Reviews | Chess has become an esport

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TWhether or not chess is a sport has always been a gray area. The game is easy to understand and watch, but it takes an immense amount of training and skill to become a certified master. The lack of physics in the game sets it apart from basketball, but it demands more respect than just being a table game such as Monopoly.

The chess boom this year can be attributed to three events: the COVID-19 pandemic, Netflix’s The Queen’s Gambit tournaments, and Chess.com’s PogChamps. The growing popularity of online chess over the past year suggests that it is not a fad, but an evolution of the game into a new medium.

Chess.com’s Pogchamps tournaments have been incredibly successful as they expand the base of chess players to an untapped audience. A wide 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 traditional celebrities such as Logic and Rainn Wilson in the tournament catches the eye of eyes that aren’t usually on Twitch and lends a stamp of authenticity to the event.

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

The results have been a significant and sustained growth of failures on online platforms. On Twitch, the chess category exploded from 1.02 million watched hours in February 2020 to 22 million hours watched in February 2021. Among Logic and Rainn Wilson’s matches last month, Chess.com peaked at 370 000 simultaneous viewers. Chess.com now has 50 million members on its free website and app.

Chess personalities attract sponsors analogous to esports players. Super GM Hikaru Nakamura has signed with esports team Solomid and gaming drink brand GFUEL. Likewise, WFM Alex Botez has both signed with Team Envy and runs sponsored stream for Tinder. Brands recognize the benefits, signaling that they expect chess to continue to expand their online presence.

There is no longer a significant difference between chess and established esports such as League of Legends or Valorant. They use the same platforms, attract similar sponsors, are easy to learn but difficult to master, and differ from sports in that they are virtual rather than physical. It’s strange to say, but chess was way ahead of its time as an esport.

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

The social stigma that chess is boring is the only real obstacle to the game. That’s wrong of course, once you take the plunge you’ll be in awe of the myriad of openings and the stellar technique. Playing a back-and-forth game on your phone with a friend between classes is a great way to reassure yourself and stay alert.

There is a reason the failures have persisted for 1,500 years. It’s a beautifully simplistic battle of mind that is accessible to everyone. If I haven’t sold you on its entertainment value, watch Logic dressed as Dwight play a grizzled Rainn Wilson in a tight series. These aren’t Beth Harmons, but the flurry of goofing will keep you on the edge of your seat.

Matthew is a junior at LAS.

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