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In 1997, the renowned chess Grandmaster Garry Kasparov lost a series of games to IBM’s supercomputer Deep Blue. In many ways, the games marked the entry of the classic board game into the digital era and over the next two decades, countless websites devoted to playing, learning about, and discussing chess emerged. But none are more successful than Chess.com, the top chess website and mobile app in the world. Now Chess.com wants to evolve the ancient game again, and transform chess into an esport.
With 29 million members and over 3 million active users every month, Chess.com has become the go-to destination for everyone from casual chess fans to the best players in the world. It’s where you can go to play against your friends on Android, iOS, or the web, watch the current World Chess Champion Magnus Carlsen play in his downtime, or catch the upcoming Women’s Speed Chess Championship (WPCC) semifinals.
“Chess, in itself, is a great game,” says Chess.com co-founder and CEO Erik Allebest. “So, how do we make chess more fun in the next 10 years?” For Allebest and the Chess.com team, part of the answer is tapping into the growing esports market, which could be worth as much as $1 billion by 2020. Though competitive video games like Overwatch and League of Legends have drawn huge crowds online for years, there’s new interest in streaming tabletop games. Critical Role — an episodic stream of an ongoing Dungeons & Dragons campaign — spawned the most successful Kickstarter campaign of all time.
In other words, streaming isn’t just for video games anymore.
Chess.com is courting a wider audience by turning chess into a poker-like spectator sport. In 2017, Chess.com took over the United States Chess League, the only nationwide chess league in the country at the time. It was renamed the Professional Rapid Online Chess League (PRO Chess League) and started accepting teams and players representing cities from around the world. In its inaugural season, the league drew in 48 teams, each with 8–16 players. There were so many people ready to compete that the league had to be cut down to 32 teams the year after. As the league commissioner Greg Shahade put it, that many players was “a bit too large and chaotic.”
In the years since the company has made esports a core focus. Viewership of over the last two years is up 489% and the site’s official English-language Twitch account has over 137,000 followers, more than half of which were acquired in the last year.
“These partners have provided fans with over 6,000 hours of content leading to over 300 million minutes watched by their hundreds of thousands of fans.”
Without the exciting action or vibrant visuals of a game like StarCraft or Overwatch that draws in viewers of modern games, turning chess into an esport might sound like an unlikely goal, but Chess.com has a history of proving that a healthy chess audience exists, and leveraging that fan base into new ways to engage.
The company dates back to 2005, when Allebest and his partner Jarom “Jay” Severson began selling chess equipment online through Chess.com, a domain they lucked into when the previous owner fell into bankruptcy. In 2007, they relaunched the site as a place for chess fans to come together. “I thought, we should have a community to talk about this stuff, a place where people could come not just to buy, but to discuss it,” he says. “It’s like building more of a social network.” At the time, Google would add a .com to any keyword placed in the navigation bar, meaning that almost anyone who searched “chess” ended up on their site. “I’ll say that having the Chess.com name has been a part of our growth,” Allebest says.
Chess.com is still playing the domain name: The company operates the Twitch.tv/Chess channel, as well as ChessTV, a hub for streaming chess games on the site. Both act as hubs for individual players. Channel owners on Twitch can host other streamers, which functions a bit like rebroadcasting local news on a national TV station. By embedding those Twitch streams on Chess.com’s video hub, individual players have their streams exposed to the 29 million members of the community at large.
“The players are able to find a viewer base who are truly dedicated to supporting their passions,” says Chess.com’s Director of esports Nick Barton. “And in turn, the Chess.com community is provided some of the best entertainment in chess.” The result is a packed schedule of professional and casual players constantly playing the game for an audience. “These partners have provided fans with over 6,000 hours of content leading to over 300 million minutes watched by their hundreds of thousands of fans.”
Grandmaster Maxime Vachier-Lagrave, the fourth highest ranked active chess players in the world, says that streaming through Chess.com and its channels has helped him build his brand. “Twitch and online streaming really do a lot to attract new followers.” Being featured on ChessTV puts his games in front of a lot of new eyeballs. “It gives me a few thousand viewers at once.”
His personal Twitch channel boasts nearly 5,500 followers, an overwhelming majority of which were acquired in the last year. His channel boasted a dramatic spike in new followers in January of this year after he was featured in a PRO Chess League stream hosted by Chess.com’s main channel. He’s also part of ChessTV’s streaming partner program, which means he gets paid to stream his games.
The approach is reminiscent of the star system employed by classic Hollywood. If a company uses its reach to elevate its members to superstar status, they’ll keep the audience engaged and coming back for more. And it’s worked. One of ChessTV’s biggest partner success stories, ChessBrah, has a following of nearly 80,000 followers, putting the channel in line with an average Overwatch League player’s personal stream.
More broadly, Vachier-Lagrave believes that while Twitch may have been designed for gaming, it has potential as a way to bring chess to new viewers. “Sometimes people on Twitch are watching League of Legends or Starcraft or Fortnite. But I think there’s a space available for chess.”
Vachier-Lagrave isn’t the only top-ranked player to show up on Chess.com’s streams. According to Barton, “Over the last three years, every single player in the current FIDE top 10 has participated in at least one of our flagship events.” Those events aren’t just about showcasing existing top players, but highlighting rising stars in the community as well.
Since Chess.com’s tournaments use the online version of the game, competitions don’t require huge budgets to put on a show. The WSCC semifinals, for example, were hosted online with two casters following the game remotely. It’s not as indulgent as, say, the Blizzard’s Overwatch League Grand Finals, which were held in the Barclays Center in New York City. However, it also gives Chess.com the flexibility to operate independently. While Blizzard has to answer to Activision, Chess.com answers only to its players.
“We have not had a single unprofitable quarter in the nine years that we’ve been adding memberships.”
Unlike many tech company startups, the company has never accepted any venture capital or investment money and primarily relies on a membership model that ranges from $5-$14 per month to pay for day-to-day expenses. Ads bring in around 30% of the site’s revenue, Allebest says — outside reports indicate that the company generates an estimated $10 million a year — but the end goal is to replace that revenue with subscriptions. Some of the site’s income goes towards sponsoring its own events. The site’s Junior Speed Chess Championship is sponsored by ChessKid, a subsidiary of Chess.com, while much of the PRO Chess League is funded by the company directly, with a little help from its partnership with Twitch.
The company’s lean model — it has no central HQ and relies on remote workers around the world — has proven to be a smart bet: “We’ve been profitable from the very beginning,” says Allebest. “We have not had a single unprofitable quarter in the nine years that we’ve been adding memberships.”
Barton is optimistic that chess as an esport holds potential for the future. “Combining a classic game like chess with an emerging industry like esports is a recipe for success.” For now, games like Fortnite will continue to dominate the streaming world, but on the grand scale, they’re still blips on the historical radar. Chess has a legacy that goes back over 1,500 years. If it can adapt to the modern world — and all indications so far seem to say it can — then it might live far longer than the latest Twitch trends.