Then he smiled and began outmanoeuvring his foe. “I can’t lose,” Hikaru Nakamura, 32, said to the exultant onlookers. Victory seemed close as members of the opposing army were vanquished one by one. “I win again — there you go, guys. Wow.” Nakamura gave himself just a moment’s respite, then plunged into another fray. Pawns, knights, bishops and even kings fell before him as the chess grandmaster demolished a slate of online challengers, all while narrating the tide of the battle to tens of thousands of fans watching him stream live on Twitch, the Amazon-owned site where people usually broadcast themselves playing video games like Fortnite and Call of Duty.
The coronavirus pandemic and stay-at-home orders have crowned a host of unlikely winners catering to bored audiences. But watching livestreams of chess games? Could one of the world’s oldest and most cerebral games really rebrand itself as a lively enough pastime to capture the interest of the masses on Twitch? Turns out, it already has.
Since the pandemic began, viewership of live chess games has soared. From March through August, people watched 41.2 million hours of chess on Twitch, four times as many hours as in the previous six months, according to the analytics website SullyGnome. In June, an amateur chess tournament called PogChamps was briefly the top-viewed stream on Twitch, with 63,000 people watching at once, SullyGnome said. And popular Twitch gamers like Felix Lengyel (better known to his 3.3 mn followers as “xQcOW”) have also recently started streaming chess.
That collision of the chess audience and the general gamer audience has created a “giant chess bonfire,” said Marcus Graham, Twitch’s head of creator development. The popularity of online chess has partly been fuelled by Nakamura. Last month, one of the world’s top professional video game teams, Team SoloMid, beat several e-sports rivals to sign him to a six-figure contract so it could pair him with advertisers and merchandise. Nakamura was one of the first chess players to join an e-sports team, just a week after a different group signed a Canadian player, Qiyu Zhou.
Though Nakamura began streaming chess consistently on his Twitch channel, GMHikaru, in 2018, nearly all of his 528,000 followers have come aboard since the pandemic began. And as his popularity has skyrocketed, media attention has increased — including a cameo as himself on the television drama Billions in May.
“It’s just amazing to see the level of support and the love that I’ve seen from the Twitch community,” Nakamura said. He added that the most appealing part of playing and streaming chess was simply “the fact that I’m so good at it.” It helps that he has an unimpeachable chess pedigree. In 1998, at age 10, he became the youngest player in the United States to be named a master, a title earned through strong performances. Five years later, he became the youngest US player to graduate to grandmaster, the highest title. He has since won five national championships.
On his Twitch channel, Nakamura rarely stops talking. His stream of commentary and chatter, even as he directs his pieces with the precision of an orchestra conductor, is one of the main reasons fans have flocked to him.
Kellen Browning is a technology reporter for NYT©2020
The New York Times