From 2016 into most of 2020, social and search interest didn’t change much. There were a few spikes here and there, usually caused by World Chess Championships taking place. All in all though, the trend was steady on both counts.
Then we get to last year and we see a massive spike at the start of November. What caused it?
We imagine most readers will be aware of the Netflix show The Queen’s Gambit. Released on October 23, it quickly became hugely popular and was soon the platform’s most popular mini-series.
For those unaware, The Queen’s Gambit charts the life of a chess prodigy from being introduced to the game by a janitor, to taking on the best players in the world. It’s an incredible series, and well worth watching if you haven’t seen it already.
Based on the timing, it’s safe to say that The Queen’s Gambit massively increased the interest in chess. Searches went up, social posts went up, and levels for both remain above where they were before the show was released.
We could end the story there, but the eagle-eyed among you may have noticed that social media interest was building months before The Queen’s Gambit aired. What was going on?
Enter the streamers
In May 2020, Hikaru Nakamura, a chess grandmaster and prolific chess streamer, announced PogChamps. The premise was simple, high-level chess players would coach famous video game streamers and YouTubers for a tournament.
A second PogChamps was played in August/September, with a third played in January of this year. These tournaments attracted some of the biggest internet names going including Pokimane, xQc, and MrBeast. They even pulled in actor Rainn Wilson for the third one.
This introduced an entirely new audience to chess, one that was far more used to watching streams of games like Fortnite. It also explains why social media interest rose in the second half of 2020. With many looking for things to do due to the pandemic, many will have jumped at chess to fill some time.
There’s no doubt Hikaru’s tournaments have been a success, attracting hundreds of thousands of spectators and raising huge sums for charity in the process.
It also arguably laid some groundwork for the success of The Queen’s Gambit. We’re sure the show would have been a success no matter what, but as it was released there was already an increased interest in the game, which may have encouraged more people to watch and share it.
Interest in chess may not be at its peak right now, but as we said, interest still remains higher than normal. Without another hit TV show to give things a boost, can this be sustained?
The rise in popularity of chess streamers may be key. Hikaru has had a large following for a long time, but now there are many others bringing in huge audiences to watch them play, teach, and smack talk.
To see just how embedded these people are in the chess conversation, we can look at how much the world’s top players are mentioned online compared to the most-watched chess streamers on Twitch.
We should note that while nearly everyone in the chart below streams or creates video content, we mark people as players if they’ve recently competed in a major tournament. Hikaru is labelled as ‘both’ as he currently plays in major tournaments, but is also the biggest chess streamer (and himself admits he focuses more on streaming).