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…