The Classic Tetris World Championships is one of the best gaming events to spectate all year. It’s easy to understand, gets real intense, and the commentary adds a ton to the proceedings.
But this year had an extra element of spice, after 16-year-old Joseph Saelee obliterated a seven-time world champion to become the king of Tetris.
The Tetris championships are full of familiar faceds, with people who have been playing for aeons. Saelee, on the other hand, had to qualify for the finals. But qualify he did, coming into the final bracket as the fifth seed – not a bad effort for his first finals appearance.
Saelee nearly didn’t make it to the finals, having found himself on the ropes in the semi-finals against Japanese grand master Koryan. The intensity is fascinating, as players make split-second decisions on whether to continue building their playfield versus clearing lines faster.
The Tetris World Championships is almost like watching a fighting game. The commentary has a similar beat and pace, there’s constant planning ahead as players calculate their playfield ahead of time. You’ve also got RNG, dealing with the prospect of never getting those crucial long pieces that are necessary for a full Tetris (clearing four lines at once).
What’s worth keeping in mind is that these players are using the traditional NES pads, which can’t be comfortable if you’re tapping the D-pad constantly (as Joseph does with the “hypertapping” technique).
And there was plenty of history. The other finalist was Jonas Neubauer, a seven-time Tetris champion and the current world champion three times running. It was a story straight out of a shonen anime: the new up and comer and the king at the top of the summit, looking down below at the competition.
The second and third game of the series also went completely to the wire. Saelee amassed a lead of more than 160,000 points at one stage by the second game, but had to tap out after things went haywire in the 27th level. Neubauer, behind in points, carried on but went 25 pieces without a long bar – and consequently couldn’t get the points needed to catch up.
Neubauer took a more aggressive stance in the third game, and built a solid lead in the earlier stages. Saelee found himself over 100,000 points behind, but some good reactions and a bit of luck on the long bar helped even out proceedings:
Neubauer had a solid lead in level 26 – not far from the kill level – and an input error from Saelee left the latter languishing 110,000 points behind. But with his skill on the D-pad and some clutch decisions to hold out for the long bar, Saelee ended up getting two crucial tetrises at level 28 and 29, becoming the new Tetris world champion at the age of 16.
For someone who picked up the game after watching videos on YouTube, it’s an astonishing accomplishment against people with literal decades of experience.
“I’m still recovering … I came into this tournament just to qualify, just to meet all these great people,” Saelee said in the final interview.
Saelee’s performance has already led some to question whether more people will try to emulate his “hypertapping” technique – where players tap the D-pad as fast as possible rather than holding the D-pad down. Regardless of whether that happens, upsets are fascinating and inspiring. Not just for people watching, but for people who have been playing NES Tetris for decades as well.
You can watch the full finals bracket below.