Organizers of the World Chess Championship match being held this month will be testing whether a grandmaster’s pawn advance or a rook counterattack will have the same pay-per-view appeal as a boxer’s left jab or right uppercut.
For the first time, a world chess title match will adopt a pay-per-view formula, with hopes of changing the model for broadcasting and enriching the prize money for elite chess events.
The World Chess Federation has given the rights to stage the world title match to Agon Limited, which is promising revolutionary coverage of the 12-game match in New York City beginning Nov. 11. But Agon is making waves in the chess world along the way.
Agon is offering 360-degree, virtual reality streaming along with expert commentary and analysis on its website and app.
The virtual reality streaming will allow viewers to choose their camera angle and “to be present at the championship as if they are in the room,” said Agon CEO Ilya Merenzon. It will be like seeing “the game through grandmasters’ minds.”
But it will come at a price. Packages range from $15 for the entire 12-game match between defending champion Magnus Carlsen and challenger Sergey Karjakin, to $99 for two years’ worth of elite chess events, plus merchandise.
Until now, livestreaming of top-tier chess events has been free, courtesy of the organizers and sponsors and chess websites. But for this match, Agon will provide chess and media websites with a free widget that will transmit the moves — but only the moves, with no livestreaming or expert commentary. For that, viewers will have to pay.
With this new model, Agon hopes to tap into the wallets of the estimated 600 million people around the world who play chess regularly in-person or online.
With no timeouts or halftimes for natural commercial breaks, as in sports events, lining up sponsors for chess events — and therefore building big prize funds — can be a challenge.
Though some corporations like to be associated with chess skills of intelligence, calculation, strategy, memory, focus and foresight, U.S. firms have been less eager to do so than, say, eastern European corporations.
And although the upcoming title match is being held in the U.S., the main sponsors are two firms with ties to Russia — PhosAgro and EG Capital Advisors — and a Norwegian mineral water business, Isklar. With a 1 million euro prize fund (about $1.1 million), to be split 60-40 between the winner and loser, the champion will collect only a bit more than a third of what the winner of the Masters golf tournament, for example, receives.
But if legions of chess fans pony up money to get the full-exposure coverage from Agon, it could add millions to chess prize funds.
In September, Merenzon mentioned the possibility of sharing the new riches with the two players for the world championship, but he said that commitment is not in the contract they signed and may not happen for this title match.
“As this is the first time we’re offering pay-per-view, the model is constantly being adjusted and improved,” he said.
Agon’s approach has proved controversial. It has upset some of the best-known chess websites in the world by exerting more control over the championship-cycle events and, critics say, limiting access and reducing exposure for chess. Agon sued several websites that transmitted moves of games in a tournament it conducted in Moscow in March to determine who would be the world championship challenger. On Thursday chess.24.com reported that a Russian court had ruled in its favor and against Agon, saying moves from the event were in the public domain.