Chess, marking a revolution with its growing popularity, is garnering new stakeholders.
Building on the surging interest in the sport, the International Chess Federation (FIDE) has joined hands with Tech Mahindra, an Indian IT service company, to launch the Global Chess League (GCL).
Tapping into a target market that has been overlooked for years, the GCL has also roped in five-time world champion and FIDE deputy president Viswanathan Anand as the mentor of the unique franchise-based tournament, launched on April 4.
The inaugural edition is slated to be held in Dubai between June 21 and July 2.
Speaking to Sportstar in a virtual interaction, Anand revealed the idea and motive behind GCL. “It happened around the time of the Chess Olympiad a couple of years ago. The Olympiad was highly visible, perhaps due to the waves driving chess, the pandemic, and The Queen’s Gambit (web series). Since then, the idea for a Global Chess League has emerged, with Tech Mahindra getting involved early on, and it has taken a while to put together all the elements.
“I believe what we’re attempting to do is reach a large audience, which, as we know from FIDE’s statistics, numbers somewhere in the 600 million range. We have devised an intriguing format and an exciting competition, a global league, with the best men, women, and juniors all on the same team,” said Anand.
The GCL will feature six teams that will compete in a double round-robin format. Each team will have six players, comprising a marquee player, two men, two women and one junior player (under 21).
Jagdish Mitra, chairperson of GCL, believes that the sport carries huge potential to be monetised. It can also cater for the audience in different ways. “We had the opportunity to consider the aspect because people are extremely passionate about chess, and there is an element that can be added on top to ensure that the fans engage. We believe that this sport can leverage itself due to the role of technology in making it a lot more engaging.”
On being asked about how GCL is planning to break into a calendar already crammed with multiple events, Mitra says, “Partnering with FIDE helps because there is a small window where no tournaments happen, so us getting the rights to organise a tournament helps. The timing is ideal since the players can come and join.
“It is about ensuring that the players find it exciting and engaging, so the format we are looking at is the presentation style for television, which is a lot more like esports. Intense engagement with fans is where we expect viewership on television and OTT, which are the two channels we’re hoping to pick up like never before,” he added.
In contrast to previous team competitions, such as the Chess Olympiad, which is usually played in the classical format, the GCL will be played with rapid time controls in its first season. “It was partly driven by the desire to see what we could explore on television. The time slots had to be convenient as well. You have to have exciting matches while keeping the outcome flexible till the finish,” said Anand.
‘Fans and commentators to make tag teams’
Anand stressed that chess requires technological assistance for dynamic growth across a large population and consumers. “A sport must be explained, and people need to understand what’s going on, and the more they understand, the more they feel rewarded. And in chess, technology is critical because you can’t do it verbally. You’ll have to rely on technology. To grasp the game’s complexities, you’ll need to use engines which is a very difficult thing to do, but the better the graphics and camera angles are, the easier it’ll be for audiences to engage. These things haven’t always been the focus. Using technology very intelligently allows people to understand what is going on, and then their knowledge will gradually improve. Hopefully, by the end of the season, fans will have learned a lot more than at the beginning,” felt Anand.
Meanwhile, Mitra believes technology companies will play an important role in helping people develop a deeper understanding of the game. “Tech Mahindra’s role unequivocally is to take the chess that FIDE brings to the table and transform it into an immersive experience for fans. To simplify things, regular fans and commentators will work together as a tag team. As a result, the commentary becomes much easier for people to understand and thus follow.
“I believe the sport is just ripe for some disruption and massive innovation without changing any of the game’s fundamentals. This could be what T20 (format) did to cricket, and what we envisage with the GCL is to change the way chess has been,” he said.
Speaking about the objective of the league, Anand said GCL is planning to focus on unearthing talent and unifying an enterprising concept that can be replicated sustainably for years, “Everything, including talent programmes, must be based on a successful model. And we’re hoping that the notion will result in an exciting squad. Then you hope that fans would become involved. The format is designed for television, thus the emphasis will be on trying new and exciting ways of presenting the sport with the same goal. Television is one area where we may expand, and if it works, the franchises will be keen to invest in the game, which would then result in the forming of talent programmes.”
The business aspect of GCL, according to Mitra, is primarily built around three parameters: the impact of technology on the game, the digital broadcast angle, and understanding the target market.
“Chess has 600 million fans and is expanding. That is our global target market. I don’t think any sport in the world is as widely covered and played in terms of both age groups and regions as chess is; we don’t need to invest in too many things or equipment to be able to play this game,” Mitra said.
GCL has been planned over at least five years, with the flexibility of being extended for an additional eight years in the long run.
“We see a huge commercial value because the sponsors and team members who join are all looking at their two aspects. Do they want to attract people from the knowledge economy? And do they see this as a chance to get in early and then capitalise on the growth? Because the value will automatically rise once it reaches broadcast and television or OTT,” Mitra concluded.
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