One of my favourite sports highlights is not a highlight in the traditional sense. It does not contain any feats of athleticism—or any actions one might define as athletic—and is only five seconds long. After a historic comeback win against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Washington Redskins quarterback Kirk Cousins walks toward the locker room with the purposeful, slightly agitated stride of someone who’s still feeding off the adrenaline of a close game.

As he passes a group of reporters and cameramen, he points, mid-stride, to his right and shouts, “You like that! You like that!” It’s not clear exactly who he’s pointing to, but the details of the exchange aren’t all that important because the moment is as wonderful and absurd as anything I’ve seen on a football field. Though Cousins’ outburst is recognizable as trash talk, it doesn’t quite fit into the traditions of the genre. The exclamation is difficult to parse, but there is a brilliance in its simplicity. Whatever just happened must have been so great, even Cousins’ doubters had to like it. I can’t think of a better way to prove a point.

The way Cousins makes his declaration is funny as well. His pitch is a little too high and his voice nearly cracks, an NFL quarterback reduced to a petulant child. While the video is strange and amusing, it does something else as well. It gives us access to a part of professional athletes we can’t always see when watching the games: the nearly maniacal passion they have for their sports, the simple beauty in someone being able to take a game so seriously. You see glimpses of that intensity in post-play celebrations, but they’re rarely so intimate and pointed.

What’s also notable about the clip is that it didn’t become popular through ESPN, once the benevolent monarch of sports highlights, but through Twitter, where users made it one of the biggest sports stories of 2015. The video embodies the direction sports highlights have moved in the past decade, during which time the form has changed at a pace unmatched in its history.

The internet has completely transformed what sports highlights look like, how they’re made, and how they’re distributed. Thanks to YouTube, Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook—and enterprising fans who comb through hours of footage—we can now understand more about the games we love in less time than ever before. While there are plenty of downsides to the relentless drive for efficiency which has characterized America’s business and technology cultures in recent years, the evolution of sports highlights is one of the greatest expressions of that impulse. If we choose to, we can become more enriched and connected to the sports we love while doing so on our schedules. We’re no longer bound by newspaper deliveries or television broadcasts.

Before the internet, the form and length of sports highlights were dictated by the restrictions of the dominant medium that transmitted them. In the pre-radio era, fans had to rely on newspaper writers to not only tell them what happened but how it happened. Since only a small percentage of readers could see the games live, post-game recaps had to serve as primitive highlight reels, describing the arc of a game and its most important moments. It’s no coincidence that many early sportswriters—like Grantland Rice, Paul Gallico, and Ring Lardner—were also fiction writers. For better and for worse, they approached their reporting in the same way they would a novel or short story.

In his famous recap of a Notre Dame-Army football game in 1924, this is how Rice describes Notre Dame’s speed and power: “A cyclone can’t be snared. It may be surrounded, but somewhere it breaks through to keep on going. When the cyclone starts from South Bend, where the candle lights still gleam through the Indiana sycamores, those in the way must take to storm cellars at top speed.”

And here is a poem Rice wrote about the early football legend Red Grange:

A streak of fire, a breath of flame
Eluding all who reach and clutch;
A gray ghost thrown into the game
That rival hands may never touch;
A rubber bounding, blasting soul
Whose destination is the goal.

Even when they could have used a little restraint, these writers took the games and athletes seriously and built them into legends. To Rice and Gallico and Lardner, it wasn’t unreasonable to compare athletes to characters from myth. They validated the obsessive excitement of their readers and elevated it, they said that it was not just okay, but the only reasonable response one could have.

Radio broadcasters were different. Like newspaper writers, their responsibility was to tell listeners what happened and how it felt, but their tone was not so elevated. They had to be both a friend and a teacher, becoming excited at that same moments their listeners would, but never losing their composure. Through inflection, rhythm, and pace, they could help the listener feel the outline of a game and get some sense of how they would respond to the action if they were there too. Famous broadcasters like Graham McNamee and Bill Stern sometimes played loose with facts, but their objective extended beyond factual accuracy into emotional accuracy—being able to reflect the hyperbolic feelings one has while watching sports live.

Television was the first great inflection point for highlights, led by the invention of the instant replay in 1963. Created by television director Tony Verna and debuted during an Army-Navy football game, instant replays did not just relay information, they helped the audience understand the component parts of an action—a great cut by a running back, the look of recognition from a cornerback before breaking on a route. It began to turn the act of spectating into a more active practice, from observing plays to understanding them. Along with instant replay came short highlight reels of games that would play during the local news, giving those who hadn’t seen the game the chance to understand and experience it, to see what happened—and why.

With the introduction of ESPN in 1979, highlights became more than an accessory to a game or news broadcast: they became an art form. The network’s original intention was to broadcast local sports highlights and games, performing the same rites viewers were used to seeing on the news. But the decision to widen its scope was prescient. ESPN would make highlights—and the personalities who delivered them—the great topic of conversation among sports fans.

Through SportsCenter, the network’s flagship program, fans became acclimated to the sports world by watching highlights of other teams, rather than reading box scores or listening to radio reports. But they also became fans of ESPN and its broadcasters, who relayed the news with a style that often fell somewhere between bewilderment and cynicism. In the hands of someone like Keith Olbermann or Dan Patrick, arguably SportsCenter’s iconic duo, narrating highlights became a self-reflexive and conflicted exercise. Olbermann and Patrick would poke fun at the idea of getting so excited about sports, but, by the fact of their voluntary employment at ESPN, they also argued that sports were so important they deserved a channel dedicated to them. So they described highlights with a quick, weary wit, as if they found the idea of devotional sports fandom so ridiculous that they hoped they one day wouldn’t have to talk about it anymore, that they might be able to move on into something more important and interesting.

Through anchors like Olbermann, Patrick, Chris Berman, and Stuart Scott, and the massive popularity of SportsCenter’s top-ten lists, the program became the center of the Venn diagram between every sports fan. All one needed to become a part of the national sports conversation was to dedicate an hour each day to ESPN. It would tell you everything you needed to know, with style.

The internet, as it is known to do, blew everything up, democratizing the sports highlight in form, function, and distribution. For the first time, fans became the innovators and drivers of highlight culture, while the traditional gatekeepers struggled to keep up. How do you respond to an ecosystem where the same people who edit and upload the highlights are making them? How can you compete with someone who can upload a thirty-minute LeBron James tribute one day and film himself making a behind-the-back three-point trick shot the next?

ESPN still hasn’t produced a satisfying answer to that question. Meanwhile, amateur editors took the basic idea of the highlight and produced every possible permutation of it. Where ESPN specialized in fifteen-to-sixty second clips of individual games or plays, YouTube became an on-demand sports encyclopedia. Full broadcasts, condensed games, career-spanning highlight reels, five-second replays that could be played on a loop—sorted by team, athlete, season. Whatever you wanted, you could find. Even the kinds of plays that were so impractical and time-consuming, professional athletes wouldn’t take the time to master them.

Trick shots flourished on YouTube, where amateurs could film hundreds of failed attempts and only broadcast the successful ones. Many trick shot videos are quite charming, filmed with phones or inexpensive cameras perched on tripods you imagine captured many hours of failure. And their stars are often not aspiring celebrities, but obsessive hobbyists thrilled by the opportunity to share their incredible, solitary acts with a global audience.

An early example of this is the 2006 video “Trickshot: Artistic Pool Trick Shots Pt 2,” starring a man who uses an alias, “ppooler,” fitting for the era of AIM and anonymous chat rooms, before the notion of a YouTube star made any sense. The only glimpse we get of his face is a vertical, low-resolution image in the video’s opening seconds. In the earnest, amateur way of early YouTubers, he tries to strike a pose of effortless cool—a black vest and matching pants paired with an ill-fitting white dress shirt that has a wide, open collar; a half-hearted attempt to lean on the table with one hand, perhaps too self-conscious to fully commit—that is all the more endearing for its awkwardness.

Once the action begins, you forget all that and remember the giddiness of your first encounters with YouTube, the feeling that you were stumbling upon secrets. Ppooler sends balls above, around, and between obstacles; makes them reverse directions and travel in precise, parabolic arcs. The quantity of paths and the precision with which they’re executed is staggering, and the sort of thing that could only come from a single-minded devotion to an impractical skill. There is no reputable, professional sports league that highlights his talents, but YouTube gave ppooler the kind of exposure—over eleven-million views—once reserved for major sports stars.

As YouTube grew, a more professional class of trick shot experts emerged. The channelDude Perfect now dominates the genre (when you search “trick shot” and filter by view count, the thirteen most popular videos come from Dude Perfect), posting videos that attempt to affect an air of amateurism via five hosts who crack jokes and dress like wealthy fraternity brothers do at the gym. But the way the videos are shot and edited betrays a technical expertise more common of professionals.

The performative dissonance fades once the trick shots begin, which are remarkable for their difficulty and variety. No amount of posturing can ruin the astonishment of watching a basketball shot made from a building over five-hundred feet above a hoop or while blindfolded and well behind the half-court line. If one of the central appeals of sports is watching the repeated performance of incredible physical feats, this may be its most distilled form.

Of course, there’s more to sports than the completion of low-probability shots. One of the primary differences between great and good athletes is the ability to recognize situations quickly and internalize the subtleties of technique. The drama of an exciting game can often be reduced to one team’s ability to align a large number of small mental and physical tasks more consistently than the other. While television broadcasts continue to improve at pointing out and explaining these subtleties during games, it’s easy to become overwhelmed trying to appreciate them without the aid of instant replay.

This is where the value of full and condensed game broadcasts posted to YouTube—most frequently for college football and basketball—comes into play. Aside from allowing fans the flexibility to miss a game live and watch it later without investing in a DVR, they allow you to savor a game—to speed up, slow down, or repeat the action as many times as you’d like. Particularly for a sport like football, which contains, on each play, a series of coordinated movements from twenty-two players who are positioned across the field at varying distances from the ball, learning to appreciate its finer points during a live broadcast can drain the joy from watching the games.

But by studying them on YouTube, they eventually become more than a jumble of motion surrounding the ball. The order in the apparent chaos becomes clear, and you develop the ability to be impacted by seemingly unremarkable plays like a four-yard pass that results from a proper read progression or a running play which gains no yards due to a defensive tackle who uses his hands correctly. The games become richer and more meaningful than a simple accumulation of points; they become aesthetic experiences. As with many events, comprehension is often the key to appreciation, and YouTube is designed to encourage comprehension in a way television, radio, and print are not.

YouTube’s reach has extended beyond the games, too, into the things players and coaches do outside of them—dance, give strange remarks to the media, squat over three times their body weight. The platform liberated sports figures to become multi-dimensional personalities, a project that ESPN recognized and accelerated, but YouTube magnified like never before.

Press conferences have long been the most promising way to find highlights outside of competitive play, due to the frequency with which athletes and coaches must give them and their proximity to the games and the intense feelings they provoke. They become so routine to all of the parties involved that they’re lured into a false sense of security—that the conversation is a private exchange between the media and their subjects. Often, they’re quite dull, but every so often, a rare combination of ambient frustration, the stimulus of a pointed question, and a vibrant personality lead to a response so memorable, it elevates the press conference into high drama or comedy. YouTube made sure we would never miss the great ones, and it’s made minor celebrities of people we never would have cared about otherwise.

The best may be David Bennett, the former head football coach at Coastal Carolina University. Bennett was frustrated by his players’ lack of toughness during one of his weekly press conferences in 2011, and to illustrate his point, he told a story about a stray cat which had entered his house through a broken screen door. The story goes that the cat attempted to leave the house, was unable to exit through the screen door, and became agitated. Then Bennett’s dog, who was in the yard behind the house, began to bark. It’s clear that the story is supposed to be a parable—Bennett ends the story by relaying that he told his players they need to act like dogs rather than cats, meaning, they need to care less about how they look and more about how they play—but it makes no sense. The details of the story have nothing to do with Bennett’s message, so he ends up sounding a little crazy, meowing on several occasions, gesticulating wildly, collapsing his sentences into a stream of consciousness like a folksy caricature of an eccentric, Southern football coach you might find on SNL. Given that Coastal Carolina’s football program is not of interest to a national audience, this press conference, like many other ones Bennett has given that are nearly as entertaining, would have found only a small, regional audience in a prior era. But YouTube made it one of that week’s biggest national sports highlights, as it deserved to be.

The social media platforms that followed YouTube—Twitter, Snapchat, Instagram, Vine—took its innovations and widened their reach. Open Twitter on a Sunday during football season, and you’ll find every kind of highlight you can imagine. Spend ten minutes scrolling through your feed, and you’ll know everything ESPN would need a half hour to tell you. Though they have not radically altered the way highlights look, these platforms have revolutionized the way highlights are distributed.

The baseball manager Leo Durocher once said, “Baseball is like a church. Many attend, but few understand.” The same could be said of any other sport, and that fact has been accepted as a feature of sports fandom. But at some point, enterprising, ambitious fans had other ideas. They shared them on the internet, and we’ve been reaping the rewards ever since.