What am I looking at?
This is a screenshot of 20-year-old Jacob Huff’s personal best and the second-highest score by anyone ever at the classic computer game Tetris — 1,864,920 — taken from YouTube, where he posted the nearly 16-minute session in December. It shows a score of 264,920, but that’s because of a quirk that only allows the game to record 1,600,000 points before it starts over. The original game, invented in 1984 by a Soviet programmer, actually couldn’t go any higher than 999,999, but a modification made in part to accomodate competitive Tetris events now allows it to do so.
Wait, competitive Tetris? Srsly?
Yup. For more than a decade, there’s been a Classic Tetris World Championship, typically in Portland, Oregon, except over the past couple of years, due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Huff, a computer programming student at Oakland Community College, finished second in 2021 to win $1,500 and third in 2020 to win $750. The top prize is $3,000, plus all-important bragging rights and a pretty sweet, appropriately modular-looking trophy. The rest of the year, there are smaller tournaments, and people like Huff, who have become significant figures in the community, routinely livestream their play via an app called Twitch.
This is the same Tetris I played in college back in the ’90s?
Yes — and no. The game’s the same in that players still must angle randomly falling four-block figures to clear lines and avoid stacking them to the top of the screen. But there are a few differences for the hard-core competitors. First, they usually start at level 19 to skip over the slow, boring early levels and get to the
pace that gets your heart rate up. And the system of choice for competitive Tetris is the old Nintendo Entertainment System with the narrow, gray controllers, played on what is now known as a “CRT” — aka a cathode ray tube television set, aka those fat old boxes most people haven’t used since the last millennium. (Modern flat-screen TVs tend to have a lag that fouls up the rhythm of the game.) Oh, and elite competitors like Huff have new techniques of play that explain why they’ve been able to set new standards.
Uhh, there’s a new “technique” for directing falling blocks?
Two, actually! Huff’s style is known as “rolling,” in which the controller is held upside down and pressed against your leg above the knee, several buttons pressed at once. The other technique is known as “hypertapping,” in which the players bang at the controller at an insane pace. It’s really hard to describe, so maybe search these terms on YouTube and watch someone actually putting them into practice.
This seems a little silly.
Oh yeah? Well, media outlets no less highfalutin than The New Yorker and The New York Times have written long pieces about this odd sidelight of esports, the burgeoning world of competitive video game play. There’s even a 2011 documentary, Ecstasy of Order, that chronicles the first international competition. At the time, the players were mainly Generation Xers indulging in a certain nostalgia. But later in the decade, the new breed of young Tetris play-style innovators, including Huff, came along to blast through old records and turn it into something new.
So, is this a career choice?
No. Huff, interviewed via Zoom from his room at Las Vegas’ Excalibur resort, where he was staying in late February for a competition in which he won $500, laughed at that question. He’s earned a few thousand dollars — and the bemused admiration of his friends — over his years in Tetris’ upper echelons, but such events are opportunities to meet in-person with folks he interacts with on Twitch and another app called Discord, where an active competitive Tetris group basically forms consensus for the game on what is “legal.” They’re the gang that decided the modification that created the ability for an unlimited score is kosher. “We’re all friends,” Huff says. “Most everyone who plays this game is friends with or talks to each other.”
How big a world is this?
Not so big. Huff, who goes by the online handle Huffulufugus, had just over 600 followers on his Twitch channel and fewer than 4,000 YouTube views on his stunning 1.8 million-point session as of early March. By contrast, there are several video games so competitive and lucrative — think Fortnite — that players have become millionaires. In fact, Huff admits that one of the appeals of competitive Tetris for him is that it’s not as wildly popular. “That’s probably why I do this — because it’s easier to become one of the elite players,” he says.
This story is from the April 2022 issue of Hour Detroit. Read more in our digital edition.