Over the weekend, seven-time winner Jonas Neubauer showed up at the Classic Tetris World Championship in Portland, Oregon like he has every year since it moved there in 2011. Instead of adding another championship to his name, he finished in second place this time, bested by 16-year-old Joseph Saelee who went on an amazing three-game tear.
“The kid played with pure heart, the most clutch Tetris that we’ve seen from anyone,” Neubauer said after the dust had settled. “He just really had the ability, had the natural ability, and let it shine as bright as he could in his first tournament. [It’s] truly an honor to pass the torch to the new generation of Tetris players.” The veteran stood on stage holding a silver trophy, his first since losing to Harry Hong in 2014, and the unlikely Saelee, tears still in his eyes, hoisted the gold to applause from the crowd at Sunday’s Retro Game Expo crowd.
Though Tetris came out on the NES in 1989, the Classic World Championship tournament as it exists today didn’t get started until 2010 after the game’s competitive scene spent most of the aughts trading strategies, high scores, and footage evidence throughout a scattered network of forums and websites. Now, top players from around the world compete annually at the Expo using the original game and controllers played on old CRTs to see who can get the highest score in individual head-to-head matchups.
For years, the answer’s always been the same: Jonas “the goat” Neubauer. Despite facing champions from Europe and Japanese Grand Masters, Neubauer has always seemed unflappable and unbeatable (with only one exception: Hong in 2014). Saelee managed to topple the champion with his intense focus on his own performance, which was the culmination of lots of practice and several amazing feats streamed over on his Twitch channel. In three straight games out of a best-of-five series, the newcomer continually outpaced the former champion by playing frantically but methodically.
Unlike many other top players, including Neubauer, Saelee uses hyper-tapping, a technique that requires players to press the D-pad rapidly at the the correct intervals in order to move Tetris pieces in different directions without losing speed. Normally players just hold down left or right on the D-pad. Saelee’s strategy on the other hand requires more than 10 button presses a second to be effective. It’s a riskier and more demanding style of play, but one that ended up paying off.
“I got a little bit swept there,” Neubauer said in the post-match interview. “No offense,” his interviewer responded, “but you got a lot swept.”
Saelee seemed equal parts ecstatic and in disbelief. “I don’t know how to feel. I’m still recovering. It’s absolutely a dream,” said the high school student, his smile showing the braces still on his teeth. “ I came into this tournament just to qualify, just to meet all these great people, and to win, that’s just amazing, I don’t know what to say.” Having finally unseated the longstanding champion, Saelee has helped usher in a new period of excitement for the retro game. His meteoric rise will likely inspire others to jump into the soon-to-be 30 year old game. Meanwhile, Neubauer has his work cut out for him when the two return at next year’s Championship.
You can re-watch the finals for this year’s tournament below.