Thursday 10 December 2020

Classic Tetris World Championship and the evolution of competitive gaming

CTWC 2020 Group C final, Dog vs. Koryan G3.

Classic Tetris World Championship (CTWC) refers to the tournament on NES Tetris that has been flourishing in the past 10 years. Unlike modern games like Tetris Battle and Puyopuyo Tetris, the rules for NES Tetris is quite different. That's because new Tetris games must follow a given set of guidelines in order to get the trademark. 

But before that we had the Grandmaster series that used the Akira rotation system (ARS) or Sega rotation system (SRS). Even more primitively there was the Nintendo rotation system (NRS) for NES Tetris, where most modern mechanics like lock delay and wall kick did not exist. 

*For more about NES Tetris and CTWC this is a very nice introduction video.

So what's fun about this ancient system of tetris that is hard to deal with, and even theoretically not sustainable forever?

It turned the game into a really good candidate of extreme solo e-sport via score attack.

The brutalness of the classic rules ensures players to adopt already special techniques to start with, either the delayed auto shift(DAS) or hypertapping. The absence of lock delay means that the reaction time will be extremely limited. Together with the lack of hold pieces and "7 bag" pseudo randomness that requires a balance between aggressiveness and sustainability, which further boosts the difficulty of making the right decisions. The lack of wall kick and modern spins makes planning harder, but the game is a lot more accessible to general public -- you can place the pieces in a certain position if and only if you can do that with reality physics. NES Tetris, the one with the most simple rules, is simply the easiest to understand.

Extreme input requirements, balance between strategies and high accessibility combines into a potent game for extreme e-sports: unlike FPS or other multiplayer games, these are stages for soloist to show what happens when you push the game to its extreme, to the boundary between software restriction and hardware restriction. 

CTWC has been held since 2010, but it had very little attraction until recent years when memes were grown out of nowhere [boom tetris for Jeff] and a great community is eventually built. 

Throughout the years, we have observed a steady growth of the average skill level among the players.

In early years, players may start from as low as level 9, and level 19 gameplay was treated as a premium. Maxing out a game was extremely rare (in 2010 Harry was given the automatic spot just because he had a max out -- not even in a given set of time but in his gameplay history). Then in the years after the choices were usually between level 15 and 18.

[Note: simply speaking level 15, 18 and 19 are the three fastest feasibly playable speed in NES tetris. One may choose to start from higher level to gain higher score. Starting from level 18, a change to level 19 occurs at line 130, which is known as *the* transition. There is another transition to "kill screen speed" at level 29 or 230 lines from level 18. Level 29 speed were thought impossible to play for no more than a few pieces, but this has changed in recent years.]

Starting from the reign of Jonas however, flexing in level 19 had became the standard among the upper seeds. Players are expected to reach the kill screen and score above 800k regularly. 

More recently with the bloom of hypertappers, reaching the kill screen is nothing special anymore. We are not just observing players at "maxout pace" before transition, but they hold on and actually maxout occasionally. 

Among the hypertappers Joseph (@JdMfX_) is definitely one of the best. His hypertapping skills allowed him to play extremely consistently at level 19 and actually made level 29 gameplay possible. He can casually reach level 30 (10 lines into kill screen) and all the way up to level 35[]. 

He outflexed Jonas in 2018 and had a great match against Greentea in 2019.

Then in 2020...he was knocked down in the quarterfinal.

So what happened? Well, the top 8 this year is completely composed of players that are almost as good as him. His match with Huff isn't exactly the best from him, and together with same bad luck he was out. 

CTWC 2020 is entirely different from CTWC 2019. Not only that Joseph was knocked down, but all the veterans and even players ranked up high in the 2019 tourneys were taken down in early stages like Jeff (he still got a lot of booms and neck and neck commentaries though), Jonas, Svavar and Koryan. They were just taken down by players out of nowhere (that is, unless you are a close follower of the monthly tournament too).

Among these the battle between Koryan and champion Dog is the absolute must-watch. It ended up as a 3-0 sweep but the stats are just crazy. 5.9 maxouts (one 989k) and 4 1.1mils; 5.9 kill screens (one 229 lines) and 4 234+ lines (and one level 30). 1.1 mils and playing into level 29 is simply unimaginable in the past, yet it happened in real matches this year. Even more thrilling is that the last two games ended up with a score difference of about 1500 and 400 respectively. Had Koryan optimize even the slightest he could have won one or two games -- this is how close the match was. 

There are a few reasons behind this great shift in competitiveness, but they boil down to the fact that the community grew big enough to produce enough hypertappers that flooded the tournament.

CTWC gained more attraction since 2016-18 and that had paid off in recent years. A big portion of new players said that they started playing NES tetris because they watched 2016-19 CTWC. It is difficult getting people to play NES, so this is a big step forward.

They are also successful in running the online community. There are now classic tetris monthly (CTM) and other streamed tournaments. They collaborated with tetris effect which ended up with a classic tetris mode. They are getting more sponsors every year and this year they were even sponsored by Xbox. These are all signs of a flourishing community.

The final kick is of course the pandemic, which forces everybody to watch streams at home. It also forced the tournament to be held online. Being online means more were allowed into the tourneys, and more actually joined because they do not need to reach the venue physically. 

It is very important to have new players, because they promote more advanced idea. Instead of introducing new ideas, they adopt the frontline techniques and put that into mainstream among the community. Old players tend to stick with the way they played (for example Harry tend to have right well instead of left well even in competitive scenes in the past), but this isn't a problem for new players. Between DAS and hypertapping the latter is clearly more potent, so they simply start with hypertapping. 

The wave of new players comes with a side effect: the new players are significantly younger. The original player base is for sure, those who lived the NES era who are rather aged (in the perspective of gamers) in 2020. New comers are in general younger, but for competitive games this is even more extreme because reaction speed, concentration and bursting power all peaked when one is of the age of adolescents. Among CTWC top 8 the ages are 13, 14, 15, 16, 18, 18, 19 and 23 respectively, and it's quite unimaginable that players of such age are so much into a NES game.

Average age of top players decreases as the game become more competitive is nothing new after all. Just think about the top players in Osu, from 2008 where Cyclone was #1 and Alace was easily #30, to Cookiezi and Whitewolf in 2014, then to Whitecat plus many more in 2020. It becomes clear that they can really play the best when they are high school students. Similar scenarios are also observed in mainstream e-sports, although the peak varies with game genres. 

From the perspective of a long term follower (kind of), I have a mixed feeling when the community is heavily flooded with new players. On one hand they come with fleshing techniques and marvelous gameplays, but on the other hand we lose our connection with all the old players that we used to watch. 

But one thing is here for sure, CTWC 2021 next year is again what I will be looking forward to.