Mar 17 2020

Game On: The Army Leverages Esports to Boost Recruitment

Top-end gear draws prospective soldiers to the military.

Outside a facility at Fort Knox, Ky., known affectionately as “The Pit,” an observer can sometimes hear a little yelling and screaming. That’s the U.S. Army eSports Team practicing for its next recruiting event.

“It gets a little chaotic in there sometimes when they’re in a competitive match,” says Staff Sgt. Andrew Waller, who manages team operations.

More than 164 million Americans play video games, according to the Entertainment Software Association; about 40 percent are between 18 and 35, and about half are women. Those numbers inspired the Army to use competitive video gaming — esports — as a recruitment tool. 

The hope is that young people who are passionate about video gaming will see parallels between their interests and the needs of a modern military.

“You’re looking for a base skill set, whether it's the ability to communicate, quick decision-making or critical thinking. All of those skill sets are things that we value as soldiers and as leaders,” Waller says. They’re the same skills gamers rely on to compete effectively.

The U.S. Army Recruiting Command at Fort Knox stood up its first esports cadre in 2018. By mid-2019, the 16-member team was operating at the national level, with an appearance at the Salt Lake Gaming Con in Salt Lake City. Top-end gear has helped the Army to take the team into the big leagues.

“When you think of competitive athletes, they train with the best equipment. In order to be the best, you really have to train with the best,” says Waller. “Esports is really no different from that standpoint.”

Military Gamers Want Top-Line ESports Gear

To help prospective recruits make the connection, the Army has invested in facilities and gaming gear. That includes a competitive gaming space at Fort Knox, as well as a large trailer that the team uses for demonstrations on college campuses, at gaming events and at major military conferences.

The trailer’s eight gaming stations boast super fast computers with the latest graphics cards, as well as cutting-edge peripherals. The setup includes a “scorpion” chair, with a tail that comes up and over the player to support a 32-inch monitor.

“It’s a curved monitor that actually comes down over the top of you like in the movies, where the dude will be sitting down and he pushes this button as he sits in the chair, and the chair kind of folds in around him,” Waller says.

Spc. Iosif Covalenco, a team member, says that having top-end equipment makes all the difference when he goes to tackle enemies in the game Fortnite.

“I’ve had multiple situations where I’ve had either really high-end equipment or low-end equipment, and my performance drastically increased and decreased depending on what I used,” he says.

In video gaming, he adds, “the difference between winning or losing an engagement versus an opponent is like .001 milliseconds. If you have a keyboard that doesn’t press as fast as you need it to be able to press, they will get to that wall first, and they will get that shot on you, which basically would allow them to win that fight.”

When you’re measuring success in milliseconds, equipment is key, whether it’s a lightweight mouse for speed, or a heavier multifunction model that goes slower but offers greater accuracy. Keyboard responsiveness and headset functionality factor into the mix as well. The trailer boasts all of these, either supplied by the Army or else by the gamers, who typically have their own favorite peripherals.

With eight gaming stations, used mostly to play League of Legends, the Fort Knox facilities have the same high-end equipment as the trailer, as well as a multimedia room for recording and broadcasting gameplay. Streaming the action online helps reinforce the core message of the program, which is: “Hey, there’s more to being in the Army than kicking in doors and blowing stuff up,” Waller says. “We have professions and we have passions at the same time.”

MORE FROM FEDTECH: Read more about how the Army uses virtual reality in its training programs. 

High-End Equipment Shows the Army Takes Esports Seriously

The state-of-the-art equipment is integral to the success of the program. When the Army competes at a national level, those who are passionate about their games — and who are seen as potential recruits — look to the rig as a sign of how seriously the military takes its esports.

“The hardware itself helps people visualize the idea of what esports is to us,” says Spc. Brendan Huffman, a member of the team’s support staff. The professional-grade equipment “helps set a baseline for a conversation.”

Program leaders say that conversation could not take place effectively if they didn’t come to the table with serious gear.

“If we were to just be a gimmick saying, ‘Hey, we’re soldiers that play video games,’ in the esports industry we wouldn’t necessarily be taken seriously,” Waller says. “But going in with an actual competitive team that does well and performs well at those levels — it adds validity to the program, so when we are engaging those outreach opportunities, it’s just much simpler. It’s much more organic.”

Program leaders say that while it is too early to tell whether the esports program is translating into a bump in recruitment, the team’s early successes in games such as Fortnite and League of Legends will move the needle in the long run.

“The program is exceeding a lot of the expectations that we had going into it, and as we refine our techniques, as we refine our program, I fully expect it to be a validation of what we do here,” Waller says.

He noted that colleges and high schools nationwide already are pointing to the Army effort to validate their own investment in esports.

“They use the fact that the Army has an esports program as justification to start their own, so it really shows the relevancy of this,” he says. “The verdict is still out there, but judging by what I have seen and have encountered, it’s very promising.”

U.S. Army eSports Team