There’s a moment from the slightly, marginally, and perhaps decently popular show Stranger Things that’s stuck with me for much of the last year. The scene is from the show’s fourth season and involves its main characters split up into two groups — one being a high-stakes basketball game and the other an epic tabletop Dungeons & Dragons finale — with both seeking what one might call eternal, magnificent glory.
Both are taken seriously, filled with highs and lows, and culminate in dramatic victories celebrated like the Powerball had just been won. It implies that whether you’re trying to defeat a demon from another dimension or score the buzzer-beater, the thrill is the same.
The sheer joy is the same; it’s all so much more similar than people like to admit. But, more often than not, it’s hard to find a nice realm where they both exist.
Blaseball, a mega-viral online gaming sensation, was one of the first things I’d ever seen to land in such a realm. If you dig deep or are open-minded enough, sports and geek culture have always had a myriad of similarities. But Blaseball is one of the first things to do so brazenly — as if the very notion that these two entities belong in their own lanes was an insult of the highest order.
It’s only a shame that it didn’t last long, because its story — rife with unexpected viral attention and bustling fanbase — and achievements were something you don’t see very often, regardless of the industry.
I can remember the first time I heard about Blaseball. The first lane of exposure came through the gaming industry side of things, as I saw many of the content creators I follow talk about, well, a new baseball game. Except, plot twist, it wasn’t just baseball.
There were descriptions of peanuts flying from the sky like a plague, players being engulfed in flames, tacos, and weird physical characteristics for players like extra arms and the ability to transform into a horse, or something?
Almost at the same time, a rather hardcore baseball fan friend of mine also alerted me of its existence. There were weekly simulated games that you could bet on with a whole crop of players with randomized variables and stats. Plus, I was told there was a team named after pies — the, of course, far superior dessert that often doesn’t get the same clout and PR as cake.
Now having heard from both sides of the geek/jock aisle, I was totally in.
But even being familiar with both sides — the geeky and the sporty — explaining exactly what Blaseball is can be…difficult. And that even goes for the folks over at The Game Band, the developer that concocted this bizarre and beautiful monstrosity to begin with.
“The first question I ask is, how much time do you have <laugh>?” says Steven Bell, a former designer for Blaseball.
Elliot Trinidad, a former community manager for the developer, echoes the same sentiment. “<laughing> There’s easy pitches, and then there’s like, now we’re talking for an hour of a pitch “ he says, “But now you’re at the party stuck with me for an hour in the corner asking more questions about baseball.”
Started in July 2020, Blaseball is an offspring, of sorts, of fantasy baseball and, let’s say, a wild and potentially inebriated Dungeons & Dragons session. It’s about as challenging to explain as the story of the video game series Kingdom Hearts or the baseball stat xWOBA to people with no prior experience.
The usual rules of baseball do exist — bases, bats, and all — but they’re just the foundation. It’s an internet game with 24 separate, uniquely-named teams spread across six also-uniquely named divisions. There are a ton of simulated games, Monday through Friday, that you then wager in-game currency on. Plus, you can even place coins on specific players, not unlike what many daily fantasy leagues or gambling sites have to offer.
You follow how things go (and believe me, things will go in ways you can barely even comprehend unless you’ve experienced it yourself), hope to win the playoffs at the end of the week, and then become a champion. There’s a ton of simulated games that take place, and anyone who has played any sort of sports game (like the addictive drug-baby that is the “Road to the Show” mode in the MLB the Show series) before will understand how quickly a season can be, well, simulated. It’s all complete with scoreboards and play-by-play trackers to follow along.
The difference, of course, is that things quickly get out of hand as you use your in-game coins to purchase not just different upgrades, but also tickets for special “elections.” The special elections would then be used to vote on different rules for the game going forward, allowing you to essentially re-shape reality like you’re the Scarlet Witch. Things get chaotic pretty fast. Heck, you’d even be greeted by an octopus with laser eyes when you first signed up.
“You can make manager calls like with ESPN fantasy” says Bell, “But just imagine that with like, I don’t know, 50,000 other people.”
And just like the real-life baseball community, things in Blaseball had plenty of depth underneath its surface. It was depth for some of the most silly things imaginable, but filled with depth nonetheless. Even just taking a stroll through the game’s wiki page would have you inundated with different (and ridiculous) player names, modifications, items, crazy weather forecasts, and a boatload more.
This is part of what made Blaseball so engrossing. You’d hear about players receiving a “Literal Arm Cannon” item and still enthusiastically follow along to see if they escape an inning without giving up too many runs. And then the next day you might see entirely different scenarios.
I could conjure up any number of things right now — exploding scoreboards, first base temporarily transforming into caramel, gloves — and there’s a chance I may be telling the truth. There was always something happening to over-analyze to your heart’s content.
The same way you’d look into a real-life ballplayer’s batted ball data on FanGraphs, you’d find scores of weird observations from not just the wiki, but fans themselves. But instead of being as paramount to understanding the events in Blaseball, or succeeding at it, this was more like some extra creamy, Nutella-filled fluff. One might say baseball was easy to learn but hard to master, while Blaseball was hard to learn and easy to master; they are and were, in many ways, the Yin to each other’s Yang.
“I think one of the funniest things though about the stats community is that there’s this inherent comedy in it that allows all these math heads to just shit post constantly” says Trinidad. “And it’s great cause, like, that doesn’t land anywhere else. Nowhere do you get a big enough audience for your comedy routine about numbers than Blaseball.”
It’s an amusingly poignant observation, as any of those in the real-life baseball community familiar with folks like Jay Cuda will tell you the same exact thing can be found.
Some outsiders may wish that they could’ve seen some of this depth combined with their favorite real-life players they know and love.
After all, baseball can often be a cruel mistress with many of its stars being blockaded from exciting moments due to the rest of their team not living up to par (e.g. Shohei Ohtani and Mike Trout). But there’s an advantage, the developers say, with not being attached to the long history of the sport, where some folks will often get upset about inaccuracies or change.
“We didn’t have that problem. You get to feel like you’re part of creating this sport together, um, heading into our new era where like we’re designing it in a different way” says Joel Clark, the former lead designer on Blaseball. “Every season is gonna be a little miniature season where you can jump in at any time and get caught up so quickly and just be a part of the story.”
“The only thing that you can trust in is that, like, you’re a fan of this team and that crazy shit’s gonna happen each week, and we’re all at the mercy of that.” says Bell.
With so many moving pieces and genres being blended into one — and especially with baseball, arguably the most difficult to get into of all the major sports — Blaseball’s explosion of popularity wasn’t easily predictable. And that’s not just me talking.
Felix Kramer, former director of program management at The Game Band emphasizes how astounding the initial surge in popularity was. And it started, as viral things sometimes do, with unforeseen hilarity.
“I always joked that the number one moment that I was like ‘Oh no, this is gonna be something’ is when discord users discovered that the speech-to-text for everybody option was still on. And suddenly Sam’s computer just started talking because every single message was being read aloud. And I was like, ‘You sweet summer baby, you did not set up the discord for a popular thing,” they say. “And in that moment I was like, oh, we need to shift…it’s a measurement that requires us to think about this as a community and not just like a simulation that we’re running with silly outputs.”
The Sam in question was, of course, Sam Rosenthal, the founder of The Game Band. He, like the rest of the staff, emphasized how truly out-of-nowhere the whole thing was. In fact, it was originally meant to be a side project. And furthering the unexpected nature, morbidly enough, was that Blaseball first started right before the COVID-19 pandemic first kicked into full gear.
Bria Davis, community director at The Game Band, attested to this, saying “I think in a time where so many of us felt so powerless and out of control, baseball was this place where people could show up, have human connection, and at time that they were feeling isolated and feel a sense of agency, and control the experience they were building for themselves in a way that they didn’t have at the time.”
But it was also the subtext of what was going on that contributed to the vibe as well. “And then I think as the pandemic also revealed a lot of, um, flaws, we’ll say in our structures here — in the United States, at least — that finding a game that speaks to that feeling of confusion and outrage that a lot of people experienced and hurt a lot of people in our communities,” she says.
And the word “community” might be the most astonishing thing about Blaseball. It became the kind of thing you see for a cult-classic show, like Freaks & Geeks or Firefly, except it was instantaneous. On top of the stats from earlier, there were charities, merch, fan art, a card game, and even a cover of a Nirvana song replacing the words with Blaseball terminology. People felt like they were part of something bigger. And they were right.
And typically — for video games or sports — such a welcoming and all-encompassing community isn’t always easy to come by.
Rebekah Valentine, a senior reporter for IGN who covered Blaseball, also finds this to be true.
“There are tons of unmoderated, toxic communities all over gaming that are just unwelcome, uncomfortable places to be, “ says Valentine, “But I’ve found plenty of positive safe havens that exist because the folks who set them up did so with intent and thought toward making kind communities, and followed through on that vision by not tolerating awfulness and not propagating it themselves. Blaseball is one of those.”
But it’s not just the fans in the vacuum. They help make it all go around, sure, but good leadership is needed, too. If you were to peruse the internet for info on various gaming communities — whether it be actual game makers, influencers, or even publications — for even just a little bit, you’ll surely find no shortage of horrifying stories. In fact, if you’re a frequent user of the internet, you’ve probably already stumbled into some.
And, lord knows, the same goes for the sports community, too.
“I think it can get tense in there sometimes when groups disagree as to how to proceed, but some conflict is always normal. My experience in that community was always ultimately a kind one at the end of the day, and I think it’s because The Game Band 1) made a thing with the idea of taking care of others and working together at the heart of their art and 2) purposefully ensured its official community spaces carried that vision through.”
In a time when people needed, and still need, places to feel welcome, Blaseball was a mecha for creativity, inclusivity, and deep dives. Even if you weren’t the biggest sports fan heading into it or vice-versa, there was something there for you.
Some of The Game Band staff, as they told me, were baseball fans before the game blew up, but plenty of others weren’t. But after the game, they developed an appreciation for it, multiple times during our talks discussing the current state of MLB.
In fact, when we first chatted at the end of last year, the entire Zoom call boo’d me upon hearing I was a Padres fan. There was a Dodgers slant for most of the staff, especially given that the head of the company, the aforementioned Sam, is a Dodgers diehard.
On the opposite end, Rebekah, who had hardly been a sports diehard prior to Blaseball, felt it added just a teensy little bit to her perspective.
“I don’t know that it changed my view on real-life sports because I didn’t have a bad view on them to begin with. I think I recognize them as mostly not for me, but I enjoy the festivity of them, and Blaseball gave me a window to experience that myself for a bit, which I liked, “she says. “I guess I did go to a few minor league baseball games that I probably wouldn’t have attended otherwise, so maybe I am now an extremely, extremely light baseball fan as a result.
Unfortunately, the combination of sports and geek culture that Blaseball exhibited so well had one last attribute in common. Back in June, The Game Band announced that they’d be shutting Blaseball down permanently.
Speaking with Sam Rosenthal after the news, he explained that keeping the game up and running just wouldn’t be possible anymore.
“We tried and tried to adapt Blaseball’s design to a post-pandemic world and build the necessary mechanisms to turn it into a sustainable business. It was slower than we thought it would be, more expensive than we thought it would be, and difficult to quietly test as it had already launched live in the US,” he said over an email. “We had a rough launch in January that led to us deciding to pause the game, and the more we stayed the course the riskier and more expensive it became.”
The timing of Blaseball’s closure can not be ignored, either. Both the sports and gaming industry has been met with tons of layoffs before, but 2023 has been particularly brutal. Even the biggest companies like Epic Games (makers of Fortnite, which you might’ve heard of) and Naughty Dog (makers of The Last of Us, which you also might’ve heard of) have seen such losses. ESPN made waves of headlines with their layoffs of top talent.
While The Game Band isn’t nearly as big as those companies, the throughline remains the same. But the pride the team had for having had success at all and impacting so many with the game in the first place, should not be lost, either.
In reflection, Rosenthal says “Most of all, I think Blaseball will be remembered for its community. So many people came together to make art, share stories, and revel in the chaos – it was amazing to see.”
The older I get, the more it seems like individual people or even concentrated groups, try to make it seem like we’re all so different. We’re certainly different — the history of the world has done more than a hand in ensuring as much — but we don’t always have to be. Putting yourself, others, or ideas into one box is stupid.
Blaseball spoke to not just me, but so many others during perhaps the most unexpected and tumultuous moment in time possible. It wasn’t just an impressive game design on its own, or an impressive example of virality, but a remarkable example of a community and perfect synthesis of sports and video games alike.
It’ll be remembered for many reasons. And it serves as a reminder that maybe, in our own ways, we’re all a bunch of nerds.