Exploring the Surprising Rise of Chess Esports
For years, chess has been growing online in popularity, much to the bemusement of many. This centuries-old board game boasts a relatively large following in its own right, but since 2020, it has been gaining new ground as a popular esports game. While many gamers may scoff at the idea, ‘chess esports’ is a perfectly valid term, and for around two years, the concept has been spreading like wildfire on platforms like Twitch.
Historically, chess has been more or less confined to its own niche; only those that cared for chess cared for chess. But, owing to a few key moments in 2020, chess esports has emerged and climbed the social ranks, attracting hundreds of thousands of players both on- and offline, and a staggering number of viewers on Twitch. Today, we’re here to take a look at the surprising but surefire growth of chess esports, determining why a 1400-year-old board game is becoming so popular on Twitch.
It’s Not Always Black and White
From around February 2021 onwards, the Chess category on Twitch began growing rapidly in popularity. However, a slow but persistent growth pattern had existed long before that, with several events taking place in 2020 that fuelled that ever-growing fire. For instance, in June of 2020, the Chess.com PogChamps event kicked off on Twitch, featuring sixteen of the platform’s top creators, including xQc, Boxbox, and Nate Hill.
This event was sizeable, boasting a $50,000 prize pool and attracting the attention of some of the biggest names in chess. For the tournament, players were coached by the likes of Hikaru Nakamura, one of the most famous chess grandmasters to emerge in recent years. We’ll cover Nakamura’s contribution to the growth of chess esports further down in this article. This event was enough to kick-start the true growth of the Chess category, with viewers receiving drops linked to the Chess.com platform, the de-facto home for digital chess esports tournaments.
Later in 2020, The Queen’s Gambit was released on Netflix, offering another injection of popularity into the world of chess. When this series dropped, Chess.com reported a remarkable figure – more than 125,000 new users were signing up to its platform every day. It was in August of 2020, just before the release of The Queen’s Gambit, that chess and esports began truly fusing together, though.
On the 28th of August, Hikaru Nakamura signed with TSM. It was the first signing of its kind, representing a partnership between an esports organisation and one of the most notable, prolific chess players on the planet. At that moment, modern chess esports was born.
The Digital Domination of Chess Esports
It was in 2021 that the Chess category on Twitch well and truly erupted, catapulting upwards and securing a peak concurrent viewership record of 370,111. While this peak experienced a relatively quick come down, it would repeat on a smaller scale numerous times as 2021 and 2022 unraveled. Fueled by the popularization of chess in the media, a need to connect digitally through the COVID-19 lockdown, and the fusion between chess and esports, the centuries-old board game was now propelling itself forcefully up the Twitch charts.
On Twitch, this growth was essentially carried by a few top-tier chess-focused channels, including that of Nakamura. Even, Magnus Carlsen the best ranked chess player in history, makes regular appearance on the platform to bolster the game’s popularity.
Currently, there are more than 1.4 million users following ‘GMHikaru’ on Twitch, marking him as the most-followed chess streamer on the platform. He’s remarkably popular, and his broadcasts are regularly attended by tens of thousands of chess fans. In June of 2022, Hikaru made another monumental move, signing with Misfits as a streamer and content creator.
However, the growth of chess esports on Twitch isn’t fuelled only by Hikaru. For instance, we must also mention BotezLive, a chess-focused channel hosted by two Canadian sisters, Alexandra and Andrea. At the time of writing, this channel boasts 1.1 million followers, and outside of streaming, the sisters represent their country at an international level in chess. Like Hikaru, the Botez sisters signed with an esports organisation, Envy, and picked up an official Chess.com sponsorship.
Other notable chess streamers include:
- GothamChess (584k followers)
- chessbrah (274k followers)
- GMNaroditsky (230k followers)
Meanwhile, famous tournament organizers are utilizing the esports terminology freely in their events. The Champions Chess Tour recently held the Oslo Esports Cup, to massive viewership across Youtube, Twitch and Chess24.com. With all these advancements, it’s only a matter of time before we’re discussing chess as an esports betting topic.
But Why Chess?
In an interview with Dexerto, the Director of Business Development at Chess.com, Nick Barton, shed a little light on why online chess specifically is growing in this space:
Online chess is the future of chess itself because of its accessibility. 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.
He went one step further, examining the psychological draw behind the growth of chess esports and the online variant of the centuries-old board game:
… 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.
There can be no doubt that chess is an esports game, as it ticks several boxes required to be classed as such:
- It’s inherently competitive and features a classic ‘team A vs. team B’ mechanic.
- It’s accessible at the lowest level but there is a visible skill gap between players.
- There are tournaments held that boast, in some cases, considerable prize pools.
- Today, the most popular way of playing chess is via the internet, making use of digital platforms.
For some, chess is still seen as a boring, old-fashioned, and potentially archaic game. However, it seems that that opinion couldn’t be further from the truth, as with the growth of the category on Twitch, chess is becoming increasingly ‘trendy’. With the evolution of chess esports, more grandmasters and prodigies are becoming brand ambassadors for the world’s largest and most valuable esports organisations – and that says something special.