John Brogan was introduced to Strat-O-Matic Baseball by his two older brothers. He was 8 years old, it was the early 1980s, and sports simulation games were all the rage. Brogan immediately became hooked. He played incessantly with friends, at one point staging an entire six-team season in two weeks, then got distracted by adolescence and mostly forgot about the game thereafter, a common path for the typical Strat-O-Matic user. Recently, though, Brogan found out the company was simulating a 2020 baseball season that remains on indefinite suspension because of the coronavirus pandemic, and then suddenly something clicked. He pulled up the company website, ordered the 2019 version of the board game, paid the extra fee for express delivery and received it on his doorstep three days later.
His two young boys would soon learn the wonder of Strat-O-Matic Baseball, whether they wanted to or not.
"My 8-year-old is all in and has become completely obsessed with it," Brogan, 45, said. "My 5-year-old can't read yet, so it's tough, but he's holding the cards and rolling the dice."
Brogan resides in Brooklyn, New York, within the epicenter of a pandemic that has crippled the U.S. economy, overwhelmed hospitals and infected more than 2 million people worldwide. The outbreak has forced hundreds of millions of Americans to remain home for an indefinite amount of time, prompting a resurgence in popularity for two throwbacks of the gaming industry. Strat-O-Matic and APBA, a comparable card-and-dice game in which baseball players are assigned probabilities based on their on-field performance from a given season, have experienced a significant rise in sales over the past few weeks. Many, like Brogan, are using the games to help fill the void of real baseball. They're also using it to bond with their kids, to occupy their unexpected free time, to get lost -- to maintain sanity.
"It's such a horrible time -- for our country, for the world -- and it's strange to be enjoying this surge for the company at this moment," Strat-O-Matic president Adam Richman said. "But it makes a lot of sense because people are obviously stuck at home looking for entertainment. They're looking for the ability to be distracted and engage with things that, first of all, connect them with sports because there aren't any sports right now, but also connect them with something that brings them some joy."
The number of people who signed up for free trials of Strat-O-Matic Baseball 365 on April 1 roughly equaled the number for the entire month of April in 2019. Sales for Strat-O-Matic's baseball board game and Windows platform for the second half of March were more than 50% higher in 2020 than they were in 2019, which Richman said was the company's biggest sales year ever. In a similar window, from March 12 to April 1, APBA more than doubled the total number of users for its online product -- then doubled it again from April 1 to April 15.
Gil Palladino, a 67-year-old who lives near Syracuse University in upstate New York, noticed a spike in interest when he logged on to play APBA a couple of months ago and saw three dozen people looking for a game partner. (The peak number of online users has been several dozen times greater than it typically was before the pandemic.) Under normal circumstances, Palladino would see only a handful. In recent days, he said, online chats on the game's site have morphed into therapy sessions as people cope with the ripple effects of COVID-19. There was a man who lost his job, couldn't pay the bills and needed a second mortgage on his house. There was a teenager who kept updating the group with stats from his high-school baseball season until it suddenly got canceled.
"There's a bunch," Palladino said. "Everybody has their own story."
They're the types of stories that make it difficult for John Herson, APBA's CEO for the past 15 years, to celebrate his sudden success.
"I mean, it's nice," he said, "but it's really tempered by the circumstances."
APBA's Georgia headquarters consist of a 5,000-square-foot office space located within a two-story contiguous building that sits roughly 30 minutes away from the Atlanta Falcons' stadium. A handful of employees work there and another handful work remotely. Herson has been updating the homepage of the company's website daily to let customers know APBA remains in business; the newsletter that goes out every Tuesday urges people to place their orders -- APBA has cards for seasons as far back as 1901, in addition to its PC and online games -- as soon as possible.
Strat-O-Matic, which will celebrate its 60th year in 2021, has a 30,000-square-foot physical distribution plant on Long Island that, because of the strict mandates throughout the state of New York, currently houses only one employee. The rest work remotely. While major league players remain sequestered in their homes, Strat-O-Matic is simulating each day of their season, posting highlights through the company's social media accounts and keeping a running tally of stats, records and transactions through its website. Major newspapers including the San Francisco Chronicle, Orange County Register and Dallas Morning News have printed the box scores.
Many of those who have turned to the games are lapsed players, like the one man who called customer service wondering why his Strat-O-Matic floppy discs no longer functioned and was told the company hasn't supported them for nine years. Many others are young kids who typically wouldn't be attracted to a card-and-dice game in an era of high-end technology -- like Brady Collins, a 9-year-old living in Natick, Massachusetts.
Brady and his father, Eric, put together all their card sets and began staging a massive single-elimination tournament while stuck at home, logging the results on a spreadsheet. Through that, Eric has found himself amazed by his son's retention and enthusiasm -- how he'll razz him for benching Juan Gonzalez in an American League park, how he'll study the 2004 Padres while eating dinner, how he'll throw out the name of an obscure '70s player like Sixto Lezcano and laud his strengths.
Through the game, Eric has found a new way to bond with his son during these trying times.
"When we get up in the morning, we have something to talk about," he said. "I teach statistics, and he loves all the numbers in this game. He'll tell me things that I don't know or bring up some random player. It's just fun to be able to talk to him about these things. I'm just surprised that my wife and my daughter don't think we're crazy because of the amount of times that we're talking about it or playing it. What I really like about it is -- he's 9 years old, and he'll school me on things!"
Eric and his wife are high school math teachers who now spend their days conducting online classes. The new realities of his job have prompted Eric to consume a lot of news that is particularly grim these days. Strat-O-Matic has become a welcome distraction.
"I don't even think about all the exterior stresses," he said. "I'm more into whether I'm gonna hit and run on the next play."