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Chess as an Esport: Conservatism Versus Progression

Chess Grandmaster, Hikaru Nakamura, has finally opened the floodgates to the online streaming community.

The controversy

Chess has always been a tabletop board game. From Bobby Fischer’s “The Game of the Century” to Garry Kasparov’s historic defeat by IBM supercomputer, Deep Blue, it has stood its ground against the digitalisation of board games competitions.

However, just three months ago, Hikaru Nakamura, currently in 18th place in the Fédération Internationale des Échecs (FIDE) August 2020 list of top 100 players, stirred up a controversy with a fellow chess streamer by the name of Ben Finegold.

Previously, Hikaru had decided to reach out to popular gaming streamers like BoxBox and xQc to teach them and, hopefully, rekindle an interest in chess among the younger generations. But Ben, who is also a chess Grandmaster, conducted a live stream, two weeks later, in which he openly criticised Hikaru’s decision to expose chess to “negative talent”.

And how did Hikaru respond to this?

Just three days later, he tweeted to publicly thank all the streamers who had been receptive to his attempt to teach them chess.

Then, moistcr1tikal, better known as penguinz0 on Youtube, issued a video on this whole saga in which he denounced Ben’s attitude as a form of “elitism” and “gatekeeping”. In fact, to show his support for Hikaru’s cause, he even decided to let Hikaru coach him in chess.

Chess.com soon jumped onto the bandwagon and organised PogChamps, a two-week chess competition from June 5 to June 19, which invited 16 top Twitch streamers to “compete for their share of a $50,000 prize fund”. Of course, Hikaru was chosen to be the commentator throughout the entire competition.

What are the experts’ take on promoting chess to online streamers?

FIDE Chief Marketing and Communications Officer, David Llada, echoed penguinz0’s sentiment by stating that the chess world lives in perpetual endogamy and that there has been very little effort to reach out to new audiences. Hence, he suggested that PogChamps would be a great initiative to send a message to a huge audience, showing how easy it is to learn the game, but how difficult it is to master it.

Furthermore, he added that there was a need for more PogChamps and celebrity tournaments.

However, Stefan Löffler, the features editor of ChessTech, strongly disagreed with David, firmly stating, “Letting beginners play for an audience is something one should never do.” He also likened PogChamps to a trash reality TV show and accused it of allowing its participants to join solely for attention, publicity and a handful of cash.

According to Stefan, chess is a game that takes years of play and study in order to occasionally produce a game that is worth seeing. In other words, he was suggesting that Chess.com should have reformatted PogChamps to develop its participants’ critical-thinking skills and problem-solving abilities through mini games and Puzzle Rush exercises of the simpler variety, before finally progressing to the final stage of a normal chess game to be played in a cool, gamified display as gamers and their fan audience are used to.

A precedent has been set and there is no turning back now

In late July, Chess.com announced that it would be hosting yet another online chess tournament, PogChamps 2, from August 21 to September 6. The released lineup includes former PogChamps contestant, xQc, as well as famous Icelandic strongman and Game of Thrones actor, Hafþór Júlíus Björnsson.

Like the first PogChamps, its sequel will involve participants competing for a total of $50,000 in prizes.

Hikaru recently tweeted this in expectance of PogChamps 2:

From the looks of it, the digitalisation of chess tournaments is quickly gaining traction despite the lingering hate from chess gatekeepers and traditionalists alike — a new age of chess is in the making and we are all bearing witness to it right now.

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