I challenge anyone to watch the grand finals of the 2019 Classic Tetris World Championship without getting caught up in the excitement. Though it isn’t too surprising that 17-year-old Joseph Saelee won for a second year in a row, watching Saelee and Japanese player Koji “Koryan” Nishio take the finals to all the way to game point is exhilarating nonetheless.
Taken as a whole, the 2019 championships prove that the NES version of Tetris, which turns 30 next month, has a healthier competitive scene than it ever has previously.
Held annually at the Portland Retro Gaming Expo, the Classic Tetris World Championships started in 2010. Each year, contestants face off one-versus-one in a single-elimination tournament on NES Tetris. The tournament uses modified Tetris cartridges that ensure both players in a match see the same randomly generated sequence of pieces, but beyond that they’re playing pure NES Tetris and competing for the higher score in each round. NES Tetris isn’t as forgiving as later competitive versions of the game, and unless you’re a hyper-tapper (more on that later), you’re basically guaranteed to hit the top of the screen before level 29.
As of this year, it looks like the Classic Tetris community has crossed a threshold as part of its continuing growth: the number of people who could conceivably win a tournament has jumped way, way up. Last year, Saelee triumphed over seven-time champion Jonas Neubauer, who had only lost a single Classic Tetris World Championship previously. In 2019, Neubauer lost in the Top 32, which isn’t so much a reflection of his skills as it is of the groundswell of talent that’s lifting up and changing the landscape of Classic Tetris.
Saelee has said that watching videos of Neubauer helped him learn Classic Tetris, and now a new generation of Tetris players can learn from watching both Neubauer and Saelee. This year’s third and fourth place finishers, Dan “DanQZ” Zhang and Aidan “Batfoy” Jerdee, are also relatively new faces in the Classic Tetris scene.
New Classic Tetris players have also learned plenty from second place finisher Koryan, who has been a staple of the Classic Tetris World Championships and was one of the first players to embrace hyper-tapping. Rather than hold down left or right, players who hyper-tap in Classic Tetris pound out direction inputs incredibly fast in order to move their pieces. Holding down an input relies on Tetris’ delayed auto scroll or DAS, which includes a few buffer frames before it starts moving pieces quickly. By essentially tapping out each frame of movement, a hyper-tapping player can get their pieces to the edge of screen faster than a player who doesn’t.
Hyper-tapping can’t save a player who doesn’t manage their stack well or who isn’t scoring enough Tetrises to keep pace with an opponent, but with qualifying scores climbing and more top players learning to hyper-tap, it can provide a crucial edge at the top level of Classic Tetris competitions. Most tournament Classic Tetris games are almost guaranteed to end in the already blisteringly fast mid 20 levels or higher. Earlier this year, Saelee became the first player to ever reach level 33.
This year, Tetris creator Alexey Pajitnov was there in Portland to present Saelee and Koryan with their trophies. This honor, along with the record $10,000 prize pool provided by The Tetris Company, is well-deserved recognition for a growing scene that doesn’t need the boost. With close to 120,000 subscribers on YouTube and over 8.3 million views on last year’s grand finals between Saelee and Neubauer, Classic Tetris already has the exposure an esport needs to attract new players. Now that Saelee’s second year has proven that his hyper-tapping is paired with top-notch Tetris senses, that sets an even more enticing bar for challengers new and old to try and surpass in the years to come.