On a recent afternoon, thousands of noncombatants watched from the sidelines as their general ordered his troops across the battlefield and became locked in a fierce duel with the enemy.
At one point, he berated himself for a tactical misstep that could have cost his side the high-stakes conflict. Then he smiled and began outmaneuvering his foe.
“I can’t lose,” Hikaru Nakamura, 32, said to the exultant onlookers. Victory seemed close as members of the opposing army were vanquished one by one. “I win again — there you go, guys. Wow.”
Mr. Nakamura gave himself just a moment’s respite, then plunged into another fray. Pawns, knights, bishops and even kings fell before him as the chess grandmaster demolished a slate of online challengers, all while narrating the tide of the battle to tens of thousands of fans watching him stream live on Twitch, the Amazon-owned site where people usually broadcast themselves playing video games like Fortnite and Call of Duty.
The coronavirus pandemic and stay-at-home orders have crowned a host of unlikely winners catering to bored audiences. But watching livestreams of chess games? Could one of the world’s oldest and most cerebral games really rebrand itself as a lively enough pastime to capture the interest of the masses on Twitch?
Turns out, it already has.
Since the pandemic began, viewership of live chess games has soared. From March through August, people watched 41.2 million hours of chess on Twitch, four times as many hours as in the previous six months, according to the analytics website SullyGnome. In June, an amateur chess tournament called PogChamps was briefly