“The biggest value we can bring to the AVP is humanizing all of the other volleyball players, making them relatable. It’s changing the perception or introducing new players to our audience.”
— Riley McKibbin
Maddison McKibbin stands on Pier 25 in New York City among a throng of beach volleyball fans, camera in hand. Just beyond him is the stadium court for AVP New York City, a breathtaking venue featuring some of the best volleyball talent in the world.
This, it would seem, is McKibbin’s nirvana: Beach volleyball, adoring fans, camera at the ready to produce yet another viral Beard Brothers video.
And yet there’s something wrong. Typically a beatific individual, McKibbin’s ubiquitous smile, buried under his unruly beard, is gone. The enthusiasm that so readily oozes out of his every pore is absent.
He glances at his camera, shakes his head.
He looks as if he’d just as likely chuck it into the Coca-Cola colored Hudson River as he would shoot another video.
At this time a year ago, Maddison and Riley McKibbin were not shooting videos. Riley was nursing a hand injury. Maddison, devoid of his usual partner, was playing with Ty Loomis, and the two won AVP San Francisco, Maddison’s first victory on the AVP Tour, Loomis’ second and first since 2009.
But you knew that already. You’ve seen their celebration, the one where they rolled around and threw sand and drove half the AVP players either insane or hysterical or a little bit of both. Since that sand-throwing victory, Maddison’s best finish is ninth, same as Riley.
Of course, they’re partners this week in AVP San Francisco, competing in the main draw Friday.
Also since this time last year, those McKibbins have produced 59 videos on YouTube, ranging from tutorials to vlogs to a day in the life of some of the best players in the world to a quirky shoulder warm up featuring the best American female and a pair of nun-chucks. They’re just shy of 20,000 subscribers and recently eclipsed one million views.
So isn’t this exactly what they wanted? An opportunity to play professional beach volleyball while producing a wildly successful YouTube channel that is beginning to lure sponsors and, perhaps more attractive to some, fame and recognition?
It is. Which is why they’re not complaining. Not even for a second. But already they are beginning to feel something a bit unexpected: the specter of athletic compromise, a balancing act, one as players, the other as quirky video-making brothers, that has become impossible to correctly weigh either side.
“There’s a lot of pressure,” Maddison said in New York, “to produce another video that’s better than the last one.”
“I feel that all the time,” Riley added. “I think the biggest pressure is to make a better video. Sometimes we’ll be so busy and we’ll have nothing, and if we miss a Wednesday, it’s like – I don’t know, it’s just really not good.”
Maddison looks at his camera, sighs, the weight of not another video but instead a second consecutive 13th place finish in New York beginning to take its toll. “I just don’t want people to think we don’t take volleyball seriously.”
This is, ironically enough, the side of the McKibbins that you don’t see. Whether you’ve watched one video or all 59 of them, whether you’re one of their nearly 20,000 subscribers — growing at 4,000 per month — or have contributed to their more than one million views, there really isn’t much you could have gleaned about their lives, or the competitors that reside beneath their humorous videos, the ones who practice five days a week and will hang out for an extra 30 minutes after practice is over to work on jump-sets and options and the finer points that might be the difference between a seventh and a ninth or might not matter at all.
The kind of work that elite athletes put in.
“I don’t want to be looked at as a side show, you know?” Maddison said. “We take this seriously. It’s like a balancing act. When we play, we’re dialed in.”
And he’s not talking about the camera.
Two weeks ago, Chaim Schalk was coaching a clinic in Seattle for UpRising Sports, an annual opportunity for Pacific Northwest volleyball players to receive coaching from some of the country’s best beach volleyball players. A few months prior, the camp had been coached by the McKibbins, which made for a common topic of conversation between the kids and Schalk.
“A lot of people were like ‘They’re amazing for the sport, doing all these videos!’ and all this stuff,” Schalk said. “It sucks kind of, because I think people do kind of think of the videos first. And they do have to put a ton of energy into this stuff. It’s a tough balance for them.”
It has made for a strange, competing dichotomy for the McKibbins, a silent, internal war between the viral content creators they have become and the voracious volleyball competitors they’ve always been.
It doesn’t help matters much that the videos are far more visible and shareable than the majority of the brothers’ impressive yet quiet accomplishments. Thus far in 2018, there has been exactly one team to make it through multiple AVP qualifiers: Riley and Maddison McKibbin. Which makes it easy to point to another accomplishment that is astoundingly impressive yet few seem to be aware of: Since 2016, they have only ever been knocked out of one qualifier, in San Francisco two years ago. (Note: In Chicago of 2016, Maddison suffered an eye injury and they had to forfeit, so it has been discounted from the total.)
Every other qualifier?
They haven’t missed a single main draw.
“The biggest pressure was on qualifying, because it’s already full of pressure,” Riley said. “And especially for us. I mean, I feel like we do have a target on our backs. With the YouTube channel, now everyone who watches beach volleyball knows who you are, and they want to be the ones who beat the McKibbin brothers, and it’s like (crap), this is brutal.
“The success of our YouTube channel kind of depends on the success of volleyball, if we don’t qualify, then how can we claim to be the experts if we’re not even qualifying?”
Yet here’s the thing: Nothing anybody has said is technically wrong. The campers in Seattle said the McKibbins are good for the sport — and they are. The work the brothers have done has pulled back the curtain on the human beings in the sport, not just the players. And indeed, as players, the McKibbins have become main-draw mainstays, surviving the most brutal rites of passage again and again and again.
“That,” Maddison said. “gives me a little bit of security. Granted, people can say they can’t finish or can’t close or whatever, but I think that sort of fortitude, and being able to do that on a consistent basis, because you know as well as I do that you can just have an off tournament and you’re screwed.
“I don’t think winning a tournament would validate what we’re doing, because if someone really came at me and said we don’t take this seriously, to be honest, we put in so much time into this sport. So to say we don’t take this seriously — we do a ton that just has to do with beach volleyball because we are committed to it.”
What they’re committed to, more than anything, is the sport of beach volleyball, and the players — including themselves — within it. After the McKibbins did a jump-serving tutorial with Geena Urango in January, a viewer commented that they didn’t know much about Urango before the video. Now they’re a huge fan. Same thing with Casey Patterson, who has allowed the McKibbins a rare all-access opportunity, with Riley and Maddison even sitting in the player’s box with him and Stafford Slick during timeouts.
“People will tell us they used to hate Casey, but now they’re like ‘I didn’t realize he was such a fun, carefree guy,’ ” Riley said. “The biggest value we can bring to the AVP is humanizing all of the other volleyball players, making them relatable. It’s changing the perception or introducing new players to our audience.”
And yet they’re still players themselves. It can be tricky, this balance, one they’re still seeking to find, though at least one firm rule has been set: No cameras during the qualifiers. No cameras until after they’re out of the tournament, lest someone — Troy Field, namely — volunteers.
The focus begins with beach volleyball, and ends with filming.
“We don’t want to be the guys who are more focused on making a cool video and you don’t even qualify,” said Riley, who showed no small amount of relief when it dawned on him that he should be out of the qualifiers the remainder of the year. “Once we’re out of the tournament then we’re able to focus on our second job.”
But what about the in-betweens? The weeks where there are no tournaments, but there’s filming to do, training to get in, weights to lift, rehab to take care of — all in the same 24-hour day everyone else is allotted.
“This is hard to explain because I feel like the success of both sides of it are kind of intertwined. The better we get at volleyball, the better our YouTube channel gets and vice versa,” Riley said. “But at the same time, the more time we spend making these videos takes away from the time we have to train to get there. So it’s kind of like a give and take on both sides. The more effort we put into the videos, the worse at volleyball we get, and we’ve sometimes felt the effects of that, like ‘OK, we need to focus on volley this week but we also need to crank out a couple more videos.’ So it gets stressful.”
And then there are the moments that make the stresses worth it, that make the training, the rehabbing, the soreness, the videos, the endless hours of editing, the self-teaching – there are moments where all of that coalesces into something they could have never planned.
His name is Moses. Moses rocked a Casey Patterson-style suave hawk. And last week, in Dallas, Moses could not stop crying.
“We talked to him for a little while, and then we come back to the table, and he’s bawling, crying,” Riley said. “And we’re like ‘What?’ ”
At first, they wondered what they could have possibly upset the kid. Were they too brash? Not what Moses thought they would be? Somehow mean?
“And then his mom says ‘He’s crying because he met you guys!’ That was the coolest moment for us when it comes to meeting people who watch our videos,” Riley said. “That was awesome.”
So maybe the balance isn’t perfect. Maybe volleyball has been sacrificed some weeks, and the videos in others. Maybe this duality comes with second-guessing and a little less sleep and a lot more time in front of a screen. And maybe the pressure of putting out another video, a better video, a more viral video, is mounting faster than the pressure to crack a quarterfinal or a Sunday.
And maybe that’s all worth it.
“It’s not perfect,” Riley said, “but we’re getting there.