9:03 AM EST on March 3, 2021
In early December, I took my dog on her daily walk. It was sunny and cold. I wore, as I wear every day, a baseball cap to keep the sun out of my very delicate eyes. My dog was being a little bad because she is afraid of the wind and does not like when it blows in her ear, so I was grumpy. A short walk, I decided. Too windy. But I made a mistake and decided to walk across the bridges.
Near my apartment there are two giant bridges that are more than 100 feet high. You can look out over the trees at sunset and see all the colors of leaves changing in the fall.
Or, you can hang your head over one side and look way, way down to watch the cap you had been wearing blow right off your damn head as it drifts lazily through the air until it lands on the roof of a National Park Service building. “No!!” I yelled after my hat, scaring my dog.
I wanted to cry, looking at my hat all the way down there on the roof, but it felt extremely ridiculous to cry over a cap when I have like 20 others I could wear. “Was it a sentimental hat?” my parents asked me on the phone later. “No,” I said. “It’s just a silly hat.”
But after I said it, I felt the lie. I loved wearing that hat. On the front of it is a pie surrounded by flames. The crust of the pie is embellished with the word, “DIE.” The back of the hat is an embroidered saying: “Pie or Die.” It’s a good hat because on a surface level it says that I will die if not given pie, which is basically true. What it actually stands for is something so absurd that every time anyone noticed my hat, I got wildly excited. There was always the off chance that someone, some poor naive soul, would look at it and ask me what it meant. And then, well, they too would have to learn about Blaseball.
I started playing Blaseball in mid-September, just before the beginning of Season 7. The more I complained about the uncomfortable moral balance of watching sports during a pandemic, the more people in my Twitter mentions were saying, “Blaseball.” This, I thought, was a joke among people who don’t like sports the way “sportsball” is a joke. But it turned out to be an internet game. I like sports. I like (some) games. I thought I would write a straightforward story about how the game worked. Maybe an oral history, I told my editor. Two week turn-around, no problem. And then I fell in love.
On the surface, the game is simple. Blaseball is an internet game created by The Game Band that launched in mid-July of 2020. There are 20 fictional teams who play fictional games every hour on the hour, Monday-Friday. At the end of the week, there is a playoff. The winner of the playoff is the Champion. Cool! Easy enough. The main page at Blaseball.com shows a scoreboard of every game currently playing with a play-by-play ticker. This is not unlike the sidebar on ESPN or the scroll at the bottom of any MLB game. You can see the score, and the basic baseball diamond silhouette, shaded at times when there are runners. Seems pretty straightforward. Except none of the teams exist outside of a server, and some of the players have been raised from the dead.
One tab over is where you make your bets. The way you play Blaseball (not as a fictional character, but as a real flesh-and-blood person) is to bet money (also fake) on the games the way you would in a daily fantasy league in order to become rich. At the end of the season (the week) you, and all the other Blaseball fans, use your fake money to buy what are called vote tickets. This is what makes Blaseball interesting. Unlike Major League Baseball, where you watch the games and then at the end of the season bitch about whatever decisions Rob Manfred made, Blaseball puts the destiny of the sport partially in your hands. Using the vote tickets you and your fellow fans vote on “decrees” (created by The Game Band designers) to decide the future of the game. You might vote to add a fifth base, or open a forbidden book, or give a player a fancy bat that lets them hit .700. The narrative of the game rests in the decisions fans make.
My first day, I played Blaseball like this: I bet money on games with high win percentage odds and I amassed a small but mighty (8,000 coins!) fortune. Mostly this gave me a small distraction from checking my email and The New York Times' COVID-19 tracking numbers. I clicked over to the site just before the top of the hour, bet on my games, and looked away. It was a Monday. At mid-day, I spoke with the creators of the game.
Sam Rosenthal, creative director at The Game Band, told me that he and Joel Clark, a game engineer and designer, came up with the idea for Blaseball at a real-life regular baseball game. Remember those? The Dodgers, he said, were losing badly. “We started to have a conversation about like ‘What if this game was not this? What if the players had to run around with jugs of water on their head or something?’” Rosenthal says. “We thought we would make this game as a fun little side project and then it took over our lives.”
I laughed. I didn’t understand. It did seem hard to build a game, but wasn’t a simulator running the games? Yes, they said, of course it was. But it’s not really about the games. The scores matter in that the winner gets the glory, but the Game of Blaseball is about more than that. It’s about the nature of being a fan. “We made this before real baseball came back, and kind of rushed to beat it,” Rosenthal says. “We wanted to give people a sport.”
Though Rosenthal says he has never played fantasy baseball, the other two founders have, and all three founders are currently in a fantasy basketball league together. “Fantasy sports was definitely one of the major inspirations for Blaseball,” Rosenthal says. “We have a lot of ideas for ways to deepen the Blaseball experience going forward, and our struggles playing fantasy sports continue to be an inspiration for that.” But Blaseball isn’t a fantasy sport. It’s its own sport, or a twisted version of a sport. The fans have dubbed it “a splort.”
“Do you get invested in it like a real sport?” I asked. Of course, they said. They recounted a couple of nights where they’d stayed up late, yelling at the homepage of Blaseball.com as it showed a game in progress, freaking out as a fake player rounded third and stole home in a playoff game. It did sound exciting, I admitted. But I couldn’t figure out how to get emotionally invested. It was only a game in another browser tab, I told myself, despite regularly crying over games on television which I also have no personal control over.
To be clear, the games are very much a part of it. Who wins and who loses can give fandoms a boost or ruin a day, though sometimes not the way you think: In Blaseball, losing is celebrated; once you are out of contention for the title you’re declared to be in #PARTYTIME. “A lot of the story is told by the computer and by us,” Joel Clark says. “But a lot of it is told by the community. We can kind of see what those two aspects are doing and react off of it.”
“Okay, so it’s a sport,” I said, “but how do you explain it?” They all laughed. “The amount of times in the last 10 months that I have followed the question of ‘what is Blaseball?” with a deep sigh is uncountable," says Stephen Bell, a game designer and writer for The Game Band. "How much time do you have?" I told him I had all the time in the world. Because what else was I doing?
When you ask fans of the game what Blaseball is, they answer in one of two ways: Either they tell you that it is a computer game, a sports fandom simulator with a community and rules and stakes, or they begin laughing uncontrollably. Even the people who spend the most time playing Blaseball, the superfans of the game, aren’t sure where to begin, and that’s because like every sport the answer to the question is both “It’s a game,” and “If you bunt the ball foul with two strikes it is an automatic out and if the pitcher motions toward home before throwing toward first base, the runner gets to go to second base.”
I asked Bell and Rosenthal what I should be looking for while playing that first day in September. Both of their eyes grew wider. I wrote in my notes that they had a secret because they looked suspicious. It was Monday, Sept. 14. While we were on the video call, a player in one of the games became “unstable,” something I would only notice after we hung up. But I didn’t know to worry about that then. “Okay,” Bell said. “The best thing you can do to learn is get in the Discord.”
Any sports fan knows that watching a team is only like 10 percent about the actual game in front of you. Sure, you want your team to win, but what you want more is the resolution to some story you’ve internalized as part of the team’s persona. You want the Yankees to lose. You want a true rags-to-riches turnaround for the Baltimore Orioles. What you are hoping for is a moment to remember. A true shared experience. We love the game, but what we love more is the lore. In 2019, I took my friends who didn’t like baseball to see the Washington Nationals play the Philadelphia Phillies. I would debrief them on the drama with Bryce Harper (leaving out how it was mostly the ownership’s fault that he left) and laugh and laugh while they wholeheartedly booed. What I was missing about Blaseball, I determined, was the story and the community. I needed “The Narrative,” the type of thing a talking head with shellacked hair on an ESPN studio show would talk about exhaustively; I needed a group of strangers to applaud with, a place that felt like it was bustling with the energy of a stadium.
So I did two things that afternoon: I logged on to the Discord. I was prompted by the same message from the main site: select your team. So I did. I picked the Philadelphia Pies and was immediately thrown into chat rooms only about the Pies. Then I did the best thing anyone trying to learn about Blaseball could do: I called Cat Manning.
Cat Manning is an emergent narrative game designer and fan of the Hades Tigers. She did not create Blaseball and doesn’t work for The Game Band, but she is a kind of ambassador for the game. Manning wrote the definitive primer on Blaseball on Aug. 20, ahead of Season 4. Immediately, she warned me that as a Tigers fan, we were enemies, but that for the love of Blaseball she could overcome that. Finally, I was getting somewhere.
There were some minor differences between Blaseball and regular old baseball, she told me. “People steal home more in Blaseball than baseball,” she said. “This is a sport for the technological class right now. The people who are watching are people who are looking at their computers in general.”
For her part, Manning got into Blaseball because she heard it was doing interesting things in the narrative games space and soon after found herself getting pulled deeper into the world. She did for me what any good fan does with a potential convert: teaches them a few juicy anecdotes. She told me about Landry Violence, a beloved player who was incinerated (killed) by a rogue umpire and how in her honor Blaseball fans say, “Rest In Violence” (RIV) whenever someone dies in the game (which is often). She taught me about how the vote tickets were both the glory and the terror of Blaseball, how fans in season one had voted to “open the Forbidden Book” (the official rulebook of Blaseball) and now were at war with angry and unknowable Blaseball Gods. She showed me the vast Blaseball fandom wiki page. For every question I had, Manning seemed to have an answer that spanned all (at that point) six seasons of Blaseball.
This was perfect, I figured. She could explain to me whatever this “unstable” thing was, and maybe why the founders’ eyes had gotten so big with secrets when I asked about it. “I’m guessing unstable makes fielding harder,” Manning told me. “That it does something to the defense.” Okay, great. I said. That must be right.
We were both very, very wrong.
“Are you in the Discord?” she asked me before we hung up. “Keep checking it.”
The next day, I bet on the silly little games, and I tried to keep up with the Discord. I began to read the Blaseball wiki pages that taught team history and style. I found myself typing “trust the crust” into the chat with my fellow Pies fans. By the end of the day, I was interested enough in the games that while watching television that evening, I set my laptop on my stomach and watched the ticker.
It was 8:00 p.m. on a Tuesday night. The games were going and I was betting my little fake coins, when the Discord exploded. Not just the Pies room, but every room. Everyone was yelling. People were typing “REST IN VIOLENCE” everywhere in the chat. I began getting texts from the few fans I’d already begun talking to for this story. I clicked over from the betting page to the page with the games on it. “Oh shit!” I yelled loudly enough for my partner to come from the other room and check on me.
“What’s happening?” he asked.
“I have no idea!” I screamed as I frantically typed in the Discord.
What had happened was inevitable, apparently. When you defy nature, there are always consequences. In Season 1, the fans had voted to open the Forbidden Book, and chose the path of chaos. Manning explained to me that through several seasons of voting and paying careful attention to absolutely everything, the fans had realized that (through a series of coordinated moves far too involved to get into here) they could bring a player back from the dead. There had been a heated debate. Should we (the fans) do a necromancy?
And so they had. The day before I began playing Blaseball, the fans strategically did a necromancy. One previously dead player (Jaylen Hotdogfingers) was now alive again. Jaylen was pitching on Monday afternoon when I spoke with the founders of the game, and she hit three batters on the Moist Talkers team. They were the “unstable” ones I had asked about. Manning and I had agreed that maybe it had to do with defense, but Tuesday night, watching the game, it became very clear that we had been oh so wrong. The Moist Talkers were playing a game in a Solar Eclipse (a weather condition in Blaseball). Suddenly, the players who had been hit by pitches that Hotdogfingers threw the day before were being incinerated left and right. “Unstable” didn’t mean fielding errors, it meant a high likelihood of death. “RIV!!!!” the chat yelled.
“AHHH!” I screamed frantically as I learned that a now-incinerated player was brand new. “AHHH!” I screamed two hours later, still looking at the ticker and the Discord, when in another game more players were incinerated. “AHHH!!!!” I screamed as people messaged me an original song by Blaseball fans that sang, “We’re sorry for raising the dead.”
And that is how I got trapped inside Blaseball.
The next morning, I woke up with a mild hangover. I’d accidentally drank extra beers staying up way too late to see if anyone else would be incinerated, to learn in one of the Discord rooms about a player named Kiki Familia who had only lived one day as a player on the Moist Talkers before meeting their demise. It felt weirdly comfortable, communal even. I did not know anyone in the chat. It was as close to feeling like I was inside a sports bar during a playoff game as I had felt, well, since it was safe to be inside bars for playoff games.
The game of Blaseball, I realized, wasn’t just about who was winning each season. It was about building a whole sport from the ground up: lore and merch and stats and all. The options for the future of the game (what decrees can be voted on, what rules exist, how the game even works) are determined in the two-hour daily writers’ room meetings The Game Band has over Zoom. But the heart of Blaseball, the things that draw people in and become harder to describe to an outsider, is controlled by the same people that control any sport: the fans. The robust culture of Blaseball wasn’t built centrally by the game’s founders, it grew as a natural result of dozens of people working for free and for fun to build out parts of the game that the founders hadn’t had time to even imagine.
“It’s honestly less about baseball than it is the stories we can tell with baseball,” iliana etaoin told me. etaoin is the coordinator for the Society for Internet Blaseball Research (SIBR), a volunteer-created organization that gave itself the task of building a database of Blaseball stats. The group communicates via Discord and is inclusive and caring. SIBR members who agreed to talk to Defector did so using the names they felt most themselves in, be it their legal name or screen name. SIBR was founded in early Season 2 and is now the unofficial records keeper of the game. Everything that happens in the game, they log. And remember, that’s 100 games a week for all 20 teams, plus the playoffs. “SIBR also has taken on the task of acting as researchers and as a wealth of knowledge, writing papers to inform the community of our findings and leaving our doors wide open so people can easily come in and get the questions they have about Blaseball answered,” SIBR member Dlareau says.
But like everything else in Blaseball, members of SIBR told me they view their work as communal, as a way to contribute to the community. “I like to think we're another avenue for Blaseball storytelling,” SIBR member Paranundrox says. “By cataloging player performance and attributes and analyzing them, we have a whole new data set that people can pull from to inform the characters and the stories they use them to tell.”
Maybe not surprisingly, over the seasons, SIBR has grown with the game. Now they have 10 to 15 active people as core members (which they call the Council of Diviners), who watch the games and update the statistics. Because Blaseball is more complex than regular baseball, they keep all the same stats MLB does (RBIs, Slugging, Batting Average, Hit by Pitch) and also stats like Games Per Game, Number of Fingers, Falsehoods, and Maximum Blaseball. Number of Fingers, for example, is an important statistic because some players have extra fingers. They know it’s silly. “When you close your eyes and see a graph go spinny. That’s us,” Astrid, a member of SIBR says. Given where most of us are emotionally right now, don’t we deserve to keep stats on how many fingers pitchers have in a simulated online baseball game?
The thing is, in every corner of Blaseball there is a community like this. It’s a booming hive of creativity, where collaboration and experimentation flow freely. In addition to the Discord there are podcasts that talk about the game, Twitch streams that do play-by-play based on the tickers, a news network (Blaseball News Network), artwork being made by fans, a full wiki complete with player historys and bios, over 730 fan fictions on A03, and most recently a full Blaseball musical.
“I feel like we pushed it in the direction and implanted the right values (inclusion, creativity, collaboration) and have since then watched it grow into its own vibrant self (while continuing to give guidance & moderation),” Joel Clark says.
For fans of the game, part of what draws them in is the creative community. Blaseball has its own band: The Garages, an allusion to the team the Seattle Garages. “I’m not a sports person. Not even slightly. But this place is just so big and vibrant and exploding with all of this creative energy,” says rain, coordinator of music for The Garages. By the time I started playing, The Garages had seven albums with songs contributed by 20 people. Their most played song on Spotify is “Mike Townsend (Is A Disappointment)” and it has almost 60,000 plays.
“Blaseball has been this unique force in my life that’s completely changed my ability to produce and create, and has also affected my ability to feel,” Q, founder of Blaseball Cares, a charity organization, says.
All of this creativity and collaboration is growing inside the Discord channel, which has grown to more than 30,800 fans. The Discord is managed by a team of Keepers who moderate the channels, make sure everything stays positive, and keep an eye on brewing fan movements. They work constantly. Each of the Keepers told me they spend at least 20 hours a week doing some kind of Blaseball related activity. They moderate at least 20 public rooms, plus the rooms for the individual teams. This is unpaid labor, a job they do because they love it, and for the most part, they say, people behave themselves. They’ve only had to ban six or seven people. “In a queer space and a horror game, I think that really speaks to how willing the community is to adjust and learn,” Aleksandria Minmaximus, a Keeper, says.
Because the Keepers see all the rooms, they note that, like most sports, there are two cultures in Blaseball: the culture of the overall game and the culture of your individual team. “One thing that’s really interesting about the Blaseball Discord in comparison to other game communities is that there are 20 discreet types of fans that each have their own culture and memes that they share,” said Elliot Trinidad, a Keeper who roots for the Unlimited Tacos most of the time. Sophia, a San Francisco Lovers fan, recently got a Blaseball tattoo depicting the newly instituted fifth base on her shoulder. “I’m pretty new to Blaseball, but I’ve just been won over by the community,” she says on the phone. “It’s not about fake people playing a fake splort anymore. It’s about the fans, and what we wanna see and how we want it to play out.”
“The demographic is pretty diverse. Very progressive, thoughtful, very online,” Cat Manning says. Across the board fans told me this was a space they felt safe, and happy, even if they hadn’t ever felt that way in other sporting venues. “It’s a group of primarily people who have been marginalized in other spaces craving expression, and Blaseball gave them a place to do that,” said Felix Kramer, lead moderator of the Blaseball Discord, producer at The Game Band, and fan of the Kansas City Breath Mints.
Though they in no way anticipated that Blaseball would grow into a cultural moment or that it would boom into a story that consumed all of their time and energy, the founders told me they did build it intentionally to have a political backbone. “The game text is pretty explicit in its politics,” Stephen Bell says. “The league is a bit of a capitalist nightmare.” This is an understatement. The Gods of Blaseball are the enemy of the people (an easy comparison to owners in real-life leagues). And though the moderators encouraged players—the human ones—not to discuss the presidential election in the Discord, as the final ballots were being counted in Philadelphia in mid-November, the main rooms of the chat were flooded with an auspicious and fitting chorus of “Go Pies!” and “Pie or Die!”
“I think it’s impossible to make a game that isn’t political. Joel and I had been playing with communal styles,” Sam Rosenthal says. “We had been looking for a way to bring a mass amount of people to organize within a game and work toward something bigger.”
One way the fans have done that is through Blaseball Cares, a fan-run organization that initially opened as an online store so that profits could be donated to the Milwaukee Freedom Fund in response to the Black Lives Matter protests. “I’d been lamenting the lack of volunteering options after my city shut so many things down due to the pandemic,” said Lacey “nem0” Wood of Blaseball Cares. In Blaseball Cares, she found an outlet.
Blaseball Cares sells all sorts of Blaseball merchandise designed by the community: unofficial “official” jerseys for every team, bomber jackets, postcards, Christmas sweaters, stickers, and (of course) Blaseball hats. It was from Blaseball Cares that I bought my Pie or Die hat as a little joke. The Blaseball Cares group says they have fulfilled almost 4,000 total orders made by 98 unique volunteer artists. They have donated just over $20,000 to the Milwaukee Freedom Fund, the National Alliance for Mental Illness, and a few other organizations.
“It seems like a natural extension of Blaseball itself to me: creative, empathetic and extremely inclusive, and I reveled in the opportunity to collaborate with other Blaseball fans, especially when there are good causes on the line,” Jasmine Rae Friedrich of Blaseball Cares says. For so many of Blaseball’s 30,000 fans, the beauty of the sport is the world they’ve found adjacent to it: one that’s welcoming and creative and that they are all building together.
After my hat was stolen by the wind and blown off the very high bridge, I realized that it was sentimental to me. I felt attached to that hat because while so many things this past year have been stressful and exhausting and scary, Blaseball has been fun. I have spent hours (days? Weeks?) of my life betting on fake games and reading fan fiction about players with extra thumbs pitching no-hitters and finding love. While other sports have had COVID-19 crises that made it unsettling to watch games and left me racked with an uncomfortable guilt, Blaseball held a Coffee Cup tournament just for fun.
“There’s such an impulse to doomscroll right now. Blaseball gives you an out. The stakes are so low and there is always something happening,” Cat Manning told me before my first season, and she was right. Instead of scrolling Twitter in the evenings, I just moved my habit to the Blaseball Discord where things were fun and happy.
I’m not alone. For a lot of people this year, Blaseball has been a space where they feel comfortable and welcomed and excited about something, even if it’s just a game. “I’ve been isolating since March and doing only online classes, but ever since Blaseball started, I haven’t felt lonely,” Ashley Kronebusch of Blaseball Cares, told me. “I think it grounded my life in something productive and meaningful when I really needed it most.”
That’s what it was. I realized this after I found myself leaning over the side of the bridge every day for a week, watching my hat creep closer and closer to the edge of the roof far below. Sure, the hat was funny and I liked it. But what I liked most about it was that when someone asked me about it, I could distract us both from all of the terrible things in the world with a strange and unruly diatribe about necromancy and extra thumbs and fifth bases. At their core, most sports are simple. They are more about the culture and community of a team than they are about who is on the field at any given time. So what does it matter if the players are fake and the games are simulated and each season is a week long? It doesn’t. It is just as much fun to force my friends to learn about the night all the players were incinerated ("Ruby Tuesday," as it would come to be known) as it is to teach them about Bryce Harper’s long-standing feud with the Giants.
Loving a sport isn’t about loving the actual rules of the game. We are fans because we want a space that feels like it's ours. For so long, I’ve thought about the community of sports fandom as high-fiving strangers after a good play in the stands, but it’s more than that. It’s the creation of a culture that lasts. It’s the ability to find passionate small talk with a total stranger at a party you feel out of place at and find a small moment of connection. That small commonality, that shared history and belief pulls us together. Rooting for our team together gives us a positive shared experience, something to hope for. In Blaseball, it’s also about using that community for good outside itself. Choosing to be a fan is a shared solidarity, an agreement among strangers to take care of each other and maybe root for the same thing.
“Blaseball was always designed as something to bring people together in a very weird time and give them a shared solidarity, a joyful distraction,” Stephen Bell says. That’s what happens in any sport, but when one doesn’t have real players and has been built right in front of your eyes, there aren’t any problematic faves or embarrassing history, there’s only the creation of a community that didn’t exist before. Blaseball, like every sport, brings strangers together. When I wear a T-shirt or a hat for my alma mater on a jog, I find strangers like me, who yell “hook ’em” or throw horns up. I wanted that with Blaseball. I wanted my damn hat back.
After more than a week of moping and leaning over the railing of the bridge, my hat disappeared from the roof. I ventured down to the park police building where it had landed and crept up to the fence where they keep the horses. There on the other side, covered in gross horse sand, was my hat! A Christmas miracle! I carried the hat home and washed it, and a few days ago wore it out in the sunshine, smiling like I’d won the lottery.
Wearing the hat now, I am gifted with the same hope all of my sports gear gives me: that maybe one day, when all of this is over, I will wear my hat out somewhere and a stranger will see it and know what it means. They will wave at me and yell “Pie or Die!” or ask me if the commissioner is doing a good job.
Correction (3:05 p.m. ET): The traumatic day of many incinerations in September was called "Ruby Tuesday" not "Bloody Tuesday."