Pro sports have done their best to get back to it in the last month. Their return has brought magical moments like the Portland Trail Blazers resurgence and perhaps the dumbest play in baseball history. It also experienced continuing concerns over player safety amid the coronavirus pandemic, broadcasters solidly stuffing their feet in their mouths and an historic strike for racial justice across multiple leagues.
But before Thom Brennaman’s hot mic fiasco and Fernando Tatis Jr. painting a tribute to his radness all over baseball’s “unwritten rulebook,” another sport unexpectedly burst onto the scene. And isn’t even a sport.
It’s a splort. The splort of Blaseball.
OK, Blaseball isn’t a sport in the traditional sense. It’s actually the latest videogame from Los Angeles-based developer The Game Band. On the surface, the game is basically an idle, browser-based simulation set in an alternate, absurd version of baseball where players choose a favorite team from a pool of 20 created teams with colorful names like the Kansas City Breath Mints, Canada Moist Talkers or, my personal favorite, the Miami Dalé.
Players earn coins when their favorite team wins or by betting coins on individual games. Those coins can be used to raise the amount you can bet or earn when your chosen team wins and the cycle repeats.
But the true reason why Blaseball is catching on with so many people is that it places so much control of its evolving in-game world in the hands of its fans. Players can pay to vote for effects called Decrees and Blessings that can wildly change the league from season to season. For instance, players voted to open “The Forbidden Book,” resulting in rogue umpires that randomly incinerate players being introduced and the Moab Sunbeams being sucked into a hellmouth. Naturally, they’re now known as the Hellmouth Sunbeams.
Blaseball couldn’t be further from baseball yet still stays firmly rooted in the sport it reinterprets. And that philosophy is displayed even more so in the fervent fanbase that quickly rose around the game. Discord channel watch parties invoke that feeling of watching from the stands amongst other fans, reactions swaying with every algorithmic swing of the bat. And, like any passionate fan community in traditional sports, that fervor goes beyond rooting for a team. Fans have built out team and player social media accounts, stat collection teams, play-by-play broadcasts and news and analysis wires. It’s given this spartan videogame the feeling of a lived-in league barely a month after its July launch.
What makes Blaseball feel different is that the onus taken by fans to run with the ball is 100% celebrated and supported by the team behind the splort. And that freedom has led the fans to craft something much more organic, rich and unabashedly queer. “I think the hope was always that Blaseball could be ‘the people’s baseball’ and sometimes leaving space for fans to come up with their own ideas is the best way to do just that. It’s a nice byproduct of some interesting constraints in design,” Blaseball producer Felix Kramer told Outsports.
“The people’s baseball” is perhaps the best adjective for what Blaseball embodies. Fans attachment to the oddly named players and humorous teams began to manifest in a communal, inclusive worldbuilding effort. From copious amounts of fan art, player backstories and fan fiction-esque narratives around players, teams and in-game events, the Blaseball community built out a world that extends an olive branch to all that wish to engage with it.
“Blaseball is communal by nature – you have to come together with the other players to create the change you hope to see in the league,” Blaseball creative director Sam Rosenthal told Outsports. “The game design and narrative pieces are full of progressive values, but we’re still extraordinarily lucky that Blaseball attracted an audience that upholds those beliefs.”
Those values definitely come through in how the fans have built out its world alongside the developers. Nearly every Blaseball player is LGBTQ in some form and almost every team social media account is adorned with LGBTQ Pride imagery. There’s even an entire team, the San Francisco Lovers, that canonically is comprised of one massive LGBTQ polycule that formed a team because their non-binary head, Knight Urlacher, thought it would be fun. There are inter- and intra-team romances developed with equal parts humor and heart.
Fan-made player Twitter accounts live out these stories online. The most gut-wrenching moment in league history to date was the incineration of beloved Hades Tiger and non-corporeal spirit Landry Violence. “It’s so cool to watch people build out their headcanons,” Kramer said. At the core of this creative explosion is the culture of acceptance Blaseball has promoted from day one, a practice that stands in opposition to traditional sports’ slower pace toward similar attitudes.
“Baseball — and sports in general - have a lot of work to do when it comes to inclusivity, accessibility, etc, and it’s not limited to the organizations. It extends to the fanbases,” Kramer said. “I think the barrier to entry on becoming a fan of any sport is super high, and has a lot to do with joining a community, learning from each other, buying into rivalries. It’s easy to be intimidated by it all in real life. I’m hoping that Blaseball can strip some of the scary parts away,” they added.
“There are so many more people who might enjoy sports if the leagues had different values. If they weren’t so afraid of losing existing fans, they might see all the potential fans who feel alienated from the messaging and don’t see any reason to take part,” Rosenthal added.
Sports communities have made strides toward similar environments of acceptance, but the Blaseball fandom harkens to a moment when that future is the present. The recent strike from athletes in multiple leagues in response to the shooting of Jacob Blake speaks heavily to that progression. Blaseball joined that movement by suspending its games and releasing a statement in support of the Black Lives Matter movement on August 26.
That decision bore out of The Game Band’s own values, but it also added to the already massive push for social justice causes and organizations Blaseball fans cultivated under the #BlaseballCares initiative. Fans took it upon themselves to use Blaseball’s growing popularity to promote local and national organizations benefiting LGBTQ, BIPOC, houseless and other marginalized communities, putting the league’s “We are all love Blaseball” motto into action of their own impetus. It is now a weekly practice. Sundays are #BlaseballCares days and the promoted causes are part of Blaseball’s regular bulletin.
“We’re all incredibly humbled and proud to see the community organize so quickly around such important causes. I’m just honored that we can at all say we are part of it,” Kramer said. “It’s all the community, and watching them work is really, really awe inspiring. We’re working to incorporate it even more into the core game.”
That relationship between Blaseball’s developers and community continues as its fifth season gets underway this week. And it isn’t anywhere near ending. “We have ideas and inklings for where we’d like to take things, but Blaseball is a dialogue between the designers and community and we want to keep it that way,” Rosenthal said.
No matter where the game goes in the future, from the Grand Unslam saga to songs chronicling Seattle Garages fans’ disappointment with pitcher Mike Townsend (a personal favorite of Kramer), Blaseball’s prevailing message of acceptance and creativity will be its driving force.
“Blaseball is for everyone, belongs to everyone, and loves everyone. It encourages people to come together and be inspired by each other’s creativity,” Rosenthal said. “No matter who you are or where you come from, you will be treated with respect and kindness. All are welcome here.”
The Commissioner is doing a great job.