Teens are rewriting what is possible in the world of competitive Tetris


When the Basic Tetris World Championship (CTWC) debuted in 2010, the kill display was the sport’s last, unbeatable boss. Gamers pushed to get the best rating attainable earlier than degree 29, at which level the sport’s items began falling at double velocity. It appeared humanly unimaginable to maintain up with the falling shapes, which might pile up on gamers’ screens and spell loss of life for his or her recreation.

However prior to now 4 years, what as soon as appeared an impossibility has change into the norm in aggressive basic Tetris. Within the 1989 NES model of Tetris, which continues to be commonplace at aggressive tournaments, gamers make it properly into degree 30 and past. This new technology of expertise, made up of largely youngsters, has not solely breathed new life right into a 30-year-old recreation, but additionally utterly upended expectations of what’s attainable inside it.

From the start, aggressive gamers of basic Tetris tried to push the sport previous what its builders imagined attainable. The primary frontier of aggressive Tetris was the maxout, when the score was pushed past 999,999 and the sport would not present an correct rating. As a result of taking part in in degree 29 and past was out of the query, gamers aimed to interrupt 1 million earlier than the sport would inevitably beat them. This meant sustaining “maxout tempo” the place gamers would full sufficient “Tetrises” (when a participant drops a straight I-block vertically, clearing 4 strains concurrently and incomes extra factors than single line clears) earlier than the kill display.

In 2010, gamers organized the primary CTWC, largely in response to the world’s first indeniable maxout, achieved by Harry Hong (different gamers like Thor Aackerlund and Jonas Neubauer claimed to have maxed out as properly, however the proof wasn’t definitive). The will to seek out out who the very best Tetris participant on this planet was on, and shortly, Neubauer started constructing a really sturdy case for himself. Within the last match of this 2010 event, Neubauer, who went on to win seven of the primary eight world championships, beat Hong, the one participant to interrupt Neubauer’s reign by beating him in 2014.

Over the primary eight years of CTWC, maxing out earlier than degree 29 shifted from being an unimaginable frontier to a badge of honor for the sport’s elite. It was nonetheless a notable accomplishment till the scene started to shift in 2018, when Joseph Saelee, a then-16-year-old from Visalia, California, started dismantling information and set the stage for a brand new technology’s affect on the sport.

In March 2018, solely 5 months after selecting up the sport, Saelee maxed out for the primary time. As The New Yorker reported, he set records for most strains cleared in a single recreation and quickest time to 300,000 factors. Then he began to attain what different skilled gamers had deemed unimaginable. He survived previous the sport’s kill display, turning into the primary participant to make it to degree 31 and 32 — then 33 by means of 35. No different participant had even made it previous degree 30, not even seven-time champion Neubauer.

One of many causes Saelee posted such excessive scores was his play type. Nearly all gamers on the time maneuvered items into place by holding the directional keys down on the retro NES controllers. As a substitute of choosing this technique, Saelee discovered to “hypertap” from one other participant named Koji “Koryan” Nishio.

“In 2016, Koryan was the primary particular person to do hypertapping in a event,” Saelee advised Polygon over the telephone. “I simply performed round with that approach and finally discovered my grip, stance, no matter you wish to name it.”

Saelee discovered to flex his arm and manually press the directional buttons extra rapidly than the basic recreation would mechanically shift the items, enabling him to react sooner on the recreation’s highest speeds, even in degree 29 and past. Consequently, he turned the primary “innovator of post-kill display play,” according to Chris Tang, who has commentated on each CTWC since 2010.

When Saelee arrived on the 2018 CTWC finals in Portland, most rivals have been of their 30s and 40s. Nobody knew what to anticipate from the Gen Z teenager in a Hollister hoodie who had actually simply picked up the sport a yr earlier than and got here to the event along with his older sister. However they knew he was a critical contender, due to his Twitch streams and YouTube uploads. Saelee had already impressed the sport’s elite.

On the way in which to the finals, Saelee beat each Harry Hong, then 33 years previous, and Koryan, then 41. Then, to prime it off, Saelee swept Neubauer within the 2018 CTWC finals and received 3-0 in a greatest of 5, in what stays aggressive Tetris’ most seen match and is colloquially referred to as merely Jonas vs. Joseph. After beating Neubauer, Saelee was initially speechless and walked off stage as Neubauer took the mic to reward Saelee.

“Probably the most clutch Tetris that we’ve seen from anybody,” Neubauer mentioned after Saelee’s convincing efficiency. “It’s actually an honor to go the torch to the brand new technology of Tetris gamers.”

Saelee sometimes watches the video again. It was an out-of-body expertise for him. “It didn’t sink in till perhaps days or perhaps weeks later.” Saelee, who’s now 19 and in his second yr of faculty, mentioned. “It is among the most important days of my life.”

Saelee wasn’t completed altering the aggressive Tetris panorama. He went on to win 2019’s CTWC, beating Koryan in these finals. However not solely did he upend Tetris’ established previous guard, he additionally started inspiring different younger gamers to choose up the retro recreation. These new gamers not solely crushed each file of aggressive Tetris, however as soon as once more reoriented what Tetris gamers thought was even attainable.

A crowd of spectators watching the 2019 CTWC. Commentators James Chen and Chris Tang sit at a desk within the center.
Photograph: Basic Tetris World Championship

By the point the 2020 CTWC rolled round, the world had modified, and so had the aggressive Tetris scene. Not held in Portland due to the COVID-19 pandemic, CTWC shifted on-line. And a technology of recent, youthful gamers who had been impressed by Saelee’s 2018 heroics wished to play on the sport’s largest stage.

All of a sudden, Tetris’ prime gamers weren’t of their 30s and 40s; they have been of their teenagers, and Saelee was now the veteran. The common age of the 2020 CTWC’s top eight gamers was 17 years previous. The youngest participant was 13-year-old Michael “Dog” Artiaga, who went on to win the competitors, beating his 15-year-old brother, Andy, within the last.

Artiaga, like many others at 2020’s competitors, had came upon about basic Tetris by means of the Jonas vs. Joseph match on his YouTube really useful checklist, and dove headfirst into the sport alongside along with his brother.

Vince Clemente, one of many event’s organizers, jokingly blames Joseph Saelee for the huge shift in common age from 2018 to 2020. There’s an significance to having an awesome champion, Clemente advised Polygon. “They’ve a face and a star in Joseph. He’s an awesome champ. He’s well-spoken, emotional, and really variety. So yeah, I blame him.”

“We used to ask gamers for his or her job title to placed on their bio, however now everyone seems to be a scholar,” he mentioned. “It’s a nugatory query now.”

These new, younger gamers had novel concepts for easy methods to play basic Tetris extra effectively. Earlier than the 2020 CTWC, Christopher “Cheez” Martinez advised Saelee that he had one thing within the works. It was a brand new technique of taking part in basic Tetris that he referred to as “rolling.” As a substitute of hypertapping, which was quite tough to study and punishing on the physique, Martinez’s new technique of rolling concerned drumming his fingers on the again of the NES controller, placing strain on the buttons on the opposite aspect.

“It seemed extra environment friendly by way of left-to-right velocity, so I assumed it was finally going to explode,” Saelee admitted.

And he was proper. Rolling has resulted in one other wave of shattered information. Within the 2021 CTWC semifinal match between Saelee and Jacob “Huffulufugus” Huff, Huff had dedicated to rolling and pushed Saelee to the restrict, breaking the file for the best scoring aggressive match. Saelee was averaging scores above a million, nevertheless it wasn’t sufficient; Huff was capable of play properly previous the kill display, as soon as to degree 36 and as soon as to degree 40, and catch as much as him, regardless of how excessive Saelee had scored.

Rolling has taken over the Tetris world. A lot of the top 8 from the 2021 CTWC have switched to rolling in some capability over the previous yr in time for the 2022 CTWC in October, together with Andy Artiaga, who completed fourth, simply behind Saelee. In a month-to-month Tetris competitors this previous Might, Artiaga received a match that broke the world file for highest mixed rating in a single recreation, highest shedding rating (1.5 million), and highest successful rating (2.1 million). Artiaga reached degree 58, a full 29 ranges after the sport’s kill display.

“Andy’s simply in one other world proper now,” the commentator mentioned through the recreation. “Andy can simply go ceaselessly. I don’t even know easy methods to rely the rating at this level. Somebody is protecting observe, I do not know.”

In February, one other participant was capable of get to degree 138 in noncompetitive play by rolling on the PAL model of Tetris, which is roughly 17% slower than the aggressive commonplace NTSC model. At such a excessive degree, the sport glitched and began to learn random knowledge to fill the colour palettes of the Tetris blocks. The feat was accomplished by AI earlier than however by no means by a participant. Garish greens and pinks and spacey white blocks shaded with simply extra white rained down the display as a star of Tetris’ younger neighborhood discovered one more strategy to break the sport.

Basic Tetris’ elders are proud the sport has managed to draw a brand new technology of expertise who’ve utterly reworked what is feasible. The previous guard constructed a neighborhood that thrived on pleasant and collaborative competitors, and the result’s help for these new gamers — at the same time as they’ve utterly outpaced their predecessors.

There have been many causes that younger gamers had gotten so good on the recreation so rapidly. There was Neubauer’s Tetris 101 video the place he defined strategies and techniques that have been key to aggressive Tetris. There was Koryan’s willingness to share his technique of hypertapping that invited so many others to study. The youthful gamers bought to skip the entire growth of these strategies and construct on them, as a substitute of struggling from the bottom up.

“I by no means thought that gamers would really wish to share their secrets and techniques, nevertheless it’s that spirit of optimistic competitors that all of us have the potential to carry,” Chris Tang mentioned to Polygon. “Whenever you pay it ahead, and also you’re good to your fellow rivals, it’s infectious. I feel that’s at all times been there, and hopefully it is going to proceed.”

Tang mentioned that the spirit of collaboration reached even again to the Nintendo World Championships, the place he and different key members of the aggressive Tetris neighborhood like Thor Aackerlund and Robin Mihara (the director of the Tetris documentary Ecstasy of Order) bought their begin in esports. They have been already sharing secrets and techniques with each other with strategies and tips to push their very own play. Tang is worked up that the children appear to get it and are sharing strategies and recommendation with each other to assist the sport develop.

The friendliness of the neighborhood extends to extra substantial issues than excessive scores as properly.

“All of us get alongside, all of us cheer for each other, all of us wish to see one another succeed.” Tang mentioned. “A variety of that heat comes from our hero, Jonas Neubauer, who carried that torch for therefore lengthy and was an awesome instance of what a champion is.”

The heat of the neighborhood that Neubauer impressed got here to the fore when Neubauer, the undisputed greatest-of-all-time Tetris participant, died suddenly in January 2021 on the age of 39. Reeling, the neighborhood misplaced its chief however rallied round his household and altered the 2021 CTWC trophy to a J-piece in his identify and honor.

His aggressive excellence was simply the floor of his contribution. Clemente recalled how Neubauer’s character set the tone for a way rivals handled one another.

“He was a gracious champ. If he was a foul champ, it wouldn’t have been as good to come back to those occasions,” Clemente mentioned. “For those who speak to the opposite gamers within the nice reign of Jonas, they have been going to the event to get to the highest eight and simply benefit from the competitors. Everybody knew that Jonas was going to win — properly, perhaps everybody apart from Harry.”

Although he didn’t get to know Neubauer very properly, Saelee additionally credited him with setting a regular for the neighborhood that has change into a central social community in his life as a younger grownup.

Jonas Neubauer, a white man wearing a leather coat is standing and clapping after losing to Joseph Saelee, a young Asian man, who is sitting in shock with his face cradled in his hands.

Jonas Neubauer clapping after shedding to Joseph Saelee within the historic Jonas vs. Joseph 2018 match.
Photograph: Basic Tetris World Championship

“He left an enormous legacy,” Saelee mentioned. “He set an instance for the remainder of us to comply with.”

Everybody concerned in basic Tetris misses Neubauer, the older technology remembers an unbeatable champion who was not solely essential to the sport’s progress but additionally an expensive good friend. The youthful technology remembers a beneficiant champion who was excited to be usurped so long as he bought to see increasingly individuals come right into a world he beloved and reshape it.

This previous April, a participant posted the current world record rating of three.7 million and reached degree 95. After an quantity of shock on the ludicrous achievement, he picked up the digicam to give attention to his tube TV as he manually typed in Jonas’ identify on the 8-bit recreation and devoted the rating to him.

The present excessive rating in Tetris is over triple what Neubauer and different older gamers even imagined attainable only a few years in the past. This new technology has damaged each file that the older Tetris technology set, however they acknowledge they couldn’t have gotten right here with out those that got here earlier than them.

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