The new guard of competitive Tetris
A new generation of Tetris play is rising
As a 16-year-old entering his first major tournament, Joseph Saelee hoped “just to qualify” for the final bracket at the 2018 Classic Tetris World Championship. Instead, he defeated 2014 champion Harry Hong, No. 1 seed Koji “Koryan” Nishio and seven-time competitive Tetris champion Jonas Neubauer, to win the whole CTWC.
Not only did Saelee establish himself as one of the greats of the game, his run also ushered in a new guard of the competitive Tetris scene.
Though Tetris released on the Nintendo Entertainment System in 1989, making it one of the oldest esports that still has an active community, recent Tetris tournaments have been increasingly populated by up-and-comers far younger than the game itself. Saelee won back-to-back championships in 2018 and 2019 before reaching adulthood. In 2020, 13-year-old Michael “Dog” Artiaga won the online finals against his 15-year-old brother, Andrew “PixelAndy” Artiaga. However, these youngsters are fairly new additions to a community historically dominated by one man in his 30s.
Establishing the old guard
Vince Clemente organized the inaugural CTWC in 2010 as part of “Ecstasy of Order: The Tetris Masters,” a documentary directed by Adam Cornelius. 29-year-old Neubauer defeated Hong to become the first Tetris world champion.
While Clemente created the event specifically for the documentary, the CTWC became an annual competitive Tetris occurrence. So did Neubauer winning. He finished in first place at the next three world championships. Hong briefly challenged his reign by winning the 2014 CTWC. However, Neubauer returned with three more consecutive victories from 2015 to 2017.
“The thing with Jonas is that you couldn’t faze him,” ESPN host and CTWC caster Arda Ocal said. “He never succumbed to the pressure of the stage. If you were going to beat him, you would have to be perfect.”
Neubauer was the best in the world at a technique known as DAS, or delayed auto shift. DAS addresses the fact that in-game tetrominoes move slightly when the player holds left or right on the D-pad, then pause briefly before automatically shifting to the side.
Still, the technique’s name is a bit of a misnomer. It’s actually a method for bypassing the delay before the auto shift. By pressing the D-pad during the entry delay — the period between one piece locking into place and the next piece dropping from the top of the screen — the next piece will automatically shift without any delay.
The technique was not flawless. Since pressing the D-pad outside of the entry delay would cause the player to “lose DAS,” they could be forced into tricky situations if they positioned a piece incorrectly. Would they press the D-pad again to correct the mistake but lose DAS in the process? Or would they keep the unfavorable tetromino placement in order to preserve their speed?
Another way to play
Despite faults with DAS, many of the top players stuck to the technique. It’s what they were most comfortable with.
“That was what they learned to do inherently as they were playing,” CTWC commentator James Chen said. “Because Jonas was the best at it, it was like, this is probably the way you’re supposed to play.”
DAS was never the only way to play NES Tetris, however. Thor Aackerlund used a technique called hypertapping as early as the 2010 CTWC. As the name suggests, hypertapping involves twitching one’s fingers to rapidly press the D-pad.
Since a hypertapper never holds down on the D-pad, they don’t automatically shift their pieces and never deal with any delay. If the player can tap fast enough, they can even move a piece faster than the game would automatically shift it.
“If” being the operative word.
Few Tetris veterans could tap fast enough to make hypertapping preferable over DAS. The best old-school hypertapper, Koryan, consistently performed worse than Neubauer. Thus, for the first eight years of the CTWC’s existence, there seemed to be little reason to disrupt the status quo.
“So basically, the best players of NES Tetris just stayed being the best players of NES Tetris,” Chen said.
The new guard rises
Many young players got their first glimpse of competitive Tetris when the 2016 CTWC finals went viral. The VOD of the finals currently has more than 13 million views, thanks in large part to commentator Chris Tang shouting “Boom! Tetris for Jeff” every time Jeff Moore (and sometimes even Neubauer) cleared four lines to score a Tetris.
While the commentary enamored most viewers, the high-level gameplay piqued Saelee’s interest. He looked to the veterans of the game as resources who could help him learn and improve.
“I think Joseph saw that video and was like, ‘I can do that,’” Clemente said. “[He] started watching Jonas, Koryan and Harry, who were all streaming on Twitch. They were accessible. Anyone could watch and learn what was going on.”
Unlike his forerunners, Saelee had the advantage of swift, youthful fingers. He also had the free time necessary to practice the difficult hypertapping technique. Within two years of picking up Tetris, Saelee put the potential of hypertapping on full display by sweeping Neubauer 3-0 in the 2018 finals.
Saelee’s victory now has more than 16 million views on YouTube, bringing even more attention to the CTWC. Mykal “Sharky” Buster, then 18 years old, was inspired to join the Tetris community because of Saelee’s accomplishment, as were many others.
“A lot of people had that same mindset like, ‘Oh wow! He’s around my age,’” Sharky said. “‘Maybe I can try and do the same thing. Maybe I can be the next world champion.’”
From this point on, the community exploded with new players. Young hypertappers like Saelee have since been able to make it past level 29 of Tetris. The level was once called the “kill screen” because most players considered it impossible to beat.
“It’s not called the ‘kill screen’ anymore,” Ocal said. “It’s called the ‘thrill screen’ because people are exceeding it. They’re getting at such high levels and far exceeding the million-point mark, which once upon a time was thought of as a fairy tale.”
Their improvements have translated to impressive results at the CTWC, where the young bloods have left the older competitive Tetris veterans in the dust. The oldest player in the 2020 top eight was 23-year-old Nenu Zefanya Kariko. Meanwhile, the likes of Neubauer and Koryan failed to qualify.
“It’s not going to stop,” Ocal said. “I wouldn’t be surprised if we see a situation where we have very few older veteran competitors in future years and it’s dominated by a younger competitor pool.”
Up-and-coming Tetris players continue to innovate at breakneck speeds. On June 2, AlexThach used hypertapping to set a new world record by reaching level 41. Even so, hypertapping may not be the only viable strategy going forward.
Recently, 2020 top-eight finisher Cheez has been pioneering a new technique called rolling, where he barely holds his thumb over the D-pad and rolls his other fingers along the back of the controller to get multiple quick inputs.
With rolling, Cheez has made it as far as level 40. Crucially, this technique allows players to move pieces as quickly as they could by hypertapping without the same amount of physical strain. Not only could this technique elevate competitive Tetris to even greater heights, but it could ensure its best players maintain their health long enough to participate.
“The last thing I want to see is a player like Joseph having bad hands when he gets to 30 because he played so much Tetris,” Chen said.
The end of an era and a way forward
Earlier this year, 39-year-old Neubauer died from a sudden cardiac arrhythmia of an unknown cause. His impact on the Tetris community was apparent even to those who never knew him personally.
“A lot of people say this is the nicest community they’ve ever seen because there’s minimum toxicity, everyone’s trying to help each other out,” Sharky said. “Jonas being the biggest ambassador helped a lot with that.”
Though his relevance began to diminish after 2018, Neubauer is still largely responsible for the success of the CTWC today. Had he not been so dominant for so long, his loss to Saelee likely wouldn’t have sparked such inspiration in the young players who now run the scene.
“There would be no Classic Tetris World Championship as it is without him as a presence, as a force in the scene,” Chen said. “If we’re still playing NES Tetris 50 years from now, we’re still talking about Jonas, because he is integral to the entire scene.”
And yet, Neubauer spent much of his latter years preparing the Tetris community to move on without him. From teaching the game live on Twitch to traveling the world and promoting it, his goal was to “pass the torch to the new generation of Tetris players.”
“Jonas gave away all his secrets,” Clemente said. “As you see in the tournament yearly, it becomes progressively better, and now it’s on a ‘to the moon’ type spike.”
Dog’s victory over his brother in 2020 was the most unexpected competitive Tetris result to date. But, with newcomers making rapid advancements and constantly pushing the limits of the game, the outcome of the online 2021 CTWC will be even harder to predict. For anyone with aspirations of becoming the next Saelee, the next Dog or maybe even the next Neubauer, the Tetris community is waiting with open arms.
“In a pandemic where the entire world was in play, the finals ended up being in the same house,” Ocal said. “If that can happen, anything can happen. So dream big.”