Two decades after being recognized as a sport by the International Olympic Committee, chess is still fighting to overcome a staid reputation for lengthy matches marked only by whispered commentary and the occasional clock punch.
The Pro Chess League is looking to change that narrative by moving the game forward into the digital age by speeding up pace of play and streaming on Twitch to appeal to wider audiences.
Chess.com, a website with more than 33 million active users, has operated the Pro Chess League since the esport began in 2016. Twenty-four teams, featuring many of the world’s top players, now compete in the Pro Chess League across four continents.
“Chess is like the indie band you want to be popular. But when it becomes a hit, older fans start to call new fans posers,” Nick Barton, Chess.com’s director of business development, said. “But this is the next step in making chess more accessible to fans through esports.”
Classic chess matches can last up to five hours. But single games in the Pro Chess League regularly finish in less than a half hour, Barton said. Chess.com also organizes separate “speed” and “bullet” chess championship knockout-style tournaments with games spanning just two minutes. Matches are in effect half as long as some fans are accustomed to watching.
The company has worked to create partnerships with 207 different streamers to help grow chess’ popularity among esports fans. More than 172,000 fans have already subscribed to the company’s own Twitch channel, which surpassed 1 billion minutes watched on the platform last year.
“When Chess.com launched in 2007, we took a sober view of how to get the general public interested in Chess,” Barton said. “It used to be that you had to be one of the top 500 players in the world to get paid, but not anymore. Streamers are achieving significant fame making $100,000 in revenue.”
Chess.com’s partnership agreement with Twitch offers the company wider exposure by streaming on the Amazon-owned platform. Revenue from the deal can also help Chess.com cover some of the costs associated with organizing live events.
However, partnering with Twitch is not as lucrative as it used to be. Alternative streaming options have increased the methods companies can deliver content, resulting in streaming services paying more for exclusivity.
“There’s a lot of competition from YouTube, Facebook Gaming, and Mixer,” Akmal Soliev, financial management consultant at Milan-based esports firm AZS Consulting, said.
“The best paying platform usually becomes king of the hill.”
Chess.com’s partnership with Twitch allows the developer to stream on competing platforms, according to the company. Twitch declined to comment on this story.
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While the Pro Chess League is growing in popularity, it still has a way to go before reaching popularity levels of other strategy games like League of Legends and Dota 2, Soliev added.
Mainstream esports titles have distinct advantages over the Pro Chess League. For one, chess is a harder game to master compared to other titles. Developers, such as Riot Games and Valve Corporation, also fund their leagues and tournaments more robustly than Chess, which relies on donations and does not have the same spending power.
Dota 2 and League of Legends, the esports strategy games most comparable to chess, are also more established and attract a wide-range of marketers keen on reaching millennial and Gen Z esports audiences.
“Think of Louis Vuitton’s partnership with Riot Games on a new game skin last year. That was a retail company getting involved in esports, Soliev said. “Chess is in its own sphere, with not as many hardcore fans as League of Legends or Dota 2.”
Chess.com earns a majority of its revenue from premium subscriptions on its website – ranging from $29 to $99 per year – plus sales generated on merchandise and advertisements.
The Pro Chess League’s biggest suitors are generally financial services firms looking to market to chess players that will look to work in the industry when they get older, Barton said.
Susquehanna International Group is the company’s latest ad partner and will sponsor the Bullet Chess Championship this spring. The Pro Chess League will also hold its final outside of the U.S. for the first time this season after announcing a partnership with Norwegian company ChessParty in February.
“It’s pretty simple, really. People that are into chess like forecasting and are great at pattern recognition,” he said. “Chances are they will be interested in finance data and numbers in the future. So brands want to dig deeper with us to access our massive user base.”