Opinion | Chess has evolved into an esport

By Matthew Krauter, Senior Columnist

The question of whether or not chess is a sport has always been a gray area. The game is easy to understand and watch, but an immense amount of training and talent are needed to become a certified master. The lack of physicality in the game distinguishes it from basketball, yet it demands more respect than being just a tabletop game such as monopoly. 

The chess boom this year has been attributable to three events: the COVID-19 pandemic, Netflix’s The Queen’s Gambit and Chess.com’s PogChamps tournaments. The consistent rising popularity of online chess over the past year hints it’s not a fad, but an evolution of the game into a new medium.

Chess.com’s Pogchamps tournaments have been incredibly successful because they expand the chess player base to untapped audiences. A large variety of Twitch streamers and YouTubers such as xQc, Pokimane, MoistCr1TiKaL and Ludwig have loyal fan bases that follow them to the tournament. The inclusion of mainstream celebrities such as Logic and Rainn Wilson in the tournament draws the attention of eyes not usually on twitch and gives a stamp of authenticity to the event.

The Queen’s Gambit was a smash hit on Netflix, breaking records with its 62 million viewers in just four weeks. Beth Harmon is a compelling protagonist and her fantastical journey through the chess world in the ’60s is captivating because it represents chess in an interesting way while accommodating viewers who have no knowledge of the game. Rather than create a bar to entry to viewers, it invites curiosity and emphasizes how anyone can learn the game.

The results have been significant sustained growth of chess on online platforms. On Twitch, the chess category has exploded from 1.02 million hours watched in February of 2020 to 22 million hours in February of 2021. Amongst Logic and Rainn Wilson’s matches last month, Chess.com peaked at 370 thousand concurrent viewers. Chess.com now boasts 50 million members across their free website and app.

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Chess personalities are drawing sponsorships analogous to esports players. Super GM Hikaru Nakamura signed with esports Team Solomid and the gaming drink brand GFUEL. Similarly, WFM Alex Botez both signed with Team Envy and runs sponsored streams for Tinder. Brands recognize profit, signaling they expect chess to continue to expand its online presence.

There’s no significant difference anymore between chess and established esports such as League of Legends or Valorant. They use the same platforms, draw similar sponsorships, are easy to learn but hard to master and are distinct from sports because they are virtual rather than physical. It’s strange to say, but chess was ahead of its time as an esport.

Some might object that chess is distinct from esports because it can be played outside a computer. While true, I expect the future of the game to continue down a virtual path. The convenience of instantly playing a game with anyone around the world and the benefit of having your games analyzed by a computer engine to improve far outweigh the nostalgia of the board. Unless you’re Beth Harmon and can play a game on the ceiling, of course.

The social stigma that chess is boring is the only true obstacle to the game. It’s wrong of course, once you take the plunge you’ll be in awe of the myriad openings and stellar technique. Playing a back and forth game on your phone with a friend between lectures is a great way to set your mind at ease and stay sharp. 

There’s a reason why chess has persisted 1,500 years. It’s a beautifully simplistic battle of the wits that is accessible to all. If I haven’t sold you on its entertainment value, watch Logic dressed as Dwight play a grizzled Rainn Wilson in a tight series. They’re no Beth Harmons, but the flurry of blunders will keep you on the edge of your seat.

Matthew is a junior in LAS.

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