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On Chess: Chess And The World Of Esports

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St. Louis Chess Club
Magnus Carlsen played Hikaru Nakamura in the virtual version of the 2020 St. Louis Rapid and Blitz.

Since the beginning of time, the world’s greatest intellectuals have wrestled with the critical debate over whether or not chess should be considered a sport. In truth, the label itself doesn’t matter. What does matter is the funding, national support and widespread popularity that sports enjoy. Dictionary definitions notwithstanding, I would like to see grandmaster Wesley So, reigning U.S. Chess champion, reach a level of notoriety where he can appear in car insurance advertisements alongside Peyton Manning and Shaquille O'Neal.

This is why organizations such as FIDE have continued to fight for chess to be included in the Olympics, including a recently rejected bid for the 2024 Paris Olympics. Advocates hope that by appearing alongside mainstream sports, chess will be able to grow sponsors, fans and players. Unfortunately, these attempts have largely been unsuccessful so far, but in the meantime, chess is beginning to find a comfortable home elsewhere.

For the first time, professional esports (electronic sports) teams have taken an interest in adding chess players to their existing teams of world-class players from competitive video games. In 2020, Hikaru Nakamura, Qiyu Zhou and Andrew Tang made history as the first chess players signed to esports teams. Thus far, these players remain fairly lonely as the only chess players on each of their respective teams, but it’s clear that they’ll soon be joined online by many of their chess-playing peers. This comes at the same time that World Champion Magnus Carlsen is listed as one of the top 10 esports earners of 2020, despite not being signed to any kind of team … yet. These developments have helped establish chess as an esport alongside competitive video games, but some people may have reservations about this association.

At first glance, this distinction of esport may seem less impressive than that of a televised sport such as basketball, but this couldn’t be further from the truth. If the goal is to boost the game of chess by garnering interest among sponsors, fans and players, then esports has a very promising future. Consider the viewership of the NBA Finals and the viewership of the grand finals for the most popular esport, League of Legends. In 2020, the NBA Finals had an average audience of 7.5 million viewers. This is a 51% decline from the previous year. In comparison, the League of Legends grand finals averaged 2.6 million and peaked at 3.8 million viewers without the aid of a national television network. While the raw number is less than the NBA viewership, a notable difference is that esports continue to grow year after year. Chess’s future as an esport may be its best route to recognition with more traditional sports. In fact, despite chess’s bid for Paris being rejected, esports will be a demonstration event at the 2024 Olympic Games. With millions of people watching, it’s clear that chess can only benefit from being categorized with these competitive video games.

This just leaves the challenge of cementing chess as an esports staple. Historically, the majority of high-level, online events have been organized by chess websites such as chess.com, chess24.com and lichess.org, but other organizations have begun to rise to this task. For example, the St. Louis Chess Club hosted numerous online events throughout the pandemic, including last year’s Champions Showdown: Chess 9LX, the St. Louis Rapid & Blitz and the 2020 U.S. Championships, which featured World Champion Magnus Carlsen and grandmasters Hikaru Nakamura and Wesley So. The United States Chess Federation and FIDE have both gotten involved as well by partnering with chess.com for their own events. Perhaps all that remains is an official Online World Championship to catch the eye of more esports teams and fans.

Despite the recent progress toward becoming a major esport, only time will tell what future is in store for the game of chess. With COVID vaccines being released, we may see a decline in the rush of online events this year as players return to play in person. I hope the opportunity to succeed in the world of esports is not completely passed up by chess’s elite. As a longtime chess fan, I would love to see a future where Magnus Carlsen leads a team of chess players for his own esports organization against Hikaru’s team of TSM, with millions of viewers and fans of the game cheering them on.

Caleb Denby is a national master from the St. Louis area. He grew up playing chess at the St. Louis Chess Club, where he works as one of the club’s assistant managers.

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