Earlier this week, digital chess platform Chess.com announced the second iteration of its $50K USD Twitch streamer tournament PogChamps. The platform has run numerous esports-esque tournaments in the past featuring elite chess pros at the top of their game, but PogChamps is a little different – all the participants are bad at chess.
In fairness, given their time spent practicing for the event, and the coaching sessions with masters-level players, these amateur chess players are likely well ahead of the average player returning to chess for the first time since grade school. Still, most matches in the previous PogChamps event in June featured a moment of chess Grandmaster Hikaru Nakamura (in his role as commentator) sitting in disappointed silence as one of his proteges gives away a win, or yelling into the void when they mess up an opening he taught them. While the money on the line gives each match real stakes, the viewers are there as much (if not more) for the reactions to bad plays as they are for the match itself.
“It’s an event that brings chess off its pedestal in a way,” Chess.com COO Brenan Klain told The Esports Observer, “and presents it to the masses in a way that makes them go ‘ah, now I get it. I can envision myself playing in this game. I actually see that mistake. I can envision myself improving as a chess player. It’s in reach now.’”
Like most digital hobby outlets, Klain noted that Chess.com received a boost in activity as the COVID-19 pandemic forced people inside earlier this year. However, PogChamps took off in ways the platform had not expected. “We’ve long had the vision that chess could be a really great esport, and that at some point it would catch on. And we’ve had successes here and there with good events, and some good attention on different things, but PogChamps was our best one yet by a long shot.”
Chess.com Director of Business Development Nick Barton said that the entire idea of PogChamps was thrown together in roughly two weeks, but the company had been laying the groundwork for a Twitch boom for several years. The platform has a streaming partnership program and has been working to grow chess as a streaming title for several years. The opportunity for PogChamps grew out of an organic connection made by Nakamura on his personal stream with one of Twitch’s leading personalities – former Overwatch League pro Félix “xQc” Lengyel. This sparked a wave of Twitch figures engaging with Nakamura and other elite chess figures who were streaming on Twitch including fellow PogChamps commentator and Woman FIDE Master Alexandra Botez.
As this trend grew, Barton recognized that Chess.com only had a small window in which to capitalize. “…Because of how Twitch meta evolves in such short stints, we were like ‘well, this could be something that lasts forever,’ but more likely it’s something that people are embracing as a respectful, almost sort of ironic nod to nostalgia.’” And so, PogChamps was born.
According to Barton, PogChamps exceeded the platform’s “ambitious” estimates for viewership and engagement. For the chess category as a whole, June was its most successful month on Twitch by far, generating 12.5M hours watched. The game’s previous peak was one month earlier at roughly 8M hours watched as the chess trend was gaining momentum. In the previous 18 months, chess had not exceeded 4M hours watched.
Thanks to this new wave of engagement, viewership for chess on Twitch has grown 188.84% year-to-date since 2019.
Like Klain, Barton acknowledged that one of the biggest hurdles to acquiring new players is the perceived inaccessibility of chess. “The truth is that chess is just intimidating.” PogChamps created an environment where making mistakes was fun and engaging. Viewers following Nakamura from PogChamps to his personal stream saw that Grandmaster chess players have fun, crack jokes, and are as bad at other video games like Valorant as the next “normal” person. Suddenly, the world of chess was simply part of Twitch culture like any other competitive game.
With PogChamps and its personalities at the center of this new wave of chess popularity, Chess.com was well-positioned to reap the rewards. The platform has seen a surge of new users, and according to Klain they are the kind of users the platform wants. “The new players that come to us from Twitch are highly engaged users…[they] have a stronger desire to learn the game, and to dive in to use the features…we’ve seen high value users coming from Twitch.”
Barton echoed this, saying that the younger audiences that live on platforms like Twitch are tech savvy, and understand complex systems such as Chess.com’s learning tools. These users want to engage with the platform’s educational resources.
This aligns well with the general understanding of engaged gamers. For serious gamers, the fun of a competitive video game is in engaging with its systems, learning and iterating, testing new strategies. Gamers will even download additional programs to layer on top of a game like League of Legends in order to gain access to the sort of learning data that Chess.com makes readily available.
Looking forward, with a new PogChamps on the horizon, Chess.com is poised to continue driving this new wave of young, engaged users to its platform, and further its presence in the esports space. The company also recently announced a digital advertising partnership with Playwire, whose CEO Jayson Dubin sees an opportunity with chess to engage with brands that may be leery of other esports titles.
“We deal with some of the largest brands in the world, and some of their concerns are always around violence or guns. I don’t have to worry about any of that at all with chess. It’s a very broad demographic. So from a brand perspective, it’s a safe, wholesome, clean environment with massive scale. I think there are some interesting things we’ll be able to do with them in the future.”
Published at Thu, 23 Jul 2020 15:30:59 +0000