Chess has experienced a surge in popularity during the coronavirus pandemic, but the flock of new players to the game and rise of streaming on Twitch has disgruntled some old-guard grandmasters.
Hikaru Nakamura, a grandmaster who is top-five ranked in rapid and blitz formats, has been the primary target of those unhappy with the dynamics over the past few months. Nakamura has 171,000 YouTube subscribers and 254,000 Twitch followers. He often commentates over matches and interacts with less-skilled members of his audience wanting to learn more about chess.
With the support of Nakamura, people who became popular because of their work playing other games such as “Overwatch” are now experimenting with chess on Twitch as a way to mix up their content offering. Among the big names involved in the crossover are xQc (3 million Twitch followers), BoxBox (1.7 million) and Voyboy (1.2 million).
Grandmaster Ben Finegold is perhaps the loudest of several community voices concerned the new wave of amateurs will drown out platforms for top pros and dilute the game.
“You got the d— riders, and Hikaru is the latest example, obviously,” Finegold said in a recent stream. “(xQc) and BoxBox, you know, negative talent in life. Nothing. Nothing up here (in the head), nothing down here (in the heart). … They’re doing nonsense.”
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Nakamura has continued to laud chess newcomers for increasing visibility for the game, defending himself against criticism via Twitter and YouTube.
Fellow grandmaster Anish Giri — a player well-versed in online banter — has seemingly also hopped aboard the development.
Shoutout to the big streamers who’ve discovered chess. Some do it once or twice, some every single stream. Some are casual visitors to our game, some are becoming obsessed. Streamers like @xQc @BoxBox @voyboy @Papaplatte @Yassuo @nymnion Chess thanks you for all the new fans.
— Hikaru Nakamura (@GMHikaru) May 21, 2020
Another minor controversy, also involving Nakamura, has roped No. 1 Magnus Carlsen into the fray. After Nakamura streamed a Chess24 event on his own channel with his own commentary, Carlsen directly criticized him, saying that kind of content sharing should not be permitted. Carlsen heads Chess24; Nakamura is affiliated with Chess.com.
Nakamura has argued spreading tournaments to as many viewers as possible is in the interest of everyone involved.
In an interview with Sporting News earlier this month, Carlsen acknowledged chess culture would progress online and require mindset adjustments from traditional members of the community. Carlsen has not publicly weighed in on the issue of amateur chess players streaming on Twitch, but based on his prior comments, it seems he would be welcoming of the development.
A relaxed content-sharing model apparently is not a shift he believes makes sense, though.
— Magnus Carlsen (@MagnusCarlsen) May 21, 2020
Even as quarantines dissipate around the world in the coming months, the influx of new players is likely to make a lasting impact on the popularity of the game. Chess.com is about to lean into the rush by hosting a Twitch tournament made up mostly of video game players competing in chess.
How this all will shape the future of the chess community continues to be up for heated debate. As with evolutions in any field, resistance is to be expected.