You Should Watch Competitive Nintendo Tetris

Last night, the Yankees played a must-win playoff game, and under normal circumstances, I’d have been glued to the screen. Instead, I was in a giant windowless expo hall at Portland’s Oregon Convention Center, watching the grand final of the Classic Tetris World Championship (CTWC). It was a thrilling competition, very much worth the trip.

The CTWC attracts competitors who come from around the world to play Nintendo’s brutally hard 1989 adaptation of Tetris on real Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) consoles and cathode-ray tube televisions. Some have qualified by winning regional competitions. Others have showed up in Portland and paid a small fee to try to qualify on site. Some wear flashy attire, like two-piece suits decorated with tetromino pieces. Many are friendly and chatty with their fellow players. There is no “backstage” area, so when a competitor isn’t playing, they’re usually mixed with the rest of the spectators, watching and awaiting their turn, or perhaps practicing on one of the demo consoles.

The first CTWC was held in 2010. Since 2012, it’s been colocated with the Portland Retro Gaming Expo, a massive place for people of all ages to play games of all ages. Four years ago, 16-year-old Joseph Saelee shocked the competitive Tetris world when he won his first championship, defeating 7-time world champion Jonas Neubauer. Neubauer, a legend in the competition, was graceful in defeat; he passed away last year, and the championship trophy now bears his name. Saelee’s victory went viral on YouTube, and Jomboy broke it down as well. ESPN broadcast it on “The Ocho,” its annual series of unusual sports broadcasts. I went to my first Retro Gaming Expo in 2019 and I noticed that the line for qualifying included lots of high school students, not the demographic I’d expect for a classic gaming event.

As the Classic Tetris World Championship has exploded in popularity, so too have its prize pool and its high scores. When Saelee won in 2018, he received $1,000 and Neubauer, the runner-up, won $500; no other player received any prize money. The following year, the prize pool grew from $1,500 to $10,000; the winner received $3,000, and each of the top 16 finishers received at least $250. This year, the prize pool started at $10,000 and, through donations, viewers could contribute more to it. Through these contributions — including a small one I made — the total prize pool topped $22,000 this year, of which EricICX, the champion, pocketed about $5,000. “Do I think this could become a viable esport? Absolutely not,” Fractal161 told Engadget before this year’s tournament, which paid him $1,750 for placing second. Still, who wouldn’t want to win thousands of dollars for playing video games, especially as a high school student? Just to qualify for the tournament required a score of over 700,000; that’s about twice my best score. It wasn’t until 2009 that a “max-out,” reaching the NES’s maximum score display of 999,999, was credibly documented. This year, the top two qualifiers (who would later meet in the final) each maxed out 14 times during qualifying rounds, and 47 other qualifiers maxed out at least once. The modified cartridge used for tournament play can report 7-digit scores, which is necessary due to the frequency of max-outs. In 2019, two players maxed out during the tournament’s knockout stage for the first time in its history; this year, double max-outs were so common that tournament staff marked them by ringing a cowbell, and in game 3 of the grand final, both players achieved scores of over 2 million. A score almost never seen in the game’s infancy is no longer good enough to win a competitive game. While watching the final, I tweeted, “I think we’re witnessing two players who have beaten the game.” The official CTWC account reposted it.

Competitive classic gamers measure time in video frames. The NES can output about 30 frames per second, so a frame-perfect input must be made in about 33 milliseconds. Players must use standard NES controllers, not modified ones that can send “turbo” inputs automatically. Saelee won his championship by “hypertapping,” holding his controller in a then-unorthodox way so that he could tap more times per second than his opponent could. Even with hypertapping, it was thought at the time that level 29 served as a “kill screen” for NES Tetris, a level that no human player with unmodified equipment could surpass. Since then, players have adopted “rolling,” a technique of rhythmically tapping the underside of the controller with one hand while holding it with the other, so that players can move their pieces to the edges of the play area even at level 29 and higher. Many players during the knockout stage used rolling to reach levels into the thirties and forties. In that extraordinary game 3 of the grand final, both players hit level 70 — more than forty levels past what had been thought possible — and each player recorded an exceptionally valuable Tetris at a level previously thought to be unreachable. The final round extended more than a half hour beyond the nominal end time of the expo; many in attendance openly wondered whether either player would ever lose. The NES Tetris game is nearly 33 years old, older than many of its top competitive players, and people are still finding innovative ways to play it.

I have no real stake in the competitive Tetris landscape other than attending a couple of tournaments and contributing to the 2022 event’s prize pool. I didn’t recognize any of the competitors even while I was standing right next to them in the audience. I’m not much of an e-sports fan otherwise; I haven’t played in a video game tournament since I was in college and never for any substantial prize. Nevertheless, there’s something about competitive Classic Tetris that I really enjoy watching. The game is utterly unforgiving. A novice player would struggle to survive for one minute on level 18, the starting level in tournament play. Dealing with long I-piece droughts can frustrate even a skilled player, who is forced to choose between building a high stack or “burning” lines with less valuable singles, doubles, and triples to keep the game in their control. Last-second spins and tucks have no explicit reward in the classic game like they do in some modern variants, but they look cool, and they can keep a difficult game going just a little bit longer. The live crowd gets raucous even when three or four games are on the screen simultaneously, following players as they work their way into and out of danger. In best-of-5 rounds, not even 2–0 leads are safe. A skillful move, or an unexpected blunder, draws a big reaction from the thousands in attendance and from the live commentators broadcasting on Twitch — and the players can hear everything.

Watching a Classic Tetris stream on Twitch, you might at first wonder what I’m so excited about. Many matches are consistent, even boring, in their style of play. Most players show little emotion while they’re playing, especially if they’re playing at home or if they can’t perceive a live crowd. As with so many live sports, the drama comes when the game goes into extended time. The players need to have mental and emotional toughness to focus on every piece, knowing that at an advanced level, a single mis-drop can cascade into a loss in just a few seconds. I’ve seen players who, after a win, burst into tears on stage. People in the crowd start chants for and against certain players. I’ve screamed cheers for a player I’ve never met, who just won the game of his life, and who might have earned just enough prize money to cover his travel expenses. The crowd wants to see people at the top of their game playing so well, getting ever better by facing skilled competitors, and inspiring the next generation. That, to me, is the appeal of spectator sports, and I’m already looking forward to the excitement and drama of next year’s tournament.