Opening Moves

Interest in chess has been on the rise for the past five years, but it has really been experiencing a pop-culture moment this year, especially since the pandemic began. Some of the indications:

  • Chess as esport. All told, viewers on Twitch, the video game-centric streaming service, have watched more than 43 million hours of chess in the past six months, according to Sully Gnome, a provider of Twitch analytics. The researcher also estimated that the number of average daily viewers in mid-June was almost 30 times higher than the number at the beginning of March, indicating the fast pace of growth during the peak lockdown period in the U.S. (The numbers have come down somewhat since then.) The leading digital chess platform, Chess.com, has more than 42 million registered members and 9 million monthly active users, and hosts 200-plus streamers on Twitch. It operates tournaments and special events such as PogChamps, in which noted streamers of traditional video games cross over to compete in chess.
  • Entertainment buzz. The Queen’s Gambit, a fictional mini-series on Netflix about a female chess prodigy with addiction issues, has turned into a viral favorite since its debut on Netflix in late October, serving as the platform’s top TV series for a time. John Leguizamo directs and stars in Critical Thinking, a movie about a group of chess-playing Latin and Black students from a poor neighborhood in Miami who overcome challenges to compete against the best high school players in the country. Inspired by a real-life story, it debuted in September on streaming platforms.
  • Celebrities and sponsorship. Several International Grandmasters have gained enough traction—often driven by their presence on Twitch—to field offers for sponsorships and promotional deals. Hikaru Nakamura, one of the most popular chess streamers, recently signed with esports club Team SoloMid (TSM) as a competitor, becoming one of the first chess professionals to join an esports team. Nakamura’s agreement with TSM is likely to lead to additional sponsorship opportunities for him. Meanwhile, Magnus Carlsen signed a sponsorship deal with Unibet, a sports betting site owned by gambling operator the Kindred Group, serving as its brand ambassador this year and in 2021; Unibet was the first global betting operator to offer live odds on chess matches. And Maurice Ashley paired with Hennessy Cognac in September as the latest celebrity star in the company’s ongoing “Wild Rabbit” advertising campaign.

While licensing has not been a big factor in the chess sector yet, these positive trends—along with plenty of white space at retail and etail for consumer products tied to this theme—suggest the potential for more activity ahead. Of course licensors of appropriate properties over the years have licensed their IP for chess sets; USAopoly offers a Game of Thrones set recreating a battle between fan favorite characters and the Army of the Dead, while The Franklin Mint has produced a Star Trek in-world tridimensional chess set, to name a couple of fairly recent examples.

During the current surge in interest, in August, Chess.com signed with Rumble Gaming, a talent agency, to assist it with brand activation and sponsorship, and teamed with Secretlab, a maker of esports and video gaming chairs that holds a number of licenses with leading esports brands. In addition, it is expected that Nakamura’s deal with TSM will spur some signature merchandise, in addition to sponsorship opportunities, as is typical for the leading names in e-sports.

All told, more than 605 million adults globally play chess on a regular basis, according to YouGov.

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