The week of September 6, 2015

How Botchamania created a cult following outside the ring—and the law

By Chris Stokel-Walker

Matthew Gregg doesn’t look like a lawbreaker. On an early evening at the height of northeast England’s summer vacation season, he’s seated at an unnervingly sticky table at his local Nando’s, one of a chain of Mozambican/Portuguese chicken restaurants. Tall, gangly, and pale, with piercing eyes, high cheekbones, and a mop of dark hair swept over his brow, Gregg looks unextraordinary among the tables of sullen teenagers, grinning toddlers, and anxious parents. At a restaurant proud of its spicy food, he’s ordered perhaps the meekest item on the menu: the lemon- and herb-dressed chicken.

He pushes peas onto his fork, chasing them around the contour of the plate; a few spill onto the tabletop, where they remain even after the waitstaff clear the plates. He’s composed, his only near-rebellion the “shits” and “fucks” peppering our conversation, painfully audible to the family sitting opposite us. He gulps down a great mouthful of mashed potatoes, gestures with his fork: “It’s not like I said, ‘I will become a famous Internet thing.’ It just happened.”

“Famous Internet thing” can be applied pretty liberally nowadays, from the perplexingly ubiquitous Kardashians to the profitably niche PewDiePie to whoever is Vine’s latest flavor of the month. For Gregg, “famous Internet thing” means 32,000 Twitter followers and thousands of YouTube subscribers. One of his most recent videos, 15 minutes long and uploaded a month ago, has been viewed by 120,000 people on YouTube, a grand total of three-and-a-half years’ worth of man-hours spent watching—and a further 22 months by viewers on Vimeo.

But perhaps most importantly for this 27-year-old former call center rep—more important than the ineffable, tenuous Internet fame—is the fortune. Well, “fortune” might be a bit strong, but thanks to crowdfunding through Patreon, every time Gregg uploads a video, 666 people (seriously, that’s the beastly number at the time of this writing) pay him cash, totaling more than $1,000. Some give a dollar per episode, which allows them to view it two days before everyone else. Others stump up $10 to pay for a monthly question-and-answer session with Gregg. With advertisements that he also sells, he’s able to work on his videos full time. So what are his videos? What are all his fans so eagerly paying for?

It’s Botchamania, and it requires a little explanation. To start, the title’s a play on WrestleMania, the long-running series of pay-per-view professional wrestling events staged by World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE). Professional wrestling—“sports entertainment,” as WWE calls it—is a complicated spectacle, with elements of soap opera and sketch comedy, performed by some of the world’s most talented athletes. That doesn’t mean things don’t go wrong; the show involves both choreography and improvisation, and when things fall apart—when the thin skein of “realism” tears—fans call it a “botch.” That can mean something as simple as a flubbed line. It can also mean a misbehaving prop: a table that buckles when it’s not meant to or doesn’t break when it should. Sometimes it’s slips and trips, and often painful physical comedy—imagine America’s Funniest Home Videos in Speedos and a slick of baby oil.

Somewhat counterintuitively, wrestling fans love botches; they’re unguarded moments that reveal another layer to an already beloved entertainment. Gregg started cutting botches together into videos. “You’d notice it very occasionally when something would happen and there’d be a botch,” he says, “but to see a compilation of all those moments was weird. It was almost like the curtain being pulled back.” He started uploading them, and Botchamania —and Gregg as its auteur—became a “famous Internet thing.”

He’s making a living and has admirers. Fans take homemade signs bearing his names to wrestling shows, holding them up for the cameras; the wrestlers themselves use “Botchamania” in common parlance. The series has opened new doors for him, including his first trip to the United States. It’s a classic YouTube-to-moderate-riches story.

The only problem is that Gregg’s videos aren’t exactly legal.

• • •

So how did this happen? How did unprepossessing Matthew Gregg, pushing peas around his plate, become “a famous Internet thing,” proprietor of Botchamania, with a fanclub and an income? In 2007, he was in college, watching choppy videos on a crappy laptop that would judder out when trying to load an mp3. The video was “Botchamania 3,” a supercut of wrestling botches—something Gregg had seen before. But this one was so bad that he thought he could do better in his sleep. He soon cut his own, better sequel, calling it “Botchamania 4.”

“You’re not really brought up to believe that one day your dreams will come true, you’ll enjoy what you do for a living, and it happened and I didn’t know what to do.”

Then he turned leftover footage into another sequel. Then another. Then hundreds more. “There’s a good line,” he says, just after swallowing another mouthful of food. “I don’t know where it’s from: ‘Obsession’ is the lazy man’s term for ‘dedicated.’” He’s now produced nearly 300 videos.

Over time, Botchamania has evolved its own aesthetic: jammed with pop-culture references and frenetic cuts, a plinking 8-bit soundtrack, and zooming captions for spot calls—moments when the audience can overhear wrestlers planning their moves. As the series has grown in popularity, wrestlers themselves have shot introductions, while dedicated fans spend weeks crafting special endings that overlap wrestling footage with famous movies and TV shows.

All of this, as might be obvious, happens with no real regard for intellectual property. From Hollywood to brawls in bingo halls, anime to matches in National Guard armories, everything is fed into the insatiable maw of Botchamania, and the result is an intellectual property lawyer’s nightmare; nowadays, it’s a minor miracle if a video lasts longer than an hour on YouTube before it’s removed for copyright violations.

Gregg admits he’s a victim of his own success; greater popularity brought greater scrutiny from copyright holders. “Hoist by my own leotard,” he quips, before putting on a Groucho Marx voice and saying, “No pun too bad.” Gregg accepts the copyright disputes as an inevitable consequence of his popularity, but he almost didn’t get this far. For years he’d created the videos after work, but in early 2014 he reached a breaking point: “I thought, you know what, I can’t do this: I’m spending more time in front of a fucking computer than I am real people. It’s not a way to live.”

He wasn’t ready to give up on Botchamania, but he had to pay the bills. A fan introduced him to Patreon. For Gregg, it was a perfect setup: “If you give me a dollar, you get the videos two days before anyone else and there’s no advert on it,” he explains. “If you don’t want to give a dollar, that’s fine; I don’t judge you, but it’ll be out two days later and it’ll have an advert on it.”

The initial response from his fans was not warm. (He blames this in part on a whiny tone to his original appeal, a faux pas he still references on his current page, writing, “Just remember: anytime a wrestler botches and I make fun of them, they can always type ‘fuck you Maffew, you embarrassed yourself on Patreon.’”) But some supporters stumped up the cash, and it worked. Gregg’s initial reaction? “Fuck. I’m going to have to quit.” His friends were aghast, asking, “What, your job?” “No, Botchamania.” “Why?”

His eyes dart from the table to the people walking past the restaurant, eventually settling at a point somewhere over my right shoulder. He doesn’t really have an answer—or the answer comes from a place so deep that it’s hard to articulate. “If you’re from most parts of England,” he says, “you’re not really brought up to believe that one day your dreams will come true, you’ll enjoy what you do for a living, and it happened and I didn’t know what to do.”

“Go out there and live—there will always be shit jobs.”

His boss ended up being the voice of reason: “He said, ‘You daft bastard. Mate, you’re in your 20s. Go out there and live. If it succeeds, good; if not, don’t worry—there will always be shit jobs.’”

For the time being, his job is Botchamania. It’s kind of hard to fathom. The pro wrestlers he once idolized on television and in grainy VHS footage now see him at the bar, stop, buy him drinks, and tell him they love his work. They record introductory skits, clowning for his camera. Meanwhile, their bosses hire people to take his videos offline.

But Gregg knows the script, knows he’s the heel. “One thing about owning copyright is you have to enforce it if you want to retain the copyright,” he shrugs. “I’m the bad guy here.”

• • •

That’s not quite right—for one thing, it’s trademarks, not copyright, you have to actively defend to retain—but Gregg is the bad guy in this bout. He’s the one flouting copyright and capitalizing on it. Besides his Patreon supporters, he sometimes accepts pre-roll ads from wrestling companies, wrestling podcasts, or in one case, a standup comedian learning to become a pro wrestler for his latest show.

He won’t share the financial details of these arrangements, but at the $100 level of Patreon support he offers a 20-second ad space at the beginning of the video. He says he’s clear with potential advertisers about the reach of his work: “I tell people, ‘You know, this maybe won’t go on YouTube. It’ll go on Vimeo or Dailymotion.’ They’re all all right with that.” On the rare occasions a Botchamania doesn’t get pulled from YouTube, Gregg chooses not to profit from per-click metrics. “It’s not my shit,” he reasons.

He’s “never had a conversation” with wrestling groups about using their footage. “It’s something I’ve never considered or thought would get anywhere. You should ask them,” he jokes. “I’m sure they’ll be thrilled.”

I already had. I asked TNA, the company behind Impact Wrestling, how it approaches copyright infringement. Did it feel clips posted as parody were subject to the same restrictions as full pirated shows? Could it share any statistics on the volume of copyright infringement it faces? Might it consider an exception for series such as Botchamania? A TNA spokesperson thanked me for the opportunity to comment, but said the company wouldn’t be talking.

“Every time a video does get taken down, I get 10 messages saying ‘Fight the power, Matthew, fight the power.’”

I put the same questions to WWE, the pro wrestling behemoth that brought in a half-billion dollars in revenue last year. A representative said, “WWE takes infringement of its intellectual property very seriously,” adding that the company monitors video websites for infringing uploads. (For good reason: In February 2014, the company launched its own paid online streaming service, WWE Network, across more than 170 countries and territories. Bootleg WWE footage would be direct competition.)

YouTube uses a copyright infringement detection system called Content ID. (The company wouldn’t provide a spokesman for an interview or to provide on-the-record comment for this story but did offer updated statistics on the service by way of background.) All told, $60 million has been invested in Content ID, with more than 8,000 content creators, including WWE and TNA, providing YouTube with reference copies of their videos; there are 35 million of these references today, used to check against any videos uploaded to the website. If there’s a match, YouTube can pull the infringing footage, or allow the rightful owners to monetize it.

That’s why videos can disappear so quickly—often within minutes or hours. “It used to be a guy would sit and watch all the videos on YouTube, but now they have software to detect it so it’s auto-blocked,” Gregg says.

But couldn’t he claim fair use on the footage, or that he’s remaking it for parody purposes? That doesn’t really fly, according to Nicholas Wells, an intellectual property lawyer at Utah law firm Kirton McConkie. I showed him an episode of Botchamania, and asked for his thoughts.

The notion of fair use protects against legal charges of copyright infringement if, among other things, a new work transforms or comments upon its source material. But running through the conditions needed for a fair use defense of Gregg’s work, Wells is skeptical. “It could be considered a bit ‘transformative’ and it does have commentary,” he ventured. “But it has a good chance of adversely impacting the value of the original copyrighted work. And it uses a relatively large amount of the original.”

“If it were me, I wouldn’t want to face a judge and claim ‘fair use’ based on what I’ve seen,” Wells says. “But then that’s what so many people are doing now, that they don’t recognize the risk.”

In some respect, this is the new normal for producers and copyright holders—which, let’s keep in mind, can be the same thing. Wells points out that the ease of distributing images and video (or to use that thin, grey-gruel word, “content”) online has been a great boon to our collective creativity. “But the ease with which that is done causes people to forget the legal rules that used to constrain that type of activity, because it’s simply so easy now,” he says.

Gregg realizes that he’s flying close to the wind on copyright law. He doesn’t mind; he understands he’s the bad guy, or maybe David to the Goliath of companies like WWE and TNA, who are, after all, blocking popular videos created by a die-hard wrestling fan. “Every time a video does get taken down, I get 10 messages saying ‘Fight the power, Matthew, fight the power,’” he says. “Everyone loves the underdog in a fight, so it just strengthens the fanbase in a weird way. It’s become a contributor to the popularity of the series: the fact that it’s illicit.”

• • •

Wrestling companies could green-light Gregg’s use of short clips, woven together with other footage, while still keeping a tight leash on overzealous fans uploading full events to YouTube. But they don’t.

At least not the biggest players. Some smaller leagues cooperate with Gregg, to a degree. That’s why I’m talking to David John Markland as he speeds along the highway to Buffalo, New York, to wrestle for an independent wrestling promotion a few days before SummerSlam, WWE’s second-biggest show of the year. As well as wrestling under the nom de guerre DJ Hyde, Markland is the owner and promoter of Delaware-based Combat Zone Wrestling (CZW), a large second-tier group on the independent scene.

“You take it down, but by the time you take it down it has like 100,000+ views. It kills you.”

“The content he is using, he does not have the legal copyright for,” says Markland. “When that content pops up on YouTube or Dailymotion, we don’t want to give away our product. Obviously, that content is ours. CZW watermarks all that content. He can claim fair usage but the watermark is copywritten: he can’t use the watermark.”

(That’s not actually true, says Nicholas Wells with a laugh. “It’s a nice try,” he says, “but if fair use is applicable, it would also excuse the watermark or logo.” The issue Markland is raising is called ‘likelihood of confusion,’ reserved for when there’s potential for confusion over who owns a trademark. “The folks at Botchamania are not trying to make people think that logo represents their product.”)

A few years back, the company contracted by Markland to find pirated CZW footage came across Botchamania. CZW got YouTube to remove the offending videos. But after talking to Gregg (and perhaps in the wake of some angry emails from fans), Markland gave Gregg permission to use CZW’s footage. A weird line was crossed—one Gregg fully appreciates. “I’m like, ‘What situation is this: I’m using your footage to laugh with your company, your wrestlers, and your brand, and you’re apologizing to me?’ The fuck?”

But Gregg isn’t uploading full matches. He’s not pirating, which Markland sees as something different. For example, more than a million people downloaded one of CZW’s Tournament of Death shows, an orgy of superviolent wrestling, for free from one torrent site. “If I got one dollar, just one dollar, I’d be a millionaire—just from one show,” Markland says. “If a tenth of that bought a DVD, we’d be in a different tax bracket, I’d be running more shows, I’d be doing bigger things. That’s been the downfall of indie wrestling. That’s just one site, one torrent. And then there’s YouTube, there’s other sites. There’s full matches and full shows. You take it down, but by the time you take it down it has like 100,000-plus views. It kills you.” (Like TNA and WWE, CZW has also launched a streaming service.)

It’s a familiar lament about rampant piracy. But so is Markland’s response: Allowing a certain amount of copyrighted footage to circulate can be a marketing tool. In this case, that means letting Gregg include CZW in Botchamania. “We’re a pretty large independent,” Markland says, “but he’s reaching fans that we can’t. If say, there’s a CZW clip in Botchamania, and there’s a WWE clip, some of these WWE fans don’t even know we exist until they see us on Botchamania. It’s good business to have it out there.” That would make Gregg less like an artist-thief, in this particular case, and more like a unorthodox marketer.

Despite his ongoing duel with YouTube and copyright law, Gregg has operated Botchamania for eight years, turning a hobby into a living. His online footprint has grown larger than that of some of the people he parodies, despite existing in a world where virality is the main metric and his videos last for just hours—if that—on the Internet’s largest video platform. Gregg will keep jousting with the copyright police for as long as fans want to see people fall over and fuck up.

Or maybe it will all end tomorrow. At one point in our conversation, Gregg stops wrestling with his peas. He looks out the window contemplatively, his fork paused in mid-air. “If tomorrow everybody goes, ‘You know what Matthew, you’ve had enough of our fucking money, go fuck yourself,’ I’ll go: ‘Right, I’ll keep Botchamania going, but more infrequently, and go back to work.’ The time I have now is like gold dust.”

Illustration by J. Longo