As we inch into the final months of 2020, the changing of sports seasons has become yet another reminder of the weird times we live in. This month, the NFL was forced to alter its entire schedule as more players tested positive for COVID, Major League Baseball is preparing to finish off its truncated season with a muted World Series, and Internet League Blaseball was reeling after the Charleston Shoe Thieves were beaten to a pulp in a surprise, post-season match-up with the Shelled One’s Pods.
About that last one — since its launch in July, a video game called Blaseball has dominated a corner of the Internet that has become obsessed with its strange spin on America’s pastime. In the world of Blaseball, the teams have names like the New York Millennials and the Kansas City Breath Mints, players are regularly incinerated by demonic Rogue Umpires, and an enormous squid called “The Monitor” manages the Hall of Flame. Also, games are occasionally interrupted by raining peanuts.
“A lot of our fans are really interested in the game for the cosmic horror elements, for the absurdity, not so much for the baseball,” said Sam Rosenthal, the creative director of The Game Band, the video game studio that created the side project-turned-internet sensation.
On the surface, Blaseball is a simple game. It’s basically an automated version of fantasy baseball, and the only thing the website shows when you log in are box scores for every ongoing game, which are automated and play 24 hours a day. Each season starts on a Monday and wraps up with a World Series on Saturday. The main interaction players have is to bet fake money on the outcomes of individual games.
“There's not that much control that you can exert,” said Rosenthal. “You have to kind of just let the simulation play out.”
But while the computer algorithms that run the games do their thing, many human fans have taken the small details seeded throughout Blaseball and spun them out into enough lore and backstory to fill a Wikipedia page. There are dozens of Twitter accounts run by people roleplaying as teams, players, sportscasters, and even union representatives. Others have even started bands based on the game. And while Blaseball started out as a side project for The Game Band during the pandemic, Rosenthal has been delighted by the community that’s formed around it.
“We all have been struggling individually during this time,” Rosenthal said. “And to suddenly have this huge group of people that are invested in this thing that we're doing, it's made this year a lot brighter for all of us.”
Another reason behind Blaseball’s dedicated fanbase is the fact that they can continually reshape the game itself through weekly elections. The fake money used for betting can also buy votes that players can cast on rule changes or so-called “blessings” for their team. That can result in forcing top Blaseball teams to run four bases instead of three, or making a pitcher better by giving them a literal arm cannon. That starting point, where the game’s creators are actively listening to the players, laid the foundation for a unique relationship, according to one fan named Quinn, who runs the Twitter account for the New York Millennials.
“By the time I got into blaseball, which was a week after it started and the user base was barely even one percent of what it is now, it already had this sense of ‘we are a large group of people who are looking at literally just names and numbers on a page. And we have decided to come together and write stories about them,’” said Quinn.
And as it happened, a lot of that fanbase was and continues to be queer, Quinn included (they asked WNYC/Gothamist not to use their last name because they are not fully out). While there’s no gender restrictions in Blaseball and virtual players embody the spectrums of gender identity and sexual orientation, Quinn says the fact that part of the community was embraced and encouraged by the Game Band is special—and something that’s not always true of sports or video game fans.
“It became clear that they were super cool with it,” Quinn said. “They seem to go out of their way to try to create an environment that is very, very welcoming of these kinds of things, like from the top down.”
That’s how Quinn and other New York Millennials fans decided that they should be known as “the gayest team in Blaseball.” Fans have also come together to raise money for LGBTQ+ and social justice organizations and causes through weekly charity drives called “Blaseball Cares.” Rosenthal says while he never expected his game to inspire this kind of community, it embodies the spirit of Blaseball.
“It's about banding together with other fans to turn the league and your team into what you want to see,” Rosenthal said.
Knowing that Rosenthal and his team are listening, fans like Quinn are pushing the game in unexpected directions. Like, the time fans voted on a rule change to resurrect a previously-incinerated player named "Jaylen Hotdogfingers.” Or, shelling the entire pitching rotation of the Unlimited Tacos in peanuts in an incident that's been dubbed "the Snackrifice." And while Major League Baseball is about to finish up the 2020 season with the World Series, Blaseball starts fresh every Monday.
Blaseball is forever.