Blaseball spectatorship and contact in digital communities
Internet League Blaseball, as anyone will tell you, is a “splort.” What is a splort? It is a sport distinguished only by its spelling and extremely online nature. As a child, I hated sports. This year, I loved splorts intensely and briefly as a burning star. But why?
In your browser, all you see is a simulated baseball-league scoresheet populated by random teams, players, and odd traits for spice (think: “soulscream”). During the season, games start hourly and culminate in weekend playoffs and a championship. To “watch” Blaseball games is to watch the simulator tick through one play per second, with players’ stats bending a throw of the dice.
Unlike glitzy e-sports, Blaseball is mere text and icons. It might as well have been an imaginary weather simulator. In fact, it was weird weather that first drew me in: blood, birds, peanuts. In the last season before the current Grand Siesta, there was only Sun 2 and Black Hole—a distressing binary.
I found the rhythm of Blaseball seasons patterned the undifferentiated pandemic time flowing past me. It was comforting to tune in, in case something extremely weird happened and I could listen as others failed to explain it. Baseball was a sport that reduced me to a spectator, standing alone in the outfield and praying that it would rain. With Blaseball, I spectated as a player. I watched, breathless, as the Hall Stars crushed the Shelled Ones in a rough facsimile of baseball behavior. The reporting of the Blaseball News Network, roleplaying Twitter accounts, and shared screenshots made it irrelevant that I’d forgotten my site login info.
The devs’ encouragement of community participation (e.g., players’ decision to simultaneously eat, deface, and burn The Forbidden Book of Blaseball at the end of Season 10) blurred Blaseball into alternate-reality territory—a metaphorical overlay. Legal trials conducted over Discord in the Hellmouth Sunbeam’s court (to which I anonymously leaked The Communist Manifesto as evidence) cross-linked teams outside of the games.
I briefly joined the Society for Internet Blaseball Research, famous for its perpetration of data crimes and for identifying and interrogating the creator of a hidden headshot embedded in an ancient salmon-migration simulator. The counterpublic narrative around Blaseball (the endless swarm of people asking online what the hell they were witnessing) also served to cohere the Blaseball community together.
Confusing as it is, Blaseball is nearly the envisioned pinnacle of early new-media manifestos, like Janet Murray’s Hamlet on the Holodeck. It is a computer-based media that encourages, even requires, active interpretation from its participants and explodes staid, linear narratives. Leaving aside that old media also meets those criteria, I have to confess that Blaseball did not all-consume me. After the Grand Siesta began in the fall of 2020, I did not continue to pursue the Discord forum communities.
I came to Blaseball late, several seasons in, and looking for a respite in asocial, quarantined life. As much as I loved it, Blaseball did not provide that for me. I could feel that I had missed the pivotal moments of communal identity formation—the networks of conversation and relation were arcane to me, and I just couldn’t put the effort in. I let Blaseball go, to sail off on its own, and I wish those aboard the ship a fair voyage.
Nor do I regret it. By chance, I’ve been reading Times Square Red, Times Square Blue by Chip Delany, his involved appraisal on the destruction of Times Square’s porn theaters in the 1990s. Delany argues that “contact” is inherent to the vibrant life of cities, particularly contact across communities (and social-class divides). It strikes me that contact is something I experience online. I might be unintentionally acting out small-town behavior online, but the people I see digitally are mostly siloed.
The most lovely online-gaming moments I can remember involve moments of contact, like being invited to a group of strangers in zombie survival simulator Die2Nite. In my experience, Blaseball as spectatorship did not accomplish that feeling. Instead, it felt like joining a community, bound by strong ties.
Too many written accounts of games describe complete immersion or alienation by their cultures, when so few things in our lives work that way. Life, online or not, is brightened by the regular presence of a stranger. I want more of that, and games that encourage it.