Classic Tetris is at a crucial crossroads. | Engadget


When you think of esports, Tetris likely doesn’t come to mind. Let alone NES Tetris played on original hardware. Yet, this weekend at the Portland Retro Gaming Expo a new Classic Tetris World Champion (CTWC) will be crowned, and it’ll likely be the most hotly contested, highest-viewed tournament in the game’s almost 35-year history.

Classic Tetris has seen an explosion of interest in the last few years but it’s fast approaching a crossroads. It needs to either professionalize or accept its destiny as a curious, if cozy, corner of the gaming world.

The trouble is, even the top players aren’t sure a professional league is realistic. “Do I think this could become a viable esport? Absolutely not.” Fractal161, a competitor with a very real chance of winning this weekend’s World Championships, told Engadget.

The annual event in Portland remains the game’s most prestigious tournament, but for the rest of the year, Classic Tetris fans can be found at CTM – Classic Tetris Monthly – a more informal, but arguably more important competition for the game.

“CTM was created by a streamer called Friday Witch in December 2017, and it was more just a casual kind of community thing.” Keith “vandweller” Didion, CTM’s current organizer and perennial host told Engadget. He took over the tournament organization in October 2018.

Since then, CTM has gone from barely scraping together enough players for a bracket, to hundreds of players competing in multiple skill levels every single month. The original concept was one 16-player tournament, but that meant anyone that wasn’t good enough would never get to play. “When I took it over my kind of pledge to the community was everybody who submitted a qualifier will get to play” Didion said.

Both CTWC and CTM offer prize pools but they are modest in comparison to the seven-figure worlds of something like Fortnite. If you win CTWC outright, you’ll take home $3,000 with the rest of the $10,000 purse being divided between the next 15 placements. CTM, on the other hand, typically rewards the top eight placements, but the purse is entirely user contributed, so it varies month to month. Typically the pool reaches around $3,500 with half that going to the overall winner.

“I think for a lot of top players, since we’re all kids, we see this as a lot of money. Regardless of whatever it ends up being.” Fractal added. This may be so, but once these players are old enough to start having to pay their own rent or insurance premiums, that perspective is likely to change.

The fact that CTM’s purse relies on donations might present a problem longer term: “We have someone called ShallBeSatisfied that contributes $1,000 – $2,000 in the month. So you have this other person dogwatchingtetris, the same thing there. This individual ScottGray76, he contributes a good amount on a monthly basis.” Didion said. In short, the financial incentive of playing in CTM lies broadly in the hands of a few individuals.

Right now, CTM effectively runs at a loss. Didion certainly doesn’t pay himself. There is some income from Twitch and YouTube but that’s used to pay community members for restreaming games and other contributions they make. “We are starting to explore sponsorships and things like that. But I’m not very good at it. So I’m trying to bring in people that know more than I do, or are just better at that kind of stuff than me,” he added.

Two pro Tetris players compete on Twitch.

Classic Monthly Tetris

As Didion explains, so far there’s only been one from an enthusiastic fan who reached out asking if they could sponsor last month’s tournament for $100. “Sure. Let’s do it. I’m excited by that just because that’s how I want the sponsorships to be, like something I care about, or people in our community.”

Didion obviously cares deeply about the community he’s built and competitive NES Tetris generally. Even his players think he should be more open to making it profitable. “He says that he runs this at a loss and that’s just ridiculous to me.” Fractal said. “I think that he is entitled to a share of the prize pool, if he desired, this is standard for lots of tournaments.”

This is where the next, slightly more delicate issue comes in. CTWC aims for absolute authenticity: All games are played in person (bar the pandemic years) on original NES consoles plugged into CRT televisions. The game is played exactly how it was the day it launched.

With CTM, Didion’s unwavering commitment to making the game accessible means he doesn’t have the luxury of making sure everyone has their own NES and CRT and copy of the game. The tournament happens exclusively online, so he has to allow competitors to play with what they have. Standardizing would be a massive expense.

What’s more, In 1989, when NES Tetris was released, level 29 was most likely designed to be the end of the game. The speed increases so much it’s unplayable earning it the name “killscreen.” Today’s players have mastered techniques to carry on well past level 29 and that requires light modifications to the game for the score to display correctly as the original never expected anyone to accumulate more than 999,999 and thus it cannot display a number higher than that.

Likewise, CTM is where many world records are broken. With players now able to go on almost indefinitely, and new records harder to achieve, not all spectators are enjoying the marathon matches according to Fractal. “I’ve heard a lot of testimonials about how they don’t really watch the killscreen anymore because it’s just not fun. I think it’s different when you catch it live personally.” Didion agrees. “I think for this esport to grow I don’t think that we can continue to have endless chase downs, post killscreen.”

With the game effectively playable forever, matches have gone from a place where records are broken to sometimes, feeling like a broken record. To address this, and make matches more exciting, CTM has modified the game for its highest bracket so that at level 49 it doubles in speed – something known as “double killscreen.”

Other small changes have been added too. Early matches were really just two people playing Tetris at the same time, with the victor being whoever recorded the highest score. More recently, CTM has added the ability for games to use the same random number “seed.” This ensures both players get the exact same pieces in the same order making it a true like-for-like showdown.

It’s these modifications that could pose the real issue for CTM’s growth as an esport. The use of emulators generally has always been something of a legal gray area when using copyrighted games. Modifying and distributing ROMs is a slightly darker shade of gray (no money is changing hands for the ROMs in CTM). Nintendo is famously aggressive against any fan versions of its games being made available online, but ironically, the bigger barrier might be The Tetris Company itself.

Formed by Alexey Pajitnov, the creator of Tetris, in 1996, the Tetris Company holds the worldwide rights to both the game and the brand. Didion described the company’s relationship with the community as “mostly benign neglect,” while Fractal is said it had a history of “somewhat aggressive takedowns.” The Tetris Company, for its part, is a major sponsor of CTWC and is actively encouraging new ways to play the game via Tetris Effect Connected on modern consoles.

Ironically, a lot of the challenges competitive NES Tetris faces – clunky old hardware, glitches in the game and a true online multiplayer mode are theoretically solved by Tetris Effect Connected’s Classic Score Attack mode. It’s essentially a modern yet faithful reproduction of NES Tetris playable on Xbox and PC. It supports native two-player battle modes and was even developed with a legendary player from the Classic Tetris scene – Greentea.

I asked Fractal why players don’t migrate over to the “official” version that could still be used for CTM competitions. “mainly we’re all comfortable with the status quo, so there’s no big incentive to change,” he told me over Discord. “and the negative feedback loop of nobody wanting to play because there’s nobody to play against.”

In many ways, this sums up the paradox neatly. Authenticity appears to be crucial to the lure of the game. Despite some practical concessions from CTM to make NES Tetris more accessible and interesting to watch, the original game with all its hidden quirks and secrets is as much a part of it as the scoring and gameplay is.

But this need for authenticity is also what’s preventing Classic NES Tetris from being able to grow into itself as an evolving esport. CTM’s loyal host does see some ways around this. “There could be a team element to it in the future. If we were to continue, and this would allow the teams to market themselves or their franchises as owners of these teams, I don’t know.”

He had toyed with building “characters” around the players, similar to other sports. “One of the problems is everybody’s so young, so they haven’t been around long enough to have stories you’re just like, ‘Oh, I was born in Michigan and now I’m 16.’ Okay, all right, great.” But it’s clear that whatever happens next and however it evolves, Didion will likely be the person making it happen.

Right now, the community CTM has created appears to be far more special and interesting to everyone involved than any financial incentive. It’s hard not to get the feeling that it’s less about preserving the integrity of NES Tetris, as it is about keeping this collaborative, genuinely connected community as it is, without letting the pressures of professional play or the looming specter of Mountain Dew-style sponsorships from taking that away.

Or in Fractal’s case, good friends and questionable fried chicken is all you need. “I’m not going to CTWC to win the prize pool. I’m going to hang out with a bunch of people that I only know online. And go to Raising Cane’s with like a bunch of people who really love Raising Cane’s for some reason.”

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