- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 3, 2019

You’re a soldier working your way carefully through a bizarre, colorful environment filled with ramps and sudden drop-offs. Your weapon is at the ready. Enemy troops are everywhere. As one “hostile” moves into your view, you take aim and fire. Without warning, you find yourself taken out as well, dispatched by an enemy soldier you never saw.

Welcome to combat in the Gamer Age.

Uncle Sam wants you — to play Splitgate. If not Splitgate, then Fortnite or another role-playing game. The Pentagon is even willing to pay you to do it.

Electronic sports — better known as esports — is a form of competition that uses elaborate multiplayer video games. Analysts predict the global audience for esports will grow to more than 450 million by the end of the year and bring in more than $1 billion in revenue.

The Army wants to tap into that market of potential recruits and is embracing esports in a big way. Last year marked the official rollout of the official Army esports team. About 6,500 active and reserve soldiers tried out, and about 16 made the final cut.

“We are a competitive gaming team, and we’re in direct support of the recruiting effort,” said Sgt. 1st Class Christopher Jones, the noncommissioned officer in charge of the Army esports squad.

The team members are all soldiers and come from a variety of military fields — including at least one who is a Special Forces member. But joining the Army’s esports team is like a homecoming because all were gamers before they ever put on a uniform, Sgt. Jones said.

“I’ve been an avid World of Warcraft player for over 15 years — before I got into the Army. And I’ve been playing since I’ve been in the Army,” he said. “We’re telling the story behind the uniform. We’re gamers just like everyone else. We just have a different chosen profession.”

This year, the Army took delivery of an elaborate trailer from an 18-wheeler filled with high-tech immersive gaming consoles to give potential recruits an idea of what could be in their future if they join. The trailer was recently featured at the Association of the U.S. Army conference in Washington.

“We run constant scrimmages and tournaments to see who our highest competitive soldiers are,” Sgt. Jones said. “After additional screening processes and interviews, that’s how we end up bringing them on the team.”

Aid to recruiting

Being on the team is a temporary duty assignment for the soldiers. In addition to competing at national and international gaming tournaments, the members are also Army recruiting liaisons.

“The Army is not just about shooting weapons and going to war. It’s a huge misconception that’s out there,” Sgt. Nicole Ortiz, an Army esports team member, said in a statement. “We’re here to share and tell others about the awesome opportunities.”

Retired Army Maj. Gen. Christopher Hughes is a former commander of Cadet Command, responsible for all the Army ROTC units in the country. He said he enthusiastically supports the Army’s embrace of esports as a way to tap into the pool of potential recruits.

“You have to reach out to where they’re at,” said Gen. Hughes, who acknowledged he didn’t hit a single enemy soldier during a run through a Splitgate match in the esports trailer at the AUSA conference. “This is a cognitive development tool [that builds] critical thinking skills.”

Sgt. Jones said role-playing games, no matter how realistic, are not like real combat, but the activity does stress traits and enhance skills that are important for soldiers in any environment.

Most of the games require advanced literary skills because of the detailed instructions needed to set up and get through the quest or mission.

“A lot of those role-playing games also have statistics you need to maintain,” Sgt. Jones said. “English and math are two very extensive subjects” on the military enlistment tests.

In addition, being a top-level gamer requires interpersonal skills and the ability to train and inspire a team.

“We have a lot of soldiers who have amazing skill sets in this area and we’re showing it off,” Sgt. Jones said. “The civil population has been playing [role-playing games] with us for years. The difference is, now we’re out front about it.”

Gen. Hughes said he thought role-playing games could be a major benefit to training certain kinds of soldiers, such as novice helicopter pilots.

“Imagine if you had all kinds of muscle memory for doing something [in an esports trailer] that holds you to the same standard and then you put them in the helicopter,” he said. “We might get better pilots in the long run.”

• Mike Glenn can be reached at mglenn@washingtontimes.com.

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