On the Sunday after season 7 of the absurdist baseball simulator game Blaseball, Californian singer-songwriter Madden decided to join the fan community of the Chicago Firefighters team, not expecting an especially warm welcome. As soon as they joined the Discord megaserver, which is the size of a small MLB stadium fully packed, messages began streaming in within seconds: “Welcome! You are from Chicago!” “Hello, welcome to Chicago, where you are from!” The chat was captivated with news of blaseball elections, full of fire emojis, and “WAFC” message reacts (the initials to the team chant, “We are from Chicago”). Madden tried to explain that they weren’t a Chicagoan, they came from the Bay Area, only to be told that, technically, that area was considered West Coast Chicago. Eventually, Madden was provided a map.
Madden was now amongst thousands of fans cheering for their home team—the Chicago Firefighters—most of whom did not actually make their home there. Yet they rallied, bet, and strategized around their team with the same community pride as other Blaseball teams such as the Breckenridge Jazz Hands, Hawai’i Fridays, and Baltimore Crabs. Months later, Madden now understands the meaning behind the Firefighter’s chant. “What we're saying is not that we're literally from Chicago, but that we have the same claim to this community identity that anybody else does,” Madden says. “We're not just in Chicago, we're not just rooting for Chicago, but we have that same level of pride and belonging in the city.” People want to feel a deep well of civic pride, and Blaseball is helping them get there, even for a place they never visited and never thought to call home.
Although Blaseball started in late July 2020 as a simple quasi-baseball simulator web game, with each successive season it has entered deeper into absurdist logic, arcane lore, and sudden gameplay developments, most infamously with the appearance of rogue umpires who can incinerate blaseball players and a peanut-based eldritch abomination known as the Shelled One. Every season, each lasting a week, 24 teams from around the world (and from Hell, the Earth’s Core, and Atlantis) compete to be that season’s champion in the game of blaseball, all while fans bet on games, track players, and plan for end-of-season elections. Each Sunday, fans can vote on game-changing decrees and blessings, leading to player swaps, stats boosts, or cryptic rule changes that bolster Blaseball’s weirdness. (The blessing “Peanut Butter,” for example, turns one player “chunky” and another “smooth,” whatever that could mean.) The game of blaseball feels like baseball … almost. It’s not a sport, it’s a splort, although that term’s definition, like much of the rulebook, is still censored and unknown.
The game runs in-browser with a spartan interface for tracking team matchups (one every hour), but the metagame of Discord channels, Twitter accounts, and livestream commentaries that react to each pitch and incineration has become an essential part of the Blaseball experience.
To moderate this metagame and keep track of the constantly changing world, fans have taken on roles as ambassadors, counselors, statisticians, scholars, and archivists in a web of fandom that is itself hard to understand, like the underlying lore they analyze and update. There’s a Society for Internet Blaseball Research, two active wikis, and folders of fan fiction and art, but a Chicago Firefighters fan named “Thursday” admits that a lot of the developments happen in Discord chats buzzing with thousands of fans, what he calls “the collective clown-to-clown headspace.” Since the game’s summer release, a record label has been created for Blaseball albums, Blaseball journalists have started news networks, and hundreds of collectible blaseball cards have been created. If you could put all of the browser game’s users together, they’d fill an entire midsize American city, though their raw passion might billow over city limits.
Much like everything in the game, Blaseball’s early roster of teams was created through a mix of randomness and curation. Random locations and nouns were combined to create teams that designers and fans quickly connected to, with gaps being filled by locales that Blaseball game designers needed or had history with: Designer Joel Clark lives in Kansas City, so the Kansas City Breath Mints were created, and former Baltimorean designer Sam Rosenthal advocated for the Baltimore Crabs. Each team was given a creepy chant and released into the world for anyone to support.
Early in the game, locals flocked to their respective blaseball team, especially the Firefighters and the Crabs. “The Crabs literally have the entirety of Montgomery County on their team, and they're full of Baltimore hyper-specific jokes,” early Firefighters fan and Chicagoan Riley Hopkins says, referring to a county on the edge of Baltimore. “Being able to pull that into Chicago just makes it feel more homey, you know?”
Early lore relied on this local hyper-specificity (referencing history, folklore, and billboard campaigns) to build out fandom wikis, lore jams, and headcanons, some of which is eventually cycled into Blaseball’s game design, such as the inclusion of fan-made ballparks as in-game bases that teams can construct and renovate. As fan communities grew to the hundreds and then thousands of nonlocals, Blaseball moderation and culture didn’t push the teams to become exclusionary and preferential to locals, it inspired the opposite. For the Firefighters, they turned to one of the few pieces of designer-gifted lore: the chant “We are from Chicago.”
“We've now taken it and twisted it to be an inclusive thing,” Hopkins says. “You are from Chicago, no matter where you are.” Even the touchingly over-optimistic ethos of Chicago sports culture spun up into the global Firefighters community. “From the Bears, Bulls, everything has always been this like, ‘We aren't gonna do it this year, but if we can just get one piece it'll come together,’” he says. “Even though Blaseball is a simulation, it has somehow been able to simulate that exactly. We are doomed to make the eighth seed in the playoffs and lose every year. We have an extremely good core, and if we can just get one more piece, then that's it baby, we're gonna make it. It's the truest marker that these people from outside the ‘real Chicago’ are now, in fact, from Chicago.”
Brazillian illustrator W didn’t know if Chicago was a state or a city before she became a Firefighters fan, but she’s proud to call herself a Chicagoan now—she labels Brazil as South of South Chicago. “A lot of what I know about Chicago (which nowadays includes food, culture, important locations) I learned as a fantasy,” W says. “‘Blaseball Chicago’ first, then the real places they were based on.” Blaseball’s fictional Chicago has the Blean (a vantablack Bean sculpture), a kaiju-like spiritual embodiment of Chicago known as Mx. Chicago, and iconography that builds on Chicago’s famous flag. As W illustrated the community and team, she’s grown fonder of the city and more in tune with local Chicago news. “As we welcome new people to Blaseball Chicago, I can't help but feel part of it.”
The concept of an all-encompassing Chicago could be interpreted as colonialist, but as someone whose country and continent has been colonized by many cultures, the difference to W is that Blaseball’s Chicago centers on belonging instead of oppression—being from Chicago is more of an ethic than a requirement. Using real-life locations opens up Blaseball to a ton of potential issues in misrepresenting a place or culture, but the game has avoided that for the most part through quiet and courteous moderation. “When fans are rushing in, you don't want them to just glom on to the easiest and wrongheaded ideas for cultural identity,” Blaseball designer Stephen Bell says. “The right fans jumped onto Blaseball at the right time, which partly was just luck, but we've also been really blessed to have incredible moderation.” When the Hawai’i Fridays, a strongly anticolonial team, had the option of building a ballpark this March, they opted out, seeing even the in-game idea of adding a large permanent structure to the area as having “gentrification vibes.” Instead, fans donated IRL to the Hawai’i Foodbank.
To Bell, one of the most notable community pride and representation efforts has been Blaseball Cares, a two-pronged charity movement that sells Blaseball merch online and promotes donating to division-decided charities, both prongs of which specifically target the communities Blaseball represents. Since season 5, Blaseball Cares' merch store has donated $20,000 to community organizations, launching nearly 500 pieces of merchandise developed by over 180 volunteer artists. After each Sunday election, fans are urged to donate to charities associated with a handful of teams, such as the International Association of Fire Fighters for the Chicago Firefighters, or Pflag Canada for the Canada Moist Talkers. Before Blaseball Cares, teams were raising money for their represented communities, but the movement helped structure the work. “And that was there week two,” Bell says. “Which was crazy.”
For Madden, truly representing the Chicago Firefighters didn’t mean only supporting the local community, but the team’s origin in fire safety. As a Californian who had fire safety baked into them from a young age, they were frightened that other fans hadn’t previously heard of fire boundaries or carbon monoxide detectors. They created a PSA and poster series to teach fans, all in character as a Firefighter. The same principles were followed when the Houston Spies organized unionization training with the International Workers of the World. Blaseball can pull fans into topics they never expected. “I have learned a weird amount about population control of Asian carp in Lake Michigan,” Madden says after interpreting a carp meme for Firefighter use. “And the ways in which aquatic invasive species are introduced through international shipping routes, and just about Great Lakes ecology as a whole. I think that's an insane thing to know from an online baseball simulator.”
With Blaseball entering “Better than Beta” this month and beginning regular seasons of the splort, there is no sign of the community’s drive slowing down—if anything, it’s heating up with the addition of new teams (Go Ohio Worms!), concessions, and a healthier schedule to prevent designer and community burnout. And as vaccinations roll out, there’s the potential for Blaseball fans to take their community pride into physical locations—road trips, benefit concerts, game nights where fans huddle around a screen to see if a sentient four-eyed frog named Swamuel Mora can bounce to third base. Some fans can finally visit places they cheer for: Canada, Yellowstone, Charleston, Chicago. “I’m really excited for when I’ll finally be able to visit these places that I feel like I already know, in a weird way,” Blaseball Cares organizer Ashley Kronebusch says.
The virtual Blaseball world is already slowly appearing in our physical plane. Joel Clark gets texts from Kansas City friends who say they’ve spotted grocery store shoppers with Breath Mints jackets. Firefighters fans are running into rival fans in their daily routines: a Boston Flowers supporter in their resident hall, a retail manager with a Seattle Garages pin on their collar. Inspired by his team, Thursday recently decided to move from Indiana to Chicago. “I interviewed at a job there, the fire of the Firefighters in my chest, and I got it!” In all of these instances, the topic of blaseball was never explicitly discussed, but some fans are getting bolder. When front-end web developer Elena Murphy applied to work at the Game Band, the studio behind Blaseball, she signed off her résumé “WE ARE FROM CHICAGO.”