Screen Reviews
Best of Five

Best of Five: The Classic Tetris Champions

directed by Chris Higgins

At the risk of writing a paragraph that has been written many times over, I am not a sportsball guy. I find watching televised events tedious, and attending live ones nearly unbearable. I can understand why the members of two opposing teams acting upon some combination of sphere, line, net, what have you, get excited about it, but not why a non-participant would want to observe. To be honest, I’ve suffered the occasional flash of envy at those that can yell uncontrollably or shed real tears over on-field action. It does look like fun.

Alex Kerr (left) faces off against Elijah Markstrom (right) in tournament play
Alex Kerr (left) faces off against Elijah Markstrom (right) in tournament play

So you won’t be surprised to learn I was more of a stay at home and play Tetris kind of person. Tetris is a computer game where you try to fit as many of seven differently-shaped blocks as efficiently as possible into a playing field as they drop from the top of the screen, one by one. It’s simple to understand, but like many such games, there’s a rich and addictive complexity that emerges from the basic game mechanics. If you have been hooked into the world of Tetris, you will undoubtedly have experienced that morning when you wake up having dreamed of falling blocks.

Jonas Neubauer in an interview
Jonas Neubauer in an interview

I never imagined these two worlds would collide until I saw Chris Higgins’ Best of Five. The five-part documentary, now streaming for free on YouTube, chronicles the Classic Tetris World Championships of 2014, featuring a series of interviews with the participants and the championship commentators, and long stretches of head-to-head Tetris championship playing on screen. Maybe they’re just falling blocky squiggles to the uninitiated, but they gave me that visceral reaction to a missed placement or an especially dextrous one.

A CTWC referee tries to fix a fuzzy TV in between matches
A CTWC referee tries to fix a fuzzy TV in between matches

The Classic Tetris World Championship is still running, fifteen years after it started, but this documentary covers a pivotal period, as the first four championships were won by Jonas Neubauer and several other competitors were going after that title, some with years of being rebuffed. The action is intense, and though in the physical world we have humans using twitching fingers on 30-year-old equipment, on screen we see a clear digitally reproduced version of the gameplay, presented side-by-side just like the slickest sportsball. Also present is snappy commentary from Chris Tang and James Chen, who describe the on-screen action with the same acumen and enthusiasm as their big-league equivalents, to great effect. On top of this there’s a sly orchestral score from Carl King that inserts the simple complication of the Tetris theme song in various modulations throughout.

This is by no means the only Tetris movie out there — it’s not even director Higgins’ first Tetris movie — but the intense focus on this very pivotal point in championship history is quite effective. There is a bit of recap and retrospective (after all, it’s been a decade since the events described), but overall you can feel like you’re there, ten years ago, watching these players compete on equipment that was already a couple of decades old by that time. It’s a very small niche, but it’s also easy to make yourself at home in it.

Chris Higgins


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