While the United States Army’s involvement in esports is not a recent event — including sponsorship, and even ownership of esports teams — the Army’s campaign in gaming has come under heavy fire in the last three weeks.
What started with social media ridicule over the use of anime memes and gifs, quickly escalated to very controversial actions by the army, including the censorship on message boards and questionable giveaways designed to win fans — and from there, potential recruits — over the US Army side.
The US Army halted both its social media and streaming campaigns at various points in the past month, but even with a full blackout of its online presence, the resistance against military presence in gaming continues. Democratic Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez seeks its legislative banishment from the industry altogether in her proposal to pass an amendment to the House Appropriations bill that would bar the military from recruiting via esports and livestreaming.
The US Military's presence within the esports and gaming spaces has long been the subject of scrutiny. Criticisms most often include utilizing what is supposed to be safe space for youth to interact as a recruitment farm for the United States' global militaristic agenda. The army has come under similar criticism within the past decade or so for utilizing American high school and college campuses for recruiting, and internationally, the United States military isn't exactly a global favorite.
The start of the overwhelmingly negative reception received by various branches of the US Military can be traced back to July 7. In a Twitter reply to Discord, the Army Esports account responded with “UwU <3<3” Given the often boisterous and super-tough reputation maintained by the US Army contrasting with the cutsie phrase originating from the online anime community, the tweet became the subject of ridicule and went viral.
An anime tweet or two and a bit of ribbing from the community in response would have been a harmless isolated event, but criticism against Army Esports became more severe after it started banning users from its Discord channel shortly after the 'UwU' tweet went viral.
As reported by Gamespot, the vitriol piled on when users attempted en masse to get banned from the Army Esports Discord as quickly as possible. The mass banning of these ‘speedrunners’ was in response to Army Esports banning users from its Discord for asking about or mentioning war crimes in any capacity. The situation only snowballed from the initial bans as more and more people streamed their speedrun bans to Twitter.
Eventually, users were getting banned simply for word usage regardless of context. "War crimes," "w4r cr1m3s", and "Eddie Gallagher", the name of a retired US Navy Seal who was accused of committing war crimes after posing with a photo of a corpse during his service, were keystrokes tied to an imediate ban hammer.
Since the US Army is an extension of the federal government, organizations like the American Civil Liberties Union have deemed the bans unconstitutional, specifically in violation of the First Amendment. The ACLU argues that Army Esports' banning of users for acknowledging, mentioning, or alluding to war crimes is in violation of Freedom of Speech and essentially qualifies as government censorship.
To make matters worse for the US Military's online presence in esports and gaming, Army Esports was also under fire from Twitch itself for allegedly advertising fake giveaways. The Army denied such accusations, with a spokesperson saying comments regarding war crimes were “meant to troll and harass the team,” and that the giveaways were real.
The Army Esports Twitter account has been inactive since July 1, and in a statement provided to Inven Global by the US Army Recruiting's Media Relations Chief Lisa Ferguson, Army Esports had "paused streaming beginning July 9, to review internal policies and procedures, as well as all platform-specific policies, to ensure those participating in the space are clear before streaming resumes."
Army Esports may have halted streaming on Twitch for the time being, but it didn’t take long before further pressure would be applied to the situation. As reported by VICE, a draft amendment filed on July 22 by Democratic Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, NY to the House Appropriations bill would prevent the military from using funds appropriated by the bill to “maintain a presence on Twitch.com or any video game, e-sports [sic], or live-streaming platform.”
“It’s incredibly irresponsible for the Army and the Navy to be recruiting impressionable young people and children via live streaming platforms," Ocasio-Cortez told Motherboard.
"War is not a game, and the Marine Corps’ decision not to engage in this recruiting tool should be a clear signal to the other branches of the military to cease this practice entirely.” A second meeting regarding the amendment took place on July 27, and when the next meeting will take place is currently unknown.
What Comes Next
There is no guarantee that the bill AOC is introducing will pass, but even if it does, the United States Military has reach in esports that extends beyond Twitch, or even its own brand. Since its founding in November 2018, Army Esports has had a website set up for recruiting with extensive information and a frequently updated news channel.
Earlier that year, in July, prominent North American esports organization Cloud9 signed a deal with the Air Force. Two weeks later, the Air Force expanded its partnership with ELEAGUE to include all games on the competitive circuit.
The US Navy has also made recent strides further into esports by founding a Counter-Strike: Global Offensive team with ESL and a handful of other partners at the end of February 2020. In addition to its presence in CS:GO, the US Army has competitive talent signed in Fortnite, League of Legends, Overwatch, and Magic the Gathering.
Despite the validity of the criticism of Army Esports and the United States military's presence in the esports, streaming, and gaming spaces, nothing has deterred the US military from continuing to develop army esports. AOC's proposed legislation is the first of its kind and seeks to stymy the militant recruiting of impressionable youth.
Regardless of whether the amendment to the bill passes, the process in evaluating the legislation proposed by the Democratic Representative from New York will dive deep into the ethics of military presence in the competitive gaming space on a more granular level than any previous discussion to take place.
UPDATE 7/30: Congress is voting today on AOC's proposed amendment to stop the military from recruiting on Twitch. Jordan Uhl has reported that Republicans have yielded their time to Pete Visclocky, chair of the defense appropriations committee. Visclocky, a Democrat, is leading the charge on stopping AOC's legislation in its tracks.
UPDATE 7/30: After video footage of AOC explaining the reasoning behind her amendment surfaced on Twitter, several American progressives have vocalized support for the proposed restrictions of military recruitment in esports, livestreaming, and gaming, including Minnesota Congresswoman Ilhan Omar. The Congressional Progressive Caucus has also sent out a whip update recommending members to vote 'yes' on AOC's proposed legislation.
UPDATE 7/31: Congress voted against AOC's amendment last night, and the US Navy, who halted streaming last week, has resumed streaming. The US Navy will continue to ban users who 'hijack the conversation' on the Navy's Twitch channel. The US Navy halted streaming after coming under fire for banning users on Twitch for asking about war crimes.
We will update this story as more information becomes available.