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Giving chess the esports treatment

in onGamers.com

As we round out a pretty damn good year for esports, the thirteenth World Chess Champion took a shot across our bow.

After drawing return fire from the community, enough to jam his mentions column with more entries in one day than it had seen all year, he offered assurances that he wasn’t a game-ist. “No, no, you misunderstand! Some of my best friends are esports!”

So what’s his actual point?

Which, on the surface, is a fair critique. Anybody can craft a chessboard, play a show match, or hold a tournament, and not need permission or owe anybody royalties. A strong current of reliance on proprietary intellectual property lies underneath everything that happens in esports. That’s not an entirely bad thing, I think, but that’s for another piece.

I’d rather discuss the importance of Mr. Kasparov’s comments, in trying to frame esports as being too reliant on aesthetics to carry the gravitas that chess has carried for a thousand years, while someone else is eagerly scaling the ranks of the professional chess bureaucracy with a vision for the game that could only be described as giving chess the esports treatment.

Yes, chess has its very own DiGiovanni. Their would-be white knight is named Paulson, and his quest has been outlined by the Times.

It would be one thing if he were just some ordinary C-level paper shuffler type, but instead he arrives on the scene sporting a life story that seems more believable as a Dos Equis commercial. Having apparently come to boredom with being a new media mogul in Moscow, he has successfully campaigned to be elected president of the English Chess Federation (he is an American, by the way), and has snapped up the marketing rights for all the top flight competitions staged by the game’s top international governing body, Fédération Internationale des Echecs.

What Paulson thinks chess needs is some over-the-top television coverage:

Picture it as Mr. Paulson does: chess on television, or in mass-consumed digital feeds, sponsored by the world’s biggest companies, the players as sex symbols with bulging brains, a new generation of apps and hand-held gadgets that make the game easier to understand, and, of course, live commentators.

And, now, the world champion lifts his pawn — no, it’s his rook, his rook! No, he’s setting it back down….

If this sounds like a guy selling beachfront property in Nebraska, Mr. Paulson is ready to make his case.

What it sounds like is some writer drew the short lot and got assigned a feature on chess, and didn’t bother to even consult the rules of the game before writing an imagined bit of commentary; now I’m forced into the rather pedantic position of pointing out that a piece, once touched, must be moved unless there are no legal moves for that piece to make. So a chess commentator should theoretically never utter anything like the above.

Check.

But hey, that sort of passive-aggressive belittlement is just part of the process of growing into a mainstream juggernaut, right? Esports certainly knows all about that, and we’ve come to the conclusion that the proper response is to upvote and retweet every piece of absolute garbage posted to Forbes blogs.

Never mind that; the bit about mass-consumed digital feeds does sound awfully familiar, though…

“Do you realize there are more people in America who play chess than tennis and golf combined?” Mr. Paulson said minutes into our first conversation, in an enthusiastic burst that made it seem irrelevant whether chess is, in fact, more popular. “Who would’ve thought people would be watching golf on TV, and, yet, they are. And all of India is watching cricket on TV. The only thing more boring than cricket is golf!”

More waters we’ve charted and traversed, only here’s “chess” in the place “esports” usually occupies, followed up with randomly selected sport A and sport B. I can see the Super Bowl ad now: “Watch chess: it’s less boring than cricket!” At least we’ll have some company in wrongly thinking that idle dabbling in a game translates directly into engaged spectators. If that were true, Call of Duty would be a hell of a lot bigger of a deal than it is. We don’t let things like empirical evidence get in our way — that’s for chumps — and neither should chess!

His next big event, in March, was a relative hit. Mr. Paulson said that about five million people watched online, while a few hundred spectators in the London auditorium where the match was held listened to commentators and followed the play on tablets donated by Samsung.

This is what he calls “chess casting,” and it’s his big idea. It involves technology that streams multiple images, including video of the game being played, data showing in simple terms who is ahead, and another image of the game controlled by commentators who break down the action and show potential moves. He envisions providing viewers with readouts of the pulse and eye movements of the players, to show how they are digesting the board.

Yea, “his big idea.” All of these are things a good number of us around esports were working towards or had already done a decade ago, while Paulson was busy making LiveJournal the jewel in his eastern social media crown, before slowly bleeding the life out of it. His earth-shattering notions about chess were but a twinkle in his eye.

A wealthy once-wunderkind business magnate and a Times reporter walk into a bar; one has definitely watched some esports before, and the other hasn’t…

Still, no big sponsorships followed the London match, and now chess-casting is temporarily on ice. Mr. Paulson has invested $1 million of his own wealth, and things are generally not going well. He will be the first to acknowledge it.

“The view from on high is that I’m failing,” he said, but he soon found the narrative turn he needed: “I’ve got to have some sort of redemption.”

It does seem to be the perfect setup on the board. In Mr. Paulson’s world, failure is the foe that he must, and will, overcome, to get to the story’s satisfying end.

I’m really glad we were able to round out the quotes with a good board metaphor. And the narrative of stubbornly seeking vindication is one that esports is well familiar with; Paulson can at least take solace that he’s only into a million of his own money, instead of fifty odd million of other people’s money. For all its history and staying power, chess is still a pretty cheap date, at least when compared to our corner of professional competition.

That might be a good thing. Chess is not a superheated scene, and I think that’s the core of what Kasparov was trying to get at, only he made a clumsy job of it.

Chess has found a stasis post-Fisher and post-Cold-War; the game is neither exploding nor fading away. If anything, understated projects like the ChessNetwork stream could produce small bumps in interest into the professional chess scene, and those gains would have a good chance of lasting. I don’t think the same could be said about introducing a high-octane approach to coverage on par with major sports; or about an attempt to transform the new world champion, 23-year-old Magnus Carlsen, into an international man of mystery in a bid to gain attention through ‘off the board’ means. What chess is now is what chess will continue to be.

The most perplexing part of all of this, to me, is how Paulson ended up involved in chess and not esports. He seems to have been crafted by the gods themselves to parachute in and bestow upon esports the mightiest clusterfuck we’ve seen yet; how did he miss us?

There’s no chance that Paulson will succeed in this, and whatever ill effects the chess world may suffer because of it, it also presents a problem for us.

Between numerous esports ventures past and present, and Paulson’s venture in chess, there are so many parallels to be drawn in terms of the approach and ultimate vision. The aim is always to superheat the scene, to ‘revolutionize,’ to ‘maximize monetization,’ and to ‘take things to the next level.’ If Paulson’s unilateral scheme to revolutionize chess spectatorship can justifiably be laughed off, if it’s so easy to identify doomed and damaging ventures in other communities, how are we not willing or able to name them when they roll up in our neighborhood?

Esports has always wanted to find a stable trajectory: upwards, slowly, a steady trickle of new interested folks driving things forward. If we had more ventures in years past looking to augment what activity already existed, learning from what came before us with an eye towards room for future growth, instead of driving for immediate saturation because investors demanded it, we might actually be in a better place than we are today.

Instead we’ve followed our share of proverbial Paulsons, each promising a deliverance they couldn’t possibly deliver on. We bought in because they had the absolute confidence to discount failure to execute as an option; if they built it, things would come. We believed because we didn’t respect the trajectory that esports has always needed to be on, and has always seemingly snapped back to, over time.

Eventually, individual esports genres and their leading titles will also reach the sort of stasis that chess has. I just hope that for us to mature enough to recognize that stasis, and to not take it as a cue to fire up the afterburners, it’ll take us less than a thousand years.