How Dude Perfect Makes Child’s Play Hard Work
How five Aggies turned their love of trick shots into one of the biggest video franchises of the digital era.
This article originally appeared in the August 2017 issue of Texas Monthly with the headline “Yes!!!”
In an industrial corridor at the center of Frisco, five grown men play children’s games in a 25,000-square-foot warehouse that holds a magnificent array of sporting equipment, memorabilia, and video-production facilities. To the left of the main entrance is an NBA-scale basketball court. Nestled behind it is a de-iced hockey rink, currently set up for roller-chair hockey, which is exactly what it sounds like. On the right side of the space is a mini soccer pitch, and smack in the middle of the floor is an elevated putting and chipping green, around which an array of go-karts and other miniature motorized vehicles are parked.
Collectively, the men who roam these halls are known as Dude Perfect, and they have become five of the biggest stars on YouTube thanks to their hundreds of trick-shot videos, with titles like “Slip ’N Slide Football Battle,” “Ping Pong Trick Shots 2,” and “Lawnmower Racing Battle.” Each Dude—Tyler Toney (the bearded mouthpiece), Cody Jones (the soft-spoken social media manager), Garrett Hilbert (the sarcastic redhead who handles finances), and identical twin brothers Coby and Cory Cotton (the marketing wizards)—has his own office tucked in the back of the building, each one designed with an eye toward his personal interests. Coby, leading a tour of the complex, stops in front of Tyler’s office. “This one isn’t baby-proof,” he says, laughing. The group’s foremost hunting enthusiast, Tyler has decorated his space with a small wooden desk in the center, behind which sits a Western tableau, a six-post barbed-wire fence topped with a cream-colored cowboy hat and a pair of leather chaps. On the wall above is a framed print of the Gonzales flag, surrounded by a crescent of five taxidermied animals: two white-tailed deer, two ducks, and the centerpiece, a howling coyote.
Facing these offices is a wall so jam-packed with framed Guinness World Record certificates that three of them are resting on the floor, waiting for a spot to open up. An adjoining hallway leads to a common room, where the men can relax in a diner-style booth featuring plush benches upholstered in a Texas flag design. The wall perpendicular to the benches contains two items of sentimental value that boil the Dude Perfect tale down to its essence. The first is a basketball backboard that used to hang at a College Station house the Dudes once shared. It represents their humble beginnings. The second is a faux-diamond trophy that YouTube sent them for hitting the ten-million-subscriber mark. “I hope it’s not a real diamond,” Coby says. “We’ll have more people breaking in.”
And that’s just the first floor. On the mezzanine is a gym, outfitted with a rack of dumbbells, box jumps, a pull-down machine, and sparring equipment. Sitting at a table in the midst of all this gear is an employee who’s running sound for TV. “He’s a Roll Tide man,” Coby says of the loyal fan of the University of Alabama’s football team. He says it without derision or adulation; it’s just the way men of this type identify one another. A few yards away there’s twelve Dude Perfect–branded recliners facing a wall of flat-screen televisions, and a vending machine that spits out nothing but bags of Ruffles potato chips. Resting on the floor nearby are 32 NFL helmets, one for each team.
It’s like a billion volts of electricity brought a fourteen-year-old boy’s wildest dreams to life.
The Dudes can afford this splendorous sports mecca thanks to the money they’ve made off their YouTube empire. Their videos have been viewed more than 3 billion times, and their channel’s 20 million subscribers make it one of the most popular channels on YouTube—and the most popular YouTube sports channel, period. By one estimate, that all translates into $2 million in revenue a year. And that’s not counting their cable series, The Dude Perfect Show, which begins its second season on July 22 on Nickelodeon. The Dude Perfect guys may not have invented the trick basketball heave, golf shot, or frisbee throw, but they certainly figured out how to turn them into an industry.
Dude Perfect began unofficially in the spring of 2008 in College Station, where all five men were undergrads at Texas A&M. Tyler and Garrett had been friends since their days together at Prosper High School, in North Texas, where they played on the basketball team. They met the Cotton twins at a college Bible study session and hit it off over a shared interest in sports and Jesus. (They aren’t shy about their devotion to Jesus.) As the four were making plans to rent a house off campus for the following fall, they met Cody at a pickup basketball game and asked if he’d like to be their fifth roommate.
After moving into the house in August, they put a basketball hoop up in the backyard and started betting one another sandwiches over whether they could make particularly difficult shots, which were filmed by a fellow Aggie named Sean Townsend. “We started this all just for fun, as an outpouring of our competitiveness and being best friends,” Cory says. The shots got crazier and crazier, and on April 8, 2009, they uploaded a lo-fi YouTube video called “Backyard Edition,” in which the guys launched long-range basketball shots off their roof, sometimes backward and sometimes at odd angles. The video drew more than 100,000 views in a week, landing the group—who had started calling themselves Dude Perfect, in honor of an offhand comment Sean made on the video (“Dude, perfect”)—a spot on Good Morning America. Shortly after, Sean graduated and moved to Lubbock, becoming the Stuart Sutcliffe—the lost Beatle—of Dude Perfect.
Though the five are partners, Tyler is the de facto leader of the group. Full-bearded, thick-muscled, and gruff, he was a quarterback in high school. Any throw over thirty or so yards generally falls to him. The loudest and most gregarious of the bunch, he introduces most videos, and likely became the first Dude most fans ever saw, when, in September of 2009, he hit the shot that nearly broke the internet.
In the video, Tyler stands on the third deck at Kyle Field, turns to the camera, and says, “Welcome to Aggieland. This is the world’s longest basketball shot,” before stretching his right arm back like a catapult and letting the leather fly. The video is short and grainy, but its coda is now exceedingly familiar. As the ball soars through the air and then, improbably, sinks through the basketball net down on the field, the other four Dudes erupt in ecstasy. Tyler screams “Yes!” as he pumps his fist. Someone else yells, “What? Oh my God!”
This sort of exuberance is part of the great appeal of Dude Perfect’s videos. You see it when the Dudes stand in a bowling alley, legs spread shoulder-width apart, and professional bowler Jason Belmonte rolls a strike between their feet, prompting them to scream and throw their arms in the air. Or when Tyler bounces a basketball off his head and into the net like a circus seal and all five guys freak out. “Once you make the trick shot, it’s not over,” Tyler told Good Morning America. “You gotta have a good celebration to go with it, because that’s what really caps it off.” That sense of joy is part of what made the Kyle Field video go viral, leading to interviews on ABC and CBS and appearances on ESPN. The boys had arrived.
But after four Dudes graduated in 2010 (Tyler finished school the following year), they heeded the inevitable call of adulthood. Cody got a job in commercial real estate. Coby and Cory worked for their father’s church, in Austin. Garrett worked at an architecture firm, and Tyler signed on with a commercial landscaping company.
Yet none of them could shake the sense that their destiny lay elsewhere. “We always knew that we wanted to keep making the videos,” Coby says. After work they’d get together, shoot, and upload, with the dream that someday they’d be able to quit their day jobs. “As the popularity grew, companies started reaching out, and we realized it could be more than a hobby. We could turn it into a business.”
And they kept cultivating their brand. In 2011, the Dudes appeared on Jimmy Kimmel Live! and Cory published a self-help book, Go Big: Make Your Shot Count in the Connected World. The following March, the first edition of a Dude Perfect mobile-phone game was released. And they continued filming videos that drew millions of viewers.
But it wasn’t until 2014 that all five of them finally acknowledged what should have been obvious all along: their calling was to be Dudes, not working stiffs. They quit their jobs, and Tyler, Cody, and Garrett, who were married, told their wives—working women all—that they were going to spend forty hours a week throwing basketballs out of blimp hatches and smashing into each other in sumo suits. It wasn’t quite as flippant as “Go have fun at your desk jobs while we play games with our friends,” but it was close, Cody says.
Without an office, the five guys gathered at Paradise Bakery in Dallas to brainstorm bigger and better trick shots, comb through proposals from advertisers, and map out shoots for their YouTube channel. By late 2015, they had signed on advertisers like Pringles and Adidas and inked a contract to air the half-hour Dude Perfect Show on the cable network CMT. Last year, the Dudes moved into the Frisco warehouse, which was built for the express purpose of filming their cable show and their digital content.
The first episode of the show, which aired on April 14, 2016, was one of CMT’s highest-rated original premieres, drawing nearly two million viewers. The move to Nickelodeon this season is an obvious play for a younger demographic. “We grew up watching Nickelodeon, so it’s a dream come true,” Coby says. “We’re all big kids.”
In 2014, film critic A. O. Scott wrote a story for the New York Times Magazine on “The Death of Adulthood in American Culture,” in which, with mixed feelings, he described contemporary adulthood as “the state of being forever young.” He had plenty of evidence for the demise of maturity: Judd Apatow comedies like The 40-Year-Old Virgin and Knocked Up, the cable series Girls and Broad City, and the prevalence of fifty-year-old men in shorts riding skateboards.
The Dude Perfect guys probably weren’t on Scott’s radar at the time, but if they had been, they would have fit in just fine in his essay. The image they evoke in their videos is that of eternal frat daddies, men in backward-facing trucker caps who refuse to age out of childhood. The members of Dude Perfect can seem like real-life versions of an Apatow character, without the inevitable third act, when the protagonist stops playing games and grows up. Why would they, when they can make a good living playing games?
There are people who find the whole thing appalling. On Reddit and in the comments section of their YouTube videos you can find numerous barbs claiming the Dudes are callow men-children. “[C]ouldn’t even get through one of their videos. bunch of lame lookin guys in their 40’s jumping around like middleschoolers,” wrote one non-fan. (It should be noted that the Dudes are not in their forties.)
But those critiques have never had much of an impact, and it’s easy to see why. If the Dudes are acting out some sort of eternal youth, it’s an awfully grown-up version of eternal youth, given that behind the scenes they’re responsible, hardworking Texas men: four of them are married, three are fathers, and all of them are devout Christians endowed with a prodigious work ethic. Videos like “Blitzball Trick Shots” and “Nerf Blasters Battle” might seem juvenile, but they require a great deal of preparation and discipline on the front end to pull off. The Dudes may act like one of Apatow’s perpetual adolescents, but they’re also, in a sense, Apatow himself, working hard when the camera isn’t running, getting their craft just right.
During the tour of the facility, Coby mentioned a rule that Dude Perfect committed to even before the warehouse was built: “If you break a glass window, you have to stay at the office until it’s repaired, even if that means you have to sleep here,” he said. Though a couple of pool balls have ricocheted off windows and the drywall is dotted with holes, so far no glass has shattered. But if, someday, a window does break, one of the Dudes may have to call home to say he has to sleep at the office because he was goofing around. That might seem kind of harsh, but it’s part of Dude Perfect’s ethos. When you’re all grown up, engaging in child’s play is hard work.
Chris O’Connell is a senior editor at The Alcalde.