There was a point this year where it seemed like sports might not happen. This hypothesis was, of course, proven wrong as leagues either found ways to bubble effectively or just hoped the pandemic wouldn't affect them. In the summer days of the lockdown, though, everything was still in question, and that's when Blaseball was forged.
The Game Band told us earlier this year that Blaseball was the brainchild of several Zoom calls with friends, as the team tried to find a game that could bring people together amid a pandemic. At the outset, it was simple enough: a league of made-up players and teams, competing in a raw numbers simulation and betting on the outcome. It's the same appeal as other CPU betting engine games, like SaltyBet or Final Fantasy Tactics Battleground.
I remember logging on for the first time and feeling those same hooks. It was interesting enough, sure, and I could get behind the familiar city-based bickering and rivalries. And then I clicked on a random tab, in a gap between games, and saw an Election; a depository would I could dump my hard-won earnings into votes. These votes could boost my team in the next playoff or add some interesting modifiers to the week-long seasons, changing how teams play the baseball-like simulation. Or I could support opening the mysterious Book.
Opening the Book, which could now be fairly considered a "whoopsie," sparked the true fire of what made Blaseball such a beautiful escape for its fans this year. Sports on its own can provide a certain sense of stability and ritualism for a week. I grew up in the land of Friday Night Lights, had a Green Bay Packers jersey when I was young—Favre, regrettably—and heck, I've watched curling of my own volition. Sports provide an escape, a team to root for, a competition to get excited about, and a gathering place to collectively celebrate the human experience, same as a live concert or stage play.
So when all those forums seemed tenuous at best in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, here comes Blaseball; it offers a season's worth of games in a week, built-in systems for team favoritism and idolization—quite literally—of favorite players, and all the drama of sports. Even more drama, it turns out, because it wasn't long after we voted to open the Book that things got wild.
At its most basic, Blaseball could be called a baseball simulation. The sport it takes the most after is American baseball. But it also incorporates all the fantastical intangibles that can't ever be qualified in a game like MLB: The Show or even Super Mega Baseball. Real-life baseball, after all, doesn't have flocks of birds swarming players like a Hitchcock film. Runs don't create black holes, teams don't have to run extra bases, and at least as of this writing, a rogue umpire has never incinerated a batter. In Blaseball, though, all of that and more became daily routine. Opening the Book kickstarted a new phase of exploring just what baseball could be if you could start warping and meddling with the laws of the universe around it.
The fandom never sat on the sidelines and voted arbitrarily, either. As players participating in the cultural event of Blaseball realized they could coordinate and manipulate the elections, a new mechanism for narrative emerged. Voting put the narrative in the players' hands, and the players were often eager to find ways to one-up the potential of any given motion. The Game Band was then faced with a player base that was going to push its own narrative, and how to deal with that while crafting their own; it could, at any point, have fallen apart.
Jaylen Hotdogfingers is easily the most recognizable example of this collaborative effort working in perfect harmony. Jaylen was incinerated and dead, but in season six, an election option would place the 14th most popular player on the Idol leaderboards onto the team with a winning bid for that ticket item. Even though Jaylen was dead, players discovered they could still idolize that player as they were still in the system under a null team, and so, in the most chaotic yet predictable move, the Seattle Garages—with help from the Canada Moist Talkers—orchestrated a campaign to get Jaylen into the 14th spot and win the bid, bringing Hotdogfingers back from the dead.
Resurrection came with a price, however, and as Jaylen began beaning batters at the mound in matches, players realized what they'd wrought: the hit-by-pitch came with a status effect that made the target more likely to be incinerated by an umpire. One campaign to resurrect a player had consequences for the entire league.
That mix of sports and RPG simulation, player involvement, and developer willingness to leave open spaces for the players to fill in themselves is what gave rise to the fandom of Blaseball. Fan art was drawn in droves, the Seattle Garages recorded odes to players, and micro-fiction was written to fill in the unwritten gaps of the simulation.
An overarching story thread began to emerge, as a peanut god taunted Blaseball's bettors and challenged championship teams to an RPG boss battle, only to crush them. Then, a week later, the lost souls of Blaseball players past rose like in Field of Dreams to battle the Shelled One and its Pods. Names like Jessica Telephone, Boyfriend Monreal, and yes, Jaylen Hotdogfingers all took the field in a spectacular battle for the very soul of the "splort"—a term Blaseball participants use to refer to the sport itself.
When the arc came to an end and the legume was consumed by the mysterious Hall Monitor, Blaseball's developers decided to take an extended break. There are intentions to return, at some point, but after what was essentially the anime season finale of a sport, some rest was overdue.
Blaseball was an overnight success, and though a few exhibitions have been held in the interim, Blaseball has been mostly on a calm hiatus as the Game Band rests up. Fans, meanwhile, have still been creating art and music, sharing their love for the seasons so far and speculating what the new era will hold. They even found a mysterious "Blaseball 2" website, whatever that means.
What Blaseball wrought was that same sense of togetherness I'd grown fond of in sports, only in a much, much healthier way. The collaborative efforts between players and devs, creators and spectators meant that every involved was working for the betterment of the splort, even when they were accidentally invoking the cosmic repercussions of necromancy.
Blaseball has so many levels and layers, and the beauty of its fandom is that every person can effectively choose how much they want to engage with each section. Some might just make art, while others might act as lobbyists for voting campaigns, or others still etch out theories or analyze sabermetrics of the simulation. Or you can just pick a favorite team, bet on a few matches every couple of hours, and watch what happens. That's mostly what I did, and even there, I found a community happy to have anyone and everyone as they were.
Sports have still managed to, somehow, continue only slightly abated by the pandemic. And even with hopeful signs of a return to normalcy lingering in the new year, no one can deny how strange or stressful this year has been. Yet on Blaseball's playoff nights, I found those Friday night lights I was looking for; that shared communion of sport, even if it was a bizarre trip into the unreal, sometimes hellish, always entertaining arena of Blaseball.