Erryn Rhoden is an ordinary person who works at her family’s roofing company in Columbus, Ohio. She’s also the top-ranked player in her semifinal bracket for the Candy Crush Saga All Stars Tournament, the biggest Candy Crush tournament in history, which she entered by accident. That makes her one of the most successful esports athletes in the entire country right now.
Candy Crush is the most popular match-3 game of all time. Players eliminate blocks by matching three or more candies by swapping their positions until they’re next to each other. Overall Candy Crush progress is measured by the number of levels that you’ve completed. You complete levels by fulfilling their level’s objectives, such as breaking particularly sturdy blocks or accumulating a certain number of special candies that you can create by matching regular candy tiles in a certain way. If you finish a level with time remaining on the timer or in fewer moves, you get bonus points at the end.
Candy Crush grosses hundreds of millions of dollars a year, and Xbox’s CEO has said that the free-to-play game is the main reason why Microsoft wants to acquire Activision Blizzard. Whether you like mobile games or not, this match-3 puzzler is one of the most lucrative and widely played gaming franchises in the world. It’s also, apparently, very competitive.
The All Stars Tournament’s first qualifier round began on March 23, and was open to any player who was at least level 25 or above. Players advanced to later rounds by accumulating enough points to place in a certain leaderboard rank (which differed in each round). Those who manage to avoid elimination until the final round will be flown to London to compete in-person.
On April 12, Rhoden’s son Xane posted a Candy Crush tweet about his gamer mom that went viral. The tweet said that she was the top competitor in her bracket, and that she entered King’s (Candy Crush’s developer) $250,000 prize tourney entirely by accident.
I’m admittedly a lapsed Candy Crush player, but I still found it hard to believe that someone could enter an esports competition without realizing it. So I reached out to Xane to set up a call with his mom, who’s currently qualified for the tournament’s semifinals after playing just two rounds. She’s ranked so highly, she actually managed to skip extra rounds that other players probably had to play. Now that’s an elite gamer.
“I have three kids, [and] I’m 48 now. I used to play a lot of video games,” Rhoden told me over a Zoom call with her son Xane. “When I quit, I just started playing Candy Crush. Because I have ADD, I kind of need to have ten things going on at once. It’s just something to fill my mind and keep me focused. I started playing it like 10 years ago.” Rhoden runs a roofing company with her husband, so she normally works from her home office. There, she would play the game late into the night, but still refers to herself in our conversation as a gamer in the past tense.
Rhoden played PvP games when she was younger, where she relished in “demolishing” her opponents for the adrenaline rush. However, she didn’t like the person she became while playing such competitive games. Candy Crush “satisfied her urge to win without feeling like [she was] doing anything to anybody else and causing rage.” In a single-player puzzle game, the only opponent was herself.
But she isn’t just innately skilled at Candy Crush. The game requires a lot of practice and actual strategy, so she’d watch videos that conveyed the core strategy of each level to up her game.
Not everyone was supportive of her dedication to the Candy craft. “[My husband] mocked me for playing Candy Crush my whole life.” She suggests that his mocking came, partly, from her regularly playing the game until the wee hours of the morning for the last decade. Despite pushback from loved ones, Candy Crush became embedded in Rhoden’s regular routine, eventually leading to her entering the All Star tournament by mistake.
The All Star tournament is an in-game event where players compete against each other by racking up the highest points during regular play. Unlike normal esports tournaments, players don’t face off against each other directly. In fact, Rhoden feels that King was “cryptic” about how the event was run.
“They don’t let you know where you rank, or what region you’re playing in until the end,” she told me. “They’re not telling me this stuff. It just says that I’m number one in my pool. But it doesn’t tell me where that pool is, or the amount of people that’s in the pool or anything.” The official tournament page details when each round takes place. In order to get to her current rank, Rhoden had to pass the qualifier and the quarterfinal. Runner-ups would also have to play in Wild Card rounds, but Rhoden didn’t know they existed until after the fact. All of this obfuscation contributed to her accidentally entering the competition.
Rhoden knew that King held such contests every few years, but she was never interested in competing. As a purely free-to-play player, she ignored the various pop-up ads that tried to entice her into spending money or participating in events. “I’m clicking on the [exit buttons and] not paying attention. And then I apparently clicked yes instead of “no.” A week later, it was like: ‘You qualify.’ And I’m like, ‘Well, that’s nice’. I didn’t even know I was playing.” Since progress was tied to game score rather than PvP results, Rhoden kept getting pop-ups for milestones such as passing the quarterfinals, and then entering the semifinals as she was just casually taking part in her regular Candy Crush routine.
She was overwhelmed, so she texted the other esports athlete in the family: Her son. Xane was the best Meta Knight player in the midwest during the height of his Super Smash Bros. career. She asked him what a $250,000 prize pool was. After he explained that first place got half of the total pool, he asked why. “I’m in the semifinals accidentally,” she wrote.
He called her to find out more about the tournament and his mother’s placement. Then he decided to tweet about it. “I was expecting my friend group to ‘like’ it,” Xane said. At the time of writing, the tweet about his mom’s Candy Crush run has nearly 55,000 likes.
The popularity of Rhoden’s success makes sense, as advancing straight to the semifinals is an impressive accomplishment. Candy Crush has 270 million players, and many others could have accidentally entered into the tournament like Rhoden did—but not all of them would have pulled off such a feat.
The last time I checked in on Rhoden’s progress, she was in round one of three in the semifinal, racking up 520,528 points. She told me that she’s completed somewhere around 11,000 levels, meaning that she has around 3,000 more to go. But not finishing Candy Crush gives her an advantage over players who have completed more levels before the tournament began. Experienced players are penalized because replaying older levels gives reduced points compared to completing levels for the first time finishing new ones.
Xane did his mother’s house chores this weekend so that she would have more time to compete. Rhoden used to drive him to out-of-state Smash tournaments, so she feels that the trade-off was fair—and she’s the reason why he became a gamer in the first place. “He grew up around video games and me yelling at people in a headset,” she said. “Now I get to yell at more people. I yell at my phone.”
Rhoden is honest about how she still gets gamer rage during difficult Candy Crush levels. “It’s been a long time since I’ve been stuck for a week. If I get stuck for more than like, 30 minutes, I get very angry.” Candy Crush can be a chaotic game where candies get stuck in isolated parts of the map. While color-matching is important, advanced planning and strategy is also a part of being a skilled player.
The accidental pro is happy to give advice for new players who want to be the next Candy Crush champion. “I think a lot of people use their boosters at the wrong time,” she said, referring to items that help players complete the level more easily (usually by destroying specific candy blocks). “So if I don’t pass the board the first time, then I load up my boosters, and use them then.” When there’s a competition for obtaining more in-game premium currency, she’ll also use them to achieve certain milestones.
Her biggest advice, however, is to not get frustrated. “I think the best thing to do [when frustrated at a level] is just stop and go watch the [playthrough] videos, watch somebody else beat the game. So you know that [beating it is] possible. Sometimes you’re looking at the wrong thing. You’re just focused on taking one area out when the whole game is focused on something else.” Rather than hyper focusing on their own strategy, they should be thinking about what the board is trying to teach them about the game. “So don’t spend two weeks on a game on one board. It’s just pointless.“
Despite free-to-play games having a reputation as money sinkholes, Rhoden hasn’t spent any money on Candy Crush. She normally watches the in-game ads. But with a pool of $250,000 on the line, she’s thinking about opening her wallet. Paid boosts can significantly improve a player’s outcome—which is how this free-to-play game makes millions of dollars a year. There are many players like Rhoden who take pride in being able to beat these mobile games without spending money, but the stakes feel different this time. While she spoke to me about what a hassle it would be to return to London a few months after she went for vacation, she was clearly interested in attending the finals.
I hope that she doesn’t spend money, since she’s doing so well without even meaning to. “I really thought that Candy Crush tournament was just like an online version of Candy Crush that they had for a limited amount of time and you play live against other people,” she said. While she doesn’t know any competitive Candy Crush players on her level in real life, Twitter is filled with kids posting about their parents’ Ws in the later stages of the tournament. Candy Crush is a game dominated by busy parents, and she’s a champion among them.
Rhoden doesn’t play many other games these days, though Xane suggested that she was good at Scrabble. Or maybe it was Wordle. “Wordle was too easy,” she said, laughing softly. She played Words With Friends, a mobile game similar to Scrabble, but dropped off the game once she “got bored of that, too.” Candy Crush persists, however.
“It’s just not fun when there’s no learning,” she said in the ultimate flex. “There’s no competition.”