For a half hour, I watch as a sweaty man in the stairwell of his basement throws orange ping-pong balls at the bottom of a pot.
He’s been throwing literal buckets of them like this for God knows how long, attempting to bounce the ball up the stairs, across the surface of a measuring tape, down a series of kitchen pans and finally into a red cup filled with water. He’s getting close — the plink-plunk-clang of the ball hitting the pans is increasingly consistent. Several thousand of us are watching now, and you can feel the momentum grow in the comments.
“He’s starting to believe,” someone cracks in the comments of the TikTok livestream, quoting a line from The Matrix.
There is something oddly soothing, even hypnotic, about witnessing Sam Carlson, 37, struggle in his pursuit of bouncing a ball into a cup in the most complicated way possible. His TikTok, TrixShotSam, has collected 2.5 million followers since its debut in February 2020, exploding during the course of the pandemic.
He started the account with just one trick — snapping pennies like bullets at targets using just his fingers, which he learned as a kid. The videos were clever enough to attract a wave of views, and Carlson, who has a background in marketing, began working up a plan. “It’s the pandemic, I’m snapping pennies in my basement and I’m getting these views on some app called TikTok. What do you do now?” he tells me. “And my brain just went back to the fact that people are liking it. There’s a sense of nostalgia to something childlike and playful like this. There’s attention. There has to be something there.”
It seems that humans, in one way or another, have always been fascinated by the trick shot — an unexpected, improbable feat pulled off with everyday items and an athletic flair. As traveling circuses and exhibitions blew up in 19th-century America, so did the men and women who could pull off daring tricks in front of live audiences, like Annie Oakley, who made a career out of her savant-like skills with a gun.
I’d argue that nothing accelerated our love of trick shots quite like the internet and its capacity to boost viral-ready footage. In particular, one group of college bros from Texas A&M sparked an obsession with sports-related trick shots at the end of the aughts, blowing up YouTube and becoming darlings of ESPN under the moniker Dude Perfect. By hitting the mainstream, they codified the aesthetic of the modern trick shot: A mix of bros in baseball caps, hootin’ and hollering in montages with blaring dubstep music, seemingly hitting every shot in one go.
But a trick-shot livestream is the exact opposite of that energy. It’s mundane and repetitive. It shows persistence, not glory, and it lacks the glamour of an edited, polished clip. And that’s perhaps why people crave content creators like Carlson, TrickShotRod, TrickShotDav and others who suffer for their art live as their audience follows along.
After six months of snapping pennies, Carlson graduated to other projectiles — frisbees, footballs, ping-pong balls and beyond. One looped video of him hitting a bucket took off in August 2020, and a widely shared video of him throwing a frisbee and having it return straight back to him (“Captain America style!”) went viral shortly after, which more than doubled his followers over a few weeks.
That was the moment Carlson knew he could make a business out of 1.4 million followers, and in February, he decided to quit his day job (running an auto shop with his brother and a business partner) to focus the majority of his time on trick-shot videos. His wife and two kids weren’t sold on the idea. “Most people wouldn’t think what I was doing was a valuable use of time, and while my family gave me a leash to try it, it wasn’t easy to earn that leash,” Carlson says with a shrug. But getting onto TikTok’s Creator Fund, which pays for content, and receiving sponsorships was a turning point.
Now, Carlson films trick shots regularly, spending around 90 minutes attempting the trick itself, plus more time as needed to set up the trick and the lighting. He estimates that he has about four successful trick shots a week, and he hasn’t tired of the excitement that comes as he watches the viewership rocketing up as a clip goes viral. But he concedes that there’s something special about going on a livestream to suffer and toil in front of thousands, as they wait on him to make magic happen. It’s these events that push him past his usual 90-minute time limit, with Carlson sometimes streaming for upwards of three hours with minimal breaks.
“When I get to 30,000 people on that stream, watching at one given time, it’s crazy,” he says. “It’s like they’re filling a little stadium, and they’re all watching me. And the shot usually happens soon after that build. When you’re alone, it’s easier to get down on yourself. It’s easy to say you’re going to take a 15-minute break and think about your life. But when you have a crowd and momentum, it’s like a live sports game. You test yourself, and you push through.”
Such is the ecstasy of trick-shot glory — and it comes with plenty of agony, too. Repetitive motions and strain has led to various injuries, including once when his hand blew up like a balloon. More significant is the mental exhaustion: “There are some tricks that I still haven’t completed, and I can’t get myself to spend more time on them. When you soak 20 hours of filming in something, and it doesn’t come through…” he says, trailing off.
But his momentum on TikTok shows little sign of slowing down, and he’s grateful to find success during an unprecedented pandemic that’s kept people at home and glued to their phones, scrolling for a jolt of joy. Today, Carlson has dreams of landing ever-bigger tricks, including doing his frisbee boomerang with a blindfold on (“I… I could get concussed!”).
With any luck, he’ll stream that trick from his backyard, showing all of us the time and commitment it takes to catch a whizzing frisbee with one hand as it flies straight at your temple. And undoubtedly thousands of fans will turn up to watch him fail, again and again, on the slow march to internet glory.