Put all the essential sports videos in one place, each doled out with an emoji helpfully suggesting the appropriate emotional response: That’s the gist of House of Highlights. The operation, originally established around an Instagram account, targets an audience younger than I am, but as cranky as it may sound, I reject the idea that this is a healthy method of consuming any news, sports or otherwise. House of Highlights may intend to be this generation’s equivalent of SportsCenter, but it’s more like a smoothly insidious version of Upworthy, instead—endless saccharine content delivered with a relentlessly chipper attitude. Whether you think of ESPN’s flagship program as groundbreaking or corny, there’s no question anchors like Stuart Scott or Kenny Mayne put more effort into their banter and jokes than “How much would you need to get paid to get dunked on for 2K?” and a cry-laughing emoji.
From what uncanny valley did this video emerge, and why is it so transfixing?
House of Highlights doesn’t appear to produce the vast majority of these clips; they’re aggregated. The portion of its programming that could be called “original” is slim, and seems to consist largely of sponsored content (i.e., ads). The style and packaging of it all recalls a montage for a Google Home ad, rather than anything that might reasonably be intended for a sentient human audience. It’s pure glurge, manufactured as if by algorithm, and sloshed out to customers at an astounding rate.
As SportsCenter demonstrated for decades, sports fans have a tremendous appetite for highlights, and technology has only refined and concentrated the dose. People want to see a cool dunk, context not required. Instagram is a perfect format for those cool dunks, or slick catches in the outfield, or spectacular goals, but House of Highlights doesn’t limit itself to organized competition. There are plenty of goofy moments, freakishly athletic children, and other miscellany outside of the major leagues.
Omar Raja, whose parents emigrated from Pakistan to Florida, launched the account in 2014 when he was a 20-year-old college student. He has said his motivation was the departure of LeBron James from the Miami Heat, Raja’s favorite NBA team. He wanted to share some entertaining clips and moments in order to remember the good times. In a 2018 Esquire profile, we learned that Raja’s intense commitment to scouring his phone for Instagrammable content only briefly subsided when, during a pivotal playoff basketball series, he managed to pay attention to the game he was watching for two minutes without interruption.
By the beginning of 2016, Bleacher Report had acquired House of Highlights and hired Raja to let him grow the account. At 18 million followers, House of Highlights is still one of the most popular American sports media accounts on Instagram, though Raja left Bleacher Report and joined ESPN in January of 2020 to run SportsCenter’s Instagram; that account currently has 18.2 million followers. Raja now leads a team of four former HoH staffers, according to ESPN, which sent us a remarkable publicist-tossed corporate word salad that says a lot, however inadvertently, about how things got this way in the first place.
Together, they bring industry-leading expertise in user-generated content strategy and social community building to expand on ESPN’s success in reaching the next generation of sports fans. They work alongside our existing social team to support our presence across social platforms and areas of growth – and our audience numbers for the first six months since he joined are a reflection of the impact this has had.
When House of Highlights videos aren’t intended to provoke the flushed-face or flame emoji, they frequently veer into the mawkish—celebrating a gift of shoes to an unfortunate kid or a person who may be homeless. In its secular sense I consider the purpose of charity to be to do something good disinterestedly—for no benefit to the generous party, or as close to no benefit as possible. Maybe Instagram clout isn’t particularly valuable, but it would still constitute a benefit. If for example you give your shoes to a man only wearing socks, that’s a selfless act. If you record yourself giving your shoes to a man only wearing socks, and then it ends up on SportsCenter’s Instagram page with the prayer-hands emoji, a little less so. That’s the House of Highlights angle: It’s supposed to feel nice, so why does it produce the same uneasiness I get when watching one of those snackable videos of an overpriced, monstrously constructed hamburger being mangled by disembodied hands?
House of Highlights isn’t the biggest threat to humanity, I know. But its goals and methods are still vexing, and they are clearly catching on, seeing as Raja has taken his tactics to ESPN. The cheap, unearned tug at the emotions, never bothering to question or examine, never curious about anything it can’t garnish with an emoji, is all its stock in trade. Inspirational kid, NBA play, crowd going nuts over a water bottle flip, jacked person being strong, maudlin dreck, Shaq doing something wacky.
Sports are fun and diverse, and a person can appreciate athleticism without knowing the intricacies of why it’s so impressive, but these highlight factories just flatten every bit of humanity and complexity into the dullest, most mechanical form of entertainment, a Skinner box for the lab rats who’ll keep pushing the buttons.
That anyone can be featured on House of Highlights can be perceived as either inspiring, or suspicious. It reminds me of an NFL preseason game in 2015 when the St. Louis Rams orchestrated a surprise reunion for a cheerleader and her Marine Corps husband, back from deployment. Moments like these are common in sports—particularly in the NFL, which quite openly models itself after the military. In this case, context was crucial: The returning hero was a member of the absurdly wealthy Busch family, and the cheerleader, who was also in the Marine Corps, was the daughter of a political candidate who eventually shared the all-American moment on her official campaign page. What part of that story would have made House of Highlights, and what part would have been left out?
Up until recently—I leave you to guess the impetus for the shift—House of Highlights included a hearty helping of copaganda in its fare. A TikTok video of a retiring cop signing off for the last time. A compilation of police playing basketball with youths. A clip of a taekwondo student being surprised with a parent’s military reunion. The aggregating tool reduces everything to a highlight. On the first day of the George Floyd protests, SportsCenter posted this video, with the caption, “Cop dunked on him TWICE.”
When asked whether Raja had made a conscious effort to move away from the copaganda, ESPN replied with the following: “Since Omar joined ESPN, the SportsCenter Instagram account has always balanced a mix of viral/community videos and sports news/highlights. What he chooses to share is based on what he believes will resonate best with fans – an audience that he knows extremely well – and that approach remains unchanged.”
I’m not demanding that House of Highlights, or Raja, “stick to sports.” Haha. But there are limits to how much good chemical a brain can spray. This type of account would do well to reevaluate its purpose, because as of now, it functions as an oasis for the dim-witted. It sees “tryhard” as a badge of honor. It reinforces only the worst and dumbest aspects of sports, placating and soothing those who have never bothered to question why they or anyone would instinctively stand for “God Bless America” during the seventh-inning stretch of a baseball game.
Sometimes you want to wind down and watch a cool dunk. That makes sense. There are plenty of places to do that, and some of those places don’t assume their audience has just grasped the concept of object permanence. On the emoji scale, this disturbing clip from what is purportedly an Army Ranger school graduation received a “mind blown,” “flushed face” combo. Only in the twisted world of rapid-fire highlights does it make sense to respond to that with the same reaction as a video of a guy surfing on a door.