This was supposed to be competitive “Tetris’s” best year yet. The 2020 Classic Tetris World Championship (CTWC) drew record numbers in December, and a documentary series, “Best of Five: The Classic Tetris Champions,” is due out later this year.

But in January, the unthinkable happened: 39-year-old Jonas Neubauer, the game’s greatest champion and most visible ambassador, died unexpectedly from a sudden medical emergency at his home in Hawaii. Now the Tetris community faces a question it hadn’t anticipated for 2021: How can it continue to grow the game without its de facto leader?

“Jonas was just the greatest champion and friend you could have ever asked for,” said Vince Clemente, the co-founder of the CTWC and the event’s lead organizer. “He was humble, funny and had the aura of a champion. … Just a true legend.”

Clemente met Neubauer a little more than a decade ago when organizing the very first CTWC. At the time, the tournament was intended to serve as a one-off event as part of a documentary, “Ecstasy of Order: The Tetris Masters,” which profiled the handful of gamers who had achieved, or had come close to achieving, a maxed out score in the Nintendo Entertainment System version of Tetris.

Among those top-scorers was Neubauer, who won the CTWC seven times in its first eight years, starring in a handful of the event’s most viral moments. He became the face of the tournament and, for many, the face of Tetris, especially in 2017, when he began streaming and creating videos to teach the basics of the game. His tutorials helped to popularize and demystify a number of now common Tetris strategies and maneuvers, like the “line flip” and “T-Spin,” in which players rotate pieces at just the right moment to tuck them into tight spaces and eliminate problematic gaps.

“He wanted Tetris to be this really great, welcoming place where anyone could come hang out and be a part of it,” said Heather Ito, Neubauer’s widow and herself a former Dr. Mario champion. “He took it upon himself to be an ambassador rather than a gatekeeper.”

In the process, he became one of esports’ first and unlikeliest celebrities. A longtime taproom manager from California, Neubauer had never imagined he would spend his 30s becoming a global ambassador for the video game he grew up playing obsessively. He made guest appearances at Tetris tournaments in Taiwan, Germany, and Denmark. He was featured in Rolling Stone and Vice, hailed by the latter as the bartender who was “secretly the greatest Tetris player in the world.” And he won over fans with his sense of humor (“You never want to be that guy with the Tinder profile with the Tetris trophy,” he joked to Rolling Stone in 2014).

Neubauer often would downplay his achievements — Ito says that some of their acquaintances only found out about his success when they would stumble upon his viral YouTube videos — and he enjoyed building the Tetris community just as much as competing in tournaments.

Only days before Neubauer’s tragic death, attributed by a medical examiner to “cardiac arrhythmia of undetermined etiology,” he and Ito had moved to Hawaii to start a new chapter in their life together. Ito would continue to work remotely as a producer, while Neubauer would focus full-time on streaming. He had gained more than 25,000 followers on Twitch.

News of Neubauer’s death led to an outpouring of support from fans across the world, with more than 1,200 donors contributing nearly $70,000 to a GoFundMe for Ito. And supporters have been flooding her inbox with memories of the late “Tetris” champion.

“Some people have left me messages saying, ‘I never knew him, but I think we would have been friends,’” Ito said. “And that’s not presumptuous on their part … of course you would have been friends. Jonas was the most genuine extrovert I’ve ever known.”

The future of competitive ‘Tetris’

Despite losing its most prominent figure in Neubauer, Clemente and others remain hopeful for the future of competitive “Tetris.” Recent tournaments have received coverage on ESPN, and the 2020 edition — held virtually due to covid — racked up a record 1.4 million Twitch views and featured competitors from 27 different countries.

“When I made the first tournament, I never imagined there’d even be a second one,” Clemente said.

The event outgrew its humble beginnings at a small Los Angeles venue and becoming a main attraction at the annual Portland Retro Gaming Expo in Oregon, drawing thousands of curious spectators and featuring a $10,000 prize pool.

While it is hardly at the same level as some of today’s most popular esports, the competitive Tetris scene has steadily grown. Regional CTWC qualifying tournaments are now held throughout the country, often in conjunction with retro gaming conventions, and a number of online series take place year-round, including Classic Tetris Monthly and Classic Tetris Brawl.

Founded by game designer Henk Rogers and Tetris co-creator Alexey Pajitnov, the Tetris Company oversees the Tetris brand and controls all of the game’s licensing agreements. It sponsors the CTWC but has no official role in hosting the tournament.

Casey Pelkey, vice president and general manager of the Tetris Company, notes that CTWC’s success in recent years inspired the company to license more titles that offer esports-like competitions, namely “Tetris 99” on Nintendo Switch and “Tetris Effect” on Xbox and PlayStation.

“Quite honestly, we have a lot of room to grow [as an esport],” he said. “Our internal viewpoint is that we don’t want to force this. It has to happen naturally, and the right game — or the right group of people — will take this to the next level, and the CTWC is a great example of that.”

Pelkey says that while the loss of Neubauer is a major blow to the “Tetris” community, Neubauer had built the game’s esports foundation and made it possible for younger gamers to get interested in competing.

“Jonas is sort of like the Ben Hogan of the ‘Tetris’ world,” said Pelkey, referring to one of golf’s earliest and most influential champions. “The CTWC has blossomed now, and we’re seeing much younger ages and different genders competing. … So Jonas set the standard, and now we’ll forever be looking at the competition and saying, ‘Who comes next?’”

Passing the torch

Pelkey’s question may have already been answered. In 2018, Neubauer lost the final round of the CTWC to then 16-year-old Joseph Saelee in what is undoubtedly competitive Tetris’s most viral moment. The thrilling underdog victory earned worldwide media attention, and it remains the tournament’s most watched video on YouTube with more than 15 million views.

Neubauer had long popularized a style of play known as DAS — or Delayed Auto Shift, referring to the slight lag that occurs when a player holds left or right on the D pad to move a tetromino piece.

Saelee had learned the basics of Tetris by watching Neubauer’s tutorials, but found his own success by adopting a different strategy known as “hypertapping,” in which players rapidly vibrate their thumbs left and right on the D pad to move pieces at faster speeds. It is an aggressive style that, while difficult to master, can lead to much higher scores.

Saelee’s victory in 2018 opened the floodgates, and now more and more young gamers who specialize in hypertapping compete in the tournament. The 2020 champion, for example, was a 13-year-old hypertapper who beat his 15-year-old brother in the final round.

“Right now, the young hypertappers have reached a skill level where OG players can’t really compete,” said Harry Hong, the 2014 CTWC champion and one of Neubauer’s fiercest rivals in the early years of the tournament. Neubauer and Hong competed in 2019 and 2020 and, though they remained competitive, could not reach the final rounds.

According to Ito, Neubauer enjoyed seeing this new generation of competitors push “Tetris” to its limits.

“It was bittersweet for him,” Ito said. “Hypertapping was something beyond his capabilities … but as someone who helped grow this community, he was delighted to see where it was going and the new levels — literally — they were taking it.”

As for this year’s CTWC, Clemente says the tournament will almost certainly be held virtually, but he is already looking ahead to hosting worldwide regional tournaments in 2022 in locations like Hong Kong, Taipei and throughout Europe, with winners potentially receiving airfare to compete at the in-person championship in Portland.

“Next, I want to get ‘Tetris’ in the Olympics,” Clemente said, only half joking.

And while Clemente and the Tetris Company continue to consider how best to honor Neubauer at future tournaments — ideas include changing the championship trophy to a “J” block or creating a special award in his honor — perhaps the most lasting aspect of his legacy is the civility and inclusivity of the community he helped create. Many cite Neubauer’s graciousness as both a winner and loser as a main reason “Tetris” has avoided the toxicity that has plagued other esports.

This new generation, Ito said, is poised to continue that tradition.

“I just spoke to Joseph [Saelee] recently and told him, again, that he’s been a great champion,” Ito said. “His response was, ‘Hey, Jonas set the standard. We’re just housekeeping.’ So this group of youths have seen how [this community] is, and they want it to continue, just as Jonas wanted it: a place for like-minded nerds to have fun together.”

Gregory Leporati is a freelance writer and photographer covering esports, tech and travel. His recent work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Engadget and Ars Technica. Follow him on Twitter @leporparty.

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