By Jason Snell
March 11, 2021 9:42 AM PT
The joy of fake sports
Note: This story has not been updated since 2021.
Despite being terrible at sports, I have been a sports fan my whole life. And for most of that time, I have wondered what it is about sports that makes them so appealing to so many people.
At the heart of the appeal of sports is its unpredictable narrative and unknowable outcome. As novelist Nick Hornby wrote:
A [sporting event] can’t be a work of art because there is nobody playing God. When you watch a play or a film, even a film directed by Tarantino or Hitchcock, you are aware, somewhere in you, that there are many, many people who know the ending… the people who willed it, wrote it, shaped it…. The glory of [the last day of the English Premier League season] was that all was chaos. Nobody in the world knew how it would turn out, and nobody — not the coaches, not the players on the pitch, not the referee, not the hundreds of millions watching around the world — could shape anything.
People these days are such savvy media consumers that many of them can guess the end of a book after the first chapter, including all the twists. Not only are they so well educated in the tricks of the trade that they can make an informed guess, but they’re so jaded that they make the guess, rather than sinking down into the narrative and enjoying the thrill ride.
We are living in an era of meta-gaming our entertainment. A character’s offhand mention of a side character can set off hundreds of articles of speculation and conspiracy theories about what character it might be. The internet will guess every TV show’s plot twist every single time. The infinite monkeys are real, and they’ve got a subreddit.
Because sports narratives are constructed based on a series of semi-random events, they can’t have foreshadowing to be picked apart. An injury to a star player early in the game could be foreshadowing a dramatic comeback—or it could just be an injury. (Only in hindsight can narratives be constructed to pretend that there was foreshadowing.) Some games are classics, but some are blowouts. Sports media adds narratives wherever it can, but it’s mostly between the games, because once the game begins, anything can happen.
Or to put it another way, sports are a machine that creates drama out of random chance.
Which brings me to Blaseball.
At its heart, The Game Band’s Blaseball is a baseball simulation with some basic game features on top of it. There are (imagined) teams with (imagined) players who play through a simulated season once a week. You can follow along with game play-by-play on the bare-bones Blaseball website if you want, but it quickly gets overwhelming: 99 games a week, starting on the hour, each lasting about 30 minutes.
What makes Blaseball brilliant is its fan culture, a small portion of which is facilitated by the game itself, but most of which is facilitated by the tools of internet fan culture itself. In the game, users can place bets on teams (using virtual currency—no real money changes hands) in order to earn coins that can be used to buy votes in elections that alter the rules of the game and the fates of the players and teams.
Over a dozen seasons, the game-within-a-game of Blaseball has evolved, as Blaseball fans vote in changes that cause deviation from traditional baseball rules. (At one point there was a fourth strike and a fourth base.) Players come and go via various absurd in-game mechanisms. With each tweak to the basic simulation engine, there are new narrative possibilities.
But the richness of Blaseball only becomes apparent when you couple it with Blaseball fandom on Twitter, in the official Blaseball Discord, on the Blaseball wiki, and in various other online communities. This is where fans add their own narratives and lore and merch, much of it in the spirit of fan fiction—it’s not “official”—but some of which does seep back into the core, official game. There are even stats nerds for Blaseball.
The end product is an internet-native sport that doesn’t need any of the troublesome real-life human players who are bound to disappoint us with their bad behavior. Instead, fans create narratives for players, inventing histories and team culture to surround and explain the random, simulation-based events of the game. And by coordinating their weekly votes behind the scenes in Twitter and Discord, fans can also affect the course of their favorite teams.
Sure, real sports are full of crafted narratives, too. But NBC can’t invent a backstory for an Olympian—they must find good stories and tell them.
Marbles, on the other hand…
Jelle’s Marble Runs is a YouTube channel in which bunch of marbles start up at the top of something and the first or last one across the finish line is the winner. That’s it. You probably played a much, much, much less detailed version of this as a kid.
(When I was a kid, my friends and I used to take pieces of wood and toss them in a utility ditch that wound its way through our property. Then we’d provide play-by-play of the “races.” As you might expect, a whole set of narratives emerged from that experience. Various portions of the race course got names. The pieces of wood themselves became boats, with captains and special capabilities and backstories. And over time, we built lore about certain portions of the course, remembering past adventures that happened there.)
That’s what Jelle’s Marble Runs does, except with real production values and the key addition of Greg Woods, who provides play-by-play commentary. Every marble has a team, and a name, and a backstory.
During races, Woods will add traditional sports narrative trappings to this random collection of marbles rolling along in sand or on a race track or through water. He’ll will discuss the strategy of the marbles, or the fact that in the face of a particularly difficult challenge, a marble wasn’t able to deliver in the clutch.
It kills me every time, because it exposes the fallacy of most of the cliches that sports commentary relies on. Did the marbles that make up the Green Ducks fail to win an event because of a fundamental character flaw? Or is their coach to blame, for failing to motivate them?
Of course not. They’re marbles. But, then, most real-sports narratives are similarly absurd. They’re attempts to explain a missed kick or fumbled football or clutch play by using storytelling techniques, when it was probably just random chance. Our brains demand that meaning be applied to success or failure.
I love Jelle’s Marble Runs. It’s incredibly fun to watch. It plays all the notes that make watching sports wonderful. And yet there are no living creatures involved. Instead, random chance creates a sequence of events, and then Woods uses all the tricks in the sports announcers’ book to amplify those events into a dramatic, entertaining, and surprising story.
Rather than drain my enthusiasm for sports, works like Blaseball and Jelle’s Marble Runs affirm it. They expose the purity at the heart of their appeal. We are creatures who constantly seek to make sense of a random world. Our own lives are a sequence of unpredictable events that are best grappled with when placed in a larger narrative. I enjoy watching movies and TV shows and reading novels, but sports provides a different sort of appeal.
Blaseball and Jelle’s Marble Runs provide the same sort of appeal, but freed of unpleasant athletes and owners and decades of fan culture that can often be downright toxic. In Blaseball, if you don’t like the narrative, you’re welcome to change it, or invent your own.
There’s always next season. It starts Monday, like every season.
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