After almost ten years, the world has a new World Chess Champion: Ding Liren, born in 1992, has replaced former champion Magnus Carlsen. After the decisive match against Russia's Jan Nepomnyashchi initially ended in a 7:7 draw, the continuation in a fast-paced match with tiebreaks was rescheduled for April 30, 2023. Ding Liren prevailed with Black after three draws to become the 17th World Chess Champion, the first from China.
The special thing about it: the stream of the FIDE World Championship 2023 was watched by an incredible 5.7 million viewers. How did chess become one of the most streamed sports and why is it so popular, especially as an eSport?
Online chess has been around for quite a while. In 1992 an Internet server for chess was designed and developed: the Internet Chess Club or ICS.
In 1995 the first online chess website caissa.com was launched, which has massively shaped the face of online chess. Since then, many other international providers have established themselves, such as chess.com or chess24. Currently, a total of over eight million people visit online chess websites.
How did the eSports game become so popular?
One reason for the popularity of online chess? Clearly the pandemic: during the lockdowns, international players and experts began streaming their games live - either against each other or against a chess computer.
But there are other reasons why chess has become one of the most popular eSports games:
The 44th annual Chess Olympiad had to be postponed because of the pandemic. An online tournament was supposed to create an alternative. And the attempt was extremely successful: The FIDE Online Chess Olympiad 2020 is the birth of live streaming of professional chess matches and attracted extremely high international attention. This was due on the one hand to absolute top participants, and on the other hand to the accessibility of the format. The Olympiad also collaborated with popular streamers and YouTubers like Daniel King, Anna Cramling, and Jesse February, which made it even more successful.
In October 2020, Netflix released a chess-themed miniseries, The Queen's Gambit. Set in the U.S. in 1960, the series centers on child prodigy Beth Harmon, who has mastered the game of chess since she was a toddler. The series was a global primetime success, winning 11 Emmy awards. And it boosted interest in chess worldwide: platforms like Chess.com doubled their users as a result of the series' airing. The Google Play Store and Apple Store saw a 63% increase in chess app downloads immediately following the series' launch. The show also made a difference in the inclusion of women in chess: by the end of 2021, nearly 27% of new users were female. The second season of The Queen's Gambit is scheduled for release in 2024.
Unlike physical chess, where it's difficult to find a good opponent every time, online chess platforms match you with players who match your skill level. The ability to play with real opponents in real time also adds a social component and makes it easier to maintain focus. In addition, online platforms offer valuable insights that are not available in traditional chess. For example, success rate, time taken for each move, effectiveness of the opening move, and other numbers are recorded so you can measure success.
Finally, platforms like YouTube and Twitch have made chess even more popular. Some of the best chess players stream tournaments, games, and masterclasses daily via these platforms. Both platforms support free live streaming and make matches accessible to a wide audience. From March 2020 to August 2020, Twitch recorded over 41 million viewer hours for chess streaming content alone.
Players like Hikaru Nakamura began streaming chess content on Twitch during the pandemic. The grandmaster shares professional tips and techniques for the game and gives insights into his life as a chess player. On average, 4,313 viewers* watch a chess stream on Twitch. Chess is one of the 20 most played games on the platform. That's why Twitch even hosted a tournament called "Pogchamps," featuring top Twitch streamers and world-class chess players. More than 150,000 viewers* simultaneously watched the matches. Chess.com hosted Pogchamps. And because the tournament was so successful, it was scheduled again for next year.
On Youtube, chess creators like John Bartholomew and Agadmator dominate the scene, having the opportunity to interact with their fans via the platform. This adds a social aspect to chess. In addition, the monetization opportunity motivates streamers to continue creating content - and perhaps turn a lucrative hobby into a main job.
Online chess took a classic board game to a new level. More than that, it became future-proof. Chess has tapped into a completely new and different audience that is younger, more female, and more diverse. It also made the sport accessible to interested people from all over the world - even if they don't have access to professional chess training.