Chess Is An Esport, According To Twitch Star And Grandmaster Hikaru Nakamura

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Photo: TSM
Photo: TSM

Sometimes it’s the small sprinkles of strangeness that stand out the most. If you had told me several years ago that 2020 would bring daily disasters of incomprehensible consequence, I probably would have believed you, because we’ve been trending in that direction for a while now. The idea of an esports organisation signing a chess grandmaster, however, would have at least gotten a “Wait, what?” In hindsight, though, Hikaru “GMHikaru” Nakamura’s decision to sign with TSM makes perfect sense. Thanks to the recent efforts of Nakamura and other chess streamers, Twitch is reshaping the 1,500 year-old game in its own image.

Nakamura, 32, partnered with TSM a couple weeks ago and is one of the 20 best chess players in the world. He became a grandmaster at age 15, when most of us had barely grandmastered the art of wearing deodorant. He’s been streaming on Twitch for a couple years, but he stepped up his efforts in March and began collaborating with big-name streamers like Felix “xQc” Lengyel, among many others. Nakamura’s combination of teacherly wisdom, galaxy-brained skills, and uncommon expressiveness (relative to other, more placid chess experts) resonated with Twitch viewers. This kicked off a late-spring/early-summer chess boom that drew countless big-name streamers into its orbit.

Nakamura and other chess streamers like Alexandra Botez capitalised by training Twitch personalities and pitting them against each other in tournaments that were legitimately thrilling to watch. Streamers like the aforementioned Lengyel and former League of Legends pro Joedat “Voyboy” Esfahani grew as players in real time, flexing mental muscles they didn’t know they had. It made for compelling viewing not in the standard “fish out of water” sense where a streamer mines failure for comedy, but in a way that allowed streamers to legitimately surprise themselves and commentators alike with their newfound skills.

Months later, chess is no longer reaching the ridiculous highs of its early-summer explosion, but thanks to the efforts of Nakamura and other chess streamers like Botez, GothamChess, and Hearthstone-turned-frequent-chess streamer ItsHafu, among many others, the ancient game has become a modern Twitch mainstay. Sometimes, this means increasingly skillful (but still relatively inexperienced) Twitch stars competing in Nakamura’s trademark “PogChamps” series. Other times, like over the weekend, it means top-level tournaments featuring Nakamura and other grandmasters like Magnus Carlsen and Garry Kasparov. Nakamura’s partnership with TSM, a top esports organisation with teams in games like League of Legends and Valorant, is a natural evolution of this melding of cultures (and monetary interests).

Speaking to Kotaku in a recent interview, Nakamura said that he feels like this was all bound to happen. While chess spectatorship has moved online in the past five or so years, covid-19 expedited the process by forcing even the biggest competitions onto the internet. When paired with a sudden influx of Twitch viewers and culture, this has, in Nakamura’s estimation, transformed chess into an esport.

“Due to the fact that there have not been over the board competitions, there have been major competitions online,” Nakamura told Kotaku over a Discord voice call. “So when you have major online competitions combined with just the whole explosion of chess on Twitch, I think chess is definitely an esport and, going forward, there are gonna be a lot of high level competitions that will be held online. Maybe it’s not a traditional esport yet, but I think it will be within the next 6 to 12 months.”

This might sound like heresy to some in both the chess and esports communities, but it makes perfect sense to Nakamura considering technology’s role in chess’ recent evolution.

“When you look at the progression of modern chess over the last couple hundred years, it’s a game where you had a lot of decisive results,” he said. “You had one player winning or you had these great periods of dominance by certain players. Whether that was because they were able to study better or were more naturally talented at the game, you can kind of argue on that point… But now the game, because of technology, has become a more even playing field. Computers have helped teach everybody the same things, because we all use the same programs to study the game of chess.”

But for a while, according to Nakamura, many high-level chess games meandered toward ties, which made them slow and sloggy to watch. However, with chess now evolving away from that tendency thanks to faster variants like blitz chess, it has transformed into a game with clearer win/loss stakes — the same sorts of stakes that catapulted similarly complex games like Dota 2 and League of Legends into the esports limelight.

“I think this is one of the biggest breakthroughs,” Nakamura said while explaining the rationale for his belief that chess is an esport. “Because you have winners and losers, more people will follow it even if they can’t necessarily understand what exactly is going on. You see a winner, you see a loser. You don’t see games end in ties anymore, or not as much at least. And I think that’s one of the biggest catalysts in terms of the interest in these online competitions.”

While chess was not engineered to be an esport the way an increasing number of modern games have been, it does have one leg up on many competitive video games: teaching tools are built into the software. The structure of games often informs the way streamers turn them into content, and in chess’ case, teaching is a key link in that DNA chain. That is, in large part, why Nakamura was able to grow his audience so rapidly, and he thinks that if more chess players follow his example, the game will be able to carve out a formidable esports niche.

“The study tools that exist for chess do not exist for Valorant or League of Legends,” Nakamura said. “It’s very easy to instruct and help out people who are newer to the game, whereas in something like League, what happens is you just shit on everybody, and it’s hard to explain what is going on to someone who’s new to the game… That’s something I dislike about a lot of these games: Yes, you can go to the shooting range in Valorant, but that’s it in terms of practice. You have to learn by playing the game. With chess, [teaching] is something you can do whether you’re competing in real time or just going over it.”

He added that when streamers like Lengyel and Michael “Shroud” Grzesiek first started playing chess, their instinct was to just charge into matches head-on and learn through attrition, like in video games. They pretty quickly ran into brick walls, Nakamura said, because they did not spend much time trying to learn from others before doing. This, Nakamura believes, is demonstrative of the differences between chess and more traditional esports — of an area where new, cutting-edge games could learn from one that’s been around the block a millennium’s worth of times.

This dynamic leads to a multitude of thorny contradictions: On one hand, chess has spent centuries perceived as an elitist sport, an intimidating game associated with legacy and high culture. It bears scars from the lashes of that history to this day; despite chess’ enormous potential for novice-friendly streams and competitions, big chess events have tended to assume expertise from their audiences — with impenetrable commentary to match. On the other hand, digital chess’ barrier to entry is actually lower than that of many traditional video games. On platforms like Twitch, teaching has become part of playing thanks to ease of access to study tools. So Twitch, which in turn has gatekeeping issues of its own that include impenetrable commentary but also plenty of other homegrown barriers (just try being bad at a video game in front of a Twitch audience, I dare you), has nonetheless become a gateway for people who might have once found themselves interested in chess, only to get scared off by the cultural moat surrounding it.

Unsurprisingly, these contradictions have led to friction. Nakamura says that the chess community has heaped judgement on him for spending so much time streaming and tutoring relative novices like Lengyel, even as the realities of post-covid existence have forced it to appeal to a less monolithic online crowd.

“There are some people who have said certain negative things about PogChamps or about some of these streamers who are attempting to play chess, and they’re obviously not at the same same level,” Nakamura said. “It’s [a product of] the culture of chess having been around so long and sort of having this prestige as being something where you have to be really smart to play… If over-the-board tournaments happen again down the road, I do expect for there to be a certain negative reaction from the super-elite players and organisers in the chess world toward what I have done, because I think a lot of people still don’t see it the same way as I do.”

Nakamura believes, though, that the chess world is going to have to embrace a broader range of people and personalities if it wants to ride this wave of success into a new era.

“10 or 15 years ago, I had this mentality of very much, like, trash talk and in your face kind of stuff. That’s never really been something that’s been accepted in the chess world. You’re supposed to be proper,” he said, noting that though he thinks he’s personally matured past that, the sort of trash talk you’d hear in an esport like CSGO would be a big no-no in chess. “There’s a certain glorifying of chess players that were viewed as superheroes. And when you’re viewed like that, it’s very hard to come off that pedestal and be relatable or try to give back to people who are not as good at the game as you are. This can be attributed to what we call chess elitism, so I think you need more personalities. And now there are quite a few other streamers, both grandmasters and even players who are a little below grandmaster, but I think personality plays a very big role.”

But of course, being a Twitch personality comes with its own challenges: dealing with the constant scrutiny of viewers and subreddits like Twitch highlight reel/kingmaker/drama farm Livestreamfail, for one. Once upon a time, in the halcyon days of March, every LSF comment on a Nakamura clip was a glowing testament to his unique brand of wholesomeness, and he opened up on stream about how much more accepted he felt in the Twitch community than among fellow chess grandmasters. These days, however, some viewers (especially those on LSF) accuse him of being arrogant or overly sensitive, or swarm on moments of perceived animosity between Nakamura and other streamers. Nakamura says that he tries to avoid drama, but sometimes it’s hard not to read the comments — many of which he attributes to people within the chess community. In truth, though, this happens to almost every streamer who experiences a sudden popularity explosion. While “familiarity breeds contempt” is far from a universally true adage, it’s certainly the case in a social media ecosystem that facilitates “engagement” through drama and controversy.

Moreover, while Twitch can help more people learn chess, gatekeeping is built into the more personality-driven side of the platform; only the most dedicated fans can hope to be aware of everything a streamer has done across multi-hour streams nearly every day of the week, but there’s still an expectation of long-term cultural literacy — of meme understanding and historical knowledge. The Twitch and esports scenes have opened chess up to a new world of possibilities and acceptance, but also to new problems and forms of toxicity, as well.

Photo: Chess.com

Still, Nakamura is optimistic. He thinks if he continues to play his pieces right, more good things can come of this. He noted that multiple major esports organisations contacted his agent about signing him, and that they’re looking to sign other chess players as well. He expects more signing announcements soon and, hopefully, a chess league made up of endemic esports teams down the line.

“Long term, I’m really hoping that there will be some sort of chess league, or there will be various competitions between the organisations in the future, and I do believe that’s gonna happen based on what I’ve heard,” he said.

Of course, esports is its own minefield, with dubious financials and underpaid, overworked players a-plenty. Nakamura, admittedly still a newcomer to the esports world, is going to have to overcome a lot of deeply ingrained institutional biases from both the chess and esports scenes if he wants to realise his idealised vision for chess’ future. But, if nothing else, it’s a really nice vision.

“I think that if things are done correctly, chess has a very viable path as being an esport that’s not just for the very top players in the top events,” he said, pointing to the success of PogChamps, functionally an amateur-level tournament, as an example, “but across all different ranges, whether it’s super-strong players, complete beginners, or even strong amateur players.”

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Comments

  • Chess makes for a great game to watch in the time limited formats, I’ve been watching a bit here and there (mostly commentated matches after the fact that are a little friendlier to both my time and limited knowledge of Chess) and it’s really interesting.

    The classical stuff is a lot harder to understand / watch as an outsider where the positions are typically less dynamic and exciting, not to mention the sometimes crazy timescale they’re played over, but it’d be great to see Chess welcomed as an esport.

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