One of the largest online chess platforms is activating at live gaming and esports events in a bid to capture new users and raise awareness about the millennia-old game.
Like many live esports events, last weekend’s The Big House 10, a major “Super Smash Bros.” tournament in Detroit, featured a robust exhibitor area, replete with vendors selling Nintendo plushies and gearheads repairing GameCube controllers for a fee.
Amid all the hubbub, some attendees may have been surprised to see a Chess.com booth at the center of the venue. With a handful of chess boards and two free-entry tournaments each day, the booth was “constantly full throughout the weekend,” according to Chess.com vp of esports Michael Brancato, though he declined to share specific attendance numbers.
The booth was Chess.com’s second-ever activation at a live esports event and its first to include play-in tournaments. So far, the company has experimented with live activations exclusively at “Super Smash Bros.” events, with its first foray taking place at August’s Super Smash Con in Chantilly, Virginia.
“Our [key performance indicator] there was new user registrations, new app downloads for Chess.com,” said Robin Harn, CEO of The Big House and a field events marketing manager at Chess.com. “For The Big House, it was less about just signing up for Chess.com, and more like, ‘How many of these smashers are actually willing to set aside two hours of their day to participate in a side event?’”
Chess.com also activated at TwitchCon and TwitchCon Amsterdam earlier this year, though the purpose of those activations was more to network with Twitch streamers and influencers than to bring rank-and-file gamers into the fold. Although Chess.com considers its live esports activations a success — the Smash Con booth brought in over 100 new registrants, according to Harn — this type of activation was not a priority for the company until relatively recently.
This change began over the past year, as Chess.com has hired more endemic talent from the gaming and esports industry. Harn was the lead organizer for The Big House for over a decade before joining Chess.com. And in addition to Brancato’s work as the company’s vp of esports, he is a well-known professional “Smash” player who competes under the gamertag “Nintendude.”
“For a partnership like this to happen, for a company to go out with a booth and do stuff like this, there needs to be a champion of whatever gaming community to exist at that company,” Harn said. “We need somebody with the intersection of those two communities’ knowledge to make it happen.”
Harn’s involvement in both communities was critical to helping the Chess.com activation come together, though the company declined to provide specifics about the financial relationship between Chess.com and The Big House.
As the chess industry looks to return to the uptick in activity it experienced after the release of “The Queen’s Gambit” in 2020, it has become increasingly apparent that the gaming community is ripe for plucking. During the Covid-19 pandemic, for instance, chess streamers have exploded in popularity on the gaming-centric streaming platform Twitch.
“People have always seen chess as this over-the-board game that older people play — but as soon as chess got a bigger presence in esports and online, people have just been fascinated by it,” said Anna Cramling, a popular chess streamer, adding that most of her viewers appear to come from the gaming scene, not the traditional chess community. “I also think that chess is the sort of game that a lot of people have hard about; in the back of their minds, they know what it is.”
As it expands its presence at more live esports events, Chess.com plans to continue taking advantage of the ongoing convergence between chess and gaming.
“Our presence at The Big House was well-received, and we’re certainly looking at ways to bring chess to more events alongside the broader gaming community,” Brancato said. “Attendees at these sorts of events are always looking for fun side activities, and there are a number of common traits that make both chess and ‘Smash’ fantastic.”