Retro Game Making A Rising Return In Esports

Mar 1, 2021

The sport of chess is not new, but it’s become the cool thing to play because of the COVID-19 pandemic and the Netflix series “The Queen’s Gambit.”

Let me guess, you’re sitting at home right now staring at your screen. Maybe multiple screens… TV on in the background, laptop open checking for the next Zoom call and scrolling on your phone to see what other interesting news is going on in the world, while sinking into your couch. 

Credit Taylor Gattoni

Turns out staring at your screen may not be all that bad. People have found ways to stare without becoming a screen-zombie.

“It has been a pretty smooth transition. I’ve been at home this whole time,” Michigan State junior and president of the Esports Club Association (ECA), Hailey Estates said. 

There was a spike in screen-time in March 2020, the same time COVID-19 was rapidly spreading. According to eyesafe, screen-time for adults increased from 10 hours a day in 2019 to over 13 hours a day. 

“In the summer when I had to tell the club we had to do online meetings, it really sucked. But we quickly transitioned to using Discord as our central meeting spot. It’s really opened up our accessibility,” Estates said. 

The ECA utilized rooms in the Communication Arts and Sciences building at Michigan State University to game casually and competitively. With over 1,000 members in the club and about 40 members coming to the meetings, there wasn’t enough space or software like PCs. 

“Having the online format has really had us transition to a more accessible platform. We allow anybody to play now, no matter what time zone,” Estates said.

Not being able to meet in person has helped the club have more members participate, no matter their schedule or location.  

More people staying at home and adjusting to new routines, the rising popularity in Esports games have changed too; games that don’t typically fall under the ECA’s 13 different individual Esports clubs. 

Like, chess. Yep. The game you see played in parks around the world, in dens and libraries, and now, online too.

“I don’t know a lot about chess. We haven’t seen a lot of people come in and talk about it. I would associate it with the new Netflix show, the one about the girl who plays chess,” Estates said. 

The Netflix show “The Queen’s Gambit” was released in October 2020, and it's one of the reasons Chess.com skyrocketed in interest since its launch in 2000. In less than a year, Chess.com added 12.2 million new members, 3.2 million after "The Queen's Gambit" debuted.

According to NPD Group, a marketing research company, three weeks after “The Queen’s Gambit” debuted, chess set sales increased 87% in the U.S., and book sales on chess jumped 603%.

With the show having 62 million households watch it in its first month, other chess players got into the game in another way. 

“I learned chess really early as a kid and competed in tournaments during fourth and fifth grade,” Michigan State junior Chase Reid said. 

'The Queen's Gambit' has become one of the most popular shows on Netflix.
Credit Flickr / Creative Commons

And while he fell out of it, “Recently seeing the chess explosion [in popularity], reminded me of how much I loved it andkick-started my online chess playing,” Reid said. 

Chess is a game of strategy, and online chess provides users with accessibility to the game. Besides the pandemic, there are two other reasons for the rise in chess. 

“This popular Twitch streamer who’s known for trying out new games decided to try out chess against one of the best players in the world,” Reid said. 

Magnus Carlsen, a Norwegian chess grandmaster and World Chess champion, and Hikaru Nakamura, an American chess player and Twitch livestreamer, have had over 40 matchups.

Carlsen has won over 20 games against Nakamura, with it the Lindores Abbey semifinals at the end of May where Nakamura won his first game against him.  

Nakamura’s involvement with Twitch, and Carlsen as the current World Chess Champion, snowballed the popularity of interest in online chess, especially on Chess.com.