There is, at any given moment, someone on Twitch playing Tetris before a live audience.
On a recent Thursday night, the star attraction was a 14-year-old named Michael Artiaga, better known by his handle Dog, who is the 2020 and 2021 world champion on a game nearly three times his age. His hands moved across a narrow Nintendo controller with the breeziness of a cocktail pianist as he stacked the game’s familiar falling shapes and cleared one row after another. From time to time, he reached forward to take a bite of a sandwich.
In less than 10 minutes, Artiaga amassed points and reached levels that were inconceivable during the first 25 years of the game’s existence. The announcer — yes, these games have announcers — sounded appropriately flabbergasted.
“An absolute professional at this game, my god,” he said.
Across the hall from Artiaga’s bedroom in the family home in Fort Worth, was one of his main challengers for world Tetris supremacy — his brother, Andy, 16, who finished second in the Classic Tetris World Championships in 2020 and third this year.
“It’s so much different than other games,” Michael said. “There’s a lot of quick thinking and comprehension. That’s what interests me.”
The emergence of the Artiaga brothers continues a trend that has been developing in tournament Tetris in recent years. Interest in vintage video games has been growing, and applications for entry to the Classic Tetris World Championships, contested each year since 2010, have been increasingly steadily. Certainly nostalgia is part of the reason.
But tournament organizers have noticed something else: The competitors are getting younger.
For almost a decade, the undisputed world’s greatest Tetris player was a California man named Jonas Neubauer. He became the focal point of a 2011 documentary, “Ecstasy of Order,” about a small group of highly skilled, slightly obsessive competitive Tetris players. In it, several players discuss the “Tetris Effect,” in which they imagine they see falling Tetris pieces while they’re doing things other than actually playing Tetris — showering, driving and so on.
The film culminated with a tournament, the inaugural Classic Tetris World Championships, which determined the world’s greatest “Tetris Master” on a vintage Nintendo Entertainment System console. Neubauer won, the first of his seven titles in the next eight years.
At least some of the competitors, including Neubauer, seemed in on the joke. They were children of the nineties who grew up playing the game on Game Boys and PCs and, once a year, flocked to Portland to fire up the old Nintendo for a Classic Tetris tournament nobody heard about.
Then everything changed. In 2018, Neubauer, then 37, lost in the championship finals to a 16-year-old named Joseph Saelee. To the sport of competitive Tetris, it was a Buster Douglas moment.
“He was so young,” said Sean Ritchie, 31, a Tetris competitor since 2010. “He held the controller in a funky way. He didn’t play like a normal being. He was like an alien.”
Saelee’s victory was also a win for the YouTube generation. The video of his upset has since been viewed more than 17 million times, and a replay was aired on ESPN2 while sports were shut down during the pandemic.
Saelee’s manner of straddling the length of the controller with his fingers was so unorthodox it spawned a new name, “hyper-tapping.” Vince Clemente, who co-produced the 2011 Tetris documentary, compared Saelee’s grip to the Fosbury Flop, the backward-over-the-bar style that revolutionized the high jump. Other competitors couldn’t believe what they were witnessing.
“We saw this kid do what he did, and we all had the same collective thought,” Ritchie said. “We have been playing this game wrong for 30 years.”
But hyper-tapping was just a hint of what was to come.
‘The perfect e-sports game’
Just about everyone knows what Tetris is. It was created in 1984 by a Russian computer programmer, Alexey Pajitnov. The point of Tetris, to the extent it has one, hasn’t changed: Game pieces in seven different shapes, each made up of four squares, drop from the middle of the screen. The player has to clear “lines” by steering the pieces into place so that they cover the width of the playing screen, 10 squares wide. Pieces can be moved or flipped as they fall, but once they land, they’re stuck. As players advance, the pieces fall faster, and if lines aren’t cleared quickly enough, they stack up to the top of the screen and the game is over.
For most people, the game lasts a matter of minutes. But the rhythm and efficiency with which skilled Tetris players manage their “stacks” is mesmerizing.
“I think Tetris is the perfect e-sports game,” Clemente said. “It’s simple to follow, easy to understand. You play along in your mind as the players are playing and you say, ‘Oh, I would do the same thing.’ Yeah, right.”
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For years, the limit to the number of points a player could earn by clearing lines was 999,999, since the scoreboard ran to only six digits. Before 2010, only two players, Neubauer and Harry Hong, were recorded as ever “maxing out” the game.
But in the 2020 world championships, 40 different players maxed out at least once. Saelee alone did so 12 times.
“They’ve cracked the game,” Ritchie said of the younger players. “They really have.”
‘We both get great trophies’
Michael and Andy Artiaga credit their father, Randall, a web developer, with introducing them to gaming and computing. He taught them about coding when they were still in elementary school, and the boys have composed original songs and developed characters for several gaming apps that Randall has built. They also liked playing Tetris on their dad’s original Nintendo Game Boy.
But it was the video of Saelee’s victory in 2018 that inspired them to pursue the game more avidly.
“There were no young players in the Tetris scene before Joseph,” Michael Artiaga said. “Everyone who did play were mostly people who played in their childhood and then decided to participate in the tournament. Joseph was a new thing.”
Michael and Andy played separately on Nintendo consoles in their rooms. As they got better at the game, they shouted scores at each other. After losses, they went over what went wrong.
When the pandemic hit, they discovered more people playing Tetris competitively on Twitch and set their sights on the 2020 championships in December.
They qualified with six 1-million-point games apiece. Out of 163 competitors in the 2020 championships, they ended up squaring off in the title match, held remotely because of the pandemic. Randall Artiaga, who normally watches competitions from one of the brothers’ rooms, was forced out of impartiality to follow on Twitch in his home office, yelling scores to his wife, Van, who was too nervous to watch at all.
The best-of-five championship series came down to the final game, which was neck-and-neck until they simultaneously reached the “kill screen,” Level 29, the fastest achievable stage. A small miscue by Andy — failing to slide a long bar over far enough to clear the lines — ended it.
“A lot of people try to play it safe, but not Dog,” Andy said. “He can be super high in his stack but he’s still stacking up. He’s waiting for the long bar. And when he does that, he can score so much you just can’t keep up.”
After the match was over, Andy walked into his brother’s room and gave him a high five.
“We definitely wanted the finals to be us two,” Michael said. “Because the other thing that’s great about being in the top two is that we both get great trophies.”
The winner also earned a $3,000 check, which Michael used to buy an electric drum set and a Donner guitar. He also invested in some cryptocurrency.
In November, Michael earned another $3,000 check with his second consecutive world championship: a 3-games-to-1 win over 19-year-old Jacob Huff, a college student in Michigan using a new grip that has the potential to change competitive Tetris again.
A new technique
Michael, Andy and most of the other top young Tetris players today are hyper-tappers, following the mold set by Saelee. But a new grip called rolling has swept the competitive Tetris scene. The technique reduces the strain of repeatedly hammering the controller to make the pieces move.
It takes some time to master, but it’s hard to argue with the results. In early December, Christopher Martinez, who goes by the handle Cheez, recorded 2.3 million points in Classic Tetris using the rolling grip — more than double the max-out score once thought to be insurmountable. (A game modification code now permits scores higher than six digits.)
Longtime players marvel how a simple strategy game now in its fourth decade can find ways to evolve.
“I think they could play forever,” Clemente said of the newer young players. “There’s no stopping them.”
Reached by phone at his room at Fresno State, where he’s studying computer information systems, Saelee sounded a bit defeated about the prospect of learning a new grip to keep up with the influx of talent he helped inspire.
Three years after Saelee shook up the sport, competitive Tetris may have already passed him by.
“I streamed yesterday for the first time in a few months,” Saelee said. “I’m very content and happy with the level I’ve gotten to. But for whatever reason, lately, I’m not feeling it.”