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Other News

Which would you rather do in front of a massive audience: lose a board game, or get knocked unconscious? If you’re down for either, you can always accept a chessboxing challenge.

YouTuber Ludwig Ahgren — big enough to simply go by “Ludwig” — on Sunday broke his own viewership record with a live event called the Mogul Chessboxing Championship, held before 10,000 fans at the University of Southern California’s Galen Center in Los Angeles, with more than half a million people watching at home. Aside from representing the highest engagement for a Ludwig stream, that also makes it the most-viewed chessboxing event of all time.

The absurdist sport as it exists today draws on various cultural predecessors. In 1970s London, two brothers made local headlines for their practice of playing a chess match after sparring as competitive boxers at their gym. That story in turn may have influenced filmmaker Joseph Kuo, whose 1979 kung fu film The Mystery of Chessboxing follows a young apprentice as he learns how the mental principles of Chinese chess, or Xiangqi, apply to the martial arts. It was not until 2003, however, that Dutch performance artist Iepe Rubingh mounted a chessboxing competition in Berlin and a championship fight in Amsterdam, taking inspiration from French comics writer Enki Bilal’s graphic novel Froid Équateur.

In Rubingh’s version of chessboxing, competitors duke it out in 11 alternating three-minute rounds of blitz (or time-controlled) chess and conventional boxing, trying to score victory on both fronts. For the past 20 years, that format has gradually spread across the globe, along with regional governing bodies — every few years, the hybrid sport reaches a new threshold of mainstream exposure. But never before has it built its audience through the awesome power of the influencer economy.

Ludwig, who became the most subscribed Twitch streamer in 2021 before leaving the platform to take an exclusive deal with YouTube Gaming, just days ago won the 2022 Game Award for Content Creator of the Year. In March, at the inaugural Streamer Awards, he was named Streamer of the Year. With his outsized profile in gaming and esports, he brings a fandom of millions along in any new venture.

This particular pivot makes sense for the digital space: in recent years, well-known YouTubers and other internet celebrities have tried to conquer professional boxing, much to the annoyance of purists and the delight of promoters who can market the bouts to younger, very online viewers. At the same time, the pro chess community has seen escalated drama around some of the top players in the world, with match walkouts, accusations of corruption, huge lawsuits and outlandish theories about cheating with the use of vibrating sex toys. The major chess tournaments (and related incidents) are largely watched and fiercely debated across web platforms.

In his chessboxing showcase, Ludwig played on both trends, adding some of his own flair: the first two undercard matches introduced a new concept he called “Smash boxing,” a mixture of boxing and the Nintendo fighting game Super Smash Bros. He also took to the ring for a round of slap-boxing with fellow YouTuber CDawgVA (and lost). Another stunt saw YouTubers Cherdleys and Myth go head-to-head in chessboxing — though neither of them knows how to play chess.

Ludwig did not reply to a request for comment, but it appears the Mogul event was a success by every metric — it now claims the distinction of featuring the fastest chessboxing knockout ever, as well as the highest rated. Clearly, the blend of strategic gameplay, physical violence, hyped color commentary, and gonzo gimmicks struck a chord with people more accustomed to conventional esports streaming.

The skill sets of the participants didn’t seem to matter much, either. Although still relatively niche, chessboxing matches between trained competitors can be vicious affairs, whereas most of the YouTubers at Mogul were relative amateurs in one or both disciplines. As with influencer boxing matches, the names — not the athleticism — are the true draw.

Plus, with the basic premise established, Ludwig is free to adapt and refine it however he likes, potentially improving production values or establishing a formal league if viewership ticks up with subsequent showdowns. On YouTube and Twitch, where the battle for eyeballs is fiercer than any real-life brawl, you can’t underestimate the novelty factor. So don’t be surprised if other creators look to enter the ring themselves.

(Rolling Stone)