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James Chen on calling Classic Tetris, parallels with the FGC, and more

Prior to Sunday's Classic Tetris World Championship Top 8, Shacknews had the opportunity to speak to one of the voices of the game, James Chen. We asked about his Tetris background, calling the action, and parallels with the competitive fighting game world.

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Anyone who has ever followed competitive fighting games likely recognizes the voice of James Chen. He's been one of the most prominent voices for the world of competitive Street Fighter, Marvel, and many other fighting games, both old school and modern. However, Chen has a second vocation in the competitive gaming world. He's also become one of the voices of competitive Tetris.

Alongside Chris Tang, Chen has served as one of the announcers for the Classic Tetris World Championship. Beyond his competitive fighting game background, Chen has also been a lifelong fan of Tetris and has parlayed his talents calling Street Fighter matches into a side gig of calling competitive Tetris tournaments. Last weekend, Chen returned for his third year calling the action at the Classic Tetris World Championship.

Prior to Sunday's Top 8, Chen took some time to talk to Shacknews about his time with the Classic Tetris World Championship. He discusses the parallels with the fighting game community (the FGC), the continuing rise of the CTWC's popularity, and his own Tetris background.

2019 Classic Tetris World Championship

Shacknews: James, you've been the voice of fighting games for years, but it still surprises some people to hear you as one of the voices of Tetris. When did you first get involved with the CTWC?

James Chen, CTWC announcer: I actually first got involved just two years ago in 2017. They put out a call for commentators, just to see if they could find new commentators. I volunteered and they said, "Whoa! Wait! You like Tetris?" And I said "Yes!" And I did an exhibition match and they were like, "Wow! Okay, you really know your Tetris!" So they asked me to come to the Classic Tetris World Championship and I've been here ever since.

Shacknews: What is your Tetris background? How long have you been playing the game?

Chen: Since NES Tetris, so since this version of Tetris. I've been playing Tetris forever. I've basically never stopped. It's actually my favorite video game of all-time. I think it is the perfect video game. My love and respect for the actual game of Tetris basically knows no bounds.

Shacknews: In terms of atmosphere, what are some of the differences you've noticed between the CTWC and your average FGC tournament?

Chen: What's really interesting is that I see a lot of parallels right now. Because the CTWC is going through a lot of what early FGC was, where the tournaments are small, we know all the players, there's a lot of inside joke, people are heckling Quaid [Sean Ritchie] off-stage, stuff like that. There's a lot of early FGC feel to it. But the same thing about it, though, is it feels like it's going down the same path, which is a really cool thing. It's really still fueled by a passion and love for a game. This game is 20-something years old now. There's definitely this nostalgia.

And now, all of a sudden, it's very similar to fighting games in 2009, where Street Fighter IV brought new faces in. After Joseph Saelee won last year, now all of a sudden we've got all these new young players here and it's really invigorated the scene and it's really cool.

Shacknews: How do you prepare to call a Tetris match? What's your routine?

Chen: To be honest with you, for me it's just to keep playing Tetris and just to have that Tetris mind. Which is fine, because I do that anyway. I'm always playing Tetris! Just making sure you stay sharp and also knowing the storylines for the players, because honestly, the players are the most important thing.

But also, the other thing is that you want to make sure you understand Tetris at a high level. For example, Jonas [Neubauer] just got knocked out of the tournament and a lot of people are going to talk about this upset, but I'm not sure a lot of people are talking about the fact that, honestly just watching the match myself as a Tetris player, he got some brutal RNG for the landscape that he had. He couldn't do a lot of cleaning, he couldn't do a lot of burns, based on the pieces that he had. It was rough for him and that's one of those things, as a commentator, that you have to highlight so that people at home can realize how much that affects a player.

Shacknews: How has the CTWC changed since you've started calling the action?

Chen: I can't believe it! In two years? It is a completely different beast! And a lot of it is thanks to Joseph Saelee winning last year. Honestly, I really put a lot of parallels with that and Chris Moneymaker winning the WSOP, the World Series of Poker. Because when he won that, he was not a professional, he was not a poker pro, and it set the poker world on fire, because then everybody else was like, "I can do this, too."

And so with Joseph Saelee winning, now all of a sudden we have 15-year-olds and 16-year-olds coming in and doing this. Just to even qualify in the Top 48, you needed like an over 600,000 point score. In past years, just two years ago, you get 400,000, you can get into Top 32, no problem! And now 600,000 can't even get you in the Top 48. It's insane! It's grown and the strength of competition has reached insanity levels right now.

Shacknews: And for it to be on such an old game, too! I haven't seen anything like this outside of [Super Smash Bros.] Melee.

Chen: Right! Exactly! There's a lot of parallels with Melee too, in terms of CRT-hunting and finding old controllers, you know?

Shacknews: Did the "Boom! Tetris!" call sort of just happen? Because it's taken a life of its own. Are you surprised by its popularity?

Chen: Oh, that's all Chris Tang! Chris Tang just did that for the year where "Boom! Tetris for Jeff!" just became popular. And there's no reason to stop it, let's just keep going with it. And it's great, because it provides a catchphrase for everybody and something for everybody to feel like a part of the scene when you're watching it here in the audience. Everybody can yell "Boom! Tetris!" So it's really cool. I love it! I think it's fantastic!

Shacknews: Lastly, you're getting ready to call the finals. Are there any specific player performances that have surprised you this year?

Chen: Can I just take the field? (laughs)

Because honestly, that's really what it is right now. The field has just been amazing. The level of play, the quality of players from everywhere. Obviously, we've got 15-year-old Batfoy [Aiden Jerdee] and DanQZ [Daniel Zhang], who's just 16. It's hard to highlight just them, because we've also had MegaRetroMan [Paul Tesi] take out Jonas. We've had Harry Hong just eliminated.

Honestly, it's either you have to not be surprised at all, because everybody stepped up their game, or you have to be surprised at everybody. Because, like I said, the field is just so strong this year. It's so strong.


Be sure to follow James Chen on Twitter for all of his commentary, both in the Tetris and fighting game worlds. Also, catch him every Tuesday on Twitch with co-host and long-time partner David "UltraDavid" Graham, as they host UltraChenTV, discussing the latest twists and turns in the FGC. And for more on the Classic Tetris World Championship, be sure to catch up on our interviews with Joseph Saelee and Jonas Neubauer.

Senior Editor

Ozzie has been playing video games since picking up his first NES controller at age 5. He has been into games ever since, only briefly stepping away during his college years. But he was pulled back in after spending years in QA circles for both THQ and Activision, mostly spending time helping to push forward the Guitar Hero series at its peak. Ozzie has become a big fan of platformers, puzzle games, shooters, and RPGs, just to name a few genres, but he’s also a huge sucker for anything with a good, compelling narrative behind it. Because what are video games if you can't enjoy a good story with a fresh Cherry Coke?

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