Background

A gamble on Twitch

19 Nov 2020

Chess.com has secured some exclusive streaming rights for the world championship match 2021 and two Candidates Tournaments. The prize shall be revealed by FIDE at its General Assembly on 6 December. Stefan Löffler analyzes the deal.

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All media rights of the world championship cycle used to belong to World Chess, the company of Ilya Merenzon. The Russian organiser tried to execute exclusive live rights, but when he took action against platforms and websites that retransmitted the moves in real time, he lost repeatedly in court, and only won a dubious case case without defense. The official broadcasts by World Chess found few paying subscribers. In 2019 the cooperation with Merenzon on all but the Men’s Grandprix was terminated by the new FIDE management, that has taken the organisation in its own hands and is following a different approach now.

FIDE and Chess.com have jointly announced a deal that gives the platform exclusive streaming rights on Twitch for English, Spanish, French, German, Portuguese and Korean and non-exclusive rights on Twitch for all other languages for the next world championship match, that is rescheduled to start after 10 November 2021, for the second half of the Candidates Tournament planned to be completed in spring, and for the next Candidates Tournament planned in 2022. This includes live video from the playing hall and all press conferences. It is not known if Chess.com plans to show any of this exclusively to subscribers, but that is unlikely.

Chess.com looks committed to make Twitch the number one platform for chess broadcasts.

The deal is not limiting the reach of the events. The moves itself will remain free for retransmission in real time by all interested media. TV broadcasting rights are not touched by the deal and can still be sold in cooperation with the local organisers. Meanwhile the FIDE leadership has a success to report to the General Assembly that will be held online on 6 December.

Chess.com on the other hand looks committed to its partnership with the streaming platform Twitch and to make it the number one platform for chess broadcasts. The US platform has more experience and followers on Twitch than its competitors, and it has a dedicated streamer programme: Streamers who work with Chess.com get training, mentoring, promotion and graphic support. With the move beyond English, opportunities for streamers with commentary skills from other language areas are opening up.

Viewers of all chess channels on Twitch combined by day during the last 12 months
Viewers of all chess channels on Twitch combined by day during the last 12 months (graphic: Sullygnome.com)

The most successful chess streamer Hikaru Nakamura works closely with Chess.com. Whenever its Twitch cannel is live, is is embedded on Chess.com’s landing page. In June the platform invited celebrity streamers for a Twitch-broadcasted tournament called Pogchamps. It was controversial because all players were more or less beginners, but chess viewer numbers on Twitch peaked during the event.

The deal between FIDE and Chess.com must have raised eyebrows at chess24, but the Champions Chess Tour is only a few days away.

While Twitch started out in 2011 as a platform for videogamers, chess has climbed into the top twenty games in 2020. Chess viewer numbers have slowed down recently. The platform is increasingly attracting sport content, for instance race drivers with a camera in their helmet. Twitch is owned by Amazon, that has recently started to buy streaming rights for major football.

Magnus Carlsen in 2015 with Kaja Marie Snare, who has been hired by Play Magnus for the broadcasts of the Champions Chess Tour
Magnus Carlsen in 2015 with Kaja Marie Snare, who has been hired by Play Magnus for the broadcasts of the Champions Chess Tour (photo: Ole Kristian Strom / VG)

Broadcasting tournaments has been the biggest strength of chess24, which also uses Twitch but prioritizes its own platform. The deal between FIDE and Chess.com must have raised eyebrows at chess24, but no comment is given, since its next big broadcasting event, the Skilling Open that starts the Champions Chess Tour on Sunday, is only a few days away.

Play Magnus, chess24’s sister company that organises the tour, has sold TV rights to the main Norwegian channels NRK and TV2 that will take turns in transmitting the ten events of the tour. It also has a deal with Eurosport that will stream the tour to their on-demand subscribers and show highlights in their free channels. Play Magnus has hired Kaja Marie Snare, a Norwegian sport TV presenter and reporter, to run their show.