Esports, otherwise known as competitive gaming, historically refers to a narrow segment of the video game industry – specifically that which is focused on high level competitive play. While it may seem as if esports burst onto the scene in the 2020s out of nowhere, in reality it represents a community that has been slowly growing and establishing itself over decades.
What changed more recently is that we reached a tipping point, where a critical mass of players began to impact mainstream culture. Industry analysts knew this moment, commonly referred to as the ‘esports boom’ was coming sooner or later, as a generation of young adults had grown up on video games. This has normalized and lent validity to competitive gaming as a viable sport in its own right.
When Amazon purchased esports-focused streaming service Twitch in 2014 for the then princely sum of $1 billion, it helped cement competitive gaming’s arrival as a major 21st century media and entertainment concern going forward.
And while the most popular titles in the esports scene today are still ‘pure’ video games, such as Counter-Strike: Global Offensive and League of Legends, another less reported component to esports success is that its core definition has begun to expand and incorporate associated institutions, communities and markets.
Of the pursuits experiencing integration with the esports world, few have enjoyed the success of poker. While this card game has deep roots dating back to the 19th century and beyond, poker enjoyed a renaissance in interest in the early years of the 2000s thanks to its translation into digital variants on online platforms.
This has resulted in online poker having developed a scene with accompanying institutions, platforms and tournaments that were already 20 years old by the time esports established itself as a household name.
Online poker and competitive gaming both share the unusual distinction of being activities that straddle the blurry definitions of sports and games – and that are both the product of modern technology and the internet, they share far more commonalities than differences.
This has, in recent years, given rise to lively debate around whether poker itself is an esport. Today, we now find leading esports athletes like Lex Veldhuis actively prioritizing poker over his first love, the classic RTS StarCraft, and Twitch – home of the global esports scene, has increasingly begun to serve as a base for major poker tournaments.
Suffice to say, this ongoing cross-pollination is only going to become more prominent as time passes. If one looks at esports as encompassing all ‘electronic sports’, then there can be no doubt that poker is not only an esport, but actually one of the oldest and best established popular today.
While poker is old by video game standards, it has nothing on chess. The so-called ‘game of kings’ dates all the way back to ancient India, and has remained remarkably, and consistently, popular ever since.
Nowadays, the most popular way to engage with chess is through the game’s de-facto community HQ, Chess.com, which hosts millions of active players competing in thousands of games a day.
Notably, in recent years chess has enjoyed a significant resurgence in popular appeal, with the runaway success of Netflix‘s The Queen’s Gambit considered a noteworthy driver in introducing the nuances and excitement of this game to a new generation.
Elsewhere, the historic run of victories of Magnus Carlsen the ‘bad boy of chess’ has further helped renovate chess’ stuffy image, making it more palatable to the TikTok demographic.
Much like poker, chess occupies the ill-defined gray area between ‘game’ and ‘sport’, and thus its online variants can lay a decent claim to being an esport. Supposing we can safely define chess as an esport – then it may just be the fastest growing competitive game in the world today.
Further validation of chess’ categorization as a sport comes by way of an ongoing IOC application to have chess included among the official roster of Olympic games – which, if it succeeds, may result in it being granted the status as the world’s first true Olympic Esport.
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