What blaseball fandom can teach us about baseball and fandom

Noah Cohan

Washington University, St. Louis, Missouri, United States

[0.1] Abstract—I trace the development of the internet browser–based baseball simulator known as Blaseball from its origins as an attempt to fill the entertainment void left by the suspension of spectator sports in North America during the early stages of the Covid-19 pandemic to the conclusion of season 24 in July 2021. Along the way, Blaseball changed the way that tens of thousands of fans understand the narrative possibilities of the sport of baseball, albeit in a virtual realm.

[0.2] Keywords—Covid-19; Fans; Gender; Narrative; Online gaming; Sexuality; Sports

Cohan, Noah. 2023. "What Blaseball Fandom Can Teach Us About Baseball and Fandom." Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 40.

1. Introduction

[1.1] You know how passionate sports fans can be? Tracking stats and cheering for their team? And you know how creative internet fandom communities can be? Making fan art and fanfiction and memes? Blaseball, in being both a sport and a surreal cinematic universe, fuses sports fandom with nerd fandom, and the result is a supernova of creativity. (Quinns 2020)

[1.2] In an October 2020 explainer video for the "People Make Games" YouTube channel, the gaming expert and internet personality Quinns (2020) attempted to encapsulate the dynamic allure of an internet game launched just a few months before. Blaseball—not to be confused with baseball, "the thing that happens in the sun," as Don DeLillo put it (1997, 25)—is a web browser–based game with few graphics that, at its core, merely simulates the probabilistic outcomes of "America's Pastime": balls, strikes, outs, hits, and errors. But to describe Blaseball on those terms is a bit like saying that mukbang videos are about food: it is about so much more that to characterize it in that way is fundamentally misleading. Blaseball's more than 30,000 active fan participants (McKinney 2021)—in concert with the game's developers, a group called "The Game Band"—have taken the narrative parameters of Blaseball so far beyond the core concept of baseball simulator that very few unindoctrinated sports fans would recognize it. But what Blaseball accomplishes "in being both a sport and a surreal cinematic universe [that] fuses sports fandom with nerd fandom," as Quinns (2020) put it, demonstrates the common foundations and productive interplay between the often strictly demarcated, or at least distinctly considered, spheres of media and sports fan behavior. Blaseball gives us all the more reason to destabilize the "distinctions that are thought to separate media fans and sports fans," as I have argued previously, and to better understand both groups by considering them in tandem (Cohan 2019, 9). But it also tells us something about baseball, specifically, a perpetually "dying" sport—trapped in nostalgia thanks to its predominantly white, male, and aging fan demographics—that could learn a lot about how to fix its ailments from Blaseball and its fans (Walther 2022).

Video 1. What is Blaseball and why is it taking over the internet?.

[1.3] I trace the development of Blaseball from its origins as an attempt to fill the entertainment void left by the suspension of spectator sports in North America during the early stages of the Covid-19 pandemic to the conclusion of season 24 in July 2021 (note 1). I argue that along the way, Blaseball changed the way tens of thousands of people understand the narrative possibilities of baseball, albeit in a virtual realm. What's more, Blaseball and its fans have fostered an inclusive fan culture that celebrates LGBTQ+ and BIPOC identities in a way that not only defies but also utterly disregards the heteronormative white male default that still structures much of the discourse, hiring practices, and fan demographics of baseball (note 2). In this atmosphere of diversity and narrative possibility, baseball—at its core a relatively limited game in which offense and defense are strictly demarcated, offensive player movement is limited to incremental advancement around a diamond, and game action is chopped up into discrete units—becomes a font of free-flowing imagination and the bedrock for meaningful interpersonal connection among countless people, many of whom have not previously felt welcome in the broader baseball community.

2. The origins of Blaseball

[2.1] When the Covid-19 pandemic shut down the American sports world in mid-March of 2020, Major League Baseball (MLB) had just begun its annual spring training: exhibition games staged in Arizona and Florida that help players and teams prepare for the opening of the regular season in late March or early April. The baseball season was officially delayed beginning on March 13, 2020, and ultimately it would be suspended until July 23 when the MLB embarked on a shortened season and modified postseason, almost all of which was played without fans in the stands (Perry, Acquavella, and Anderson 2020). Meanwhile, from March to July, baseball fans were left to seek out the game via television broadcasts from overseas as ESPN and other broadcasters took to showing games from Korea and Taiwan, where the spread of the pandemic was better controlled and the leagues could proceed with live baseball much earlier ("ESPN to Televise" 2020). Not all baseball fans found this a satisfying substitute, however, among them the game developers Sam Rosenthal, Joel Clark, and Stephen Bell, who decided to put their skills to work and create a baseball season all their own.

[2.2] Rosenthal and Clark, graduates of USC's program in Interactive Media and Games, had previously daydreamed about "what if [baseball] was not this? What if the players had to run around with jugs of water on their head or something?" (McKinney 2021). When the pandemic hit, they realized it was the perfect time to pursue that inchoate idea, and Clark began developing a primitive baseball simulator and testing it with friends and colleagues in the hopes that they could publish the game and attract an audience before MLB's season resumed. Despite the narrative alternatives to baseball inherent in their original daydream, Rosenthal and Clark thought that, as Clark put it to me, "this will be a sports fan community. People who are nerdy about baseball stats will get into this and want to manage rosters. That's kind of the audience we expected, and then in early play testing we got people who were much more interested in the narrative of things. I was surprised by that" (Bell and Clark 2021a). One of those early play testers was Bell, who began "suggesting outlandish ideas like the umpires incinerating players" because, as he put it, "I kind of fell in love with what I saw as this immense possibility space" (Bell and Clark 2021a). One of the ways that Blaseball created that narrative possibility from the very start was through a system of postseason elections whereby Blaseball fans, who could buy votes using in-game currency accrued by placing bets on the games, weighed in on a docket of potential rule modifications for the next season ("Beginner's Guide" 2021). Should there be a fifth base? Four strikes? Ball-hitting alternatives to the traditional baseball bat? All were proposed and at least temporarily adopted at various points in Blaseball history. This system of elections was designed to give the fans some small degree of strategic influence in a game otherwise determined by algorithmic rolls of the dice. The Game Band also fostered fan attachment in a more traditional way by creating teams (of which there were originally twenty, then expanded to twenty-four), most of which combined the traditional geographic identifier with an absurdist mascot—like the Kansas City Breath Mints, Los Angeles Unlimited Tacos, or New York Millennials—but some of which take that formation to more fantastic horizons, such as the Hellmouth Sunbeams, Hades Tigers, and Atlantis Georgias.

[2.3] After weeks of internal testing, Blaseball opened to the public just before MLB returned, in mid-July 2020. Almost immediately, The Game Band's expectations for the character and intensity of fans' attachment to the game were shattered. Bell remembers, despite enjoying testing Blaseball, "still seeing it just as silly rule changes and fun occurrences. It wasn't until the fans came in and you saw how much creativity they were pouring into these names and how much care, and then like real almost grief when players were being incinerated and stuff—that was not something I think any of us anticipated" (Bell and Clark 2021a). For Clark, the surge of interest brought home a sense of commonality with others:

[2.4] I've always been someone when I'm playing a game that's pure randomness or watching a sport, I will create this whole narrative in my head. I used to play this game as a kid where I would just flip cards up and just see what the last one I would flip up was and that had a whole narrative about it. What I was mostly surprised by was how universal that is, how many people were willing to do that same thing on this global experience of Blaseball. (Bell and Clark 2021a)

[2.5] The narrative underpinnings of sports spectatorship, little enunciated though they may be, are shared widely. But Bell and Clark also attribute the rise in Blaseball's popularity to a specific narrative circumstance activated by the elections at the end of season 1. "It was like this normal baseball sim," Clark recalls of that first week:

[2.6] "Open Forbidden Book" just piqued everyone's interest and made them feel like there was this bigger possibility space that this thing could be. I think a lot of people from season 1 had to see what came out of that. And it paid off: players started being incinerated in the league. I think that's when it really opened up. The fan art started then because everybody's like, "Oh, wow, the possibility space of this thing could be endless! We can write stories here, or be part of it. And weird stuff is going to happen." (Bell and Clark 2021b)

[2.7] Those incinerations, originally inspired by Bell's love for the character of the umpire programmed to assassinate Queen Elizabeth in the classic Leslie Nielsen vehicle The Naked Gun, kicked off what came to be known as Blaseball's "Discipline Era," which lasted nine seasons, from July 27 to October 24, 2020. The number of fan participants then began to multiply rapidly (

[2.8] Before long, Blaseball was being written about in online publications like Vox Media's Polygon imprint (Greszes 2020) and a robust Blaseball fan community was regularly interacting with Blaseball's "Commissioner," a Twitter-based character named "Parker McMillan III" ( Elections began to be determined by thousands of votes, then tens of thousands, and hundreds of thousands. Meanwhile, Blaseball's presence on the Discord social media platform began rapidly expanding, first to include individual channels for each team, then multiple channels per team, as thousands of fans engaged one another in discussions about rooting for their team in the ongoing game simulations, team voting strategies for the upcoming elections at season's end, and—perhaps most importantly—in writing backstories for the players on each team.

[2.9] As sports studies scholar and philosopher Erin Tarver insightfully points out in her indispensable sports fan study, The I in Team: "Fans believe themselves to be admiring people when they are doing no such thing. Rather, fans' deeply felt attachments to the fates and achievements of people they do not know and have never met are attachments to something like the heroes of an epic narrative" (2017, 151).

[2.10] Tarver's point highlights the narrative underpinnings of physically manifested sporting activity but also helps explain why Blaseball fans naturally have become such prolific authors of the imagined players' lives. Going by names generated from a bank of potential monikers compiled by Blaseball's creators, many players with seemingly banal names that might exist in baseball—like "Mike Townsend" or "Theodore Duende"—mingle on rosters with more whimsical ones—like "Quack Enjoyable," "Oliver Notarobot," and "Jessica Telephone" ( The team rosters were (and remain) notably inclusive of player names that don't traditionally accompany a masculine gender identity, and the fans—themselves fully rejecting the sort of masculine gatekeeping that can occur in more traditional baseball fan communities—took note in imagining and writing the players' backgrounds. Filling the rosters with women, trans, nonbinary, and LGBTQIA players of all kinds (as well as cis men), the authors of Blaseball fan canon imagined a truly inclusive athletic space for the league. In addition to representing a wide variety of human identities, the Blaseball fans wrote more fantastical possibilities. Quack Enjoyable, for example, was written to be a duck-human hybrid (, while Oliver Notarobot is, naturally, a robot player (, and Jessica Telephone steps to the plate swinging not a bat but a giant 1980s-style telephone handset (

[2.11] Negotiating the resonant character details on the Blaseball Discord channels without input from Blaseball's creators beyond the names themselves, the fans soon expanded their efforts to include the construction of a robust wiki (, on which they recorded the players' personal histories, families, and romantic relationships, along with their exploits in the game of Blaseball itself. They also began producing prodigious quantities of fan fiction and fan art. Before long, the fans had even constructed a merchandise shop, "Blaseball Cares," where they could purchase Blaseball hats, jerseys, trading cards, and other memorabilia, with all the profits going to support charitable causes (

[2.12] Amidst this explosion of fan activity, of course, Blaseball games were being played: every hour, on the hour, twenty-four hours a day, Monday through Saturday, during each week-long season. And as the fans' narratives began getting more and more complex, their attachments to particular players becoming deeper and more fervent, the creators of Blaseball had to resist the temptation to manually alter the course of league history—to tip the dice, as it were, like Henry Waugh in Robert Coover's Universal Baseball Association (1968). Randomness, whether determined by the roll of actual dice, the whims of an algorithm, or the particular physics presented by blades of grass impacting the seams of a baseball, lends narrative gravitas: in an uncaring, infinite universe of possibilities, amazing happenstances are even more so.

[2.13] To be clear, despite the Blaseball creators' vow not to tip the dice, the imposition of new game circumstances based on the impact of postseason election decisions did weigh heavily on the action. When fan voting led to unanticipated fantastical circumstances—like those in which players began being "shelled," for example, encased in giant peanut shells and skipped in the lineup for their teams—the competitive outcomes and fan reactions varied widely. At various points, salmon rained down from the sky. Celestial figures like "The Shelled One" and "The Coin" began appearing and making decrees about their visions for the game, to which the fans mounted resistance in several different forms ( Players (and even teams) were sent to (and retrieved from) the "Hall of Flame," a memorial space for those incinerated or otherwise killed in game action ( "The Narrator," a TV news anchor–like figure played by Quinns—the "People Make Games" reviewer who had previously chronicled Blaseball's early success—began appearing as a pseudojournalistic character in the game, posting videos recapping the action of seasons gone by, with varying degrees of accuracy and sometimes questionable intent (Quinns 2021). Ultimately, over twenty-two seasons, the Baltimore Crabs won four Internet Series championships, the Hades Tigers three, the Philly Pies and Canada Moist Talkers two each, with eight other teams winning one ( But who won the championships matters less—to me and ultimately, I would argue, the fans themselves—than the communities each team created. And those communities, while not wholly unique in the larger landscape of mediated sports fandom, are distinctive—and distinctively important in relation to the sport of baseball—in particular.

3. Redefining fantasy baseball

[3.1] Though there are numerous fantasy games based on the sport of baseball, Blaseball is distinctive in taking the notion of the fantastical far beyond a conventional framing. Mainstream fantasy baseball, as manifested on corporate websites like and, leaves little to the imagination. While participants do assemble their own teams, they do so from the rosters of existing MLB teams, and the success or failure of those teams is based on the same stats that determine the outcomes of the actual games. As Thomas Oates (2017) posits in relation to fantasy football, the pleasure for players in this landscape lies in "managing complexity and risk in pursuit of productivity and profit," not in narrative expansion or exploration. What's more, as in fantasy football, fantasy baseball's fetishism of corporate management does "significant ideological work…construct[ing] clear relations of power between…players and those who rate and evaluate them" (Oates 2017). The athletes, though human beings in their own right, are mere commodities to be managed. The same can be said of baseball video games, which increasingly encourage participants to imagine themselves as managers rather than as the athletes themselves, through "franchise mode" and other enhancements (Oates 2017). Both platforms limit players' exploration to the existing narrative bounds of baseball and its existing real-world limitations.

[3.2] By contrast, the fantasy of Blaseball is quite obviously different for relying on the simulated performances of imagined athletes. But more than that, Blaseball encourages an entirely different, collaborative ethic of participation. "The magic of Blaseball," as Quinns asserted in his Blaseball explainer video, "is how these two sides, the [Game Band] developers and the fans, feel a responsibility to develop the game in collaboration with what the other side is doing" (2021). On one hand, this makes sense: the developers propose changes to the gameplay for the next season, and the fans vote to determine which changes are actually adopted—determinations that often have unintended consequences for both groups. On the other hand, part of what makes Blaseball's fan communities so engaged and productive is their communication and collaboration with each other in response to those consequences. As Bria Davis, one of the lead moderators of Blaseball's Discord forums, put it: "Blaseball, everybody jokes, is like a capitalism simulator…[It] is set up competitively and our social training [is to] fight about [it] instead of overcoming that to largely organize" (2021).

[3.3] And yet many Blaseball fans have overcome those impulses, especially after incinerations began in the so-called Discipline Era, rejecting capitalism's kill-or-be-killed mindset and embracing collaboration with other teams. Even as their individual Blaseball teams face off against another team and its fans in each matchup, then, Blaseball fans are united in opposition to the dangerous landscape of the game itself. This is a horror game, after all, in which players and even whole teams can be killed. As a result, while one team may be crowned champion at the end of each Blaseball season, as in baseball, most fans' primary adversaries are not other teams but rather the cruel-yet-exciting circumstances against which their team and its imagined-yet-mortal players must struggle (note 3).

[3.4] What's more, since Blaseball's players' backstories must be produced by fan collaboration, the fans have an additional consciousness of their mutual responsibility to and an investment in the production of the narrative landscape. As Dillon Lareau, a Blaseball fan and member of the Society for Internet Blaseball Research (or SIBR) (note 4), puts it with regard to individual teams' postseason election decisions:

[3.5] You see people [as fans of] teams being like, "do we go with the thing that will likely make a good story or do we go with the thing that will make our team better?"…Some people think that all they want is outcomes, they want their team to "build the renovation that makes our players hit better!"—whereas sometimes it's really funny to build a secret underground tunnel where you can steal items from other players. (Lareau, Nealeigh, and Quorum 2021)

[3.6] As Lareau's example indicates, the narrative potency of the game does not necessarily depend on the on-field prowess of particular players, or even the competitive advantages of the team. Fans of the Seattle Garages, for example, owing to a mutually adopted notion that every player had a place in the "band," have long pursued a collective decision-making ethos in which they resist removing ineffective players from the roster and in fact celebrate them ( Relatedly, since many Blaseball fans write fan fiction, the players' off-field lives are also often extensively chronicled, sparking fan interest and attachment to players for reasons having nothing to do with ability or contributions to team success. That these narrative details and strategic imperatives are entirely worked out among and by the fans without oversight from The Game Band makes their influence and importance all the more remarkable.

[3.7] Another set of conventions from many mainstream American sports cultures that Blaseball's fans have resisted are those that pertain to hegemonic masculinity, heteronormativity, and white privilege. Per Iliana Quorum (SP), one of the cofounders of SIBR:

[3.8] When I joined [the Blaseball fan community] back in Season 2…it was at that point already very loudly queer, or at least queer-accepting. This was the first discord I'd been in where most people had put pronouns in their [ID] on the server…So it was, I think from the beginning, very much set out—self-perpetuating…where the people who were joining already knew other queer folks, other allies. And that has just stayed. The people in charge are those people who are more often than not marginalized individuals in gaming spaces and technical spaces and have a no-nonsense approach to that behavior. (Lareau, Nealeigh, and Quorum 2021)

[3.9] Which is not to say, ultimately, that Blaseball fans do not have some disagreements or competing dislikes—after all, as Emma A. Jane reminds us in "Hating 3.0" (2019), "we live in the age of the anti-fan," and Blaseball's Discord spaces are actively moderated for a reason (42). But foregrounding this no-tolerance ethos with regard to bigotry, marginalization, and hate speech is significant, especially insofar as it is harder to find in traditional baseball contexts—no doubt because most baseball communities have been, and still are, controlled by cis-hetero white men. Overtly inclusive spaces do exist in off-line sports contexts, of course: women's team sports like the WNBA and NWSL, in particular, have players and fans who have notably taken a stand against racism and other forms of bigotry (Gibbs 2021). But though more and more MLB teams host Pride nights and profess corporate values of equity and inclusion for people of all races, genders, and sexualities, the demographics of team rosters, front offices, and indeed fan bases suggest otherwise (Foster 2022; Lapchick 2022; Waldstein 2021; Wagner 2021). Blaseball's foundational ethic of inclusion, together with fans' collaborative imperative and the game's narrative expansiveness beyond the conventional frameworks of baseball gameplay, are what make it such a refreshing and important transformation of America's national pastime.

[3.10] Ultimately, the modes of fan solidarity, nontraditional rooting interest, and narrative reprioritization that make Blaseball so notable and remarkable are possible in and around "the thing that happens in the sun" (DeLillo 1997). While these elements of recalibrated baseball fandom may not yet be pervasive, scholars do sports fans a disservice by eliding or ignoring their possibility in imagining and advocating for a better, more fun, more inclusive sport. There is great value, in other words, not only in recognizing the distinctive value in what the Blaseball community has developed since July 2020 but also in viewing baseball similarly, through a Blaseball lens. Doing so allows us, in the words of Quinns (2020), to see baseball itself as something that always has the potential to "result in a supernova of creativity."

4. Notes

1. Just before this article was to be published, on June 2, 2023, Blaseball's founders, The Game Band, announced that the baseball simulator would be shutting down. In a blog post on their website, they wrote: "The short of it is that Blaseball isn't sustainable to run…The cost, literally and metaphorically, is too high. So we are making the decision to end it here instead of changing Blaseball into something unrecognizable" (2023). Despite this news, the lessons of Blaseball's success in fostering an alternative framework for what sports fandom can be remain relevant and important to baseball and the landscape of sports fandom writ large.

2. While many professional sports leagues, particularly women's sports leagues like the NWSL and the WNBA, have made great strides in recognizing and celebrating diversity in the races, genders, and sexualities of their athletes, officials, employees, and fans, MLB notably has not.

3. This ethic of solidarity in the face of cruel circumstances does have some real-world sporting precedents, of course, especially when it comes to the history of racially segregated sports. As Rebecca Wanzo (2015) writes: "African American sports fans' attachment to athletes (particularly boxers and baseball stars) was historically a mechanism to make claims about black equality and black pride and to bond over black success."

4. Like many of the fan-created media entities surrounding Blaseball, "SIBR" riffs on "SABR," the "Society for American Baseball Research," which is the premier organization for the statistical analysis of baseball, and the inspiration for the moniker "sabermetrics," frequently used to describe the development and implementation of advanced analytics in the sport.

5. References

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Bell, Stephen, and Joel Clark. 2021a. Interview with the author. Zoom. May 25, 2021.

Bell, Stephen, and Joel Clark. 2021b. Interview with the author. Zoom. September 1, 2021.

Cohan, Noah. 2019. We Average Unbeautiful Watchers: Fan Narratives and the Reading of American Sports. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.

Coover, Robert. 1968. The Universal Baseball Association, Inc., J. Henry Waugh, Prop. New York: Random House.

Davis, Bria. 2021. Interview with the author. Zoom. June 7, 2021.

DeLillo, Don. 1997. Underworld. New York: Simon and Schuster.

"ESPN to Televise Korea Baseball Organization Games." 2020. ESPN News Services, May 4, 2020.

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Foster, Jason. 2022. "As Lockout Drags On, Poll Indicates MLB Could Be Charting Path to Irrelevance." Sporting News, January 6, 2022.

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Lapchick, Richard. 2022. "MLB Still Has Work to Do in Racial, Gender Hiring." ESPN, May 18, 2022.

Lareau, Dillon, Maxwell Nealeigh, and Iliana Quorum. 2021. Interview with the author. Zoom. June 22, 2021.

Luther, Jessica, and Kavitha A. Davidson. 2020. Loving Sports When They Don't Love You Back: Dilemmas of the Modern Fan. Austin: University of Texas Press.

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Perry, Dayn, Katherine Acquavella, and R. J. Anderson. 2020. "Timeline of How the COVID-19 Pandemic Has Impacted the 2020 Major League Baseball Season.", July 29, 2020.

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Wanzo, Rebecca. 2015. "African American Acafandom and Other Strangers: New Genealogies of Fan Studies." Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 20.