Level Up: Thanks to Twitch’s newfound interest in chess, this pro has made streaming his full-time job

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Welcome to Level Up, In The Know’s look at some of the gaming world’s most interesting content creators — and the tech that helps them get the job done.

Though many industries suffered in 2020 as a result of lockdowns and quarantine orders nationwide, others capitalized on the shift to spending more time indoors, at home and online. Unsurprisingly, one of the companies that saw extreme success was Twitch: From March to April alone, the platform saw a 50 percent increase in hours spent watching its videos, according to StreamElements.

Many of the channels and creators that became household names amid quarantine played previously popular video games like Fortnite, Minecraft and World of Warcraft. However, during these unprecedented times, a much, much older game also started to pick up steam: chess.

2020 was a pivotal year for chess. At the beginning of quarantine, the game was far from popular: According to Twitch Tracker, the average chess streamer at the time received just 3,573 concurrent viewers.

As COVID-19 spread like wildfire, though, so did interest in the game, thanks in large part to grandmaster Hikaru Nakamura becoming more active on the platform and the popularity of Netflix’s coming-of-age chess drama, The Queen’s Gambit. In December, the average chess stream was bringing in more than 16,000 concurrent viewers, and interest in the 1,500-year-old game doesn’t appear to be letting up.

One of the biggest chess streamers on Twitch — the third most popular, according to TwitchMetrics — is Levy Rozman, aka Gotham Chess. With more than 206,000 followers, the 25-year-old New York City native turned streaming — or, if you ask his father, “high-tech panhandling” — into a full-time gig in 2020, something that felt unfeasible just a year prior.

“I wasn’t streaming full-time until 6 months ago. I was teaching chess Monday through Sunday,” Rozman explained to In The Know. “For me, [Twitch] was definitely not the primary source of income. I could never think that it would be. [But] obviously, with all this explosion, it’s becoming that. It’s become that.”

Rozman created his Twitch channel back in February 2018, for no other reason than he was bored and needed something to do after he got home from teaching. When he first started streaming, he said, the chess side of Twitch was “like the Wild West” with just a few streamers, none of whom seemed to know what they were doing.

The chess pro didn’t let the uncertainty and unpredictability deter him, though. He quickly fell in love with streaming, as it combined two of his favorite pastimes: playing chess and socializing.

“I think for me the biggest element was just like, the social element,” Rozman said. “Playing chess, socializing and I could do what I did in the classroom during the day, very chill. It could be in a hoodie, sitting in my chair, playing games, trash-talking — things I couldn’t do if I had a 6-year-old student in front of me, which was mostly what I was doing on a day-to-day basis.”

It’s a good thing Rozman never gave up on streaming. At the beginning of 2020, his channel had just over 17,800 followers. Around June, though, he started to pick up some serious steam, jumping from 21,328 followers at the beginning of June to 101,212 by the end of October.

gotham chess followers
Credit: TwitchTracker

So what happened? Well, over the summer, chess saw a big boom on Twitch thanks to PogChamps, an online amateur chess tournament hosted by Chess.com. For the first PogChamps tournament, huge Twitch streamers including Félix “xQc” Lengyel and Charles “MoistCr1tikal” White Jr. competed to win $50,000.

After that, interest in the game just kept growing. Between Hikaru Nakamura signing with esports organization TSM in August and Netflix releasing The Queen’s Gambit in October, chess had nowhere to go but up.

“Obviously, once The Queen’s Gambit came in October, I really just doubled down on that,” Rozman explained. “It’s really important to onboard people and make them feel like — it’s a steep learning curve, but if you’re in a good community and you have the right resources, you won’t be put off by it. I think there’s a pretty big barrier to entry in kind of getting your footing and looking in the right places. So, I try to make my channel kind of like that spot.”

With all the buzz around chess, Rozman has also grown his YouTube channel to 379,000 followers and counting. He recently started dedicating more time to creating content specifically for the platform, since he’s partial to its discovery algorithm. In December, for instance, the thumbnail for one of his YouTube videos received 230 million impressions.

“You don’t need to be subscribed to a channel to get content. You know, you go to YouTube [and] it just knows what you like,” he explained. “And you’re like, oh, cool, you know, that’s what I’ll watch today … I just make the content. You know, YouTube does the rest.”

As interest in chess has grown exponentially, Rozman has shifted his content strategy slightly to account for a new audience. Previously, his average viewer was somewhat familiar with chess — but now, anywhere from 60 to 65 percent of viewers are people who are new to the game.

“They like the game. They like us. And they like the community. The chess to them is secondary,” Rozman said. “[We are definitely] kind of adjusting our … approach, like really breaking it down and making it really accessible to anybody who joins.”

Inside Gotham Chess’ streaming set-up

As a chess streamer, Rozman’s streaming set-up is relatively simple — and surprisingly affordable. He uses a PC that his friend helped him build from scratch, two monitors, some lights, a tripod from Amazon Basics, a Sony A6600 camera and an M-Audio Uber Mic.

When it comes to streaming and set-up, Rozman’s biggest tip is to make sure you never point your lights directly at your face.

“This is a very important small tip: Don’t point the lights at yourself,” he said. “Hurts. Point it at a wall. And if they’re bright enough, it’ll reflect back on you.”

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