Tribalism In A Nutshell — How Blaseball’s Fan Community Fractured in Eight Short Weeks
Week eight of the surprise internet sensation Blaseball came to a close this Saturday, leading to the site’s second extended break from an otherwise endless stream of computer generated fantasy baseball. After weeks of growing interest driven by a flood of online think pieces, the often inscrutable fan-culture of betting, idolizing, and mourning the sudden loss of fictional sports characters has taken this opportunity to enter a hiatus of their own. Moderators in the game’s official Discord started the week by initiating a fifteen-minute break between posts for thousands of users, dubbing this state of staggered posting a “hibernation” for the Blaseball community.
Behind the curtain of Blaseball’s latest break lies an undercurrent of unrest — with an official statement from the Blaseball Discord asking users to avoid “hot takes” during hibernation and the channel for discussing the Blaseball fan-wiki renamed to “No-Discourse-Lore”, it’s difficult to miss a growing call for splorts fans (yes, “splorts”) to keep the rowdiness of real sports culture in check.
Meanwhile, in a channel only accessible to supporters of the Philadelphia Pies, users openly lament the popularity of their star batter Jessica Telephone.
“I have come to hate this character and everything that surrounds her,” one user types, echoing a growing drive in the Pies’ channel to reinvent their biggest-named player. Moderators of the wiki leap between team channels to mediate in a maligned effort to shift Jessica from the league’s polyamorous big sister to an ill-tempered skater-punk dubbed “Dirtbag JT.” Where Jessica Telephone had a list of wives that spanned centuries human history, JT’s vaping habits are tearing her relationships apart.
If this all sounds like nonsense to you, welcome to the cultural event of Blaseball.
Baseball at Your Mercy
Taken at face value, Blaseball is a fandom layered over a random number generator. Characters are sorted onto one of twenty eccentric teams and assigned traits from a pool of names, stats and just enough information on their pregame rituals or favorite coffee for fans to humanize. Money is used to purchase in-game ballots to vote on new rules (past options have included the permanent addition of a fifth base to the field) or boost their favorite team’s chance at a boon from a list of weekly “blessings.” Games play out in real time in a text based interface, letting fans react to every strike, pitch, or — in extreme cases — incinerations of players by the game’s murderous umpires.
What elevates Blaseball to a “cultural event” is the way its developers at the Game Band have blurred traditional lines between consuming media and participating in a fandom. The game’s official Twitter account rarely breaks kayfabe of posting in-character as the Internet Blaseball League’s commissioner, who often interacts directly with roleplayers taking on the personas of Blaseball Players and fan-run accounts representing each of the game’s teams.
Eight weeks of fan response to almost daily games have given rise to a robust Blaseball mythos, with hundreds of fans providing their own interpretations of the game’s randomly-assembled characters through fanart and roleplaying accounts. While the Blaseball Wiki began as a resource for keeping track of Blaseball’s rules, it’s evolved into a thousand-page database of lore created entirely by the people watching the game play out. In Blaseball, following the tragic romance of a sentient mass of flowers and a socially awkward vampire is as much a part of the experience as gambling on a season’s championship.
The Discipline Era Continues
Blaseball’s biggest secret is that its fandom is at odds with the game it’s built around.
In truth, Blaseball is a horror story about maintaining communities in the face of constant tragedy, a detail you’d be forgiven for missing if you’ve only watched the game develop from the sidelines. Sure, fans have been making reference to the odd incineration since season two, but it’s easy to mistake this as just one surreal mechanic to keep the roster fresh in a game punctuated by its apparent absurdity. The first social media buzz that surrounded the site was filled with endorsements of a vibrant fandom, a roster of LGBT+ characters, and the game’s utility as a distraction from a world where many people feel increasingly powerless.
But read enough articles from early September and you’ll see the more than a few players named that didn’t survive the month. Dig a little deeper, and you’ll realize that the threat of death is a constant presence that hangs over the game’s narrative. The list deceased players on the Blaseball Wiki is over seventy entries long to date.
There’s a critique of sports culture somewhere at the heart of Blaseball. Players are forced to participate in a hostile environment where the good of the league (and the malevolent talking peanut behind it it) is valued above the health of the people in it. The parasocial relationships between fans and players are monetized and exploited, with in-game leaderboards of idolized players being used to determine who gets traded or outright killed at the end of a season. The horror of Blaseball’s “Discipline Era” has been a slow burn that only really managed to take center stage after a community-wide effort to resurrect a fallen player ended in a week of mass-incinerations for the league.
Blaseball’s earliest fan-works may have invoked a sense of light, offbeat surrealism that would feel right at home in Welcome to Night Vale, but the game’s escalating bloodshed has taught fans that their favorite characters are always in danger when they step up to bat. The cast of Blaseball are transient actors at the mercy of dice rolls. Despite the fanbase’s investment in the world they helped build, their options for directing that world are limited — and the question of who gets to wield them is increasingly contentious.
Splortsmanship, Splortsmanship, is Dead
The Baltimore Crabs are the most successful — and most maligned — team in Internet League Blaseball. The reason lies in their status as the game’s most popular team, which has granted them more voting power in seasonal elections than any other fandom in the league.
The team’s winning streak, organized voting strategies, and vocal fandom come together to paint a target on the two-time league champions’ backs. Other teams — particularly the Hades Tigers, who the Crabs once campaigned to “tame” through early-season blessings — are rarely enthused by the Crabs’ unbroken winning streaks season-to-season. Their current leg up on their competition has made their more eccentric antics, which include a recent attempt to make a list of dead players spell their team’s name, feel more like flaunting their voting power than good-natured splortsmanship.
The Crabs’ meteoric rise also underlines the lack of any true control fans have over Blaseball’s core mechanics. It’s likely the team will clinch a third championship victory some time in the near future, but their success in the league has always hinged on the roll of the dice. Last week’s post-season elections saw the team walk away empty-clawed despite securing a majority vote in seven separate blessings. It’s a good example of how raw numbers only go so far when the most organized voting campaigns are still determined by random chance.
For now, the Crabs remain the biggest winners of Blaseball’s numbers game. For everyone else, the real power to influence Blaseball is in its lore.
…Your Former Team Will Be Disappointed, But Understand
The Blaseball wiki’s mission statement is one of collaboration and inclusivity that advises its writers “be open to making changes to [their] work” work to reach consensus with other members of the community. In practice, it’s become increasingly difficult for the community to decide whose consensus sets the stage for a character’s portrayal.
Anyone may be free to draw a design for their favorite character, but the popular perception of Blaseball’s cast is driven by what designs get circulated. Team identity played an important role in Blaseball’s earliest seasons to organize creators around different groups of characters. In the same way the Crabs can drive the most total votes towards a weekly decree, an organized team can provide the most vocal consensus on a character’s identity. Even when fans use the wiki’s Interdimensional Rumor Mill feature to randomize a character’s history each time their page is refreshed, the end goal is rarely to create a new take on the character altogether.
In the past, the wiki’s moderators have ruled in the favor of a team’s community-at-large whenever the limits of creative writing strain. When users raised objections to the Hawaii Fridays’ interpretation of York Silk as an eight year old boy in a game where players are frequently burned to death, the Fridays were ultimately trusted to handle the narratives of their character in good faith. While little is certain in the world of Blaseball, the fanbases organized around its teams have always held implicit authority when it comes to their characters. Not everyone agreed with this line of thinking (the most vocally disgruntled voices from those debates vaguepost on twitter to this day), but it hasn’t been a major source of tension until now.
The Pies’ initiative to reinvent Jessica Telephone has highlighted the fragility of “character ownership” in the world of Blaseball. Jessica’s bounced between several times prior to settling into the Pies’ roster in season four, while her status as the game’s highest-ranked batter during this time elevated her to a role as the face of Blaseball to many fans. Jessica Telephone, the time-travelling sports star with as many wives as home-runs, has been the subject of enough fanart, writing, and cosplay to be immediately recognizable even to casual fans of Blaseball’s betting game. But very little of the history behind the fandom’s favorite batter was written by the Pies, which has left the team for four seasons with a character they didn’t feel in control over. If people didn’t like their new JT, so be it — maybe their best player would would stop getting trapped in a big peanut once she fell off the idol leaderboards.
The animosity between the Pies and Telephone’s assorted fans shouldn’t come as a surprise when the the allure of Blaseball as an inclusive world-building space inspired characters people closely identify with. Some have called diminishing Telephone’s status as a role-model an act of transphobia, while the Pies have called her previous incarnation fetishizing and exclusionary. There’s a fair deal of personal investment at stake that goes beyond what anyone intended when Blaseball began.
The fandom has been grappling with the transience of their character’s lives since week two, but these characters’ identities remained the one thing they felt they could control before week eight. When none of the fans can control haw characters die, then all that’s left is who gets a say in how they lived.
Who writes Jessica Telephone? If everyone says the Tacos’ new pitcher is a scab, are they allowed to refute that? Is it wrong for other teams to resurrect Randall Weed after his team worked together to tie up his story? If the Moist Talkers trade a baseball-playing duck to the Garages, can the Garages declare that the duck is a handsome duck man now?
If York Silk gets traded and then incinerated, who gets to write his send-off?
The Commissioner is Doing A Great Job
At the time of writing, Jessica’s page has been locked in a state of uneasy compromise. A heavily edited version of of the Pies’ new lore sits at the bottom of the page, amending the history it was meant to usurp. JT isn’t ruining her marriages anymore, but she does still vape.
It’s a band aid on a growing issue with the community’s structure, and one that Blaseball’s volunteer moderators rarely feel equipped to handle in the long-term. Flipping on slow mode only delays an argument for so long.
In the Pies’ channel, a wiki admin assures fans that new guidelines for character ownership are being worked on.
“I look forward to seeing those,” a user responds “but I truly doubt these issues can be resolved with guidelines.”
Even from inside community it can be hard to figure out what the point of Blaseball is. All we have to go on is the Game Band’s statement that Blaseball is a game about community building in the face of horror and uncertainty. In that regard, I’d say Blaseball has succeeded.
I just don’t know if it was a particularly good idea.