blue scuti effect: Fans flock to Tetris tournament to see Stillwater's global phenom

Jan. 22—WACO, Texas — Willis Gibson had just spent nearly an hour going head-to-head in the semifinals of the Heart of Texas Regional.

His hands were aching from the constant work of trying to maneuver Tetris pieces into place across a best-of-five series in a match that he lost when a young fan — likely around the same age as the 13-year-old Stillwater native — walked up to Gibson to ask for an autograph.

After obliging, the fan took a few steps away before returning to Gibson — who goes by the gaming name blue scuti on the Classic Tetris scene — to pose for a photo with the first documented human to "beat" the 40-year-old classic video game.

Even in the minutes following a defeat in his first live event since his whole world changed, Gibson was as gracious as he had been all weekend.

That began Friday night when workers at a chain entertainment venue caught wind of the presence of a celebrity during a pre-tournament hangout for competitors and Classic Tetris World Championship organizers. One-by-one, workers came up asking for autographs or photos while he was enjoying a night of bowling with his online friends he gets to see at the occasional in-person tournament.

"That's something you'd only think like big celebrities have, where they're walking around and people are like, 'Oh, I know you! Can I get your autograph?'" Gibson said. "It's definitely different."

It was just a sampling of what was to come for Gibson, though.

A steady stream of fans and media were watching him as he warmed up before qualifying Saturday morning, with the occasional request for autographs and photos all the way up until he took to the event's main stage to qualify.

And following qualifying — after his family managed to get him some lunch before the bracket portion of the tournament began — the crowd in the ballroom at the Waco Convention Center grew each time Gibson was competing, with his gameplay projected onto a big screen alongside his competitors.

"This year was about three times as big (of a crowd), and that was even with us being over in a side room rather than being in the main hall," said David McDonald, who has been in the competitive Tetris scene since 2018 and whose YouTube video (on his channel, aGameScout) discussing Gibson's achievement was a catalyst for the news going global. "We had a whole group of people that were brand new, and that was really cool to see."

It wasn't solely video game fans nearing a midlife crisis over a game that came out in their childhood. In fact, among the crowd were plenty of kids the same age, or younger, as Gibson.

There was an elementary-aged girl, sitting as close as she could to the main stage, cheering passionately for Gibson whenever he hit a Tetris.

There was one young fan around the same age as Gibson who was carrying around a miniature blue Yoshi — similar to the plushie Gibson has with him at events and on livestreams — who was showing off his recent photo with Gibson that he had put as his phone's wallpaper.

And according to Vince Clemente, CTWC President, he talked with a father who drove to Waco with his two elementary-aged sons to watch the Tetris tournament once they found out "blue scuti" would be competing.

"There were two young guys that just came because they saw the video and their dad was like, 'There's an event in Texas, we're going,'" Clemente said. "You could just see everyone in the crowd was just cheering for scuti."

Fans in attendance weren't the only ones showing support Saturday, though.

A chain donut shop delivered boxes of donuts with an image of Gibson as decoration on the top of the donuts.

Like the attention he garnered away from the console, Gibson was blown away by the crowd reactions while he was competing — with multiple bursts of excitement when he'd hit a four-line Tetris and the occasional chants of his gamer name after big scores.

"It was insane. I was just doing normal things that happen, and all of a sudden the crowd just explodes," said Gibson, whose grandparents made the road trip from Garnett, Kansas, to watch him compete after they had watched him win his first live tournament in Kansas City in early December. "I was just thinking, 'I just did a normal thing.'"

While his fellow competitors were obviously looking to best him — and the rest of the field — on the scoreboard, they also served as a safe haven for the global phenom.

Whenever he wasn't being mobbed by adoring fans, he found comfort with the small group that he shared a common goal in trying to win a Classic Tetris tournament.

"I mainly try and focus on just talking to the people I know in the Tetris community and having fun with them since most of us share interests," Gibson said. "So I have a lot of of fun talking to them to help balance it all."

The CTWC organizers are embracing the sudden surge in attention and popularity that has fallen upon the classic game with the viral achievement from the Stillwater native.

Prior to bracket play, Gibson was presented a one-of-a-kind gaming jersey that read "Game Crashed" that was designed by one of the members of competitive Tetris community, Mykal Buster, who is known by his competitors as "Sharky."

"I've believed in this for 15 years and have been trying to improve it every year," said Clemente, who has been one of the main organizers of the CTWC since its inception. "Without a doubt, this year (improvement) is gonna happen. ... It's just been so cool to see him in the news, on the Today Show or whatever."

And equally, Gibson — the son of a math teacher, and who is still dedicated to his academics and other extra-curricular activities — is hopeful to be able to help expand the sport in such a unique time for he and Tetris.

With the media buzz, which included doing interviews around the globe, finally starting to die down, his name and accomplishment are clearly still of interest for video game enthusiasts, as was apparent with the interest at the ATG Expo over the weekend.

"I just love going to these tournaments, so if that's a side effect of me going, then it gives me more reason to go to as many as I can," Gibson said. "... Hopefully it all can open up a lot of growth in the community."

Follow News Press sports editor Jason Elmquist on Twitter @jelmquistSW for updates on Oklahoma State and high school athletics.