Drop everything you're doing and play some 'Blaseball'

Take us out to the blall game.

At the end of the first season of Blaseball, a Forbidden Book emerged. Like most things in the chaotic, interactive baseball simulator, it was up to fans to decide whether or not to read it.

But, as there are few things more tempting than reading a Forbidden Book, we opened it, and you can guess what happened next: A solar eclipse shrouded the immaterial plane; the umpires’ eyes turned white, incinerating the Seattle Garages’ star pitcher Jaylen Hotdogfingers; a Hellmouth swallowed the state of Utah.

Welcome to Blaseball, a free web browser game that’s as engaging and enjoyable as it is horrific. Now a cult-favorite, Blaseball returns on March 1 after a four-month break, during which the developers improved the beta and made the game more sustainable.

Created by the Los Angeles-based video game studio The Game Band, Blaseball’s concept might seem simple at the outset — it's like watching the play-by-play of a Major League Baseball game, but the names are silly (Jessica Telephone plays for the Kansas City Breath Mints). What makes the independent game so captivating, though, is that it lets fans work together to shape the game's rule changes and larger storyline. It’s a text-based web game, but one that exists in the same lineage as online, community-driven phenomena like Twitch Plays Pokémon, or even collaborative role-playing games like Dungeons and Dragons.

When the pandemic hit, Sam Rosenthal and his friends stayed connected by playing web-based board games together. As founder and creative director of The Game Band, he saw an opportunity to bring people together online. At the time, most professional sports leagues were on hiatus, and the game designers at The Game Band missed watching sports. Rosenthal pitched the idea of creating a web simulation of horse racing, or maybe something weirder, like snail racing, but something wasn’t clicking. He thought that maybe baseball could work, since fans often follow along with games passively, checking in every few minutes while doing something else.

It’s always fun to get competitive over things that don’t really matter.

“Baseball is character-driven by nature,” Rosenthal explains. “You have the duel between a pitcher and a hitter, and you get so invested in those two characters, rather than focusing on all these different people that are in play at once.”

The team eventually came around to the idea. But Rosenthal remembers game designer Joel Clark saying off-handedly, “If we do this, we have to name it something silly, like Blaseball.”

That set the tone for the absurdist humor of the game. Fans are called “participants” in the “cultural event” of Blaseball, which is a “splort.” They earn coins by betting on games and idolizing their favorite players, and use those coins to vote on Decrees and Blessings at the end of each season. Seasons only last six days (“Sundays are for rest”) and games start every hour on the hour. The weekend election results impact the plot of the game, but things oftentimes get darker and creepier than the fandom expects. The Game Band considers Blaseball a horror game, even though humor often outshines the bloodbath.

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The minimalist, collaborative nature of the game inspires fans to develop in-depth lore together. There's a fan-made Blaseball musical, a record label, an intercontinental rock band, a statistics society, and a 1,501-page Wiki. Since Blaseball's design is so stripped-down, it makes space for fans — many of whom don’t participate in traditional sports fandom — to project the representation they want to see onto the game. According to lore, many Blaseball stars are queer, trans, or disabled, and the community has donated over $25,000 to organizations like the National Alliance on Mental Illness by selling fan-made art and merch. Blaseball is especially accessible because it’s free to play — The Game Band makes money on Patreon and through ad sales.

“It’s very similar to the experience of being at a real sporting event and seeing your team win,” says Robin Yu, a member of the Blaseball-inspired rock band The Garages. “But the interactivity that’s sort of baked into Blaseball brings you much closer both to the events and the people who are rooting alongside you. So it’s like, seeing your team win, but also you yourself and your cool new friends you just met on Discord feel like you have had a direct impact on your team.”

Since October, Blaseball has been on “extended siesta,” which is the studio’s way of saying that they’ve taken the game offline to work on updates. When Blaseball first debuted, it quickly went viral, amassing about 1.75 million hits in August 2020, the game’s first full month online. By September, web traffic nearly doubled. Eleven seasons in, it might seem hard to catch up with Blaseball before the game comes back, but fan-made resources like the Blaseball News Network help fill in the gaps on the minutiae of each season. After the extended break, The Game Band also plans to introduce “the feed,” a page that makes it easier to catch up. Still, when it comes to the basics, the barrier to entry is actually quite low — all you need to play Blaseball is an internet connection and a web browser.

It’s always fun to get competitive over things that don’t really matter, like whether the Canada Moist Talkers or the Mexico City Wild Wings will prevail, but the wins and losses are secondary to Blaseball. The real fun happens on Discord and Twitter, where fans cheer on their favorite players, developing fan lore and plotting how to allocate votes in the end-of-season election.

But during the second week (or season) of Blaseball, a few people took the collaborative nature of the game too far, hacking into Blaseball to give themselves unlimited peanuts, another form of seemingly useless in-game currency. The Blaseball Commissioner (the official Twitter account, run in-character by intern-interim commissioner Parker MacMillan IIIII) paused gameplay, and a giant peanut, later called the “Shelled One” appeared on the website, demanding the peanut thieves repent. Despite foul play, the elasticity of Blaseball allowed The Game Band to incorporate the incident into the larger plot.

“The peanuts were definitely the biggest surprise, because that was the site literally getting hacked,” says designer Stephen Bell. “But that gave us the Shelled One, you know, the Peanut. Basically from the end of that week on, we knew he was the main antagonist of the last era.”

Eventually, Bell says, the peanut thieves did come forward and apologize. Still, from then on, fans were more careful about testing the limits of the game, doing so in a way that wouldn’t break the site or anger the Shelled One.

“This kind of live web game — a massively, massively multiplayer, casual, social experience — is a newer thing,” Bell explains. “I think it’s a product of the last year, and the kinds of experiences people are looking for, especially in the conditions that we’re living under.”

As Blaseball continued to go viral, it established a larger audience that watched it find its stride in real-time. At one point, a “502 Bad Gateway” error occurred during a game between the Charleston Shoe Thieves and the Los Angeles Tacos, which caused the simulation to play out multiple different versions of the same matchup at once. On Twitter, the commissioner announced a brief siesta to fix the bug; meanwhile on the site, the Shelled One returned to chastise us for allegedly breaking the game with our greed for peanuts.

Instead of just fixing the bug and apologizing for the lapse in gameplay, the game designers once again incorporated their mishap into the growing lore. Fans referred to this incident as “the Grand Unslam.” By the end of season three, we learned that the glitch had such an impact on the space-time continuum that Los Angeles was torn into an infinitely repeating city — so, naturally, their team was renamed the Unlimited Tacos.

[T]here are still moments when fans work together to do something that the developers didn’t see coming.

The aftermath of the Grand Unslam was so convincing that fans wondered whether the Bad Gateway error was real or if it had been planned all along. At the end of the day, it really was just an error — but the incident illuminated what makes Blaseball so special: Even when things don’t go according to plan, the game designers act almost like they’re doing improv, fixing the problem under pressure but rarely breaking character.

This isn’t to say that The Game Band is more reactive than proactive — Rosenthal says that the team might spend between two and four hours per day in writers’ meetings, where they plot the arc of the story and riff on new ideas. Still, fans control where the plot goes and it’s simply The Game Band’s job to prepare for every potential outcome.

“There were multiple times where we were looking at the election results, and we were like, ‘Oh no, we haven’t made this one yet,’” Rosenthal adds. “One of the goals for this next era is getting ahead a little bit so that regardless of what the fans decide to do, it won’t cause a panic attack for us, which it did multiple times last era.”

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No matter how much The Game Band prepares, there are still moments when fans work together to do something that the developers didn’t see coming. In early September, as season six started, the devs introduced a new idol board mechanic, which invited participants to choose a player as their idol. However, some fans found an exploit that allowed them to idolize incinerated (dead) players, like the gone-but-not-forgotten star Jaylen Hotdogfingers. One of the end-of-season Blessings in the election would allow a team to “steal the 14th most idolized player” from the idol board. So, if an incinerated player became the 14th most idolized, would that make it possible to resurrect a fallen hero?

“Nobody was sure what was going to happen,” remembers Callahan Jones, creator of the Blaseball News Network. “It was all incredibly exciting, with the Discord moving at a mile a minute and everybody freaking out.”

Fans approached the Blaseball Commissioner on Twitter to ask if idolizing Jaylen would break the game. This is where the relationship between participants and game designers becomes more collaborative — it’s fun to test the limits of what fans can accomplish together, but no one wants to break the game again and suffer the wrath of the Shelled One.

“They just got a message back that said, ‘Blaseball is functioning properly. Continue to enjoy the experience,’' says Bell. “It wasn’t like, ‘Yeah, definitely do this,’ it was just, ‘No, you won’t break the game.’”

What ensued was a feat of fandom organization: Garages fans managed to resurrect a player from the dead, transcending what the designers themselves believed possible.

“We did have a debate about what would happen if they figured out how to put a dead player on the idol board,” Rosenthal remembers. “But we didn’t plan for necromancy.”

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As the Peanut once told us, “Blaseball is inevitable.” By season 10, the Baltimore Crabs became the first team to ascend, which means that they won their third Internet League championship. But, the team’s ascension triggered a Japanese RPG-style boss battle. A team called the Shelled One’s Pods faced off against The Hall Stars, a team of incinerated players. After fans worked together to solve a puzzle on the idol board, The Hall Stars pulled out a win, overcoming the tyranny of the Peanut.

[N]o one wants to break the game again and suffer the wrath of the Shelled One.

Blaseball puzzles have been compared to shooting a fish in a barrel, but 100,000 people have the shotgun,” Bell said. “We’re just sitting there watching the fans riffing, and making the idol board spell out funny things, and we knew that they had a matter of hours to not only figure out the puzzle, but then mobilize the community to make these things happen. And they came very close to not succeeding.”

As Blaseball returns, there’s no more Peanut God (though there are a giant squid and a coin). A new team called the Tokyo Lift has replaced the Baltimore Crabs. The Game Band thought it would take about an hour for fans to find out where the Crabs had gone, but it took us days to locate them in the most obvious of places:

In a recent press release, The Game Band shared that upon the return to gameplay, there will be new features that make it easier to keep up with events and collaborate, including “wills.” The Game Band writes, “Your community organization will go even further than before.” Plus, now Blaseball will follow a schedule of three weeks on, two weeks off — this gives both the game designers and the fans time to catch up with the fast-paced story.

The fan community reacted positively to these announcements, even though it means more frequent siestas from Blaseball. “It will help people keep up with the splort without having to breathlessly monitor Twitter and Discord to learn what happened while they weren’t looking at the site,” says Jones. “I also think the newly planned schedule will be great for the health of the community.”

Even for the most dedicated of fans, there’s a lot we don’t know about Blaseball. As the game returns from siesta, new participants need not worry about understanding every reference, joke, or plotline — even the Blaseball developers have to reference the Blaseball Wiki sometimes. In Blaseball, you’re never alone — you’re always working with others, even if you don’t realize it.