August 03, 2021

Esports and the Military

Executive Summary

Electronic sports, known as esports, are video games played like competitive sports on viewing platforms. Esports are a developing market with a significant presence on social media sites frequented by young Americans. In recent years, the military services have expanded their outreach methods to include presences on esports streaming platforms, using them as a recruiting tool to reach youth and educate them on military service. Veteran organizations leverage social communities within esports to engage and support veterans upon leaving service. This landscape analysis identifies uses of esports platforms to date by the Department of Defense, military services, Department of Veterans Affairs, and veteran-serving nonprofits, and provides considerations for future esports engagement.

The following analysis of the esports landscape identifies four trends regarding the relationship between esports and the military community:

  • Given the demographic intersection of the esports and military communities, the military services recognize the potential for recruitment inherent in the esports community.
  • As the services engage esports platforms for recruitment, developing familiarity with platform norms and rules will assist the services in using such platforms effectively for recruitment.
  • There is no quick fix to recruiting and social science concerns about violent video games. Negative behaviors associated with playing video games should be taken into consideration by the military when assessing individuals’ fitness for service.
  • Esports can provide an avenue for connecting communities of veterans and providing veterans with resources.


Popular culture has long been a method used to bridge the gap between the military, veterans, and broader society. Initiatives such as United Service Organizations (USO) tours and Department of Defense–sponsored films serve to connect the military with those interested in service, as well as educate Americans. These undertakings have been used to recruit new service members, increase support for military service, and connect returning veterans to their communities. As the military services continue to expand outreach areas to broader American society, the growing field of esports provide an avenue for continued evolution.

Esports—encompassing games, communities, platforms, and competitions—engaged 495 million viewers in 2020. Expanding viewership makes esports a lucrative growth area for companies, as the sector is anticipated to earn $1.5 billion by 2023. Technological developments enabling streaming and communication in real time, such as advancements in mobile phone technology, have facilitated esports’ expansion and popularity, lowering the threshold for engagement with viewers. The esports market is often compared to the traditional sports market, with similar opportunities for sponsorship, personalities, and large events drawing a significant number of viewers. Esports not only provides expanding access to individuals, but further allows for direct interaction with users—an advantage over other forms of media, such as typical marketing or film.

Esports fans are predominately young and tend to be in their early twenties. The majority of esports participants are male, meaning that the demographics of the esports community overlap with the primary target population for military recruitment, which has traditionally focused on 17-to-24-year-old men. These efforts provide an added advantage to traditional local recruiting models, as esports participation enables recruiters to access potential recruits beyond their local community.

Similarly, the makeup of the esports community overlaps with the demographics of current service members, as over half of the active-duty force is younger than 25. Estimates show that gaming is popular among junior service members, which means the services have de facto influencers already participating on gaming platforms. Much of the post-9/11 veteran community is made up of young men who grew up in the video game era and who may enjoy esports. The popularity of first-person shooter games among young men led the military to invest in the esports market with the hypothesis that there may be overlapping interest in military service. First-person shooter games are those “designed to closely engage players in violent virtual activities.” The social and community aspects of esports serve as a platform on which the Army and the Navy can identify and contact potential recruits.

Furthermore, esports may provide opportunities for engagement with the veteran community. A growing number of events and initiatives use esports as a way to create community among service members and veterans, as well as connect veterans with mental health resources. Efforts to reach these groups are currently disparate, despite overlapping demographics.

While esports provide a new frontier in the evolution of engagement between popular culture and the military, existing literature on the relationship between esports and the military is limited. There is little information beyond aggregate marketing and revenue data. This white paper first explores the emerging esports landscape and provides an overview of available demographic information. It then outlines existing service-level efforts to engage esports as a tool for military recruitment and veteran connections. The paper concludes with overall observations, possibilities for future research, and recommendations for esports companies, military recruiters, and veteran-serving organizations.

Esports Explained

Esports are an evolution of video games played competitively in an organized fashion. The level of competition ranges from sponsored teams playing for money to casual matches between individuals; just as with other sports, a gamer can engage in a pick-up game, participate in an intramural style group, or play on a professional team. Due to technological limitations, competitive gaming used to exclusively occur in person with multiple controllers plugged into a console, or through internet-connected accounts and multiplayer game online matchmaking. The rise of streaming platforms has allowed players to organize on a mass scale and created opportunities for spectators to observe players in real time. As with traditional sports, esports has its own terminology and language, made more complex by online chat functions and the multitude of games available. The military services would benefit from a baseline understanding of the esports environment, its organizational structure, and participation trends as they further engage on existing platforms, particularly since the Department of Defense (DoD) and the military services are subject to different standards and laws than private companies.

Like film production, the gaming market is divided into video game developers, publishers, and, increasingly, gaming organizations and teams. Three of the largest companies, Activision Blizzard, Epic Games, and Ubisoft, act as developers, publishers, and distributors. While all esports are similar in that they exist on computer-facilitated platforms, the esports sector is not a monolith. Different types of games, platforms, and forms of engagement make it an incredibly diverse field.

Two data points matter in esports—the number of viewers and the level of revenue. As of publication, the esports industry in 2020 had an estimated 495 million viewers and $1.1 billion in annual revenue, marking a significant increase in recent years. The market is driven (and, in large part, run) by young people, as digital literacy is critical not only for understanding the market, but also for successfully navigating it. Growth in the youth market, and potential for growth into other demographics, make esports a lucrative investment.

While the military services cannot participate in esports to generate revenue, they can benefit from the influence viewership affords. The market’s diversity offers opportunities to expand reach and engage subgroups with niche interests. As new entrants to esports, beholden to policy guidance and resource constraints, military recruiting commands must understand trends and norms in the field to identify avenues for growth and avoid social media missteps.

This section provides an overview of esports demographics, organizational structure, and market, and further discusses controversies associated with esports.

Who Engages with Esports?

Esports participants can engage with streaming platforms as a viewer, gamer, streamer, or a combination of all three. In order for the military services to most effectively leverage esports as a recruiting tool, they not only must understand how people engage, but also who engages in each way. The following section provides an overview of esports participation.

In 2020, the global esports community was comprised of approximately 189 million individuals who participated in at-home gaming. Though video gaming is stereotyped as a pastime for men, of these gamers, almost half were women (roughly 46 percent in 2020). Those who play competitively tend to be younger than at-home gamers; on one of the largest platforms, Twitch, 73 percent of users are under the age of 35. As previously noted, the majority of streamers are between the ages of 18 and 49, with an average age of 21. Streamers are more likely to be male than female, with Twitch’s demographics being comprised of 65 percent men and 35 percent women. Viewers totaled 397.8 million in 2019, with high engagement among the youth population.

Gaming has experienced consistent struggles with misogyny and sexism, even as the field works to expand its market into new viewership and players. Compared to the demographics of active streamers, viewers have a more skewed gender breakdown: only 17 percent of American esports viewers are women. Women are a minority in esports but comprise an increasing segment of the overall demographic. They differ from their male counterparts in that they engage with a wider variety of esports genres; although this trend represents a broad generalization, the difference between participants’ primary genre preferences by gender indicates that there is an opportunity to connect with a broader audience by expanding and diversifying the genres used for outreach. The military services, which have largely focused on games of aggressive genres, may therefore be able to increase their engagement with more women recruits by partaking in games of other genres as well.

Esports Organizational Structure

Although esports are multifaceted and evolving, the ecosystem can be viewed through a lens similar to the traditional sports market by examining the various stakeholders, investors, and participants. As with traditional sports, there are delineations between types of games, the types of people who engage with them (as both participants and spectators), and the popularity of different games. While games have historically been streamed on personal computers and consoles, the sector is expanding to include mobile technologies. The adaptation to mobile technologies increases accessibility, as more games can be played on a phone. The rise of esports streaming platforms has further led to the creation of esports arenas—spaces dedicated to viewing teams compete live and in person.

Platforms for collaborative and competitive gaming and viewing have been an important adaptation. Games are broadcast on personal, team, or game-affiliated channels via streaming platforms, with streaming services lowering the threshold to watch, though some matches are available on channels such as ESPN, BBC, and DisneyXD. Twitch (owned by Amazon), YouTube Gaming, and Facebook Gaming (onto which Microsoft moved viewers previously using their platform, Mixer) are the top platforms for playing and streaming esports. Viewership varies across the platforms, with Twitch ranking as the most popular platform and Facebook working to expand its viewership. The esports fanbase can access a variety of professional and amateur streamers via these growing platforms. Recruiters from each of the military services would benefit from a better understanding of the trends and patterns of engagement on each of the esports platforms.

There are three main categories of multiplayer online esports: first-person shooter, multiplayer online battle arena, and battle royale, each with their own competition and viewership trends. Popular first-person shooter games include Counter-Strike, Call of Duty, and Overwatch. Popular battle arena games, or strategy-based games, are League of Legends and Dota 2. Popular battle royale games, based around “last-person standing” gaming, include Fortnite and Apex Legends. Other game categories include sports simulation games and role-playing games. First-person shooter games and arena battles can be more competition driven than role-playing games, though viewers can also observe strategy and world-building game play. Weekly trends vary regarding which games and channels are most popular, a reflection of the pace of regeneration and turnover in the esports community.

Esports content can further be divided into two categories: personality- and gameplay-driven content, and purely competitive content. Personality-driven content relies on individuals generating a following, similar to influencers on other social media platforms. Their approaches include collaborations and fan-favorite pairings. Military esports can capitalize on personality-driven content, where the service’s brand acts as the “personality.”

The evolution of esports competitions and tournaments has led to the creation of esports teams who play against each other competitively for prize money. The creation of competitive teams combined with expanded streaming options has increased the visibility of gaming. As with traditional sports teams, professional esports teams are scouted, recruited, and go through try-outs. Civilian teams scout talent at tournaments, negotiate contracts, and manage teams. As esports have rapidly expanded, the support system surrounding players and tournaments has also professionalized, with major management companies, production companies, and sponsors. Esports teams exist at many levels, ranging from high school and university-level teams to ones developed by professional sports teams. Some colleges even offer degree programs to develop esports professionals. The military services also field teams and have put out calls for soldiers or sailors to apply. Service-specific efforts to engage in esports are covered in more depth below.

Esports Market Overview

Esports revenue trends appeal to investors and other parties interested in gaining influence over growing viewership markets. As investments in esports increase, new streaming platforms emerge and new infrastructure is created, which enables more streamers and viewers to participate and drives further growth in the market. Coupled with the rapid market expansion of esports, including viewership and opportunities for sponsorship and advertising, the market surrounding esports is lucrative.

Esports revenue streams are varied, including mobile ticket sales, advertising and sponsorship, and the acquisition or establishment of esports teams. The sponsorship segment, in particular, dominated the global esports revenue, with a market share of 39.9 percent in 2019.

The continuous growth of the esports market illustrates the ever-changing nature of the esports ecosystem and the potential for military recruitment. Compared to television viewership of sports finals, esports tournaments garner more viewers than any sports league other than the National Football League. Diverse options and varied subsectors has made esports an attractive investment opportunity. Driven by venture capital firms, private equity, and strategic investors, investments in esports have increased in recent years.

The global COVID-19 pandemic has minimally affected esports—by June 2020, more than half of live events were shifted to an online platform, while a quarter were postponed. Pre-pandemic, a hurdle for growth was limited esports arena infrastructure and lack of organization. However, market watchers expect the pandemic to accelerate the virtual aspect of esports and make it more accessible to a wider audience. Though the services have been slow to expand virtual recruiting presence, outreach through esports has yielded successful results and enabled the services to reach potential recruits on virtual platforms, a shift from more traditional recruitment strategies that rely on indirect advertising and face-to-face recruiter interactions.

As companies work to tap into demographic groups for marketing purposes, esports developers and producers are creating brands and lifestyles. For instance, 100 Thieves (100T) has developed a lifestyle video game brand—a combination of a competitive team, merchandise, influencer representatives, and cool factor—similar to athletic brands like Nike. As in other sectors, 100T represents certain companies’ growth in esports, which is more than competitive gaming; it is a way of life and a community. Cloud9, an esports organization fielding teams, raised $50 million from investors in 2019, demonstrating a growing impact and interest in esports companies as influencers. The best-in-class esports brands conduct market research on their players, with knowledge about demographic group trends, thematic interests, or market crossover. Similar to tradition sports, sponsorships appear as advertising on players’ jerseys, apparel, and other related merchandise.

While the esports market is lucrative for private companies, the military services do not (and cannot) profit monetarily from participation in esports. However, esports market revenue trends can provide the military services with valuable information regarding the size and scope of their potential audience and, thus, their potential recruiting pool. The military services’ participation in esports aids in the objective of raising brand awareness and driving interest in military service. Overall, exposing youth to service members and military culture through esports can increase their familiarity with opportunities in the military, potentially leading to a higher propensity for military service.

Esports Controversy

Esports, and video games more generally, are not without controversy. Parents, medical professionals, and lawmakers continue to discuss and debate the potentially detrimental effects of youth exposure to violence. Advocacy against violent video games has led to the introduction of several laws attempting to limit the sale of violent video games to minors, largely focused on young children’s exposure. The Supreme Court considered one such policy, a ban on the sale of violent video games to minors, in the 2010 Brown v. Entertainment Merchants Association, but the legislation was found to inhibit First Amendment rights. Because this debate has persisted for more than two decades, there is research that sheds light on these claims. More recently, concerns surrounding the military’s presence on streaming platforms have come to the forefront.

The primary focus of these studies is illuminating the impact that exposure to “virtual violence” has on video game players, such as increased aggressive and antisocial behaviors. The findings raise questions, given the military’s preponderance for military-style games, though most studies focus on the most extreme gaming behaviors and consumption.

One study showed that after playing a violent video game, individuals associated themselves with more aggressive traits on a personality assessment, suggesting that “playing violent video games can lead to the automatic learning of aggressive self-views.” A 2013 study showed that individuals who played 20 minutes of violent video games every day for three days displayed increasingly aggressive behavior over the course of the three days. Other studies examined the link between violent video games and decreases in socially desirable behaviors, such as empathy and moral engagement. They found that college students who played violent games and were then presented with photos meant to induce certain feelings responded with decreased levels of these socially desirable behaviors.

The concern about exposure to virtual violence largely focuses on younger children at key developmental stages, who are more likely to experience the purported long-term negative effects of violent video games. The American Academy of Pediatrics continues to express concern about children’s exposure to virtual violence. Similarly, legislation to limit virtual violence is concentrated on the effects to young children. However, research shows that adults are likewise impacted. In adults and adolescents, those exposed to violent media tend to become more aggressive, see the world as a scarier place, become more desensitized to violence in media and in reality, become less sympathetic to victims of violence, and are less likely to behave prosaically.

The link between violent video game exposure and aggressive behavior, one body of research argues, “continues to be a reliable finding,” and shows consistency across multiple analytical methods. In an effort to mitigate these purported effects, researchers have suggested that pediatricians introduce “media diets,” which would evaluate the amount and type of media that developing individuals frequently view, into standard pediatric care.

An opposing body of research argues that the overall link between video games and aggression is modest and not statistically significant. Some argue the only significant association is in individuals who play four or more hours of violent video games per day. Research identifying causal links between video games has interchanged “violence” and “aggression,” muddying the waters and making it unclear whether or not violent video games truly correlate to any traits at all. Simulated scenarios meant to allow levels of aggression to be measured—often through self-reported answers or a pain-inflicting auditory device provided to study participants—have been criticized as too disparate from real-world situations to accurately reflect reality.

In recent years, the theory that violent video games do not, in fact, have any significant link to aggressive behavior has increased in prevalence. The benefits of video gaming have been similarly studied with research revealing a range of “prosocial” aspects of gaming, such as forming teams, social interaction, and communication, that “mitigate” the short-term effects on aggression levels. Still, proponents of the aggression argument claim that these shortcomings in the research and arguments for prosocial aspects do not change that, when the entire body of research is considered, the linkage between virtual violence and aggression is “well supported” and “robust.”

While the literature identifies potential negative outcomes resulting from gaming, some could argue that aspects of gaming considered negative in civilian contexts might make gamers ideal military recruits. Service members not only play first-person shooter games—they may also be required to train as first-person shooters. A 2017 study showed that frequent players of violent video games specifically were less empathetic and required lower levels of neural resources to complete task performance. It concluded these individuals can become “callous, cool, and in control,” characteristics that could be a both a benefit and liability for the unique ethical requirements of war. Some studies show men who are exposed to violent video games are more likely to become aggressive, which may be necessary in certain military circumstances. Further, as the military services continue to incorporate video games and simulations into training, recruits who join the armed forces with video game experience may be prepared for the motor skills required in advanced simulations.

Tensions and concerns about screen usage also affect service members. As shown in military studies, excessive video game usage was associated with poor mental health. In one study, a group of Marines exhibited sleep deprivation, poor job performance, and atypical mood disorders, which was correlated with excessive video game usage. The cohort reported sacrificing sleep hygiene to play video games, sometimes for 30 to 60 hours per week. They reported experiencing low mood, poor concentration, inability to focus, irritability, drowsiness, and insomnia. A study of more than 10,000 soldiers found junior enlisted soldiers reported the highest frequency of video game play (51–59 percent), compared to senior enlisted soldiers or officers (11–37 percent). While the study of Marines showed an extreme, the survey of soldiers shows that the effects of video gaming—on aggression, sleep deprivation, and mental health in general—may impact junior enlisted military personnel to a greater degree. Though much attention is paid to developing brains, such studies illustrate follow-on implications of playing video games. While the dangers warned against in social science research on video games are concerning, the studies are inconclusive. The most extreme cases are highlighted in such research and the overall risks surrounding esports are not definitive at this stage in the industry’s history.

The diversity of the esports ecosystem—expanding demographics, rapidly developing subsectors, lucrative investments, and social controversy—complicates the military services’ inclusion on esports platforms. The next section details the military services’ involvement to date in esports and illustrates areas for improvement.

Military Context

Military involvement in video games pre-dates the rise of esports and streaming platforms—the services have used simulations and games in training for years. The Army developed the free video game America’s Army in 2002, with numerous updates in years since, to educate and inform potential soldiers. America’s Army is a military themed first-person shooter game in which players are Army personnel fighting “bad guys.” Some argue that America’s Army has been a more effective recruiting tool than any other method, with 40 million downloads from 2002 to 2008. The Army and Navy modernized interaction through video games in recent years, capitalizing on the expansion of the youth market in video games and streaming platforms in an effort to bolster recruiting.

The services have expanded their involvement in video games to be more participatory, recognizing that Generation Z (born between 1995 and 2010, and currently of prime recruiting age) prefers interaction over propaganda and slogans. Engagement with esports has been further bolstered by the COVID-19 pandemic, which heightened the use of esports as a recruiting tool. Initial reporting indicates that while the Army was down 5,500 recruits in April 2020, it had significant success drawing recruits via video games. The flexibility of online gaming could help the military reach a broader audience in the post-pandemic world, as esports present a non-invasive way to share information and connect with broader society.

Questions remain regarding the services’ vision and strategy for launching their esports teams. Livestreaming platforms and the gaming and esports communities are comprised of complex informal norms and expectations for which the services may not be prepared. These norms and expectations extend to the use of language, branding, and signaling, whether teams serve a competitive or information-sharing purpose. While the military services have marketing offices and contracts that develop materials to appeal to youth, such messaging does not translate directly to the esports realm. It is unclear if the services conducted an in-depth analysis of such norms and participants. For example, although first-person shooter games are some of the most visible and popular, if the services only provide a team for first-person shooter games, they run the risk of limiting their recruiting impact to the demographics of the platform, which are more likely to be white and male.

The DoD and military service esports teams are not beholden to sponsorships for revenue or for fielding and developing teams. However, it is unclear what costs the military incurred from the development and maintenance of their esports teams. While the military services engage in online games, they largely avoid tournament costs by only participating in free tournaments with other military services, both foreign and domestic. The following section covers service efforts to engage on esports platforms and the resulting tensions.

Service-Specific Efforts

While each service engages in esports, no two services approach esports the same way. The Army, for example, uses esports for recruiting. Recognizing the need to expand into new markets, the Army started an esports team, the U.S. Army Esports Team, in 2018. As of May 2020, the Army has invested over $1.5 million to create a team comprised of members from the “Regular Army and Army Reserves” and support them in their competitive gaming pursuits. The Army has seen a return on their investment, citing the expansion of online recruiting efforts, including exposure and associated esports advertising, for meeting its 2019 recruiting goals. While the soldiers on the U.S. Army Esports Team are not recruiters per se, they are part of an outreach team that sits under the Marketing and Engagement Brigade of U.S. Army Recruiting Command based at Fort Knox.

Navy Recruiting Command also launched its own esports team, “Goats & Glory,” or “America’s Navy,” on Twitch in early 2020 in an effort to expand recruitment in the esports market. The Navy asserts that esports team members focus on raising awareness of the different roles one can play in the military and the opportunities it provides in order to “make Sailors more relatable and dispel common misconceptions about Navy life.” The team also allows the Navy to build rapport and connect with a new audience by having team members there to answer questions about their experiences in the Navy: “We want people to understand that Sailors are just like everyone else—they have hobbies, interests, and families. Being in the Navy doesn’t preclude those things.”

For both services, outreach efforts extend beyond the official Army and Navy esports arenas. Some of the services’ players have become social media esports influencers in their own right. The services encourage esports team members to become esports influencers to bolster recruitment efforts, but such exposure also poses potential future cybersecurity challenges.

The Air Force currently uses esports exclusively as an extracurricular, internal community-building outlet, rather than an external recruitment tool. Air Force Gaming’s mission is “to create an inclusive gaming organization for Airmen of all ages, ranks, and backgrounds,” and in all locations. The Air Force intramural esports league offers competitive gaming opportunities for the Air Force and Space Force, but does not participate in competitions with non-service members. While the Army and Navy esports teams play a variety of war-themed games, such as Call of Duty: Modern Warfare and Counter-Strike: Global Offensive, the Air Force plays games that aren’t necessarily related to war, such as Super Smash Brothers and Dragon Ball FighterZ. The Air Force’s success in using less violent games suggests that the services may consider these sorts of games as potential avenues for outreach and recruitment in the future.

The Marine Corps not only has the smallest annual recruiting target, but also the smallest recruiting budget. Because of this, the Marines rely on traditional recruiting approaches and strong brand recognition in order to meet recruiting requirements, and thus have not focused on esports as a recruitment tool. While the Marine Corps participated in the annual Call of Duty Endowment Bowl in 2020, it indicated no plans to support a permanent (extracurricular or competitive) esports team in the near future. The Marine Corps has stated that it “doesn’t want to be seen as gamifying the professional interactions young people expect when working with Marine recruiters.” The Marine Corps acknowledges, however, that many gamers and Marines working in cyber communications, drone operations, and electronic warfare, for example, share aspirations “to do things that require high acuity, high cognition; they want to work in tech.”

The Army, Marine Corps, and Navy have been implementing targeted outreach initiatives, such as service-branded controller giveaways and free play at esports events for students with good grades in school, to not only increase familiarity with the services and their respective esports teams, but also interactions with recruiters (non-esports team members).

Gaps in Military Esports Engagement

In a short period of time, the military services identified a new opportunity and fielded and professionalized esports teams. As the military services look forward, there are numerous avenues for growth. As previously mentioned, Army and Navy esports play multiplayer, first-person shooter games. In some ways, it’s a sound business decision to use the most popular games that reference basic military skills. However, the exclusive use of these games may limit outreach. Military recruiting predominately recruits young white men, a population reflected in the esports platforms on which the services currently engage. If the services intend to expand their recruitment to women and minorities, they should consider other types of gaming categories. For example, women are less likely to play first-person shooter or multiplayer online battle arena games. While women and men are nearly equally represented in esports, women are underrepresented in the platforms the services currently use. Furthermore, at a time when the services—particularly the Navy—are seeking to recruit individuals with backgrounds in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM), they may be missing those individuals in prioritizing first-person shooter games. There exists an overlap in women who game and those with an interest in STEM degrees, but as illustrated, women tend to participate in other types of gaming.

Beyond giveaways, game variety and market size present opportunities to flexibly adapt recruitment efforts to fill service requirements. If games serve as a proxy for interest and nominal skillsets or aptitude, the services could promote wider interest by engaging in strategic, critical thinking, or theme-based games that would screen for the critical skills that the military requires. Current engagement is limited, appealing to individuals who have demonstrated a degree of interest in military service. In order to expand recruitment, the services should consider focusing on the types of games that may appeal to individuals who may not have considered military service.

Furthermore, there appears to be an assumption that digital literacy among gamers equates to other forms of technical talent. The services struggle to attract and retain “cyber talent,” and look to esports as a potential avenue for recruitment. However, in many ways esports are an extension of social media platforms that do not require a high degree of technical cyber skills. It is therefore potentially misguided to assume that participation in esports represents a degree of technical cyber proficiency. The Army and Navy could broaden their outreach to other types to identify individuals possessing specific skills to meet requirements, such as coding.

The process to convert gamers into soldiers, sailors, airmen, or marines will require the services to intentionally plan how best to engage the esports community and any overall health and fitness discrepancies that may exist between the services’ expectations and the demographics of the gaming community.

Recruiting Controversy

The military services’ presence on streaming platforms has received some pushback from policymakers and advocates of restricting military recruiting access. Some members of Congress have argued that the military’s use of video games for recruiting “impressionable young people and children” made war seem like a game. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez introduced an amendment to the House's appropriations bill in August 2020 which would have blocked the military from doing any type of online recruiting with video games. Ocasio-Cortez purported that Twitch streamers largely encompassed viewers “far” younger than recruiting age and that the Army “should not conflate military service with ‘shoot-em-up’ style games and contests.” Ocasio-Cortez’s amendment was ultimately defeated.

The services’ teams have faced free speech criticism as well. Both the Army and Navy esports teams have been criticized for attempting to control or limit discourse on their streaming platforms, arguably violating free speech rights by banning 300 civilian players who posed controversial questions regarding war crimes in Twitch’s chat. While Twitch permits users to ban players regardless of the reason, the services are government entities, complicating their actions. The Army stood behind their decision to ban certain users, stating, “The team viewed the user’s question as a violation of Twitch’s harassment policy and banned the user.” However, lawyers from across the country argued that banning speakers in a government-operated public forum violated First Amendment rights. After a brief streaming pause, the Army agreed to restore access to all banned players. Since then, both the Army and Navy have been criticized for allowing users with offensive usernames to stream on their Twitch platforms. The Army and Navy could look into best practices from other government agencies and industry leaders to identify appropriate and accepted ways of exerting narrative control without running into controversy.

Veteran Context

Within the broad esports ecosystem, companies have sought to appeal to niche identities, including veterans. These connections tend to focus on the altruistic benefits of supporting veterans from a community and mental health standpoint. Companies, organizations, and events use approaches such as community building, collaboration, and virtual socializing to connect veterans in ways similar to traditional brick-and-mortar veteran service organizations (VSOs).

The Military Gaming League (MGL) focuses on building esports communities among military personnel and appeals to service members and veterans with the following pitch: “You’re already American heroes, now become an Esports legend.” MGL’s branding, nomenclature, and style reference military culture, noting, “When it comes to competition, there’s no community better inclined toward the principle than military veterans.” Another example is the “Veterans’ Bowl,” a month-long tournament sponsored by industry partners and charities. The organizers made a mental health pitch, connecting video games to stress reduction, adaptive coping, and well-being. Similarly, Stack Up is an organization that brings veterans together to game. The organization has been awarded a grant from U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to study how Stack Up’s programs “promote connectedness among Vets and may contribute to Veteran suicide prevention efforts.” Call of Duty Endowment, an organization that helps veterans find employment, was founded by Activision Blizzard’s CEO Bobby Kotick. It hosts an annual Call of Duty Endowment Bowl, a competition between streamers in the United States’ and United Kingdom’s armed forces. Every U.S. military service participated in 2020.

In the mental health community, there are efforts underway to build upon past research on the effectiveness of virtual reality in exposure therapy for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The University of Southern California’s Institute for Creative Technologies’ Bravemind prototype found that its “virtual Iraq/Afghanistan exposure therapy approach has been shown to produce a meaningful reduction in PTSD symptoms.” Further research has identified esports participation as a way to build connections and avoid potentially harmful behaviors, such as drug or alcohol abuse. Little is known about the exact numbers or identities of veterans who participate in esports, but given the demographics of younger veteran cohorts and surveys of those currently in service, veterans are a key esports audience. With this in mind, some veteran-serving organizations have begun and should continue to use esports as a way to engage communities of veterans.

Areas for Further Consideration

The DoD has historically leveraged popular culture for military recruitment, public support of the military, and veteran reintegration. Esports present a new popular culture avenue that could be used for these purposes. The population of esports participants intersects with the populations of potential military recruits, current service members, and veterans, indicating the potential for engagement between esports and military service. As the services innovate their approaches to military recruitment, they may consider esports as an additional tool for assisting them in their goal of meeting recruitment targets. Similarly, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) and veteran-serving organizations may leverage interests in esports among their target populations to create community among veterans and distribute access to resources.

For the DoD:

The DoD should comprehensively review the services’ esports teams by examining the existing ecosystem, success, metrics, and online outreach, and consider ways to operate more as an esports team and less as recruiters who happen to be on esports platforms. Some suggestions include:

  • Expand engagement with existing esports infrastructure, such as tournaments, pro gamers and pro teams, and merchandise;
  • Build teams that specialize in niche esports games, expand the games current team members play, or identify other ways to engage in esports genres;
  • Use data analytics to build rapport with a broader audience of people, including women;
  • Consider allowing soldiers and sailors to be self-created esports and social media influencers that tie into the overall service brand;
  • Establish guidelines for individual service members that would be beneficial to the military in this industry; and,
  • Develop protocols for recruiters using esports to reach potential recruits, including protocols screening for negative behaviors associated with violent video games.

For the Department of Veterans Affairs and Veteran-Serving Nonprofits

Although little information is known about veteran gamers in particular and veteran organizations have a small footprint within the community, esports may be an avenue to support post-9/11 veterans. Some ways to foster community include:

  • Examine the connection between service member and veteran online communities and interpersonal connections and whether organizations that help with transition and veteran support can better leverage their presence on esports.
  • Study research looking at esports as a tool for addressing PTSD and as something the VA can support; and,
  • Offer community gaming and esports spaces in VA centers and in VSO chapters and posts to support the younger generation of veterans.

For Esports Companies

Because the military is an inexpert participant on esports platforms, the growing companies and infrastructure within esports could engage to a greater degree with the DoD. To support national security through improving recruiting, companies could:

  • Consider investing in the online community component of esports, as this aspect of the community drives personal decisions and can attract new populations to the esports industry;
  • Expand collaboration and partnership with the military esports teams; and
  • Share data analytics to military recruiting commands to support their efforts on esports platforms.

The field of esports appeals to younger market segments. The demographics of the younger market segment include both potential military recruits and the majority of current service members. The DoD and veteran-related organizations have started to see and engage with the opportunities in esports, but have thus far limited engagement. There is significant room for expansion and outreach for recruiting, military brand marketing, and community development.

About the Authors

Elizabeth Howe was a researcher for the Military, Veterans, and Society Program at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS). She is assistant editor for Defense One. Howe has worked in defense journalism since 2014, publishing content with Connecting Vets, Virginia Tech’s Collegiate Times, Army News Service, Air Combat Command Public Affairs Headquarters, and Ball Aerospace. Howe holds an MA in rhetoric and a BA in literature from Virginia Tech.

Elena LoRusso is a Joseph S. Nye, Jr. intern in the Military, Veterans, and Society Program at CNAS. Prior to joining CNAS, Elena worked with the Army Community Service’s Employment Readiness Program at Fort Drum, New York, as a career coach for soldiers, Department of Defense civilian employees, and their family members. She also completed a year of community service as an AmeriCorps VISTA. Elena graduated with a master’s from Cornell University’s Industrial and Labor Relations School. She earned her bachelor’s in public policy studies from DePaul University.

Emma Moore was a research associate in the Military, Veterans, and Society Program at CNAS. She is also a Non-Resident Fellow at the Brute Krulak Center for Innovation and Creativity at Marine Corps University. She previously served as executive assistant and social media lead for Narrative Strategies, a coalition of scholars and military professionals working to combat violent extremism with strategic communication. Additionally, Moore worked as a program manager with ProVetus, a peer-mentoring organization helping service members transition into civilian life. She served as an intern at the U.S. Naval War College’s Center on Irregular Warfare and Armed Groups and at Brown University’s Costs of War Project. Moore holds an MA in war studies from King’s College, London, and BA in international relations from Brown University.

About the Military, Veterans, and Society Program

The Military, Veterans, and Society Program addresses issues facing America’s service members, veterans, and military families, including the future of the All-Volunteer Force, trends within the veteran community, and civil-military relations. The program produces high-impact research that informs and inspires strategic action; convenes stakeholders and hosts top-quality events to shape the national conversation; and engages policymakers, industry leaders, Congress, scholars, the media, and the public about issues facing veterans and the military community.


The authors would like to thank the many individuals and organizations that have contributed to and inspired the development of this research. In addition, the authors extend their gratitude to Raisa Riikonen for her time reviewing the report. Finally, the authors express their sincere appreciation to CNAS colleagues Melody Cook, Emma Swislow, and Maura McCarthy for their time and attention in supporting the work. This working paper was made possible with support from Comcast NBCUniversal. The views presented here are those of the authors and not necessarily those of Comcast or its directors, officers, and staff.

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  • Elizabeth Howe

    Former Research Contractor, Military, Veterans, and Society Program

    Elizabeth Howe is a former Researcher for the Military, Veterans, and Society Program at CNAS....

  • Elena LoRusso

    Intern, Military, Veterans, and Society Program

    Elena LoRusso is a former Joseph S. Nye, Jr. Intern for the Military, Veterans, & Society Program at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS). Prior to joining CNAS, ...

  • Emma Moore

    Former Research Associate

    Emma Moore is a former Research Associate at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS). Moore is a Non-Resident Fellow at the Brute Krulak Center for Innovation and Creati...

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