Checkmate. Chess is Cool Again.
In 2016 I stumbled across the online buzz of the Chess World Championship where there were dramatic drawn out games at the highest level between two competitors. There names are ones you might recognize: Magnus Carlsen, the Standing World Champion, and Sergey Karjakin. In 2016 they were 25 and 26 years old respectively.
These young chess masters fascinated me and peaked my interest in the traditional game of chess. They got me online playing chess. But much to my disappointment, getting to their level was nowhere close to realistic and after a couple games on my own, I stopped playing chess and lost interest in professional chess.
Now in 2020, Chess is once again on the rise as Championship season arises in 2020. Chess has most noticeably become mainstream or “meta” on platforms such as Twitch where Twitch.tv/chess, the broadcast channel for chess.com boasted viewership upwards of 70,000 concurrent live viewers as top streamers from across the platform such as “xQc” and “Yassuo,” competed in tournaments such as “Pogchamp” arranged by chess.com.
This got many livestream viewers who are most of the time teenagers or young adults, interested in chess as an online game. These livestreamers often stream practicing chess ranging from a couple hundred viewers to upwards of 30,000. To be fair, chess sometimes isn’t the main draw, as the streamers are personalities and bringing the content to the stream. The streamers are definitely peaking a lot of interest in the game, especially since it's easy to play and free online.
For those who take an interest in actual chess, some more prominent streams have arose from the actual professional chess scene. Grandmasters, Women Masters, and International Masters alike are streaming to viewerships in numbers around many other long time popular streamers on the platform.
Most noticeably Grandmaster Hikaru, Grandmaster Hess, and the Woman FIDE Master Alexandra Botez all have made their mark on Chess live broadcasting.
Hikaru, a notable streamer has competed with the likes of Magnus Carlsen, and has been one of the world’s top players for over a decade, and has strongly influenced the chess scene, especially in the US.
He is a five-time U.S. champion, claiming the title in 2005, 2009, 2012, 2015, and 2019. Only three others have won more U.S. Championships than Hikaru since the tournament format began in 1936. He participated in FIDE’s 2004 World Championship tournament and was a candidate for the world championship in 2016. He is further renowned for his blitz prowess.
As a live streamer Hikaru currently holds over 12,000 fans who have monthly paid subscriptions to him, and he also pulls thousands in viewerships to the streams. Hikaru does chess puzzles, high elo blitz, coaching, chess games, and critiquing of streamers chess play.
He has made it into something much less boring than it sounds. Watching funny clips in the process, jamming to music, memeing, and interacting with chat. And of course the viewers get to watch and learn his “5Head” moves (or really smart) high level chess play to watch.
It has become common, especially near tournaments for professional high level players to coach popular streamers on how to improve their chess play.
Back in May Hikaru shouted out all the livestreamers who had made chess a trending game, “Shoutout to the big streamers who’ve discovered chess. Some do it once or twice, some every single stream. Some are casual visitors to our game, some are becoming obsessed. Streamers like @xQc @BoxBox @voyboy @Papaplatte @Yassuo @nymnion Chess thanks you for all the new fans.”
According to StreamElements, the hours watched on Twitch for chess have nearly doubled every month this year; in May, the number topped more than 8 million hours of chess watched.
Will Chess Stay Cool?
The chess community has obviously openly welcoming all the new players and interest in chess as a game, but as I experienced back in 2016 I think interest may be short lived. As many people call it in the gaming community a “meta” or something that changes over time.
“Pogchamps” has been a fascinating competition and “Twitch Rivals” will hope to piggyback off the interest, bringing viewers another streamer tournament to light. But like many casual chess players, I believe most people will give up after they learn how difficult it is to learn and improve. Especially to the level of masters around the world who started playing chess as kids.
Chess may fall out of the spotlight into the shadows for the most part, and once again become a game you pull up here and there. But I believe professional chess streamers will continue to maintain fair numbers of viewership and it will definitely be fascinating to see how the chess scene changes over the next few months, if at all. For now, chess is cool again.