Usually chess is used as an argument by esports apologists: if an intellectual game claims to be a sport, then why can't video games? But who would have thought that a board game that appeared more than 1,500 years ago would be considered as an esports discipline in 2020? Let’s break down the phenomenon of online chess during Coronavirus pandemic and see why the game essentially blurs the lines between esports and traditional sports.
Online chess phenomenon in 2020
Majority of public events in 2020 have been canceled, postponed or organized online due to pandemic. And this also applies for chess that benefited from this.
The most watched Twitch clip of 2020 is from chess
Since the beginning of spring 2020, the popularity of chess on streaming services (and primarily on Twitch) began to grow. The greatest demand for the game was at the beginning of summer and in winter of 2020. Many popular streamers showed interest in chess, including xQc, Forsen, Ludwig and other content creators. They just played against each other at first, and then they started to participate in community tournaments. And their viewers actively followed this.
The popularity of chess was also affected by the release of Netflix series Queen’s Gambit. It had been in development for 30 years and was released just in time: right after the second wave of growth in popularity of chess on Twitch began.
Chess.com also contributed to the popularization of chess as a lot of 3rd party organizers used to hold tournaments. As representatives of the portal noted, 50.000-60.000 new users had been visiting the site every day in March 2020. And after the release of Queen’s Gambit number increased to 125.000 new users per day.
On the other hand, some chess.com tournaments have been cancelled. And this niche during the pandemic was occupied by their competitors, such as Chess24 and Magnus Chess. They ran many leagues with hundreds of thousands of dollars in prize pools.
Many popular streamers have participated in chess tournaments
But still: can chess be considered an esport? We say yes, and here's why.
Esports organizations started signing chess players
Esports organizations always keep an eye on games with esports potential. VALORANT is a good example. North American clubs began signing rosters for the new Riot Games’ shooter almost immediately after the start of the closed beta test. At that time, the game did not have any esports ecosystem at all, but the main thing is to jump on the hype train, as nothing prevents one to jump off it later. The same thing happened with chess.
The first spike in popularity of chess on Twitch was in early spring, but the full potential of online chess was not realized by esports organizations up until the end of the summer. In August, Counter Logic Gaming signed the Canadian woman grandmaster Qiyu Nemo Zhou. This was the first time a chess player became a content creator for an esports club.
Nemo became the first chess player to be signed by an esports organization
A week after the announcement Team SoloMid introduced the most popular Twitch chess player Hikaru Nakamura as its streamer. And that’s when the real hype started. Here's how Nakamura commented on the deal:
"Signing with TSM, which is one of the biggest esports organizations in North America, shows the tremendous growth of the game of chess and the resurgence of its popularity," Nakamura told Chess.com. "For me personally, it also shows that the current chess boom is here to stay and that there will be many opportunities to promote the game going forward".
It was after the signing of Nakamura when the community started discussing whether chess is an esport (by the way, the grandmaster himself completely agrees with this), and other esports clubs rushed to sign chess players. As a result, Cloud9 signed Andrew Tang, Team Envy started working with Botez sisters, and FURIA signed Grigor-Sevak Mkhitaryan.
Online chess tournaments are similar to regular esports
No one doubts that Hearthstone with all the buts is an esport. Yet chess is way less random, so it fits even better into the definition of "esports".
Chess fits the main law of video games, which was formulated by Atari founder Nolan Bushnell: “Easy to learn, hard to master”. Perhaps, the main criterion is that chess by its very nature is a competition. Chess also:
- Has its own loyal audience.
- Is being streamed on Twitch, YouTube, Facebook and other platforms.
- Its matches are played online; chess players are streaming with webcams.
In other words, chess and esports have too much in common in terms of production and viewers’ interest. Surely, the audience of professional chess hardly overlaps with other esports disciplines, but that's okay: for example, Dota 2 fans don't have to like Gears of War.
Prize pools in chess are comparable to esports
Interestingly, it was world chess champion Magnus Carlsen that was rated #1 esports athlete of 2020 by Esports Earnings. He earned over $510,000 in prize money throughout the year.
Top 20 esports players by prize money earned in 2020
Two more players entered the top 20: Hikaru Nakamura was ranked #12 with $324,644, and Wesley So was ranked #19 with $246,180. At the same time, all top players in CS:GO, League of Legends and Dota 2 are way behind them.
The main series of chess tournaments in 2020 was the Magnus Carlsen Tour with a prize pool of one million dollars. The matches were watched by thousands of spectators, and the prize pools were record-breaking in the history of online chess. Pretty similar to esports.
The categorization of chess as esports is a mere formality, as esports clubs claim. Chess will probably go back to offline once lockdown is over, and popularity rates of the game on streaming services might fall after that. However, so far no one can say when this will happen, which means there is nothing wrong with considering online chess as part of esports.
Want to know more? Subscribe to PRO & start researching now!