Hundreds of service members are finding off-duty refuge in esports.
The area around Joint Base Lewis McChord, Washington, is known for its lush evergreens and pristine mountains. Mount Rainier is a fixture on the eastern horizon. Puget Sound is to the west. Closer to home American Lake offers easy access to fishing and boating opportunities. Every year thousands of in–processing service members are told what a wonderful place JBLM is for those who enjoy hunting, fishing and camping. That’s why it may surprise some to see that some of the base’s most unique recreational opportunities take place indoors amongst the flickering lights and big-screen televisions of a state-of-the-art video gaming facility. The base has embraced esports in a big way, according to Josh Soldan, Directorate of Family Morale Welfare and Recreation Community Recreation Officer.
At the center of JBLM’s esports operation is The Warrior Zone, a high-tech recreational facility featuring 16 gaming stations for X-Box One and PlayStation 4, each with 55-inch monitors, 32 gaming computers and six Nintendo Switches.
The Warrior Zone is a popular destination among JBLM service members, with between 450-500 visitors daily. Monthly tournaments ranging from lighter games like “Mario Kart” and “Smash Bros” to more serious games like “Call of Duty” draw as many as 100 participants per event. Intense players can get in on the occasional “Fortnite” tournament, while the more whimsical can dress as their favorite superhero during an “Injustice 2” tournament.
Other military installations offer esports opportunities, but not to the extent that JBLM does, according to Soldan.
But it’s not the high-end equipment and free Wi-Fi that truly drive the monthly gaming tournaments, Twitch streams and SHOUTcasting. The driving force behind JBLM’s gaming empire is Recreation Program Manager Bill Strock.
“We offer the most opportunities,” Soldan said, “and the coolest opportunities.”
At 65 years old, Strock doesn’t look like the face of cutting-edge entertainment opportunities, but he’s been creating opportunities for service members to play video games competitively since 1993.
“What I bring to the table is the ability to listen to what soldiers want,” Strock said. “The military breeds a lot of the things you need to be a great gamer, like reaction time and focus.”
Strock said esports offer a valuable outlet to service members and contribute to resiliency by giving gamers, who might otherwise spend a lot of their free time alone in their rooms, a place to be social and meet with those who have similar interests.
“It helps prevent depression and things that happen when you’re alone in your room,” Strock said. He added there’s benefits to MWR as well. Online gaming has a relatively low cost and low logistical demands compared to other types of recreation.
“It’s not just good for soldiers but good for our pocketbook,” Strock said. “We can easily play a guy from Fort Lewis against a guy from Fort Campbell while a guy at Fort Eustis SHOUTcasts.”
Strock said his forays into esports began when he learned soldiers were having LAN parties in the nearby town of Dupont where they played games like “Counterstrike” and “Diablo.” This led to Strock hosting his own LAN parties at JBLM’s Nelson Recreation Center. Those initial parties led to interservice tournaments and eventually large events with big prizes and corporate sponsorships.
Last year USAA donated $88,000 to MWR’s esports efforts. In the near future, Strock said, JBLM MWR has plans to develop a relationship with the professional gaming organization “Evil Geniuses.” MWR personnel from other military installations have also expressed interest in learning how JBLM conducts esports events.
Strock said at least four JBLM service members have gone on to join Army esports teams, including two “Call of Duty” players and two “Street Fighter 5” players.
And he didn’t stop at organizing game tournaments. Strock’s hired professional streamers to coach service members in Twitch streaming and “SHOUTcasting.” He said video game commentating is a viable career path for young people leaving the military and wants to enable them to pursue their passions.
“It’s a very viable world for a young guy to get in to,” Strock said.