Classic Tetris stands at a crucial crossroads.

When you think of esports, you probably don’t think of Tetris. Never mind NES playing Tetris on original hardware. Still, this weekend at the Portland Retro Gaming Expo, a new Classic Tetris World Champion (CTWC) will be crowned, and it will likely be the most hotly-fought, most-watched tournament in the game’s nearly 35-year history.

Classic Tetris has seen an explosion of interest in recent years, but it is quickly approaching a crossroads. It must either professionalize or accept its fate as a curious, albeit cozy, corner of the gaming world.

The problem is that even the top players aren’t sure if a professional league is realistic. “Do I think this can 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 Portland event 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 casual, but arguably more important, competition for the game.

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

Since then, CTM has scaled from barely enough players for a brace, to hundreds of players competing at multiple skill levels each month. The original concept was one tournament with 16 players, but that meant that anyone who wasn’t good enough would never be able to play. “When I took over, I promised the community that anyone who submitted a qualifier can play,” said Didion.

Both CTWC and CTM offer prize pools, but they are modest compared 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 split between the next 15 placements. CTM, on the other hand, typically rewards the top eight placements, but the wallet is entirely user-contributed, so it varies from month to month. Usually the pool reaches about $3,500, half of which goes 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. Whatever it becomes.” Added fractal. That may be so, but once these players are old enough to start paying their own rent or insurance premiums, that perspective will likely change.

The fact that CTM’s wallet relies on donations could pose a longer-term problem: “We have someone named ShallBeSatisfied who contributes $1,000-$2,000 in the month. So you have that other person watching tetris, same thing there. This individual ScottGray76, he contributes a good amount monthly.” said Didion. In short, the financial incentive to play in CTM is largely in the hands of a few individuals.

At the moment, CTM is effectively running at a loss. Didion certainly doesn’t pay for itself. There is some revenue from Twitch and YouTube, but that is used to pay community members for re-streaming games and other contributions they make. “We start looking into sponsorships and things like that. But I’m not that good at it. So I’m trying to bring in people who know more than me, or are just better at that sort of thing than me,” he added.

Two professional Tetris players compete on Twitch.

Classic Monthly Tetris

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

Didion clearly cares deeply about the community he has built and the competitive NES Tetris in general. Even his players think he should be more open to make it profitable. “He says he’s running this at a loss and that’s just ridiculous to me.” said Fractal. “I think he’s entitled to a share of the prize pool if he wanted to, this is standard in many tournaments.”

This is where the next, slightly more delicate issue comes into play. CTWC strives for absolute authenticity: all games are played in person (except the pandemic years) on original NES consoles connected to CRT televisions. The game is played exactly as it was on the day it was 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 a copy of the game. The tournament takes place exclusively online, so it must allow competitors to play with what they have. Standardizing would be a huge expense.

Additionally, in 1989, when NES Tetris was released, level 29 was most likely meant to be the end of the game. The speed increases so much that it is unplayable to give it the name ‘killscreen’. Today’s players have mastered techniques for staying well past level 29 and that requires slight tweaks to the game to display the score correctly as the original never expected anyone to collect more than 999,999 and therefore it cannot. display a higher number.

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 enjoy the marathon competitions, 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 experience it personally.” Didion agrees. “I think for this esport to grow, I don’t think we can continue to have endless chases, after killscreen.”

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

Other minor changes have also been added. Early matches were really just two people playing Tetris at the same time, with the winner being the one who got the highest score. More recently, CTM added the ability for games to “seed” the same random number. This ensures that both players get the exact same pieces in the same order, making it a true like-for-like showdown.

It’s these tweaks that could be the real problem for CTM’s growth as an esport. In general, the use of emulators has always been a kind of legal gray area when using copyrighted games. Customizing and distributing ROMs is a slightly darker shade of gray (no money changes for the ROMs in CTM). Nintendo is known for being aggressive towards fan versions of its games being made available online, but ironically, The Tetris Company itself may be the bigger barrier.

Formed by Alexey Pajitnov, the creator of Tetris, in 1996, the Tetris Company owns 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 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 through Tetris Effect Connected on modern consoles.

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

I asked Fractal why players are not migrating to the “official” version which can still be used for CTM competitions. “mainly, we’re all comfortable with the status quo, so there’s no great incentive to change,” he told me on Discord. “and the negative feedback loop of no one wanting to play because there’s no one to play against.”

In many ways this sums up the paradox nicely. Authenticity seems to be crucial to the game’s appeal. Despite some practical concessions made by CTM to make NES Tetris more accessible and interesting to watch, the original game with all its hidden quirks and secrets is just as much a part of it as the score and gameplay.

But this need for authenticity also keeps Classic NES Tetris from growing into itself as an evolving esport. The loyal host of CTM sees a solution for this. “There may be a team element in 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 played with building ‘characters’ around the players, just like in other sports. “One of the problems is that everyone is so young, so they haven’t been around long enough to have stories that make you think, ‘Oh, I was born in Michigan and now I’m 16.’ Okay, okay, great.” But it’s clear that whatever happens and however it evolves, Didion will probably be the person to make it happen.

Right now, the community that CTM has created seems much more special and interesting to everyone involved than any financial incentive. It’s hard not to feel like it’s less about preserving the integrity of NES Tetris than about preserving this collaborative, truly connected community as it is, without the pressures of professional play or the looming specter of sponsorship in the style of Mountain Dew to take that away.

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

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