How Blaseball’s fantasy sports fever dream is embracing the future

A star pitcher is resurrected from the Hall of Flame. A Hellmouth swallows the state of Utah. Crows descend on Tastykake Stadium, pecking slugger Jessica Telephone out of a peanut shell. This is Blaseball, the absurdist baseball simulator that captured the most delightfully wacky corners of the internet when it launched in summer 2020.

Developed by indie studio The Game Band, Blaseball arrived at a moment of global isolation and fear. So, naturally, swaths of extremely online gamers with lots of anxiety and too much time on their hands welcomed the distraction and developed an expansive, collaborative fan community. There’s an international grunge band with dozens of members; an hour-long, original rock opera about sibling sacrifice; a Blaseball News Network posting in-depth splorts analysis (yes, Blaseball is a splort); a data analytics and research society; Houston Spies fans hosting workshops about unions; and of course, thousands of fanfics.

Blaseball is inherently a collaborative game, like a vaguely sports-themed version of Twitch Plays Pokémon, or a massive multiplayer asynchronous Dungeons & Dragons campaign.

The Game Band also developed Where Cards Fall, a more “traditional” puzzle game on PC and Nintendo Switch, but Blaseball is more of a role-playing game with randomized elements than a video game. The Internet Blaseball League’s teams, like the Charleston Shoe Thieves, Ohio Worms or Canada Moist Talkers, face off against each other in text-based, simulated baseball-like games. But passively watching these updates isn’t the fun part — its communing with fans to impact the course of the season. You participate by betting on games with in-game currency, voting in weekly elections that allow fans to dictate the plot of the game, or helping your favorite team renovate their stadium (Go Philly Pies!). One stadium modification, for example, is “Ball Pit,” which declares that “Every Foul Ball hit in this Ballpark will be 5 times as Foul.”

DISCIPLINE by the garages

The game garnered 1.75 million hits in August 2020, its first full month online. Within a month, web traffic nearly doubled. It’s been over two years since Blaseball’s explosive debut, but inside The Game Band, the game’s instant success posed an insurmountable challenge to the small, under resourced studio.

“We were like five or six people when we first started making Blaseball,” said Sam Rosenthal, founder and creative director of The Game Band. “Talk about unsustainable. We made this as a quick and dirty prototype that blew up.”

As Blaseball inches closer to its long-awaited return, we talked to the team behind the game about how they plan to turn a viral hit into a viable business.

Image Credits: Blaseball

Rebuilding Blaseball

After ample beta testing and experiments to figure out how to keep up with their unexpectedly popular game, Blaseball went on a long hiatus (a “siesta”) in summer 2021, spare for some short tests. In the time since, The Game Band raised a $3 million seed round for Blaseball, allowing the project to increase its staff size five times over. The studio, now remote, finally has a fully built-out tech team, bringing in Jesse Raccio as director of engineering.

“Now, we’re actually writing style documents, which is unheard of for Blaseball,” joked game design lead Joel Clark. “Back in the day, it was literally just three of us in a call.”

Raccio joined The Game Band in August 2021, just as the second era of Blaseball, known as the Expansion Era, was ending.

“Blaseball was on my radar for a while, but I wouldn’t have considered myself a super fan. I definitely didn’t understand what I was getting into,” Raccio told TechCrunch. “Onboarding was like… that was quite the experience, with my first two weeks being the last two weeks of the Expansion Era, when everything was imploding.” Blaseball concluded the Expansion Era, as well as the game’s beta phase, by nullifying the existing story line and absorbing the league into a Black Hole. It was a plot-relevant excuse for the game developers to scrap everything and start from scratch.

The studio then hired a team of four full-time community managers, who also work on quality assurance. Many of these new hires — both in fan-facing roles and in engineering — joined The Game Band from the Blaseball fandom itself.

It’s taken Blaseball’s expanded team more than a year to revamp the game, which they’ve rebuilt from the ground up.

“We’ve redone everything essentially, from the core simulation that powers the game to the entire user interface of Blaseball,” Rosenthal told TechCrunch. “It is built in a way that allows us to be as fast as we were previously, but now on three different platforms, since the mobile app is coming out on iOS and Android.”

It wouldn’t be Blaseball if rebuilding the game didn’t come with its own flavor of chaos, though.

“Sometimes our tech standups go for 45 minutes, because we’re all just riffing over some beautiful thing that happened in the sim that broke in such a gorgeous way that we’re just gushing over it,” said Raccio. In recent internal tests, the team ran into a bug that caused games to spiral into perpetual extra innings, since neither team could get on base and score a run. “Every day, the engineering team would get more and more excited about the fact that this game was never ending. And we’d start to post logs of what was going on in the sim, and it just turned into multiple days of pure wackiness.”

These simulated games should usually last under an hour each, so a three-day-long game wouldn’t cut it in a live run of Blaseball. But this isn’t all too out of the ordinary in a game where you can score “unruns,” which give you negative points. And let’s not get started on fractional runs, which can generate final scores like 10.7 to 2.5.

Blaseball resembles baseball, but with a lot more chaos and… death (players can get incinerated — believe it or not, Blaseball is actually a horror game). But it’s also just pure fun. At one point, fans could modify favorite team’s stadium by adding a “secret base.” If you can run to first base or second base, why not a secret base? In practice, this stadium upgrade let runners on second base randomly slip into the secret base, and then, later in the game, they could unexpectedly reemerge, putting pressure on the opposing team’s pitcher. Also, those pitchers are named things like PolkaDot Patterson, Nerd Pacheco and Jaylen Hotdogfingers, because why not.

“And on the opposite side, right now, the games are going into triple digits — it’s like 126 to 85,” Clark said.

These simulation errors might be funny internally, but now that Blaseball actually has a tech team, The Game Band hopes that fans won’t find too many glitches to exploit, as they did in the game’s beginning. Some of the most iconic moments in Blaseball stemmed from technical errors that resulted from the game’s unexpected popularity, which overzealous fans turned into plot points.

Within Blaseball’s first month on the web, some sneaky fans hacked into the game — it was a prototype, remember? — and figured out how to give themselves unlimited peanuts, a form of in-game currency. It was almost like fans were quality assurance testing the game in real time, only the product had already been shipped. This offense may have broken the game, so Blaseball stopped game play and threw a giant, evil peanut up on the site, admonishing the thieves for committing Peanut Fraud and practicing bad “splortsmanship.”

But Blaseball folded this incident into the plot, and from then on, the main antagonist of that first era of Blaseball — the Discipline Era — was a frightening peanut known as the Shelled One.

Clark still wants fans to interact with Blaseball however they see fit, ideally without breaking the game and overturning an entire peanut economy. Now that The Game Band has right-sized itself, these hacks should ideally happen less often.

“How can we anticipate how this will break, and how can we build to plan around this more, to be ready to capitalize on things going in that direction?” asked Clark. “Now that we have a tech team, we probably won’t have infinite peanuts anymore… but I’m sure there’s going to be something that [fans] find.”

So I’ve had a load of fun getting into #blaseball this season and there was a tarot sub theme so of course I couldn’t resist some fan art!

— Haz (@EmilyIsDrawing) October 28, 2020

Blaseball moved so fast, even fans got burnt out

By the end of the Discipline Era, the great Shelled One had been appeased, and The Game Band took several months off to regroup and prepare for the next era of their unlikely hit. So many new features were added to the game — weather conditions like Jazz and Glitter, a school of salmon knocking players to another realm, and a concession stand run by a giant talking squid — that it became hard for fans to keep up. In the real world, it was March 2021, and fans’ lives were getting a bit more busy than they were during the height of lockdown.

Even for casual fans, the game became difficult to follow. And for the fandom creators who made the game’s community feel so special, Blaseball started to feel more like a commitment than a source of joy.

When Blaseball returned for its Expansion Era, Beck Barnes co-created the podcast This Week in Blaseball with gaming journalist Giovanni Colantonio, but found it nearly impossible to recap everything that happened in each season of Blaseball.

“I burned out really hard. If I wanted to keep my podcast viable with its original gimmick (recapping one season of Blaseball an episode), I had to really think about how to scale back,” Barnes told TechCrunch. “Long-term fan content like this is a marathon, not a sprint, and it can be important to pace yourself.”

The Game Band quickly realized the problem they had on their hands and hired “The Anchor,” a YouTuber who posts comprehensive, yet comedic season recaps.

Yet the game still felt difficult to follow, especially for fans who weren’t plugged into the official Blaseball Twitter and Discord.

“The reason so many people got burnt out on Blaseball, I think, is because the splort was just so much so fast, especially in the Expansion Era,” said Cat, a fan who runs the Blaseball News Network. “Fans would get emotionally attached and have art and [fan fiction] ready for a new player within hours of their joining a team, only to be shattered when that player gets incinerated.”

On one hand, it speaks to the impact of Blaseball that fans care so much about it that they got burnt out on making fan content. But also, fandom shouldn’t be stressful. So, The Game Band has made it a priority to make the game feel more manageable for casual fans.

“One of the main things that we’re trying to do is bring a lot of the conversation that happens outside of the game into the game,” said Rosenthal. “We don’t want you to have to follow us on Twitter to figure out how you can impact the game, or have to join the Discord and things like that.”

Again, Rosenthal was reluctant to share further details about these upgrades, but he did say that there won’t be a live chat function in the app.

“We saw that the vast majority of our fans that absolutely loved the game and stayed with it were people that joined the Discord, and are active in the community in some way,” he added. “But when we looked at the number of people that have signed up to play the game, and the people that have actually joined the Discord, a very small amount of people were in the Discord and got to see what was really so special about the communal nature of Blaseball.”

At the time of writing, Blaseball’s Discord server has over 28,000 members.

“We felt like if we don’t take a step back and and make this a lot better, Blaseball is going to continue on its current trajectory, which can be really exciting for its existing fan base but it will never get outside of that, and we don’t want that to be the case,” Rosenthal said.

My big project over the Blaseball break has been to draw every player that’s been on the Mints’ roster (and one player that could have been). Please click on the image, it’s pretty huge and Twitter will not show it all!#blaseball #kcbm

— Numbersninja – COMMISSIONS CLOSED (@Nestlenightmare) May 5, 2022

The Internet League is kind of sort of almost back

Blaseball isn’t quite ready to reveal when they’re making their grand return. But they’re getting close enough to ready that they decided to speak to press about what they’ve been up to over the last year.

“The same teams that we left off with and knew from our previous league will be carried forward in the future,” Clark said. “And story wise, we’re picking up from where we left off, but we did it in a way to let us start start fresh a little bit. So we’re going to be taking a new direction, but most of it’s still going to feel very familiar to existing fans.”

I imagine what a lot of fans are probably expecting is something more in line with the first few eras of Blaseball, but a little bit better,” Rosenthal added. “But this one, I think it’s more of a reboot than a straight sequel.”

The Game Band intentionally takes its time with new additions to Blaseball to avoid “crunch,” a stressful period in game creation when developers pull unsustainable work hours to meet a deadline. But as an indie studio, the devs can choose their own deadlines. Fans are eager to get back to Blaseball, but for the most part, they understand that the longer they wait, the better the game will be.

“I’m excited to see how the devs plan to handle some of the issues with Blaseball beta, especially the breakneck speed that was so signature to the gameplay,” Cat told TechCrunch. Still, fans feel nostalgic for the sublime, first era of Blaseball.

“I miss connecting with people and seeing all the wonderful and zany ways it can bring people together,” Barnes told TechCrunch. “One of the biggest allures of Blaseball is that there is so many ways you can engage with it. It really is one of those things with something for everyone.”

Blaseball will also be fundamentally different in its upcoming iteration since it will be accessible via iOS and Android mobile apps. Rosenthal said that the apps are designed to enable passive game play — you’ll get push notifications about key events, but as always, Blaseball isn’t designed to be addictive. He envisions users logging in for a few minutes at a time, interacting with the games, and moving on.

For the first time, fans will be able to make in-game purchases, helping The Game Band try to turn a profit.

“One hard line we’re taking is, no, nothing that you can pay for can affect the actual game,” Rosenthal said. “If you happen to be wealthy, you cannot spend money to ensure that the Kansas City Breath Mints are going to win the championship.” And of course, in typical, secretive Blaseball fashion, Rosenthal refused to elaborate on these monetization plans.

Despite spending a year completely overhauling the game, The Game Band wants Blaseball to retain the same feel it’s always had — the game is simple yet deeply clever, packed with surprising yet satisfying twists. And most importantly, it conjured a zany, enthusiastic fan community in a time when blissful silliness felt so elusive.

“This is a game that came out during a pandemic when we were all split from each other. And I think the game design itself is very reflective of that,” Rosenthal said. “The game is about bringing people together through chaos and absurdity, and with a lot of laughter.”

How Blaseball’s fantasy sports fever dream is embracing the future by Amanda Silberling originally published on TechCrunch

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