Blood Bowl was originally a tabletop miniatures game released by that most holy of British institutions, Games Workshop, back in the '80s. Yet it wasn't until the third edition dropped in 1994 that Blood Bowl became recognisable as the game it is today. It's set in a version of the Warhammer Fantasy Universe where the many opposing races have decided to lay down their arms and settle their differences by trying to score touchdowns.
As such, it exists as both a parody of medieval fantasy tropes and as an irreverent jab at the ridiculousness of modern, organised sport. Your players will sometimes steal funds from the team's treasury, violent fans will invade the pitch and injure your squad at half-time, and referees can be bribed before each game to ignore fouls and concealed weapons. The reason I'm telling you this is because I want to impress upon you just how silly Blood Bowl is. It's basically a filthy, sporty Discworld and most of its players are in on the joke.
What's more, Blood Bowl is designed to be played over time. Individual players will accrue 'star player points' each time they successfully complete passes, make interceptions, cause casualties and score touchdowns. They eventually level up and gain access to new skills and stat increases, providing a real sense of progression. It's not uncommon for your Wood Elf lineman or Dwarven blitzer to go from a mewling wuss to an unstoppable juggernaut over the course of a season, only for them to end up getting permanently removed from the game when seven or eight Halflings decide to gather round and jump all over their face.
Naturally, this kind of record-keeping and stat-tracking lends itself well to computer games and there have been a few over the years, with the first landing on MS-DOS back in 1995. The most recent, 2015's Blood Bowl 2, is a pretty faithful conversion of the tabletop ruleset, complete with all of the official races and a fairly robust system for organising and running your own leagues and tournaments. While the communities on both the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One ports continue to wane, with lengthy wait times for matchmaking, the PC version has maintained a stable average player count since roughly December 2015, three months after launch.
This is due in no small part to one community that has taken player-run leagues to the extreme. The ReBBL (Reddit Eternal Blood Bowl League) is Blood Bowl 2's largest organised league. With over 700 teams spread over 60-something competitions and divided into three continental federations, ReBBL dwarfs anything on the console ports and is a truly incredible feat of organisation.
The ReBBL is, quite frankly, a glorious little slice of weirdness. It has its own dedicated community of journalists who create weekly 'Match of the Day' style videos, reporting on the action across all of its leagues and competitions. Presenters, often under the guise of alter-egos, discuss what went down in each game, looking at player improvements and critiquing managerial decisions, before giving their predictions about the next week's set of matches. These videos often end up creating legendary players, who get discussed every week and are then mourned when they inevitably get murked on the pitch.
Naturally, if you've got well-known players, you've also got well-known coaches. Some of these guys are renowned for their incredible skill with certain races, such as Monty, who somehow manages to win regularly with Halflings (who are widely regarded as a joke team). An insane game in which he scored five touchdowns, despite being outnumbered by a vastly more developed Vampire team, is still one of the most upvoted posts on the subreddit. Monty even created a festive jingle for the league, which begins with the line "on the first day of Christmas Nuffle gave to me, a Halfling in a big tree".
Still others, like Freddie Gibbs, a dumb Orc coach who refers to Bretonnians as "people from Britain", will commit to roleplaying their character in all public situations. This has led to the widely held belief that Freddie really is an Orc. I tried to interview him about this. His response was as follows:
"I AM 'UN! Orcs iz da biggest and meanest runts 'round 'dis world, and while some stoopid gits loike 'dem pointy-ear'd panzies ya lot call elves 'fink we'z stupid, we rip 'deir spinkly twiggy legs off so 'dey'z can't run from us beatin' 'em ta bitz!"
The interview only went downhill from there, with the remainder of the conversation being mostly about how elves apparently "crunch good" and his beloved goblin Skipsey, who I gather is no longer with us.
The ReBBL also has an active press, who will watch live games and then perform post-match interviews with the coaches. Topics of discussion range from how one coach utilised rats as scouts to check out the opposition's pre-game plan, to one guy roleplaying as his star player, a beastman named Hairspray Queen, in order to shower himself with praise. One of the most active writers, a Frenchman who goes by the name Zee, writes a regular feature titled Bent-O. Each issue begins with a description of him entering a smoke-filled tavern where he meets a cadre of bizarre characters. Shady Goblins snorting lines of green powder, Bretonnian Yeomen headbanging to heavy metal and miserable werewolves drowning their sorrows in tankards of grog can all be found in this seedy watering hole. These are, in fact, references to the week's matches, and coaches on the league's Discord server will often take turns trying to guess exactly which player or coach has been spotted downing a beer or 10.
Speaking to Zee, he explains he's trying to evoke the atmosphere of his favourite movies, such as the infamous 'tea room scene' in John Woo's Hard Boiled. For him, this is a labour of love and a great way to practice his English while contributing to the hobby. "I wanted to bring something to the community," he explains. "You see admins, Twitch casters and YouTubers doing a lot of work so we can all share some Blood Bowl moments together. Writing has always been more of a personal calling so I thought I'd offer my services that way."
I find this hilarious. A Hong Kong cop thriller is about as thematically far away from the Warhammer Fantasy Universe as you can get, but this is typical of the zany nonsense you see in the ReBBL every day.
The league's subreddit, which is where the majority of the discussion takes place, is often full of banter between teams, taking little jabs at one another or announcing their intention to snatch victory at all costs. One example of this, a now legendary event known as The Chorfening, involved a player posting a video of him opening the game by ruthlessly murdering the opponent's expensive minotaur with a chainsaw. The poor guy's blank stare of disbelief (there was an absolutely miniscule chance of him pulling that off) is a thing of true beauty.
Even more awesome, however, are the moments of heartwarming kindness, such as when a much-loved coach announced he was taking a break due to personal strife, eliciting an outpouring of understanding and support from the community. What's so cool about this is despite the fact Blood Bowl is an innately competitive game, despite the fact unsportsmanlike behaviour and violent conflict is quite literally hard-baked into the rules, and despite the fact so many competitive gaming scenes devolve into toxic cesspits of human nastiness, the ReBBL has always been a pleasant and fun place to play.
Speaking to head admin Stephen 'FullMetal' Peers, he feels the reason behind this is simple. "People find it easy to disconnect when they go online," he explains. "Anonymity is a powerful influence in people's behaviour." However, Peers' instinct is to mitigate this disconnect by making every coach feel like a somebody in an otherwise enormous community. "Between the regular streams and the weekly recaps, coaches are not just a name in the crowd, they are people with histories; some are villains, others heroes, but they're all participating in their own story."
The structure of the divisions, being fairly small and intimate (usually no more than 14 teams), plays a big part in this as well. "You're in that division with them for 13 weeks," Peers adds. "It builds a sense of camaraderie, and indeed rivalry, which is oftentimes pushed through by the sports reporters. It's much more difficult to be toxic in that scenario."
This focus on community is at the heart of everything the ReBBL is about. Peers even jokes, "for a lot of the coaches the league is actually secondary to the community", citing the fact every team in the entire league has been featured on multiple weekly recaps, as well as possible live-streamed games and written interviews. The impression I get from Peers is this is very much a labour of love and one he's immensely proud of. He even requested I give a shout out to his 40-strong admin team, and who am I to refuse such a request? Well done guys!
One of those aforementioned Match of the Day-style recaps is The Punchmans Report, a hip-hop drenched look at the week's events, hosted by Jimmy and Rusty. Speaking to the latter of the two, I start to get an idea of what Peers is talking about when he mentioned coaches feeling like they're part of a story. Rusty talks a lot about how their reports are driven by narrative. "Are these guys rivals? Have they played each other often? Is this a David & Goliath contest?" he wonders. For him, the league is less about statistics and more about the time Orabbi's Chaos Dwarf team had the most violent season in the history of the league, or when a human blitzer named Turley made non-stop big plays, game after game. Hearing all this stuff, you could almost be forgiven for assuming he's describing a deep, story-driven RPG of some kind. After all, as Rusty points out, "really, at the end of the day, we just want to tell stories".
When Blood Bowl 2 initially launched on PC, the reviews were mostly lukewarm. A number of reasons were cited, from the complexity of the game's rules to its unfair dice rolls. However, what they pretty much all commented on was the fact most of the races were not in the game. Mechanically, Blood Bowl practically is its various races and understanding how to utilise the strengths of each of them makes up the vast majority of any successful coach's strategy. Skaven, for example, are fast but squishy. Dwarves are extremely slow but difficult to remove from the field. Naturally, humans are the classic jack-of-all trades. Now, three years down the line, not only is every race represented in-game (when you get the Legendary Edition), but it's also constantly on sale.
Blood Bowl is by no means a perfect game. The dice rolls (just like all dice rolls) are inherently unfair. The races are not even slightly balanced. The rules are complicated and difficult to wrap your head around. But that's what a real world sport is like and Blood Bowl takes that idea and turns it into a hilarious, blood-soaked carnival.
Yet it's the ReBBL that keeps me coming back to Blood Bowl 2 every week. From the real-life cash bounties placed on the heads of despised star players, to the time someone sent Peers a statue of an Ogre as a wedding gift, I've barely even scratched the surface with my descriptions of the madness that goes on in this quirky little community. They even have a rookie league for beginners. Who knows, perhaps you'll find yourself standing opposite my team one day, staring at my two Treemen and 14 Halflings, praying to god I don't pick one of them up and throw him at you. But you shouldn't be worried, because I'm rubbish and so are my Halflings.