For me, 2020 has been a year of isolation punctuated with brief, bright flashes of contact. Playing Animal Crossing: New Horizons with friends in the first weeks of quarantine. The first socially distanced picnic of the summer, where I unleashed three months of pent-up words. My first hug, in late August, after five months without touch. It could be worse — it could always be worse — but this year has made me slightly feral, and it has left me very, very lonely.
It’s also been a bad year for my writing, and I can’t decide whether that’s because I’m too overwhelmed to create, or because the “everything” of it all is a great excuse not to. But in all this mess, I found a place of joy, of sustained enthusiasm, of people eager to make stuff in a moment that saps our collective energy.
I found Blaseball.
For our 2020 guide to the best entertainment of the year, Polygon is counting down our top 10 with a collection of essays along with our full Top 50 list. Throughout the month, we’ll be looking back on the year with special videos, essays, and surprises!
For the uninitiated, Blaseball is a fictional fantasy sports game modeled loosely on baseball. Twenty teams face off during the blaseball regular season, playing 99 games each week. The fans, who might otherwise be called the players, who are the real people who follow blaseball, can bet coins on games, and earn more coins to buy upgrades that allow them to bet and earn more coins. It can be an idle game if you let it — games happen, numbers go up. Everyone is happy, or sometimes sad.
Blaseball has light to intense creepy vibes — there is a sense that something is wrong with this world in which blaseball players Must Play Splorts, despite the fact that for a while there, it was likely they’d be incinerated by rogue umpires and sent to the Hall of Flame. Blaseball shares vibes with Welcome to Night Vale and Fallen London, even though both of those things involve lots of prose, and Blaseball looks like this:
But don’t let all the numbers fool you: Blaseball has a narrative, just not a traditional one. At the end of each season, the fans vote on decrees and blessings that will change how blaseball is played and what it means. The Game Band, the developers behind Blaseball, are excellent at doling out teaspoons of narrative via season-ending events — and at getting out of the way of their own erratic algorithm when required.
The players and the games are procedurally generated and managed probably by some sort of math I won’t even pretend to understand. What that has meant for Blaseball is that sometimes, shit happens. Sometimes that shit is game-breaking, world-breaking — once, RNG hell resulted in a team’s entire roster being renamed after one player, Wyatt Mason. And as the developers told Fanbyte, sloppy web development meant the fans almost destroyed the website by creating infinity, and also negative infinity, peanuts. But sometimes it means that against all odds, a perfect narrative asserts itself out of a mess of numbers.
Blaseball fans stared into this procedurally generated mess and started picking up threads, because that’s what people do: We make narrative out of nothing, because it pleases us to think that things matter. Structure provides comfort in chaos.
The fountain of creativity and connection that has come out of Blaseball is hard to describe. There’s art and fanfic, of course. A slew of podcasts and SportsCenter-style Twitch shows that provide live commentary for blaseball games. A band formed online, calling themselves The Garages after Seattle’s blaseball team, and they have released several albums of absolute bangers and made it into my Spotify Wrapped even though I just started listening to them in October. There is going to be a Blaseball musical. A group of data-oriented fans created the Society for Internet Blaseball Research and published a white paper that demonstrated that a potential new game mechanic would in fact mess up the game. And fans launched Blaseball Cares, a merch store that has raised $20,000 for charities since it went live at the end of August.
What these fans have latched onto is essentially white text on a black field, a minimalist website and a set of names — and it has given them the power to do anything and everything they could want. Fandoms have become increasingly visible and powerful over the past few years, for better and for worse. With Blaseball, the fandom has so far succeeded in creating wildly and with abandon, without stepping on too many toes, because Blaseball itself leaves so much unexplained and unexplored.
This is the pool I dipped my feet into in October, but in a lot of ways it felt like a throwback to a simpler time. It’s been ages since I’ve really participated in an online community around a game, talking to strangers and just enjoying the vibes.
After the last Blaseball season ended, I saw people tweeting about “a Garages concert.” I poked around until I stumbled into an audio channel that had just been open in the Blaseball Discord. Tinny music, choppy thanks to internet compression, filled my headphones — the Garages discography streamed out from somewhere, to everywhere. A hundred people were packed into the Listen Party channel, posting GIFs and announcing that each song slapped. In a year without concerts, this weird browser game fandom had replicated the feeling of hearing music in the distance, and following it until you find a grungy bar where everyone is having the time of their life.
I’ve been lonely, but Blaseball has become a point of contact for me. It’s an ephemeral, incomprehensible game that technically is played just by placing bets in a browser, but which mostly happens in the consensual hallucinations of its fans. It’s a reminder that people are really good at making stuff, even in times of hardship.
It’s a weird time to be writing this essay, because Blaseball is currently on hiatus and has been since season 11 ended in October. The game scaled quickly since its summer launch. No one expected it to become a viral hit, and the developers have been busting ass trying to get it back under control. Blaseball is coming back, but no one is quite sure when. That means that currently, the only way to experience the Cultural Event that is Blaseball is via all the fanfic and art: the fanmade wikis, the music, the podcasts, the relics that Blaseball has spawned in its five-month life. The fandom is still simmering quietly, waiting for the game to come back, sustaining itself on its own lore and its boundless need to make stuff.