Baseball fans looking for a diversion from the ceaseless bargaining updates full of proposals and counterproposals can find an escape in the world of “Blaseball”, though they’ll have some catching up to do.
The Game Band studio launched “Blaseball” last time MLB was on hiatus, in the summer of 2020, offering simulated action featuring 20 teams full of made-up players (a popular league that doesn’t require players? Don’t let the MLBPA hear about that…). Simple graphics and texts relayed results of games between the Philly Pies, the New York Millennials, the Hades Tigers, etc. The player names are even more out there; in the inaugural season, Betsy Trombone led the Pies to the first Internet Series title. Games last less than an hour and entire seasons play out over a week. But it didn’t take that long for fans to realize that more than the names were different.
“It’s an absurdist horror take on baseball,” The Game Band founder Sam Rosenthal said during an interview, with the concision of someone who has had to explain the game before. Absurdist? Well, part of pitcher PolkaDot Patterson’s effectiveness came from the 87 fingers they had to work with. Horror? Over 100 players have been incinerated. Others have been “scattered” or sent to the shadows. To say nothing of the ominous “Shelled One,” The Forbidden Book, or black holes. (I warned you there was some catching up involved here!)
From the beginning, developers let users control the action through weekly votes that bestowed benefits on individual teams and changed the rules of the game entirely. In “Blaseball”, you don’t play as a pitcher or hitter (like in “MLB The Show”), or as a personnel boss (a la “Baseball Mogul”), but instead as a fan, albeit a more powerful one.
“What if instead of Rob Manfred making decisions that you hate, you and all the other fans watching the game could decide its future?” Rosenthal said, continuing the sell. The Game Band says “Blaseball” signups are in the “hundreds of thousands” after less than two years since its introduction, and many of those participants have gone beyond cheering and voting.
Much of the “Blaseball” experience exists in places beyond blaseball.com. There are Discord channels full of community chatter, Twitter accounts teeming with fan-produced art, and even stats galore on Blaseball Reference. Splort Magazine honors stars on its covers. Tlopps sold packs of trading cards. Of course, there is a debate over who’s the GLOAT. If it doesn’t exist already, fans could one day pick their own rosters of “Blaseball’s” invented players and compete based on their in-sim stats, i.e. fantasy fantasy baseball.
Between the investment in a virtual world and the community-powered intrigue, “Blaseball” shares plenty in common with NFT-based metaverse siblings.
“The difference though, is that we have a massive fanbase that is making things for the sake of making things … It’s not about profit motive,” Rosenthal said, “It’s not about ownership. It’s an artistic influence, not a financial one.”
The game is free to “play,” as it were. The Game Band has so far made revenue through on-site ads and some merchandising. It also once had a Patreon account. In the world of the game, its administrators play the role of Baseball Gods, which is ironic given that Rosenthal often describes “Blaseball” as something of a Hail Mary for his game studio.
A deal for another game had fallen through. The company was down to a half-dozen people following layoffs. Rosenthal was back at his family’s apartment in New Jersey at the time, so his dad—MLB reporter Ken Rosenthal—was one of the first to hear about the concept.
“I remember vividly,” Ken said. “He tried to explain it to us, and we could not fathom what this was… We just looked at him like he was crazy.”
I’m telling you, Sam said to his parents, in my circles on Twitter, it’s going to be big. I promise.
Sam was right. The game caught on, aided by the lack of alternatives months into the pandemic and what The Game Band product designer Gabe McGill called a “feedback loop of intensity.”
“Those first few weeks, the website kept crashing because there were too many people visiting it,” McGill said. “People would get more and more excited about what was happening in Blaseball, then Blaseball would sort of crash, because there were too many people interested in it, which would just make them more excited for it to come back.”
People were less often confused about the plot’s various twists than about the rules of balls and strikes, as they came to Blaseball from the realms of gaming rather than the fields of sports.
“I found that every community I was in—from gaming Discords to Reddit, the comments section on Polygon, YouTube and TikTok, and more—was talking about ‘Blaseball,’” metaverse expert and investor Matthew Ball said. “We always think about a ‘new’ thing as a minor update to the old one. ‘Blaseball’ isn’t just ‘fantasy baseball’ or simulation baseball, but a brand new experience built around its ideas and fans.”
Ball connected with Sam Rosenthal via The Athletic co-founder Alex Mather, and participated in a $3 million seed round for the studio last year. “We laughed at him, but he had the last laugh,” Ken said Monday.
The team is now updating the game for next season (or “era,” in Blaseball parlance). A mobile app is in development, as are additional ways to make it easier for fans to keep up with the fast-paced league, where players constantly change teams but also deal with allergic reactions, having their blood type changed to grass, and whatever else fans or developers come up with next.
If it all sounds like a bit too much for you, the college baseball season started this weekend. On Earth.