I started engaging with Blaseball just as Jon Bois’ 20020 began its run, which temporarily made American sports a far bigger presence in my life than I ever thought possible. As surreal reimaginings of these games in the form of experimental online storytelling, comparisons between the two abounded from the offset. But to me, their most striking similarity was not a common theme, but a shared focus. These are stories about sports fans, by sports fans; both narratives are focalised through and constructed by a fan community rather than the players. Fans provide an overview of a sport which knits individual games and series into a broader narrative, whilst their experiences and interaction with the game inject an exploration of community and its discontents into the stories. The space probes’ engagement with football and the Blaseball community’s active participation in its worldbuilding drive the narrative tensions of these two works, shaping their themes and ideas.
Scholars have debated the exact relationship between (video) games and narrative for decades, particularly the question of whether games can be called narratives at all.1 Some literary theorists, however, have used game terminology to describe components of narrative structure. The Classical Plot and the Invention of Western Narrative (2000) by N.J. Lowe, for instance, defines the ‘gameboard’ or ‘players’ as elements of narrative.2 All stories require a rule-bound system which presents its subjects with an object of desire, a form of conflict which hinders the attainment of this desire, and a pathway by which it may be achieved. This structure is also fundamental to for anything which can be called a ‘game’, whether it tells a defined story within itself or not. But victory in a game is only ‘meaningful’ (or possible) if the player has attained it by following the rules. Success or fulfilment in fictional narrative, on the other hand, is often won through transgression of the internal world-system. As Peter Brooks explains in Reading for the Plot (1984):
“The organising line of plot is more often than not some scheme or machination, a concerted plan for the accomplishment of some purpose which goes against the ostensible and dominant legalities of the fictional world, the realization of a blocked and resisted desire.” (Pg. 12)
Crime, intrigue, resistance: all of these are staples of literature; but few sports fans would appreciate their execution within a match. Breaking the rules of a sport does not make its ‘narrative’ satisfying. In 2017, for instance, the Italian rugby team found a loophole which so drastically changed conventional play that the rules of the game were rewritten to illegalise it. Yet in 20020, the probes follow Nick and Manny’s journey because their likewise transgressive but not technically illegal use of loopholes makes their story so compelling. Manny’s statement of his desire “to find one of the rules of the world and break it” is the emotional climax of this arc. 20020 is about a sports game which follows the rules of fiction.
The perspective of the fans is an important part of this tension between the conventions of sport and of storytelling in Blaseball and 17776/20020. The issues raised by football’s deviation from its conventional form in 17776 and 20020 are largely explored through the constant bickering between Ten and Juice over how fun or appropriate these deviations really are. Which rules must be retained to ensure that the game is enjoyable? And whose enjoyment matters most – the players’ or the spectators’? Juice’s perspective leans towards the fictional: he appreciates the grand symbolic arcs which develop over thousands of years such as game 27’s absurd metaphor for the ravages of capitalism or Nick and Manny’s waiting game before the start of 20020. Ten generally wants the games to be fun for both players and spectators, and her frustration at their absurdity is closer to traditional ideas about meaning or achievement in sports. What is interesting or compelling as a story is often not enjoyable for those directly involved. Nine is most interested in the human stories which emerge between the players and the landscape of history. These three competing perspectives shape the narrative which the reader follows. Because of their influence on the games and communication with Earth, (Juice is even a commissioner of the 20020 game)3 the sports fan community which the probes most strongly resemble is that of Blaseball. Blaseball also explores the line between convention and absurd innovation in sport (or rather, splort) by allowing its audience to engage with the rule-making process. This is a formal part of the game in the election, but it also takes place in elaborate roleplay or more relaxed engagement between The Game Band and the fans online. Blaseball allows its fans to break the internal rules of the story-world, such as opening the Forbidden Book, and it punishes them for doing so. Even beyond the Discipline Era, the narrative tensions of the game are driven by antagonism between the fan community and whatever entity is determined to keep the splort in line. ‘We’ killed god, and now we’re coming for capitalism. The essential form of conflict in fiction (and reality) is the space between you and what you want, whether this is merely an empty gap to be traversed, or an opposing force. Yet this space exists between the readers or fan community and the story as well as between the characters and their goals. This tension between what the game, or the series, or the sport itself is, and what the fan communities or individual spectators would like it to be is a driving force of both Blaseball and Bois’ tales. And if fans want a narrative which goes beyond the winning of the sports game or series, they are likely to focus on or bring about a transgression of the conventional form of these sports as they lean further into the structure of fiction. Blaseball, 20020, and 17776 deliberately tangle themselves up in questions of where the sport ends and the story begins, and it is the fans who knot the threads.
I would venture to theorise that sports and sports teams lend themselves to strong fan communities in a unique manner. Even in the age of television and the internet, every sports match requires a physical audience (barring the unfortunate present moment). Listening to and purchasing recordings of music is as important for fans as attending live performances, and theatre is usually attended by people who appreciate the artform as a whole, rather than by fans of one specific group like a band or team. Sports teams have dedicated and specific fan communities which have a physical presence at every game. Sports communities are also more consistently local than any other fandom. This factor is also dampened by TV and the internet, but each team remains tied to a certain place or institution and thus retains an intrinsic link to a local or national community. These twin factors of locality and physical audience reinforce one another naturally. If sports tell an overarching story through the perspective of their fans, it is likely to focus on the ups and downs of local identity and collective experience. Each of these themes is interrogated, subverted, or put into a new perspective in Blaseball and 17776/20020.
Both works utilise team sports’ intrinsic connection to community and place to thematise immediacy and distance, togetherness and isolation. The space probes become metaphorical satellites in their capacity as fans, orbiting around the culture of a home they can never physically reach. As Blaseball fans, we too have no physical presence in the unreal ‘immaterial plane’ on which the game takes place. Both groups of fans are also physically distant from one another, separated either by outer space or by the state of being an internet community engaging with an online game during a global pandemic. The internet is a space in which community and isolation are brought into direct juxtaposition. Online connection stimulates longing for physical proximity and emotional immediacy which it cannot itself fulfil. The fan-focus of these works connects this idea of community at a distance to the unfulfilled desire necessary to drive a narrative. In 20020, the space probes use the internet and the power of storytelling to connect with the earth and with one another. By knitting together the threads of the game with the history of the land, they use the medium of the sport to construct a continuity between the past and the endless present which assuages the alienation they clearly feel from the world which created them. The game itself is one in which local (technically institutional) sports teams often play far from home, and the story which the probes – especially Nine – find most compelling is about two players who are completely cut off from their home field. Both the story and the meta-story are characterised by distance. In Blaseball, place and history are defamiliarized. Its implied setting is uncanny for being almost but not quite the world we know. Familiar places have unfamiliar teams, Hades is real, and we accidentally opened a gaping hellmouth in Utah. Something is terribly wrong. It is largely left to the fans to fill in the gaps of this alternative history and, like the space probes, to find a story within it. By giving an emotional undercurrent to a dance of numbers, stats, and randomly generated names, the community has created a story over which it can bond, and which heightens peoples’ attachment to the game itself. The power of fans to affect both stories relies on their separation from the worlds in which they take place. Their overview is godlike, but the whims of chance or the decisions of the actual creators/authors means that their desires will never be perfectly realised. Yet so long as they remain unfulfilled, the fans will continue to discuss, flesh out, and construct the story, just as any primary subject of a narrative drives the plot forwards. In both cases, the physical isolation of the fans from one another and from the world of the game is highlighted by the convention of live spectatorship in sports, and this is an important part of the absurdism and uncanny overtones of these tales.
The space probes in 17776 and 20020 choose who to follow and where to focus, directing the narrative even to the point of camerawork and commentary. Blaseball fans come together on the internet to decide what a roulette of numbers means, emotionally and physically, for the characters to which it is attached. Amongst other things, Blaseball and Bois’ works are about the experience of finding meaning in the arbitrary rules and achievements of sport. These rules may never quite satisfy the fans, but they do structure the games which bring them together. A focus on fan agency introduces a tension between transgression and convention into both stories, which in turn highlights the processes of discussion, disagreement, and community effort. These works feel appropriate for the present (and were possibly both made in reaction to it), because they emphasise the bittersweetness of a community in physical isolation. A group of people (or sentient space probes) unified around a common interest and activity can mitigate the pain of separation in a universe which feels cruel or meaningless. Yet the pain persists. These two stories are born out of distance, community frustrations, and the gap between what we want for our players and what they get or give us. The winning of the sports game informs the stakes of both works, but this wider perspective means that it never an endpoint. The bigger game is the one between the fans, the system and the whims of fate.
2 Written long before eminent works of narrative theory such as Homestuck or Umineko no Naku Koro Ni, no less.
3 And he is doing a great job!