How Chess Gives Clues To Gaming's Televised Future

It’s surprisingly easy to find parallels between popular eSports titles like League of Legends and Dota 2 and classic pastimes like chess and checkers. At their most basic, both types of experience require the player to move their pieces in particular ways to overcome an opponent. But gaming as a spectacle, a phenomenon the eSports industry recently adopted all for itself, arguably has its roots in table games too, with chess possessing a TV heritage going back to the Cold War.

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Decadent West

Oddly enough, chess’ most famous moment – the “Match of the Century” - has more than a few similarities with the plot of Sylvester Stallone’s 1985 movie Rocky IV. Contested on neutral ground in Iceland, the final pairing of the World Chess Championship of 1972 saw American Bobby Fischer take on the Soviet representative, Boris Spassky, in an encounter that ended in the former’s favour.

The outcome was a disaster for Spassky’s countrymen, remembered as a move gone wrong, one that upended a quarter of a century of Russian dominance on the chess board and painted the Soviets as intellectually inferior to the "decadent West”, to quote future Grandmaster Garry Kasparov. The occasion did wonders for the appeal of chess though, albeit temporarily, largely due to the fact that the Fischer-Spassky match was televised.

Here’s the thing though – unlike physical sports and eSports, chess has very limited entertainment value for spectators. In its list of ten reasons why the game has limited mainstream appeal, the BBC cites the need to explain every move to the audience, the lack of body language from the players, and the near complete absence of the controversy and boxing-style showmanship that typified Fischer’s career. In other words, TV chess is boring.

World Series of Poker

One table game has proven consistently popular as a spectator sport for almost 45 years though – poker. First televised in 1973, a year after Fischer’s famous victory, the American nation watched Puggy Pearson win the World Series of Poker Main Event on CBS Sports, without the commentators or the audience having any idea what cards were in play (the invention of translucent tables was still a long way off in the seventies).

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The WSOP is still going strong today but poker, along with blackjack and craps, is perhaps a more natural spectator sport than chess, simply because all three games are played in the communal atmosphere of the casino. Craps, in particular, is a loud, boisterous game in which players tend to bet the same way as people they’ve never met, and then cheer the shooter on collectively; to that end, betting on Don’t Pass (as opposed to Pass) risks upsetting fellow players.

Blackjack, while a solo endeavor, is nevertheless a game usually played with several players and a dealer. The game hasn’t enjoyed a great deal of success on conventional TV but blackjack recently found a following on streaming site Twitch, with hosts like Chance “Sodapoppin” Morris broadcasting the game to up to 40,000 people. Blackjack's entertainment value is in its nuanced gameplay; it's a game in which strategy goes a long way toward improving the player’s odds of winning by getting blackjack or getting close to it. According to the rules, strategic moves such as splitting and doubling down help highly-skilled players gain an advantage over the dealer, although such options tend to depend on the variant at play.

Live Streaming

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The development of so-called "live" casino games, in which a feed of a human dealer is streamed to players, has created a new paradigm in spectating. For instance, in a game of roulette, gamers can watch the dealer spin the reel and throw the ball; similarly, in blackjack, viewers can see their cards dealt to them by hand from a shoe. As a format, it’s obviously a little different from watching others play but live gaming is an expanding niche within online casino nonetheless.

So, what does all that have to do with eSports? Competitive video gaming is arguably going through the same genesis period that chess and poker went through back in the 1970s; it’s an armchair activity that’s suddenly found itself marketable as a TV show or at least as something that has an eager audience on dedicated channels like YouTube Gaming and Twitch. For all its youth, eSports is approaching viewership figures of 385m in 2017.

Like poker, gaming might never achieve the official “sport” status that the card game has coveted over the years, but, at the rate at which the industry is maturing, it’s not unreasonable to assume that eSports will soon come to compete with basketball and soccer in the United States, at least as far as fan monetization (figures from Newzoo indicate that eSports earns almost $3 per person compared to the NBA’s $15) and audience size are concerned.

It's still early days for eSports as a spectacle but, unlike chess, the industry didn't need the springboard of a Match of the Century to get going; its incredible growth and momentum suggests that eSports was something the world always wanted.

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