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

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

When the Classic Tetris World Championship (CTWC) debuted in 2010, the kill screen was the game’s final, unbeatable boss. Players pushed to get the highest score possible before level 29, at which point the game’s pieces started falling at double speed. It seemed humanly impossible to keep up with the falling shapes, which would pile up on players’ screens and spell death for their game.

But in the past four years, what once seemed an impossibility has become the norm in competitive classic Tetris. In the 1989 NES version of Tetris, which is still standard at competitive tournaments, players make it well into level 30 and beyond. This new generation of talent, made up of mostly teenagers, has not only breathed new life into a 30-year-old game, but also completely upended expectations of what’s possible within it.

From the beginning, competitive players of classic Tetris tried to push the game past what its developers imagined possible. The first frontier of competitive Tetris was the maxout, when the score was pushed past 999,999 and the game would no longer show an accurate score. Because playing in level 29 and beyond was out of the question, players aimed to break 1 million before the game would inevitably beat them. This meant maintaining “maxout pace” where players would complete enough “Tetrises” (when a player drops a straight I-block vertically, clearing four lines simultaneously and earning more points than single line clears) before the kill screen.

In 2010, players organized the first CTWC, largely in response to the world’s first indisputable maxout, accomplished by Harry Hong (other players like Thor Aackerlund and Jonas Neubauer claimed to have maxed out as well, but the proof wasn’t definitive). The desire to find out who the best Tetris player in the world was on, and soon, Neubauer began building a very strong case for himself. In the final match of this 2010 tournament, Neubauer, who went on to win seven of the first eight world championships, beat Hong, the only player to interrupt Neubauer’s reign by beating him in 2014.

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Over the first eight years of CTWC, maxing out before level 29 shifted from being an impossible frontier to a badge of honor for the game’s elite. It was still a notable accomplishment until the scene began to shift in 2018, when Joseph Saelee, a then-16-year-old from Visalia, California, began dismantling records and set the stage for a new generation’s influence on the game.

In March 2018, only five months after picking up the game, Saelee maxed out for the first time. As The New Yorker reported, he set records for most lines cleared in one game and fastest time to 300,000 points. Then he started to achieve what other experienced players had deemed impossible. He survived past the game’s kill screen, becoming the first player to make it to level 31 and 32 — then 33 through 35. No other player had even made it past level 30, not even seven-time champion Neubauer.

One of the reasons Saelee posted such high scores was his play style. Almost all players at the time maneuvered pieces into place by holding the directional keys down on the retro NES controllers. Instead of opting for this method, Saelee learned to “hypertap” from another player named Koji “Koryan” Nishio.

“In 2016, Koryan was the first person to do hypertapping in a tournament,” Saelee told Polygon over the phone. “I just played around with that technique and eventually found my grip, stance, whatever you want to call it.”

Saelee learned to flex his arm and manually press the directional buttons more quickly than the classic game would automatically shift the pieces, enabling him to react faster at the game’s highest speeds, even in level 29 and beyond. As a result, he became the first “innovator of post-kill screen play,” according to Chris Tang, who has commentated on every CTWC since 2010.

When Saelee arrived at the 2018 CTWC finals in Portland, most competitors were in their 30s and 40s. No one knew what to expect from the Gen Z teenager in a Hollister hoodie who had literally just picked up the game a year before and came to the tournament with his older sister. But they knew he was a serious contender, thanks to his Twitch streams and YouTube uploads. Saelee had already impressed the game’s elite.

On the way to the finals, Saelee beat both Harry Hong, then 33 years old, and Koryan, then 41. Then, to top it off, Saelee swept Neubauer in the 2018 CTWC finals and won 3-0 in a best of five, in what remains competitive Tetris’ most viewed match and is colloquially known as simply Jonas vs. Joseph. After beating Neubauer, Saelee was initially speechless and walked off stage as Neubauer took the mic to praise Saelee.

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“The most clutch Tetris that we’ve seen from anyone,” Neubauer said after Saelee’s convincing performance. “It’s truly an honor to pass the torch to the new generation of Tetris players.”

Saelee occasionally watches the video back. It was an out-of-body experience for him. “It didn’t sink in until maybe days or weeks later.” Saelee, who is now 19 and in his second year of college, said. “It is one of the most significant days of my life.”

Saelee wasn’t done changing the competitive Tetris landscape. He went on to win 2019’s CTWC, beating Koryan in those finals. But not only did he upend Tetris’ established old guard, he also began inspiring other young players to pick up the retro game. These new players not only crushed every record of competitive Tetris, but once again reoriented what Tetris players thought was even possible.

A crowd of more than 100 spectators watching the 2019 CTWC. Commentators James Chen and Chris Tang sit at a well-lit table in the middle.
A crowd of spectators watching the 2019 CTWC. Commentators James Chen and Chris Tang sit at a table in the middle.
Photo: Classic Tetris World Championship

By the time the 2020 CTWC rolled around, the world had changed, and so had the competitive Tetris scene. No longer held in Portland because of the COVID-19 pandemic, CTWC shifted online. And a generation of new, younger players who had been inspired by Saelee’s 2018 heroics wanted to play on the game’s biggest stage.

Suddenly, Tetris’ top players weren’t in their 30s and 40s; they were in their teens, and Saelee was now the veteran. The average age of the 2020 CTWC’s top eight players was 17 years old. The youngest player was 13-year-old Michael “Dog” Artiaga, who went on to win the competition, beating his 15-year-old brother, Andy, in the final.

Artiaga, like many others at 2020’s competition, had found out about classic Tetris through the Jonas vs. Joseph match on his YouTube recommended list, and dove headfirst into the game along with his brother.

Vince Clemente, one of the tournament’s organizers, jokingly blames Joseph Saelee for the massive shift in average age from 2018 to 2020. There’s an importance to having a great champion, Clemente told Polygon. “They have a face and a star in Joseph. He’s a great champ. He’s well-spoken, emotional, and very kind. So yeah, I blame him.”

“We used to ask players for their job title to put on their bio, but now everyone is a student,” he said. “It’s a worthless question now.”

These new, young players had novel ideas for how to play classic Tetris more efficiently. Before the 2020 CTWC, Christopher “Cheez” Martinez told Saelee that he had something in the works. It was a new method of playing classic Tetris that he called “rolling.” Instead of hypertapping, which was rather difficult to learn and punishing on the body, Martinez’s new method of rolling involved drumming his fingers on the back of the NES controller, putting pressure on the buttons on the other side.

“It looked more efficient in terms of left-to-right speed, so I thought it was eventually going to blow up,” Saelee admitted.

And he was right. Rolling has resulted in another wave of shattered records. In the 2021 CTWC semifinal match between Saelee and Jacob “Huffulufugus” Huff, Huff had committed to rolling and pushed Saelee to the limit, breaking the record for the highest scoring competitive match. Saelee was averaging scores above one million, but it wasn’t enough; Huff was able to play well past the kill screen, once to level 36 and once to level 40, and catch up to him, no matter how high Saelee had scored.

Rolling has taken over the Tetris world. Most of the top 8 from the 2021 CTWC have switched to rolling in some capacity over the past year in time for the 2022 CTWC in October, including Andy Artiaga, who finished fourth, just behind Saelee. In a monthly Tetris competition this past May, Artiaga won a match that broke the world record for highest combined score in a single game, highest losing score (1.5 million), and highest winning score (2.1 million). Artiaga reached level 58, a full 29 levels after the game’s kill screen.

“Andy’s just in another world right now,” the commentator said during the game. “Andy can just go forever. I don’t even know how to count the score at this point. Someone is keeping track, I have no idea.”

In February, another player was able to get to level 138 in noncompetitive play by rolling on the PAL version of Tetris, which is roughly 17% slower than the competitive standard NTSC version. At such a high level, the game glitched and started to read random data to fill the color palettes of the Tetris blocks. The feat was accomplished by AI before but never by a player. Garish greens and pinks and spacey white blocks shaded with just more white rained down the screen as a star of Tetris’ young community found yet another way to break the game.

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Classic Tetris’ elders are proud the game has managed to attract a new generation of talent who have completely transformed what is possible. The old guard built a community that thrived on friendly and collaborative competition, and the result is support for these new players — even as they’ve completely outpaced their predecessors.

There were many reasons that young players had gotten so good at the game so quickly. There was Neubauer’s Tetris 101 video where he explained techniques and strategies that were key to competitive Tetris. There was Koryan’s willingness to share his method of hypertapping that invited so many others to learn. The younger players got to skip all of the development of those methods and build on them, instead of struggling from the ground up.

“I never thought that players would actually want to share their secrets, but it’s that spirit of positive competition that we all have the potential to hold,” Chris Tang said to Polygon. “When you pay it forward, and you’re nice to your fellow competitors, it’s infectious. I think that’s always been there, and hopefully it will continue.”

Tang said that the spirit of collaboration reached even back to the Nintendo World Championships, where he and other key members of the competitive Tetris community like Thor Aackerlund and Robin Mihara (the director of the Tetris documentary Ecstasy of Order) got their start in esports. They were already sharing secrets with one another with techniques and tricks to push their own play. Tang is excited that the kids seem to get it and are sharing methods and advice with one another to help the game grow.

The friendliness of the community extends to more substantial matters than high scores as well.

“We all get along, we all cheer for one another, we all want to see each other succeed.” Tang said. “A lot of that warmth comes from our hero, Jonas Neubauer, who carried that torch for so long and was a great example of what a champion is.”

The warmth of the community that Neubauer inspired came to the fore when Neubauer, the undisputed greatest-of-all-time Tetris player, died suddenly in January 2021 at the age of 39. Reeling, the community lost its leader but rallied around his family and changed the 2021 CTWC trophy to a J-piece in his name and honor.

His competitive excellence was just the surface of his contribution. Clemente recalled how Neubauer’s character set the tone for how competitors treated each other.

“He was a gracious champ. If he was a bad champ, it wouldn’t have been as nice to come to these events,” Clemente said. “If you talk to the other players in the great reign of Jonas, they were going to the tournament to get to the top eight and just enjoy the competition. Everyone knew that Jonas was going to win — well, maybe everyone except for Harry.”

Though he didn’t get to know Neubauer very well, Saelee also credited him with setting a standard for the community that has become a central social network in his life as a young adult.

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 losing to Joseph Saelee in the historic Jonas vs. Joseph 2018 match.
Photo: Classic Tetris World Championship

“He left a huge legacy,” Saelee said. “He set an example for the rest of us to follow.”

Everyone involved in classic Tetris misses Neubauer, the older generation remembers an unbeatable champion who was not only crucial to the game’s growth but also a dear friend. The younger generation remembers a generous champion who was excited to be usurped as long as he got to see more and more people come into a world he loved and reshape it.

This past April, a player posted the current world record score of 3.7 million and reached level 95. After an amount of shock at the ludicrous achievement, he picked up the camera to focus on his tube TV as he manually typed in Jonas’ name on the 8-bit game and dedicated the score to him.

The current high score in Tetris is over triple what Neubauer and other older players even imagined possible just a few years ago. This new generation has broken every record that the older Tetris generation set, but they recognize they couldn’t have gotten here without those who came before them.