidents until 2057, incrementing the year of NFL Commissioner Roger Goodall welcoming you to the opening of the NFL Draft through 3600, and panning through Google Earth and satellite images, as well as headlines dated from the early 20th century about the "future of football," before revealing the iconic image of the Statue of Liberty submerged in the sea up to her waist, over whose receding figure the space probes Pioneer 9, Pioneer 10, and JUICE (the Jupiter Icy Moons Explorer, scheduled for launch in 2022) are introduced in the style of a 90s sitcom.
It's #goals. It's a touchdown. He sticks the landing. Whichever sports metaphor you want to phrase it with, 17776 sucks you in: it's an enigma, an absurdity, but also a highly accessible diversion.
An instant cult classic
17776 had all of the necessary qualities to become an instant internet cult classic.
One possible explanation is its visually stimulating, unpredictable multimedia elements, with splashes of self-referential Web 2.0 aesthetic, which redefined the genre of hypertext fiction.
Add in the characters: the humans and non-humans are immediately likeable and somehow relatable, despite being 15,000+ year old immortals and nonbinary sentient space probes.
And the central concept's surrealist take on sports, entertainment, and human existence in a time, to quote Bois, "so far away that nobody ever thinks about it," is wildly imaginative in its creation of new forms of sports entertainment, while referencing the threats of global warming and existential stagnation often enough to not be pure frivolity.
The format and tone of the story drew comparisons to Homestuck, a multimedia web comic that ran for 7 years and is infamous for the rabidity of its fandom – another quality that 17776 now shares, after being published for only ten days.
A cosplay of JUICE appeared on Twitter a mere three days into the fiction, and as 17776 was released, Tumblr exploded with theories, art, and fanfiction, as well as despair about the series’s imminent end.
10 months after the series' publication, the rate of fanart production has slowed, but there are still posts at least once a month on Tumblr, Reddit, or AO3 – including an automated JUICE-themed blog that posts the word "fart" once per day (JUICE's love of both Lunchables and rake-based slapstick, and general giving-no-fucks attitude quickly made the Jupter probe a fan favorite).
For a virtual experience with such a short run, its legacy is surprisingly strong. And as it approaches one year since its first publication, public attention to the story is expected to increase again.
For the love of the game
But it's no wonder the story became an immediate object of the internet's affection, as 17776 was explicitly made to be delighted in.
In an email to Poynter, Bois writes, "The goal as conceived was to give the reader a good time... That was literally the whole point."
He expanded on this in a Q&A published nine days after the series' end, in response to a question submitted by a fan about the choice to produce long-form fiction:
In the same Q&A, Jon Bois also cites Calvin & Hobbes as an inspiration, and there is definitely something to be said about playing Calvinball in the 17776 universe.
He also mentions The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, because "it is also about exploration for its own sake. You could get lost in that game forever without even bothering to achieve the main goal. (You might notice that nobody in 17776 ever scores a touchdown.)"
In her Medium article, "Jon Bois Set My Brain On Fire," Emma Phipps explains why the internet hungers for this kind of content and goes crazy for it when we get it. It's created without an ulterior motive. It isn't engineered for clicks and conversions. It's engineered for quirks, and for quality entertainment.
It's impossible to say whether speculation on the state of the world in 15,000 years will be accurate, and the plot points that humans mysteriously become ageless and that space probes gain sentience over this span of time are clearly not meant to be predictive.
It's not just the future of football, it's the future of fiction. It's exactly what you don't expect from SBNation, and that's why it's so fun. It's made for the love of the game.
What is the game, exactly? Maybe a better question is, what isn't?