Meet the two teenage brothers dominating Tetris

At all times, there is someone on Twitch playing Tetris in front of a live audience. On a recent Thursday night, the star attraction wa...


At all times, there is someone on Twitch playing Tetris in front of a live audience.

On a recent Thursday night, the star attraction was a 14-year-old named Michael Artiaga, better known by his nickname 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 breeze of a cocktail pianist as he stacked the familiar drooping shapes from the game up and cleaned up row after row. Every now and then he would step forward to take a bite of a sandwich.

In less than 10 minutes, Artiaga amassed points and reached unthinkable levels in the game’s first 25 years of existence. The announcer – yes, these games have advertisers – looked 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 Tetris world supremacy – his brother, Andy, 16, who finished second in the championships. of Classic Tetris World in 2020 and third this year.

“It’s so different from other games,” said Michael. “There is a lot of speed of thinking and understanding. This is what interests me.

The emergence of the Artiaga brothers continues a trend that has developed in the Tetris tournament in recent years. Interest in vintage video games has grown and there are more and more entries for the Classic Tetris World Championships, contested every year since 2010. Of course, nostalgia is part of the reason.

But the tournament organizers have noticed something else: the competitors are getting younger.

For nearly a decade, the undisputed world’s greatest Tetris player was a Californian named Jonas Neubauer. He became the focal point of a 2011 documentary, “Ecstasy of order” about a small group of highly skilled and slightly obsessive competitive Tetris players. In it, several players discuss the “Tetris effect”, in which they imagine they see pieces of Tetris falling while doing something other than playing Tetris – showering, driving, etc.

The film culminated with a tournament, the first Classic Tetris World Championships, which determined the world’s greatest “Tetris Master” on a vintage Nintendo Entertainment System. Neubauer won the first of his seven titles over the next eight years.

At least some of the contestants, including Neubauer, appeared to be in the game. These are ’90s kids who grew up playing the game on Game Boys and PC and once a year flocked to Portland to kick off old Nintendo for a classic Tetris tournament no one has heard of.

Then everything changed. In 2018, Neubauer, then 37, lost in the championship final to a 16-year-old named Joseph Saelee. For the sport of competitive Tetris, this was a Buster Douglas moment.

“He was so young,” said Sean Ritchie, 31, a Tetris contender since 2010. “He was holding the controller in a great way. He wasn’t playing like a normal being. He was like an alien.

Saelee’s victory was also a victory for the YouTube generation. Video of his upheaval has since been viewed more than 17 million times, and a replay aired on ESPN2 as sports were closed during the pandemic.

Saelee’s way of riding the length of the controller with his fingers was so unorthodox that it spawned a new name, “hyper-tapping”. Vince Clemente, who co-produced the 2011 documentary Tetris, compared Saelee’s take to the Fosbury Flop, the upside-down style that revolutionized high jump. Other competitors could not believe what they were witnessing.

“We saw this kid do what he did, and we all had the same collective thought,” Ritchie said. “We’ve been playing this game poorly for 30 years. “

But the hyper-tapping was just a clue of what was to come.

Almost everyone knows what Tetris is. It was created in 1984 by Russian computer programmer Alexey Pajitnov. The point of Tetris, as far as it has one, has not changed: Game pieces of seven different shapes, each made up of four squares, fall from the middle of the screen. The player must clear “lines” by directing the pieces in place so that they cover the width of the game screen, 10 squares wide. Pieces can be moved or flipped when they fall, but once they land they get stuck. As players move forward the pieces fall faster and if the 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 few minutes. But the pace and efficiency with which experienced Tetris players manage their “stacks” is fascinating.

“I think Tetris is the perfect esports game,” Clemente said. “It’s simple to follow, easy to understand. You play in your mind as the players play and you say, “Oh, I would do the same.” Yes indeed.”

For years, the limit on how many points a player could earn by knocking out rows was 999,999 because the scoreboard was only six digits long. Prior to 2010, only two players, Neubauer and Harry Hong, were recorded as having ever “maxed out” the game.

But at the 2020 World Championships, 40 different players peaked at least once. Saelee alone has done it 12 times.

“They got the game done,” Ritchie said of the younger players. “They really did.”

Michael and Andy Artiaga credit their father, Randall, a web developer, for introducing them to gaming and computers. He taught them coding when they were still in elementary school, and the boys composed original songs and developed characters for several game apps that Randall created. They also enjoyed playing Tetris on their father’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 on the Tetris scene before Joseph,” said Michael Artiaga. “Most of those who played were mostly people who played as a child and then decided to participate in the tournament. Joseph was a new thing.

Michael and Andy played separately on Nintendo consoles in their bedrooms. As they improved in the game, they shouted scores at each other. After the losses, they saw again what was wrong.

When the pandemic hit, they found more people were playing Tetris competitively on Twitch and set their sights on the 2020 Championships in December.

They qualified with six games at 1 million points each. Out of 163 competitors at the 2020 championships, they ended up facing each other in the title match, contested at a distance due to the pandemic. Randall Artiaga, who normally watches competitions from one of the brothers’ rooms, was impartially compelled to follow Twitch into his home office, shouting scores at his wife, Van, who was too nervous to watch at all.

The best-of-five championship streak came down to the final match, which was neck and neck until they simultaneously reached the “elimination screen”, level 29, the fastest possible stage. A little mistake from Andy – not having dragged a long bar far enough to erase the lines – ended it.

“A lot of people are trying to play it safe, but Dog doesn’t,” said Andy. “He can be very high in his stack, but he continues to accumulate. He waits for the long bar. And when he does that he can score so much that you just can’t keep up.

When the match was over, Andy walked into his brother’s room and gave him a high five.

“We really wanted the final to be between us,” said Michael. “Because the other thing that’s great about being in the top two is that we both get some great trophies. “

The winner also took home a check for $ 3,000, which Michael used to purchase a Donner electric drums and guitar. He also invested in a cryptocurrency.

In November, Michael won another check for $ 3,000 with his second consecutive World Championship: a 3-to-1 victory over 19-year-old Jacob Huff, a Michigan student using a new grip that has the potential to change Tetris. competitive. again.

Michael, Andy and most of the other best 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 stress of repeatedly hammering the controller to make the parts move.

It takes a while to master, but the results are hard to dispute. In early December, Christopher Martinez, who goes through the Cheez grip, recorded 2.3 million points in Classic Tetris using the rolling grip – more than double the maximum score once considered insurmountable. (A game modification code now allows scores greater than six digits.)

Longtime gamers marvel at 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 new young players. “There’s no stopping them. “

Reached by phone from his room in Fresno State, where he studies computer information systems, Saelee seemed a little defeated at the thought of learning a new grip to keep up with the influx of talent he helped bring. Inspire.

Three years after Saelee rocked the sport, competitive Tetris may have already passed him.

“I streamed yesterday for the first time in a few months,” Saelee said. “I am very happy and happy with the level I have reached. But for some reason lately I don’t feel it.

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