We followed the US Army's official esports team as it recruited gamers at a national video game convention

We followed the US Army's official esports team as it recruited gamers at a national video game convention
Members of the US Army Esports Team.Franck Rabel for Business Insider Today
  • The US Army has a 16-member esports team that livestreams video games like Call of Duty, Apex Legends, and Fortnite on Twitch.
  • The Army uses the esports team to recruit young gamers into joining the military branch, and has been touted as the Army's best recruitment tool as traditional methods have failed.
  • But the esports team has faced criticism for targeting young teenagers as well as for banning Twitch users who bring up issues like US war crimes.
  • We followed members of the esports team as they recruited gamers at a popular video game convention in San Antonio in January.

At a national video game convention in San Antonio, a team of gamers is showcasing the benefits of a military career to teenagers.

They're members of the Army's official esports team, a group of video game players who livestream games like Call of Duty, Apex Legends, and Fortnite around the clock in hopes of recruiting other gamers into the military.

The team of 16 gamers — chosen from a pool of 6,500 applicants — has a dedicated building with state-of-the-art equipment at the Fort Knox Army base. Although they previously served in other roles in the Army, gaming is now their full-time job.
In January, the team attended the Pax South convention in San Antonio, one of the world's top gaming expos, to interact with fellow gaming enthusiasts.

"A massive convention like this, we'll do several thousand leads over the course of a long weekend," Lt. Col. Kirk Duncan of the esports team said. "The numbers are really staggering."

At this convention, the team attracted interest from gamers like 18-year-old high school senior Argelio Arto Guajardo.

"It makes me want to join the Army because of the esports team," Guajardo said. "It's every gamer's dream to join a pro team, win, make new friends along the way. I'm hoping to get a good education there, good healthcare, pay the bills and that stuff," said Argelio Artie Guajardo.

But Guajardo adds that he would only join the army as a last resort. "Oh yeah, I'm scared," he said. "I don't want to get shot. I don't want to blow up. It's kind of scary to lose a leg or a limb."
We followed the US Army's official esports team as it recruited gamers at a national video game convention
The esports team visits video game conventions like Pax South in San Antonio to interact and recruit gaming enthusiasts into the military.Franck Rabel for Business Insider Today
The esports team is streaming again after a five-week, self-imposed "pause" to review internal policy. The team faced heavy criticism in July when it started banning users who asked about US war crimes on its Twitch chat, a move some legal experts argued violated the users' First Amendment rights.

Earlier this year, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York introduced an amendment that would prevent the military from using esports for recruitment. Although the proposal was defeated, the Army has since introduced a new set of guidelines that includes limiting its Twitch channel to players who are 18 and older.

"There are certain young people that game that we can't actively recruit because of their age," Duncan said. "But if we can build that interest in them when they are young, when it comes time for them to make decisions about what they want to do with their future, we hope that their experience interacting with the esports team will plant a seed that, hey, maybe I can be a soldier."

Esports team members stream practically around the clock on Twitch — in some cases a single shift is 9 a.m. to 10 p.m.

"All we are doing is pulling the curtain away and showing you who we are as people," Sgt. 1st Class Christopher Jones, general manager of the Army esports team, told Business Insider Weekly. "Now we are actually telling you, hey, we're just like you. We understand one another. We're both gamers. We both live in this ecosystem that is gaming and esports, so why not have that conversation?"

The esports program started in 2018 after the Army missed its recruiting goal for the first time in 13 years. It became clear that old ways of recruiting — at college career fairs and by making cold calls to landlines — were no longer working.

We followed the US Army's official esports team as it recruited gamers at a national video game convention
The esports team has faced criticism for its recruitment of young teenagers.Franck Rabel for Business Insider Today
Now, the team travels to gaming events, colleges and high schools around the country. The recruiting goal for 2020 is enlisting up to 66,000 new recruits by September 30. The team includes seasoned soldiers like Sgt. 1st Class Joshua David, aka "Strotnium," who has seen war up close. He served as an Army Ranger, dog handler, and sniper before joining the esports team. David is the Army's best Call of Duty player, and streams from 9 a.m. to 10 p.m. every day.
"Usually it would just be us talking" with their opponents during the livestream, David said. "We're like, 'Oh yeah, we are in the Army. And then they are like, 'You are in the Army and you are playing video games?'"

"Then it just kind of opens the whole floodgate — 'How? Why? Please tell us more, we want to know.'"

Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, the audience for esports has doubled on the streaming platform Twitch, which has 17.5 million daily visitors. And with 72% of men and 49% of women under 30 playing video games these days, the pool of potential recruits is growing rapidly.

"It's an opportunity to engage them in a platform where they are constantly day after day," Duncan said. "Someone who has the skills, the discipline, the desire, the communication, the ability to problem-solve. Those are all things that we are looking for in soldiers."