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Episode 52: Is Chess an Esport Feat. Adam Fitch

Imad Khan May 23, 2021 39


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Imad speaks with Dexerto’s Adam Fitch on the rise of chess on Twitch and its standing as an esport.

Transcript:

SPEAKERS: Imad Khan, Adam Fitch

Imad Khan  00:00

What’s up everybody this is FTW with Imad Khan, I’m Imad Khan of Tom’s guide and joining me today on this Is Chess and esport edition Dexerto’s Adam Fitch.

Adam Fitch  00:08

Thank you very much for having me.

Imad Khan  00:09

In the midst of the covid 19 pandemic, one game found its online stride chess, the 1500 year old game, which had its origins in India is now the top title on Twitch. The world’s top chess players will stream themselves playing chess to surprisingly large audiences. The chess wave was so huge that teams like TSM and Envy got involved. TSM brought on Grandmaster Hikaru Nakamura, while envy brought on sisters, Alexander and Andrea Botez, regardless of its debate surrounding its efficacy as an esport, chess will remain popular. So Adam, in your report that you did predict sourdough, you know, I’m really interested in kind of how popular chess is. So kind of like if we take a step back. I mean, what kind of numbers are we looking at on Twitch?

Adam Fitch  00:49

That’s a good question. I mean, it’s a little bit since I wrote this now, actually, but I don’t know if I have the Twitch viewership numbers. I have the numbers from, like, the chess.com side, which I myself being like esports businesses that have I guess, like games business, that’s where I wanted to look at myself. So unfortunately, I don’t have them at hand, my friend.

Imad Khan  01:11

Yeah, but I mean, I was looking at, you know, like the Botez sisters like, they were 500,000 followers on Twitch alone. Those are crazy high numbers, are they not?

Adam Fitch  01:21

I mean, you think so when you I mean, I not really aware of where, you know, where like online chess was prior to it blowing up in the way it is now. I guess I became aware of it really like the resurgence of it all surgeons about I guess in December, so I can’t even speak to where it was before. But the people I did speak to for the report, and just other people who’ve been who’ve been following the game a little bit, say, No, like, they’ve been working hard at creating content around the game for quite quite some time. Now. I think it’s been somewhat incentivized, and pushed by chess.com. Which, obviously, they see this as a good marketing tool for their platform. So I can’t I can’t speak to just how big like the growth is. But I mean, for me, that’s, that’s insane. And like, it is causing conversations like this to be hard. So I think it’s definitely had some sort of impact.

Imad Khan  02:09

You know, it’s, it’s interesting, because chess is obviously a very old game and one that the people who are arguing that, you know, it isn’t in esport, like I get it, because it’s not electronic in nature, like at its very fundamental core. But you know, then again, we’ve seen card games be very popular on Twitch or like, have popular streams. Like Magic the Gathering, of course, now there’s like a video game version of it. Pokemon the trading card game, what do you make of some of these arguments of people saying that, you know, this is not, you know, an esport in the most traditional sense.

Adam Fitch  02:38

I mean, I saw I saw a podcast with two rather big esports journalists, I’m not gonna name them. But like, one, one of them was on the side of why can’t just be an esport? And the other one was like vehemently against it. Right. And I think they, they were too fixated on the fact that there’s a physical component to this. And why if you look at it just as online chess, and not just with the legacy that we’re aware of, then I mean, I think it fits all the criteria that we typically have for what we consider an esport. So I mean, you can play it online rather easily, you could do it on your mobile or laptop, computer, wherever it may be. So as a low barrier to entry, there is a skill gap, there is somewhat of a skill ceiling. There are there are tournament organizers, there are sponsors who are willing to get involved by secret rubber involved, and there are some other companies that are not coming to mind right now. I mean, I just think everything that we look for in what we’d cost is like a, maybe like a traditional esport. Now, which I hope we never get to the point where we actually say as traditional esports and non traditional esports, you know. But I just I feel like, it’s hard to argue against it beyond saying, look, there’s a physical component to this. But then you kind of argue like, well, FIFA is a simulated version of football. But then I actually one one component argument is chess, whether you play it online, or traditionally, it requires the same skills and like actual components, right? But football versus FIFA, FIFA is more about like timing and knowing the combinations of buttons pressed at the right time and like precision with with aiming, whereas obviously the actual game of football or soccer, as your audience will be aware of it, of course, it is massively different issue cardio and strategy and everything there. Right. So I don’t know, I think I think there’s definitely some nuance to it. And for me, it boils down to does it matter if online chess is an esport or not? And I think it would still be doing exactly what it is doing now either way. Whether it gets our acceptance or not as an industry

Imad Khan  04:32

You know, it’s interesting one of the my kind of, I guess the best way I can describe it is my dissertation or like my final big project for grad grad school when I was in journalism school, was you know, I wrote a piece on esports and I had to take I had to make inside and essentially kind of explain like the history of esports. And what I did is I did exactly this I went all the way back to chess and called chess like the first big mind sport, as you would say, right? Like being the game that in which it’s all just anybody could I guess technically play there’s no physical barrier Really, but it’s all just dependent on how good you are in strategizing and whatnot. And then essentially creating the through line to that end, something, something more digital, right? Like, it’s, it’s a digital game is really just a more precise actuation of the synapses firing in our brain that we can then, you know, translate on to our finger movements. And I think from that perspective, I think that kind of blows, it blows it up a little bit and allows, I hopefully allows people to kind of think of it as you know, not like, let’s remove the electronic aspect of it, and consider it in this realm of the thinking man’s sport.

Adam Fitch  05:41

Oh, for sure. Ah, I mean, one thing I’m really interested in is just the overall performance side of esports. And the Yeah, I’ve never actually really looked at really thought about too much I made the link between like being like, the first mind sport as such. But it is it’s the cognitive load and how you deal on how you can deal with the pressure, right? And I don’t know if it’s in an article that was on ESPN, maybe a year or two ago, whether there were grandmasters losing, like 6000, or burning 6,000 calories a day, just by sitting there, right? Like when they’re at, like the pinnacle of competition competition, I think, is incredibly interesting. And where we’re at now, obviously, being forced to play online is a really interesting time when I don’t really know how it will go, overall. But I for one, I’m just like, look like for me, it fits in. It’s interesting to watch no matter who it is, and having the added component of personalities from other games and even some like competitors, I think, maybe some CSGO players are into chess right now. And maybe League of Legends as well, probably League of Legends, you know? Like seeing that crossover is really cool, whether no matter what it is, and I just don’t see online chess going away now. I think it will die down a little bit over time, as all things do ebbs and flows and such. But I think it’s pretty much cemented now. So like, whether we want to accept it or not, it’s kind of here. And while the bar the eyeballs are on it, people are gonna want to engage with it.

Imad Khan  07:07

So you know, I definitely recommend everybody read Ashwarya’s piece in ESPN about about chess and how much weight people lose, it was actually kind of listed in a bunch of publications as like some of the best reads in 2019, or best sports reads in 2019. You know, I think it’s interesting as well, that chess when played digitally, it isn’t fancy at all. Like it literally is just like a grid. And you see, like, just like the most basic 2D pictures of the pieces itself. And I’m wondering what it would look like if you know, you had a giant stadium and everyone’s kind of watching chess, because most chess competitions are kind of very plain, right? It’s like two people on a long table and aboard and they’re just a bunch of people competing against each other until they move up the tournament bracket. But, you know, is there? Have you heard of any rumblings, or is there room for a studio to come in and make some make chess look a bit more flashy, with better animations and whatnot?

Adam Fitch  07:59

I mean, I wouldn’t be surprised considering we’ve got like the farming simulator league at the moment. I now think like there’s, there’s no way for me to say something isn’t possible in this industry. Because of obviously, the circumstances that we’ve got surrounding like travel and hosting events right now. I don’t even know if there’s full fledged kind of plans for those things. But I imagined we’d see like chess.com Go for it. I don’t know how it would go. But I mean, I don’t think you have to put the biggest prize pool or whatever and have like, you know, like room for 10,000 spectators or anything? I think you could you could try it like a convention or something. I think farming simulator league like debuted at Gamescom for example, right? Just to just to see how it goes and give it a trial. And I actually think like the basic nature the stripped down nature of what chess is like the intimate setting, I guess perhaps I think that just really places emphasis on on the spectacle that is these two people competing each other is no added flows and flares needed as such. It’s just like what these two are at war with each other as such, but intellectually right now. And it’s a it’s a game with like, no real magic margin for errors a lot of time, right. And I think it’s just, it’s different in nature to how we try to hype up like a League of Legends esports, for example, and I don’t think there’s a one size fits all for esports. So it may have its own its own way of doing it with while kind of scaling or what we’re used to from from chess events. But I haven’t heard of anything so far. But then again, I’m not like the number one chess insider or anything, though. Maybe that’s something I should aim for.

Imad Khan  09:34

Yeah, I think I think what’s interesting is that it came to light that in 2020, the highest earning esports player was Magnus Carlsen.

Adam Fitch  09:42

Yeah

Imad Khan  09:43

You know, the Norwegian chess grandmaster and I think, I think maybe a few people are it’s because chess is just this much, much older, longer standing game, you know, has a history of just larger prize pools on you know, he brought it over $500,000 last year. I mean, is there some kind of irony, maybe or in chess potentially pushing up the price pools for the rest of Esports.

Adam Fitch  10:05

Yaeh, well I think like, to be fair, like if we say chess is a bona fide esport as esports as a whole, then we have to say that esports started in like the sixth century or something like that. Right? So, which is just a much consideration, I think that’s probably the main argument against it. I mean, I think these Esports Bbserver knew what they were doing there. They included like GTA, GTA on an Esports list before saying it was like a tier-two esport or something. So like, they already they always add a little bit of something in there to try and get some hype around it, because that’s almost where that kind of non-business attention comes from from them on an annual basis. It’s when they do something which kind of questions the status quo. And for me, it’s like, Look, if you played online, for all of those is that if that’s not counting, like offline in person events, then I mean, is, it’s interesting one, right? And again, it’s only when we’re like comparing, does it really matter if it is classed as an esport and when comparing it to other titles. Outside of that, I don’t think it matters too much. And how really important is it to know who the top earning eSports player was? I mean, I think is helpful in some ways, in terms of narratives and such and maybe seeing where, where esports is growing as a whole, but I mean, I don’t care about it enough to be like, this is an outrage of all this is perfect. It’s just is what it is an Observer did it for a reason, and it obviously worked out pretty bloody well for him.

Imad Khan  11:32

Yeah, you know, I’m trying to remember this article in 2018, by Tobias Sherman, who is kind of a he’s been in the esports space for a while now. And he wrote this piece for medium that essentially tried to rebrand esports as New Sports, and I think people were kind of quick to jump on him, but um, maybe he was right.

Adam Fitch  11:52

That would be the biggest plot twist of all time. If if he just comes back, like, it’s just I’m right, and everyone’s just like, Oh, wait. Yeah, that’s true. And we already ridiculed him. But actually, we were the idiots like, I’d kind of welcome that To be fair, you spruce up 2021 and the chess at the forefront of an esports revolution? If so.

Imad Khan  12:12

Yeah. Well, that Adam, thank you so much for jumping on.

Adam Fitch  12:15

I appreciate you having me, always.

Imad Khan  12:17

And that was FTW with Imad Khan. If you liked the show, please rate, subscribe and share. Full transcripts of the show can be found at ftwimad.com. To follow Adam and everything he’s doing over at Dexerto, you can follow him @byAdamFitch on Twitter. To follow me on my writing over at Tom’s Guide, follow me @Imad on Twitter. And Ron Lyons is our audio producer. With that, we’ll catch you guys next week.

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