The next esports competition you watch on Twitch might have the logo of the United States Army on the side, denoting the military branch as an official sponsor. The Army also has its own esports team, USArmyEsports, that regularly streams video games like Call of Duty and League of Legends while chatting with viewers about life in the military and providing links to sign up.
It is all part of the Army’s over $1 million investment into marketing on the video game-broadcasting platform. With the U.S. Navy and Air Force joining the army in creating esports teams earlier this year, the military has turned towards gaming as a way to connect with potential recruits.
“Esports is just an avenue to start a conversation,” explains Maj. Gen. Frank Muth in an interview with ThinkTech Hawaii. “None of our players… go in there and say ‘Hey I am a recruiter, come join the Army.’ That’s not what we do. We have a shared passion for e-sports, and we share that passion with the youth of America.”
Despite the intention behind the initiative, having military personnel become Twitch streamers has already caused problems with Twitch and, potentially, the U.S. government. Last week, Twitch shut down a USArmyEsports’ promotion for violating the platform’s Terms of Service. Promising a giveaway of an Xbox Elite Series 2 controller (which costs upwards of $200), the promotion directed viewers to a military recruitment form with no mention of the contest details.
Civil liberties groups have criticized the military’s Twitch and Discord channels for banning commenters mentioning U.S. war crimes. In light of a recent federal court decision that U.S. President Trump can not block his critics on Twitter, these bans could be challenged under the grounds that online public forums hosted by the government must follow free speech rules. At the root of both of these issues is the newness of the military to social media marketing and the ethical question of whether the military should be marketing on these platforms, with very young user bases, in the first place.
The military’s foray into social media marketing began as recently as 2018 when the organization missed its recruitment goal by the largest margin since 2005—a gap of 6,500 recruits. The response was to reimagine recruitment and set aside a social media budget that has since exploded in size. In 2019, the Department of Defense allocated $752,426 to advertising on Snapchat. In 2020, that number is expected to balloon to $14.9 million. This push to digital media includes esports. In late 2018, 8,000 Army soldiers tried out for the 16-strong esports team whose members receive regular pay to play trending video games and recruit.
The current coronavirus pandemic has augmented the effectiveness of digital outreach. Confined to their homes, people watched over 5 billion hours of Twitch streams from April to June of this year. Those who use Twitch and Snapchat are also young. 52% of Snapchat users are under 25, with 16 million of them being under 17. Those aged 16 to 24 years compromise a plurality of Twitch’s user base (41%).
The focus on platforms with younger user bases like Snapchat and Twitch is intentional. In an interview with Politico, a spokesperson for the Army’s Enterprise Marketing Office, which is spending $15 million across multiple social media platforms in the 2020 fiscal year, affirmed that the target audience for social media military messaging is Generation Z: “They live online, so we are trying to get to where they are.”
“The skillsets of esports players are the same we look for in the Army. It starts with teamwork, communication, critical skills and problem-solving, multidimensional understanding, a quick Twitch thinking process, and decision making. We think that translates to the over 150 different jobs that we have.”
—Maj. Gen. Frank Muth
However, Generation Z, those born between the late 1990s and the early 2010s, encompasses a wide range of individuals, many of whom may not be old enough to understand the nuances of American military service. Liberal political advocate, Jordan Uhl, notes that USArmyEsports does not have an age-gate for its content, allowing military recruiters to interact with children as young as 13 (Twitch’s minimum age requirement).
And military service is nuanced. Last year, leading up to Memorial Day, the U.S. Army Twitter account asked active-duty soldiers and veterans: “How has serving impacted you?” Thousands of responses from service members and their families detailed stories of sexual assault, trauma, and poor mental health that can accompany military service.
A military Twitch channel at best skirts these systemic issues and at worst denies them. In June, Pride month, USArmyEsports was featured in “Stream with Pride” despite the military’s refusal to allow transgender people to serve openly. Banning users that highlight the costs of service means that these conversations are not occurring.
Maybe Twitch is not the place for these conversations. The Marine Corps is the notable exception to the esports craze in the military because of the difficulty of reducing military service to a Valorant tournament. In a document submitted to the Defense Advisory Committee on Women in the Services last year, Marine Corps officials dismissed the idea of creating an esports team “due in part to the belief that the brand and issues associated with combat are too serious to be ‘gamified’ in a responsible manner.”
Nevertheless, it is unlikely that the U.S. military’s engagement with Twitch or any social media platform will end anytime soon. The strategy is working. The military exceeded its 2019 recruitment goal and is on track to meet its 2020 target, despite the current pandemic. This success is, in large part, due to the strength of digital marketing that reaches a wide swath of people that may be uniquely qualified for military service.
The critics of this type of military outreach are similarly unrelenting. The frequency of military activity on Twitch or Discord is matched by the “trolling” of activists competing to see who can get banned first for forcing recruiters to answer uncomfortable questions. As the U.S. military continues to heavily invest in and receive a return on investment from esports and free speech rules embolden activists to ask questions, this digital battle looks to be a long one.