The Covid-19 pandemic has brought with it a host of challenges and possibilities for the world of sport. While competitive sport has been significantly disrupted since the onset of the pandemic, new opportunities have opened up for some. With lockdowns in place in different parts of the world last year, chess witnessed a huge surge in popularity with many taking to it in the digital space. In October, chess.com measured a 66% jump in players on its website post-pandemic. Seeking to cash in on this tide, Tech Mahindra has announced the launch of a Global Chess League – to be played in a “phygital” (physical and digital) format. It has roped in India’s finest chess brain – five-time world champion Viswanathan Anand – to mentor, partner and give shape to the league. We spoke to Anand and Jagdish Mitra, chief strategy officer and head of growth at Tech Mahindra, to know their plans on the league which is expected to kick-start this year.
Q. How did the idea of a global chess league come about?
Anand: Last year was very interesting for chess. There were a couple of big events which kind of highlighted that. One was when during the pandemic the membership number went up; streaming started to become successful in chess. During the Chess Olympiad, there were a lot of people watching it and India’s dramatic win. Anand Mahindra noticed it at that point. At Tech Mahindra, they had some discussion. At my end, I of course was following and noticed the trend. I was approached later.
For me, all the dots were connecting. I felt, with a partner of the stature of Tech Mahindra backing it, this would be a golden opportunity to have a really successful chess league. The Mahindra group had some experience with kabaddi and I am very happy to work with him.
Q. There are many sports leagues running in India. Did you ever think of a league in chess?
Anand: Chess has lots of leagues but they are all regional, or entirely online or entirely over the board. Nonetheless, when I saw the success of other leagues, we thought about how we could implement that (in chess). There were some attempts at an Indian league, (including) one in Maharashtra. What is nice about this one is that now we have wind in our sails. Many trends have shown that chess can reach a much wider audience; and last year especially, use of technology has helped. The moment is opportune.
Q. Chess has always had an online presence. How has it grown after the pandemic?
Anand: Chess has had success moving online. For a couple of decades already, the spectators have been online. The event happens at a physical location but the spectator is watching it online from across the world. The streaming has been there for a while, online commentary was there but somehow we were waiting to reach an audience. But last year was spectacular. There have been a lot of original ideas on how to reach that audience, make it more entertaining. There is a connect with a lot of gamers, the e-sport community, etc. It is like we had video conferencing and other digital facilities lying round for sometime but suddenly people now overcame the resistance to using them. Similarly, in chess, people are now comfortable using technology. On top of that we had The Queen’s Gambit (Netflix series based on the life of a fictional chess prodigy Beth Harmon) and we have a large audience that is curious about chess. Surely, chess has the confidence now that we can reach a wider audience and we have the evidence too. This moment is perfect for a global chess league.
Q. So, how are you going to plan the global chess league?
Anand: When everyone is playing from home, I don’t like that. What I like about our event and what I recommended is that it should be “phygital”. That is each franchise will bring the players to one location so that it resembles a physical event and they will play there but the opponent will be from another country and that allows you to have a global league. So, there is no travelling to different countries but only at local or regional level. But when the match happens, it allows us to make it a global event. Also, when you have a new event, there is a lot to improvise and innovate, like different scoring methods, engage audiences, and a lot of fantasy elements. There is a lot of potential to leverage technology. We want to combine both things.
Q. How is the format going to be like?
Mitra: Anand is still mentoring us and we are working through it. So, we did not want to make just an Indian league, but a truly global league. And chess automatically lends itself to it. We are going to have about eight odd franchises from across different countries, representing international GMs and home players, male, female and junior players and they would play in a hybrid format. People would come to a physical location in their city or a country and from there they would connect to the opponent online. The audience can join in on both sides. They can choose to watch online or see this across the board. The whole idea is to make it exciting, engaging. We will provide for some innovative ways in terms of team formation, player formation, point-scoring, so that the audience can get involved in the game. That’s the advantage of the sport; you can do it completely in a virtual format.
Q. Have you thought about any business model for its long-term sustainability?
Mitra: There was no better way to align ourselves than with chess as you can actually play it digitally and make a move unlike in other sports. As far as business and investment is concerned, we are here for a long haul, not just for one or two years. So, we wanted to make sure it is a league we are incubating. We can create a property in the longer run but first we need to get the sport going, have the fan experience and it will happen.