Chess is a board game which spans centuries, believed to have been birthed in northwest India in the sixth century. In 2020, it became the most unlikely esport.
2020 was an unprecedented year. A global health situation affected how we all lived and there are currently little signs of widespread normality returning anytime soon. For chess, however, this represents a period of unbelievable growth.
Spawned out of the perfect storm of unpredictable circumstances, the strategy board game reached new levels of activity online — something that’s unusual for a game that’s mostly played in-person. This activity manifested in both playing activity and viewership, but how did it truly happen?
There appear to be several factors at play, inextricably linked and brewing together into a potent concoction that nobody could have foreseen. The game has a strong legacy dating back centuries, the aforementioned health crisis rendered travel and in-person socializing almost impossible, a Netflix series that took almost 30 years to produce was well-received, and the ever-evolving Twitch meta shifted to chess. It was a confluence of unlikely individual happenings that came together at a time that propelled the game into the top-tier of esports.
Chess takes over
Chess.com is perhaps the leading platform for online gameplay, both casually and for the competitive player base. They informed Dexerto that 50,000-60,000 new members were joining the site each day in March — growing to an incredible 125,000 per day following the critical release of The Queen’s Gambit on October 23rd, 2020. It hasn’t slowed down yet either.
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As per SimilarWeb, a website analytics platform that can serve as a rough indication as to a site’s performance, paints a similar picture. In October 2020, the platform states Chess.com accrued 81m total viewers. This grew to 116.5m in November 2020, the month in which the Netflix series was the talk of the town, and grew to 162.5m total views in December 2020.
A question worth asking regarding this surge of attention is just how it will affect the future of chess.
“Online chess is the future of chess itself because of its accessibility,” Nick Barton, director of business development at Chess.com, told Dexerto. “In a matter of seconds you can play a chess game with anyone from around the world and you have a wealth of learning resources such as lessons, analysis and puzzles at your fingertips and the growth of online chess, especially among brand new players, has shifted the definition of what it means to play a game of chess.
“Large prize fund events have shifted the professional landscape so much so that in the future, organizers of over-the-board tournaments will have to be mindful of important online events on the horizon when considering scheduling and player invites. Of course, there are going to be growing pains along the way but top players are getting more and more accustomed to playing competitive games online.”
How can those who are involved with chess ensure that the board game sustains this growth in attention and ensure it remains a more popular, financially-fruitful, and culturally-impactful activity? In esports, we’re used to seeing games come and go — this is less prevalent in traditional sports, however. While chess would not die an honourable death should the past year’s rise subside, it’s reasonable to assume that those involved would prefer for their sport to stay in the spotlight.
“It’s up to the established leaders of the chess world to be mindful of new players discovering the game,” Barton said. “This might be Chess.com developing new features to help flatten the learning curve for new players, creators like Hikaru and the Botez sisters finding new and innovative ways to engage their audiences, or tournament organizers finding ways to connect fans with the players through open mics during competitive play, interesting new competitive formats, hybrid LAN events, etc. Everyone has an unspoken role to play.
“I’ve held that many new chess players aren’t necessarily drawn to chess so they can improve at the game itself, but that they’re drawn to chess as a proxy for self improvement. Chess has the unique quality of increasing the heart rate while simultaneously improving cognition, decision making, creativity and critical thinking. If we can harness that messaging and if casual players around the world are using online chess as a platform to improve their academic and work performance as well as their social lives, I think we have a winning formula for sustainability.”
In come the organizations
With chess becoming a favourite pastime of many throughout 2020 and going into 2021, executives in esports are starting to bet on the game now in hopes of it indeed being able to retain most of its attention. We’ve seen esports organizations flock to a new title like Valorant almost-instantly in fear of missing out on being part of the next big thing, and this is also happening on this side of gaming.
Major players in North American esports, the likes of Envy Gaming and TSM, have already played their opening move by signing chess players. The former has signed Alexandra and Andrea Botez, sisters who have been creating content surrounding the game for quite some time. The latter recruited Grandmaster Hikaru Nakamura in what was an eye-opening signing for those across both chess and esports.
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These signings are a vote of confidence in chess from the organizations, they surely believe that the online version of the game has plenty left in the tank when it comes to obtaining eyeballs on Twitch and YouTube.
“We love chess, but our decision was more about Alexandra and Andrea being a great fit for Envy than it was about making a statement about the popularity of chess,” Andrew Peterman, Envy Gaming’s chief content officer told Dexerto in regards to the org’s decision to enter the title. “Regardless of whether chess continues its trajectory on Twitch or it returns to its previous level of popularity, the Botez sisters are going to continue to establish themselves as staples of the entertainment community on Twitch and YouTube.”
Organizations in esports care about much more than simply competing these days, they’re engaged in media and merchandise as much as they are battling it out with others. This is mostly down to the economic upside of esports — or lack thereof — at the moment, there’s more money to be made in content and endorsements and these activities are also great for brand-building and advertisement. You now have to consider all of these elements when judging a signing in esports because there’s simply more at play than just… play.
“We view TSM not only as a gaming organization, but truly as a media and entertainment company, playing in the same attention economy as Netflix, TV, and sports,” Walter Wang, TSM’s head of operations told us. “Our goal is to become the biggest video game brand in the world. Chess has increasingly moved from offline to online so it was easy to see how chess is right in TSM’s wheelhouse. It is extremely competitive, incredibly popular, and a game that is increasingly played and viewed online and digitally.
“We hope that as esports orgs start fielding chess players and chess streamers on their rosters, we can play a small part in increasing chess’s market and bring newer players who are digitally native to the game. That is why we are so aligned.”
Is chess an esport?
It’s time to get to a question that is actually rather pointless, and that’s whether chess can now be an esport. For whatever reason, a significant portion of those in the industry — whether a fan or an executive — feel the need for everything to be neatly categorized. Nonetheless, it is easy to make the case for the online version of the board game to meet the criteria as an esport.
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There’s a low barrier to entry for new players, there is a tangible skill gap between players, it is played competitively by nature, there are prize winnings to be earned, and there’s a community interested in watching the game played at the highest level. The very esports organizations that have a pawn in the game don’t care about its categorization, again reinforcing the current state of play in esports — it’s more than just competition.
“From a content perspective, it doesn’t matter,” said Peterman. “Viewers select what’s entertaining to them whether it’s an esport, a traditional sport, board game, game show, or something else entirely. It’s our mission as an entertainment company to meet that demand and create compelling content.”
TSM’s Wang concurs with Envy’s Peterman, whether a game is an esport or not isn’t important to their operation. They’re in the business of getting as many eyeballs as possible and they want to serve the community they’ve recently entered. That’s where success lays for them.
“What we should be more focused on is what makes sports, esports, and games like chess so exciting and enthralling,” he explained. “The tension, the excitement, the devotion, the passion of all these competitions, interactions, and games are truly amazing and these are the traits we focus on at TSM. To me, it makes no sense to label certain things and categorize them. Instead, we should focus on the underlying first principles of entertainment and competition.”
With Chess.com benefiting in a big way from the game’s online activities, seeing major brands from across gaming and esports investing is a great sign. It doesn’t matter what it’s called as competitive chess is nothing new to them and it’s a prominent element of their business. They’ll continue to serve their community with new events, like PogChamps and Arena Kings, and enjoying the viewership they command.
“Chess is whatever people want it to be,” concluded Barton. “In online competitions it’s an esport. In over-the-board play it’s a highly-respected, analog game. In the offices of innovative esports organizations it’s a massive source of untapped future fans. It doesn’t matter how chess is defined, it’s been here for centuries and will continue to exist long after the term esport has vanished.”
Whether chess or not manages to become widely-adopted into the world of esports, it’s clear that organizations are buying in and that online chess has soared to new heights. Whether this success will continue, sustain, or fall by the wayside in the future is yet to be seen but one thing is for sure: people are entertained and challenged by the game, and thus chess as a whole isn’t going to go anywhere anytime soon.