It’s one of the most famous board games of all time, but until recently chess wasn’t getting a whole lot of attention on Twitch. That began to change last year, however, when chess streamers started to raise the profile of the game on the streaming platform – and thanks to the release of a certain Netflix series, those numbers have now reached new heights.
In January last year, chess was averaging 3298 concurrent viewers over 24 channels on Twitch, peaking at 29,820 viewers. This month, that average is 24,048, with around 132 channels streaming chess at any one time – reaching a peak viewership of 161,968 on 16th January (via TwitchTracker). That was thanks to the efforts of siblings Alexandra and Andrea Botez, whose BlockChamps event – a crossover tournament with popular Minecraft streamers like Pokimane, LilyPichu and Fundy – pulled in over 91,000 concurrent viewers and over 1m unique views, breaking the chess viewership record for a single stream (via Chess.com).
So, why the sudden enthusiasm? The Covid-19 pandemic has forced real-world chess tournaments to move online, with Grandmaster Magnus Carlsen holding an online invitational in April 2020, and a FIDE Online Nations Cup taking place in May. Some professional players like Grandmaster Hikaru “GMHikaru” Nakamura found an audience in online streaming – and collaborations with big-name variety streamers gave chess a Twitch boom in the summertime. But the real game-changer, of course, has been critically-acclaimed Netflix series The Queen’s Gambit. Since the series was released on 23rd October, chess viewership on Twitch has increased dramatically – as has the number of channels and streamers choosing to play chess.
The Queen’s Gambit has significantly boosted interest in chess across the board: the leading platform for online play, Chess.com, told Dexerto that 50,000-60,000 new members were joining the site each day in March 2020, a number that jumped to 125,000 after the release of the series in October. Physical chess sets, meanwhile, started to fly off the shelves, with one US toy and games company reporting its chess sales increased 1048 per cent from the same period in the previous year (via NPR). I witnessed the impact of this first-hand, having scrolled through dozens of sites trying to find a nice board that wasn’t sold out. (Don’t worry, I eventually got my hands on a rather lovely ’80s Soviet set.)
Of course, the viewing figures for chess still pale in comparison to Twitch behemoths like Fortnite and League of Legends (which pull in hundreds of thousands of viewers), but chess now consistently ranks in the top 30 categories on Twitch. It’s lovely to see the game getting a digital revival, and it’s particularly encouraging to see women headlining this movement on Twitch. As someone who only recently started playing thanks to The Queen’s Gambit, let me tell you: visibility makes a difference.
If you’re looking for more reading material on The Queen’s Gambit, meanwhile, you should take a look at this piece by Jefferson Toal on the series as a love letter to play – and how chess allows you to lose yourself in a “temporary sphere of activity”.