As US Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was readying an amendment to the upcoming year’s House appropriations bill – one that would ban the military service branches from maintaining any presence on social media or Twitch – the US Army’s Esports organisation had already sounded a full retreat.
It had been a rough few weeks: after being pilloried on Twitter for the use of “UwU” in a brand-to-brand exchange with chat service Discord, Army Esports was facing heightened media scrutiny after being accused of using deceptive giveaway offers on its Twitch channel, duping viewers into giving recruiters personal information in exchange for a chance to win an Xbox Elite Series 2 controller; Twitch itself was forced to step in and stop this from happening. Army Esports was also facing the threat of a lawsuit from free speech activist groups over its practice of banning Twitch users who flooded the channel to ask about US war crimes in stream chat.
Now, to top it all off, a member of Congress was trying to cut the fledgling organisation off from some of its main avenues of engagement, Twitch and other game-related social media, like Facebook and Instagram. Army Esports called a temporary halt to its presence across social media channels to “re-evaluate internal policy” going forward.
Army leaders say the branch’s esports programme is simply a means of outreach, a way for soldiers to present a more personal, relatable side of themselves and the army to the general public. But the supposed ‘esports team’ appears to be a Potemkin village meant solely for marketing and recruitment, not competition. A source with insider knowledge of the team tells us recruiters use it as a way to “butter you up with the possibility of being able to join a team” and eventually transfer to play professionally for the army full time. But despite the outward appearances of an esports outfit – including sleek team-branded jerseys and pro-level streaming setups – the handful of soldiers who do play for Army Esports are anything but a professional esports team. The team exists primarily to generate leads for potential recruits on Twitch and other game streaming services, as well as at live events like TwitchCon and PAX.
Landing a spot on the Army Esports team is “a pipe dream,” our source says. “You can stare at the poster of it and wish all you want, but it’s not going to happen.”
The Army Esports team is organised under the army’s massive Recruiting Command at Fort Knox, Kentucky. The unit currently boasts 21 full-time team members, all soldiers who joined the army to perform one of around 150 ‘real’ jobs. Army Esports is a temporary assignment, meant to last about two years, and when that time is up they’ll return to assignments in their original career fields.
“The soldiers selected for our esports team are serving in what the Army calls a broadening assignment,” Lt. Col. Kevin Duncan, the commander of Recruiting Command’s Mission Support Battalion, tells us. The Army Esports team is one of the units in his battalion, which also includes the Army Band and the Warrior Fitness Team. “All of our soldiers are upfront that although the Army has over 150 different career opportunities, being a full-time gamer is not one of them.”
Team members were selected from a pool of around 8,000 applicants across the army, and each member of the team specialises in a different game. Full-time team members focus on League of Legends, Magic: The Gathering, Street Fighter V, Tekken 7, and Call of Duty. A less official group of soldier volunteers chips in online with expertise in games like World of Warcraft, Overwatch, Counter-Strike: Global Offensive, and Valorant, Duncan explains.
“Some senior NCOs had to make some tough decisions during the try-out process about which games we were going to have represented on the team,” Duncan says.
The trouble is, by calling itself Army Esports – rather than simply Army Gaming – this outreach initiative implies something that its leaders aren’t willing to say outright: that there are soldiers in the army whose job is to win in professional competitions. Despite the name, despite the jerseys, and despite the detailed player bios you can find across Recruiting Command’s websites, that isn’t the mission at all.
A scan of the official US Army Esports Instagram account gives every impression of a real esports outfit: there are photos of members wearing their official esports-style jerseys, hoisting trophies and showing off their competition nicknames. Some are seen seated at lavish streaming setups, complete with high-end microphones on scissor arms and garish RGB lighting, with bookshelves full of Funko Pop boxes lined up behind them.
There are highlight reels from Rocket League and Call of Duty: Warzone matches, images from conferences like PAX East and Twitch Rivals, and closeup shots from tournament stages. Out of nearly 100 Instagram posts, only about six show anyone wearing a normal duty uniform – instead, it’s always the distinctive Army Esports gold-accented white-on-black polyester mesh jerseys. The only hint at a uniformed life outside of what appears to be professional gaming is the ‘backwards’ American flag on the right shoulder, displayed with the blue field of stars facing forward, the way it would look if carried at the head of a marching formation.
It’s that pro esports image and branding that most people will encounter first if they arrive at one of Army Esports’ social channels, and it’s that branding – as well as Recruiting Command’s deep pockets – that grants the team easy access to gaming events like PAX, TwitchCon, and BlizzCon. And while leaders like Duncan are quick to point out that the players aren’t professional recruiters, where the team goes, recruiters go too.
As with the team’s esports channel and other social media presences, our source claims the objective for Recruiting Command in sending recruiters and big plush Army Esports booths to gaming events is to generate recruiting leads – collecting contact information from potential recruits who can then be approached by recruiters in their area.
In fact, the source goes further, claiming that the majority of the budget allocated to Army Esports is spent on travel and lodging for recruiters and leaders to attend key gaming events – the ones identified as the likeliest and richest sources of leads for potential recruits. They say that in the 18 months since Army Esports launched, it’s generally only been recruiters and social media managers who have traveled to gaming events.
The esports facade itself appears to be only jersey deep. While the 21 soldiers selected for the team are, by all accounts, talented players in their chosen games – and have even seen limited success at exhibition tournaments like PAX’s Apex Legends competition – our source believes none of Army Esports’ teams are good enough to place in even minor tournaments, much less go toe-to-toe at the national or international level with organisations such as Cloud9, FaZe Clan, or Team Liquid. Big as the army is, they assert that the talent pool of available soldiers simply isn’t big enough to scout a real, pro-level team.
That doesn’t hurt the unit’s mission – after all, it doesn’t have to be concerned about securing sponsorships or winning prize purses in order to fund itself. The soldiers and civilian employees who work in Army Esports are going to get paid no matter what. The ‘team’ can instead afford to spread out, having as many individual members in as many popular games as possible. As our contact puts it, “The focus … has always been to appeal to a wide audience of young males and females with as many games as possible no matter the skill level.”
Esprit de corps
The past month has been a difficult one for the soldiers on the Army’s Esports team, the insider reveals. The barrage of negative comments in streamers’ chat (“what’s your favourite US war crime” was often spammed during streams), the blowback from the “UwU” message, and heightened media scrutiny have all taken their toll. Players and members of the social media team, many of whom are junior enlisted soldiers, have faced threats and other harassment on their personal social media channels.
According to our source, the person responsible for the notorious “UwU” message faced “incredible amounts of hate” from the public and was advised by a superior to stay away from Twitter until the furore died down. “It’s really disheartening to see,” they say. “Regardless of the organisation, the USAE members are still people.”
Col. Megan Stallings is the commander of Recruiting Command’s Marketing and Engagement Brigade. She tells us the ‘pause’ in Twitch streaming was called as a response to a spike in trolling and harassment on the channel.
“The US Army Esports Team paused streaming on Twitch in order to review internal policies and procedures in the wake of an increased amount of spam, harassing behaviors, and threats,” Stallings says. “We want to ensure moderation on the channel has a layered approach to allow all participants to have a voice. Part of allowing everyone a voice includes not allowing threats, offensive content, or continual spam.”
Ultimately, she explains, the mission on Twitch is to help bridge the gap between American society and American soldiers – two populations that she’s concerned have grown increasingly alienated from each other.
Stallings is less concerned about the idea that Army Esports might be giving young people the mistaken impression that pro gaming is a potential career in the army.
“While we cannot control an initial perception where someone may think the esports team is an enlistment option from distant appearance,” she says, “upon engagement with a team member they will learn he or she has a primary job – one of 150+ career fields the Army offers – in the Army that he or she will return to.”
Duncan adds that the unit is taking steps to make sure it’s appealing to an of-age audience.
“Our Twitch channel is set to 18 plus, and the goarmy.com website automatically filters out an individual whose age falls outside this [age 17 to 34] range,” he says.
The commanders agreed that there’s not much more you can do online to make sure your audience is at least 18 years old.
Ocasio-Cortez, however, does not agree. “Right now, currently, children on platforms such as Twitch are bombarded with banner ads that link to recruitment sign-up forms that can be submitted by children as young as 12 years old,” she said on the House floor July 30, while arguing for her amendment. “These are not educational outreach programs, but recruitment forms for the military.
.@AOC: Children on platforms such as Twitch are bombarded with banners ads that link to military recruitment sign up forms that can be submitted by children as young as 12 years old. pic.twitter.com/9N7u2R9TjN
— Public Citizen (@Public_Citizen) July 30, 2020
“When it comes to issues of technology, I believe that we should act with reservation and caution first, rather than entering with both feet in and then trying to undo damage that could potentially be done.”
The path ahead
US Army Esports’ retreat from the Twitch limelight is only temporary.
“We intend to get back to streaming,” Stallings says. The ‘pause’ will give her soldiers the chance to look at and implement new policies for moderators so that individual soldiers aren’t forced to make heat-of-the-moment judgement calls without guidance from above. Army Esports will be back online soon.
One potential obstacle on the path has been removed, too: Ocasio-Cortez’s budget amendment – the one that would have barred the uniformed services from recruiting on Twitch – failed in a House vote July 30, 126 to 292 against. One hundred and three of the congresswoman’s fellow Democrats voted against the measure.
Top image credit: US Army Esports via Facebook