In September 2017, a brightly colored, tile-matching puzzle game named Candy Crush Saga boasted nearly 3 billion downloads, generated a quarterly revenue of $250 million and even inspired a game show on CBS hosted by Mario Lopez. But in the years since — whether from criticism surrounding the game having potentially addictive qualities, or simply more competition — Candy Crush hasn’t been anywhere near as successful or culturally relevant.
Still, if you look in the right places, you’ll find plenty of people who continue to eat, sleep and breathe the game. People like T.J. Lee, a 36-year-old in San Francisco who staunchly believes he’s among the most skilled Candy Crushers alive. “I tell people I’m one of the best Candy Crush players in the world, but nobody believes me. Then they tell me that isn’t something to brag about,” he tells me. (Unlike almost any other mobile game, there’s no way to know who the greatest Candy Crush player is, as King, the company that developed the game, has ignored the fandom’s many requests to create a global ranking system, instead opting to stick with ranking players among their Facebook friends.)
So what is it like to grind your way to the top of a nonexistent ranking for an out-of-style mobile game? This is T.J.’s story.
* * * * *
I was introduced to Candy Crush in 2012 when my girlfriend wanted to teach me how to play. At the time, I found mobile games pointless, but I saw it as a way to strengthen my connection with her. Eight years later, we’re married, and I view her as the Candy Crush Yoda to my young Jedi.
For the first three months, we shared a Candy Crush account. But in that short time, my skills grew exponentially. Thus, I created my own account, and when I saw my Facebook friends were way ahead of me, I became obsessed. I took my sister-in-law being 1,500 levels ahead of me as a particular challenge. I was able to surpass her, though, within about 10 months.
For several years, I played Candy Crush about four to five hours a day, but not in a single sitting. It could be 45 minutes in the morning before work, 30 minutes at lunch, another 40 minutes after work, a couple more hours in the evening. I also have a car that has autopilot, so if there’s bumper-to-bumper traffic during my 180-minute commute to and from work, I can let my guard down and get plenty more time for Candy Crush. Outside of work, I have two young kids. When they were infants, there was a lot of cuddling and rocking-chair time, allowing me to sit down and rock them to sleep while playing Candy Crush.
Every Wednesday, King releases 45 new levels. It takes me about three to four minutes to beat a new level, so I can usually beat them all in about two hours. Once I beat the new levels for the week, I continue to play to collect more boosters and complete the various mini-games.
I don’t just stare and play like a drone either. I’m constantly looking for patterns and loopholes that give me an edge in getting new boosters. Also, if you’re skilled, there’s never a need to spend money or watch ads to buy lives or get more boosters. Browsing the King community, you’ll see many people who still spend money on the game, and most top players have probably spent some sort of money on it, too. But I’ve never spent a single penny — an achievement I’m very proud of, and one of the main reasons I suspect I’m better than the rest.
People have asked for global rankings for years, but King ignores them. I’m not sure why, because I see it as an opportunity to reinvigorate the brand. For example, Tetris is an old game kept relevant by streamed Tetris tournaments. If King were smart, they’d do the same. E-sports is a great opportunity to bring new players into the game. I’m sure as well that they have the data to make such a list. What modern data-crazy company doesn’t have a mountain of data about each user? I get targeted ads, so I know they track me.
If I had to guess, the reason they’ve ignored all the requests is because creating a global ranking would be work without any real return on investment. The people ranked are loyal players, and they may not be generating new revenue from them. Their business model is based on adding new players, and those new players are unlikely to ever get ranked in the near future. Why create a global leader board so that only a handful of active people can get their egos stroked?
To accurately rank the most skilled Candy Crush players, a variety of gameplay variables would need to be considered — e.g., whether or not people use boosters to defeat a level, how quickly they defeat new levels and whether or not they spend money or gold bars to purchase boosters or extra moves.
Given that such a system probably won’t be implemented any time soon, if ever, I’ve accepted that I’m just competing against myself. Which is fine. I have a history of challenging myself to see how far I can go.
As for everyone else, when I tell people I still play Candy Crush, I get a lot of frowns and mocking. Stuff like, “That game is still around!? Why!” My wife rolled her eyes into oblivion when I told her a journalist was going to interview me about Candy Crush. Nowadays she says, “Only little old ladies play Candy Crush,” which is generally true.
But so long as they keep creating new levels, I won’t ever stop playing.