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The U.S. Military Is Using Esports As A Recruitment Tool

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The U.S. military is using competitive video gaming - or esports - to recruit. Here's Jay Price of our member station WUNC.

JAY PRICE, BYLINE: Esports has exploded in the past few years. There are pro leagues, bricks and mortar arenas, players with six-figure salaries. Millions of people log on to streaming platforms like the Amazon owned Twitch to watch games and interact with players and each other. Many are of recruiting age. The military has taken notice. Major General Frank Muth just finished a stint leading U.S. Army Recruiting Command.

FRANK MUTH: This really has brought us into the modern era of where this generation and the next generation - they're mainly hanging out online all the time.

PRICE: The four largest military services all now have teams or official players. Sergeant Nicole Ortiz is on the Army's team. Her role includes playing games while socializing and explaining military life to viewers, like her own as an IT specialist.

NICOLE ORTIZ: A lot of them, they look at movies and think that the Army is just about war and shooting guns. In reality, I used to work at a help desk.

PRICE: Recruiting brass say the new esports push is already helping, especially given the difficulties of face-to-face recruiting during the pandemic. Part of the allure is being able to interact directly with viewers through the chat function. And that's where the military's esports initiative ran into some trouble.

KATIE FALLOW: What they did here is impermissible under the First Amendment.

PRICE: Attorney Katie Fallow is with the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University. She represents an activist named Jordan Uhl. On the Army and Navy Twitch channels, he posted messages including, what's your favorite U.S. war crime? Uhl was banned from both, along with dozens of others who posted similar messages or other comments the military gamers deemed improper.

FALLOW: Because they basically said, we don't like that you're raising questions about war crimes or things that the military is sensitive about. And they blocked people based on their viewpoints.

PRICE: Fallow's organization wrote letters to the Army and Navy demanding they unblock Uhl and others who had posted similar messages and ensure no one is banned because of their viewpoints. The Army and Navy temporarily suspended their Twitch channels to review their approach to moderating chats. Still, Lieutenant Colonel Kirk Duncan of the U.S. Army Recruiting Command said no one was blocked because of their views. He says the offenses were expletives, racism or trolling.

KIRK DUNCAN: When the same individual would just post over and over the same link on WikiLeaks to war crimes, and all they were doing was just posting that just over and over - things like that that were extremely disruptive to what we were trying to do.

PRICE: The Navy has restarted its Twitch streaming after retooling some policies and procedures. And the Army expects to start again soon. It's unclear yet whether the changes they've made will avoid a legal challenge. But it's unlikely the military will walk away from esports.

BETTINA CORNWELL: So esports is very much the sweet spot of demographic 17 to 28.

PRICE: Bettina Cornwell is a professor at the University of Oregon who studies sponsorship and sports marketing. Cornwell says the teams are just the newest step into digital advertising and sponsorship for the military. She cites a Navy decision last year to stop advertising on network television and focus almost entirely on digital.

CORNWELL: And esports is very relatable to the demographic they're interested in.

PRICE: Meaning, getting involved with esports is about more than identifying new recruits. It's also about shaping the brands of the services so they appeal to the target age group with the pluses and perils of the digital age.

For NPR News, I'm Jay Price in Chapel Hill, N.C.

(SOUNDBITE OF MARLEY CARROLL'S "SEVEN CROWS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.