In the past few months, chess has become one of the hottest categories on Twitch.
At the beginning of May, five-time United States chess champion and world-ranked chess player Hikaru Nakamura became the top English language stream on Twitch. But despite his big platform, chess tournament organizer Chess24 got quite upset at the popular chess personality hosting their tournament broadcast on his own channel.
Nakamura fought back, stating that his goal was to spread the joy of chess to a new audience who may have otherwise never been interested. As chess became more popular, big-name esports streamers started to play chess on their own streams, getting even more backlash from some top chess players who didn’t want the top chess streams on Twitch to be players who weren’t really all that good at the game.
Nakamura decided to show his support for these streamers. And now Chess.com, the biggest chess platform in the world, is following suit with a special Twitch tournament.
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.
— Hikaru Nakamura (@GMHikaru) May 21, 2020
Chess.com has teamed up with Twitch to host the inagural 2020 Chess.com Pogchamps chess touranment. Starting June 5, 16 of Twitch’s most followed streamers will compete for their share of a $50,000 prize pool. The finals will take place June 19.
The competitors, all skilled gamers with major followings, include:
Nakamura will be commentating the matches. The grand master has been co-streaming lessons with some of the competitors.
Despite all the drama surrounding the chess tournament, the popularity of the game on Twitch has still benefited the chess community in a big way. WIN.gg spoke with Chess.com director of business development Nick Barton about the upcoming tournament and why it’s his most anticipated chess tournament of all time.
Why is the Chess.com Pogchamps chess tournament such a big deal right now?
Nick Barton: It’s funny. We’ve been broadcasting on Twitch and have a long-standing partnership over the last few years with the entire goal of growing chess into mainstream esports and getting attention other titles gotten. It never happened, even after we started an esports league. We couldn’t get the public’s interest.
Then almost out of nowhere, in the last couple months, during this current crisis, we’ve seen a huge explosion of people playing chess on Chess.com and in general. A bunch of professional gamers and streamers who have more free time or aren’t in as many tournaments have started streaming chess casually in the category. The first was xQc.
As that was happening, our sponsored player, Hikaru Nakamura, the most popular chess player in the world, started blowing up. He’s been doing collabs with these players. He kept bringing people out of the woodwork. People would show up and start playing chess. We started seeing that and figured they would want to be in a tournament. We wanted to get them all together and put an event together.
We whipped it up in a week. Twitch was interested in coming on board. Now we have this event and Twitch Rivals in July.
Why do you think chess appeals to esports players and fans?
We’ve had a lot of League of Legends, Teamfight Tactics, and Hearthstone players. They already play strategic games. Part of it is that chess helps with strategic thinking and critical thinking.
Also, it’s something new for a lot of guys. It’s not something you can just pick up and become a top ranked player. It doesn’t work that way. It’s a huge grind. A lot of these guys, like xQc, pick up games really quickly. But with chess, they can’t. That humbling experience of playing chess… It’s part of the appeal.
Are you surprised by the amount of attention it’s been getting online?
Chess has been on top of r/LivestreamFail for weeks now. Part of this is sincere and serious interest in the game. And part of this is that Reddit sub’s cycle of “flavor of the week” topics. Chess has become a meme in and of itself. People who don’t understand are getting hype with commentators. It’s charming to have no idea what the hell is happening but going with the flow of the passion.
For many people, it’s like, here’s this thing that existed in my life 10 to 20 years ago… Now here it is on Twitch with this guy memeing with his chat. It’s a bizarre phenomenon. That’s part of the appeal.
As you know, a lot of people within the chess community were frustrated with these popular streamers taking up spots on the top of the chess charts on Twitch because they’re not that great at the game. What is your take on the frustration from some members of the existing chess scene?
In chess, there’s two perceived battles going on. One is among the different chess companies. We’re the market leader and have majority market share. The other battle is against elitism and gatekeeping; not being friendly to people geting into the game. The only war we tried to fight is making the game more accessible. We try to bring the commentary down a little so people can understand it. We’re fully supportive of new players coming in.
Why is that?
You can be a low level player and it’s still super entertaining to watch. If Hikaru is watching xQc play, he’s on the edge of his seat. You can’t predict the moves. Two grand masters competing, you sort of know what will happen. That unpredictability of newer players is super exciting for the game. It helps to have fans watching too, but the truth is that these new streamers have given chess a massive uptick in younger people. On our site, the demographic is skewing younger.
We think it’s great. We’re in full support of it. There are some outside voices, some within our own streamer program, in which we have 200 [players], but we personally don’t echo those streamers’ opinions.
We don’t own the intellectual property. We don’t own chess. We just happen to be the most popular site. But it’s not good for chess in any way to keep people from playing chess.
It’s like an indie band. There’s people like, “More people should like this thing.” But the moment more people like it, fans call them “posers.” Chess has suffered from this for decades. Now we’re finally having this watershed moment and you have a few detractors.
Some of it has been overstated and misunderstood. Chess has a long history, even modern chess. The community is quite small. The players all know each other. There’s tension sometimes. But overall, this recent drama has been blown out of proportion.
Whatever gets more people playing chess is what we’re into.
Why should people watch this tournament?
This is the very first time we’re having a tournament not featuring pro players. We’ve never had an event like this. We’re going to have Hikaru, the best player in the world, doing commentary on some of the worst players in the world. And that’s okay. There’s some skilled players in the field. VoyBoy is playing, Forsen playing, and they’re pretty good players actually. But some have just played their first game of chess.
These are huge personalities. People who draw attention to themselves with their skills and entertainment. But now they’ll be humanized. They’re great at streaming. They’re great at their games. You always see them doing things they’re great it. It will be refreshing to see them do something they don’t have such an inclination for and hearing hilarious commentary around it.
We’ve done some of the biggest chess events and this tournament is what I’m looking forward to the most actually.