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Why the U.S. Army is Using Esports for Recruitment

John Phipps

Why the U.S. Army is Using Esports for Recruitment

It's not as though video games are brand new to U.S. Army recruitment, but the ubiquity (and growing accessibility) of esports has the potential to be the signal above the noise for appealing to young people.

John Phipps,Tue, 19 Feb 2019 21:34:00

In an age of social media, 24-hour news networks, a constant distractions from the smartphones in our pockets, the military has needed to evolve its recruitment efforts. Colorful posters and hyperbolic advertisements won’t compete against the likes of Fortnite and Minecraft.

Modern military recruitment has taken many forms over the years. During World Wars I & II, there was no social media, and television was still in its infancy. So, the U.S. Department of Defense used posters and newspaper ads to play on patriotism and a desire for revenge against the Axis Powers for the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Army recruitment posters displayed a soldier with his hand extended, asking (with a smile on his face), “WANT ACTION?”. The Marine Corps showed us a civilian reading a headline about Nazi Germany in indignation with the caption, “Tell THAT to the Marines!”, a direct quote from President Franklin Roosevelt's “Day of Infamy” speech.

Recruitment in the age of technology

As time passed and technology advanced, so too did the avenues our military uses to entice young people to swell its ranks. In the 90s, the U.S. Marine Corps launched a now-famous recruitment blitz on television in which a beaten, bloodied man climbed an iron tower and pulled a sword from a stone at the top, only to be confronted by a huge fire-belching lava beast. Upon slaying the creature, he is enveloped in the flames and transformed into a U.S. Marine wearing dress blues (this was not my experience at boot camp).

The military moved on from silly fire demons and started talking about camaraderie and the glory of combat. The Army tells you, “There’s strong, and there’s Army Strong”. The Marines show warriors dashing toward combat and talk of “Battles Fought and Battles Won." The Air Force tells you to “Aim High” before showing a pilot leaping out of a plane, which seems contradictory to me. Up until recently, this has worked relatively well because the U.S. military has recognized what resonates with American youth.

After all, the one constant in recruitment methods across the branches is its interest in appealing to teens. Until recent years, the military has hit all the right notes with young men and women taking their first larger steps into a much bigger world: paying for college; some of the finest job training in the world; learning marketable trades; free healthcare; hiring preferences for veterans; the promise of adventure; and the idea of being thanked for your service by a grateful nation.

These are all enticing, but the times are once again changing, and a new facet in the zeitgeist of American youth is at arguably the highest point it ever has been: video games. And the military, specifically the U.S. Army, is sitting up and paying attention.

Capitalizing on competition

2018 marks the first year since 2005 in which the U.S. Army has missed its recruitment quota. Specifically, they fell about 6,500 recruits under their goal of 76,500, despite an increased budget for recruitment. The Army Reserves and National Guard missed their goals as well. Are traditional recruitment incentives not resonating? It’s hard to say right now -- the other military branches all hit their target quotas without drastically changing their message. But that doesn’t mean they won’t face difficulty in 2019. Something is clearly changing. It’s difficult to pinpoint a singular culprit, mind you. The U.S. economy is currently doing fine and civilian jobs are steadily paying more money without the downside of having to risk your life.

Whatever the reason, the U.S. Army esports team, headquartered with the Marketing and Engagement Brigade at Fort Knox, is meant to, according to their website, “help make our Soldiers more visible and relatable to today’s youth." The Army claims their esports team isn’t meant as a recruitment device, but the Marketing and Engagement Brigade falls under the command of USAREC (U.S. Army Recruitment Command). Of course, this isn’t the first time the Army has attempted to use games to entice potential recruits or conduct squad training.

In 1999, Lt. Col Casey Wardynski, then the Director of the Office of Economic and Manpower Analysis at West Point, conceived of a method by which to introduce the concept of military life to American civilians. America’s Army was a development platform used to create FPS games designed to depict a combat environment in a realistic manner. Developed out of the Army Game Studio at Redstone Arsenal, Alabama, the first game, Arsenal, represents the first major example of the Department of Defense using game development as a means to supplement U.S. military recruitment. Adhering to the U.S. Army’s seven core values, the game was meant to bring true soldiery into American living rooms, and give young people a chance to taste facets of Army life.

And, in some regards, it was fairly accurate. As someone who has experienced battle, the idea of squad-based combat and team communication under fire is something ingrained into every soldier and Marine very early. From the U.S. Army website, America’s Army features the following:

  • Several training exercises designed to sharpen small unit maneuver skills. Exercises are small engagements of 8 players vs. 8 players. These fast-paced maps focus on teaching players how to work as a team and learn basic skills and maneuvers.
  • Realistic equipment and military hardware, such as the M9A1 & M1911 Pistol, 870 MCS shotgun, M14EBR-RI sniper rifle, M24 sniper rifle, M4A1 and the M249 Saw. Players can also use the M67 fragmentation grenade, M106 Fast Obscurant Grenade and the M84 Stun Grenade, as well as optics, including the M68 Close Combat Optic; M553 Holographic Weapon Sight; M150 ACOG 4x Optic; Elcan M145 and Ghost Ring Sight.
  • Players have the ability to apply medical aid to stop their own bleeding which allows them to maintain their health and stay in the game to complete the mission. Players can assist downed squadmates to bring them back into the fight.
  • America's Army products use innovative technology to provide authentic and entertaining Army experiences that reflect the lives, training, technology, skills, careers and values of a U.S. Army Soldier.

America's Army also featured a virtual medical training course based on real Army medic responses to treating casualties and administering first aid, which reportedly helped several Army medics perform their jobs better in the real world.

Of course, it’s still a video game, and cannot teach you fire a weapon accurately, nor can it convey the fear and terror of being in an actual firefight.

I’ve played America’s Army and despite it being much more grounded and squad-focused than say, Call of Duty, I found nothing truly revolutionary about it. Did it work? Did it result in a mass amount of new recruits flowing into basic training? Probably not. I don’t even know any soldiers, active or not, who ever played America’s Army. The games are still made and released to this day, but not with any real expectation of moving the recruitment needle.

An esports team, however, could be wholly different.

The digital battlefield

There hasn’t been a better time to court the gaming industry than it is now. The state of the video game industry is incredibly strong. According to NPD Group analyst, Mat Piscatella, the United States video game industry “experienced significant growth in 2019, as sales (overall) increased 18% to over $43 billion. Some of the drivers of this growth included the cultural phenomenon that is Fortnite, continued gains in mobile spending, cyclical peaks of both PlayStation 4 and Xbox One, and a strong second year for Nintendo Switch, among others.” While there is some decline expected in 2019 as the current generation winds down, the clear success of a healthy industry being driven by an insanely popular online, team-based shooter hasn’t gone unnoticed by the Army.

And that’s where esports come in.

With the advent of live streaming, esports are now a worldwide competitive phenomenon with leagues, teams, dedicated arenas , and partnerships with the National Basketball Association and Major League Soccer. Games like Dota 2, League of Legends, Counter-Strike, and Overwatch draw millions and millions of viewers, as well as lucrative cash prizes in the millions of dollars for winning players/teams. Even the International Olympic Committee (IOC) has acknowledged the popularity of competitive gaming, noting the intensity with which teams conduct training. And although the IOC has yet to recognize esports as an Olympic activity, it hasn’t shut the door on such a possibility either.

And now, we have the United States Army esports team, with members comprised of Active Duty and Army Reserve personnel, who are expected to begin competing in Summer of 2019. According to the U.S. Army Recruiting Command (USAREC) website, the team will “create awareness about the Army and the opportunities it provides.” Additionally, the U.S. Army sees esports as a gateway to a new generation of recruits.

“Soldiers have expressed a strong desire to represent the Army in competitive gaming,” the USAREC website states. “They have shown Army leaders how gaming can help us connect to young people and show them a side of Soldiers they may not expect. This initiative will help make our Soldiers more visible and relatable to today's youth.”

A standard duty assignment on the esports team lasts three years and will involve “constant” competitive training, recruiting engagements, and interaction with the public on a daily basis. The Army is careful to state that, “Members of the esports outreach teams are not recruiters. They will be in a support role to help young people see Soldiers in a different light and understand the many different roles people can have in the Army. They will help the Army address the growing disconnect with society.”

While the team might not be considered official recruiters, their presence at recruitment events, identifies them as part of the strategy. Moreover, at the Los Angeles esports conference held in November 2018, a member of the team (SSgt Ryan Meaux) plainly stated on Facebook they are “hoping to recruit some people”. The Army states team members will not complete the FULL Army Recruiter course (implying there will be some training administered), and will serve as “liaisons between the American public and recruiters throughout the nation”.

While the team isn’t officially engaged in recruitment activities per se, what they will do is present what will likely be a very exciting, very appealing look into a tiny fraction of Army life. The U.S. military needs warriors, and any organization is going to want to present itself in the most appealing, exciting way possible.

The timing is the still the sticking point in all of this. Video games have been popular for years. This isn't some grand revelation or recognition of emerging tech. It’s not like the U.S. Army wasn’t aware of how popular games were among young civilians and their own soldiers. And then I found a picture of myself in Iraq and it hit me.

The individuals now in charge of recruitment are people like me.

As a former Marine who’s served in combat, I can attest to the popularity of video games in the military. Whether you were on Camp Lejeune or sweating it out in Iraq, it was rare to see a barracks without a PlayStation 3 or Xbox 360 and a group of Marines/Soldiers/Airmen screaming at each other over bouts of Halo and Call of Duty. Back then (2003-2008) the military personnel playing games were Lance Corporals and junior NCOs, like myself. But 11-16 years later, those young PFCs are now Gunnery Sergeants, Master Sergeants, and Chief Warrant Officers. Soldiers and Marines with avid gaming backgrounds who love games and understand the compelling nature of using them as a means for recruiting the younger generation they once represented.

The devil is in the details

The vast majority of soldiers will never serve on the Army esports team, and for those that do make the cut, a number of questions still remain. Are members of the esports team exempt from deployment in time of war? Will they base their selections on who’s the best at games, or will they focus on who looks the most clean-cut and physically fit?

And, if the Army's esports team wins, what will happen to the winner's purse? Does that money go to the soldier, or the Army? A sudden increase of wealth can actually get you out of your contract. It’s not quite the same, but if an active-duty member of the Armed Forces wins a few million in the lottery and is considered non-essential personnel, they'll almost certainly be given an honorable discharge.

There are no guarantees as to whether this will be a successful strategy. The U.S. Army insists this isn’t a recruitment drive, but a means of making soldiers “more visible”. But it’s obvious that the Army wants young people to see soldiers on-stage with hands grasping a controller raised in victory. And there are certainly arguments to be made about displays of unit cohesion and team-building exercises, both of which are core components of every military branch.

It remains to be seen just how parents will react to their kids being recruited into an occupation that might very well result in their death. And, as a parent and soldier, I can't say that I've made up my mind myself.