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

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.

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.

“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.”

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.

“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.

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.”

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.”

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.

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.”

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.”