Well before the world locked down to stop the spread of COVID-19 and racial tensions boiled over across the United States, seven Airmen—a mix of officers and enlisted ranging from staff sergeants to captains—created a 24/7 gaming organization intended to connect Airmen regardless of rank, location, or Air Force Specialty Code.
Now the founders of Air Force Gaming (AFG) say their resiliency-focused organization is more important than ever.
“We’re trying to focus on getting people to continue to social distance without social isolation,” said Capt. Oliver Parsons, Air Force Gaming leader and chief. Parsons said Airmen between 18 and 39, collectively known as Generations Y and Z, often play video games alone in their rooms where “dark thoughts” can creep into their minds. “We’re trying to jump in there and be that support and community that everyone in those generations needs and wants.”
The grass roots team first pitched the idea of an Air Force Gaming organization to Air Force Recruiting Services in February 2019, but “it kind of fizzled out from there,” Parsons said. Undeterred, Parsons and two other team members tried again in August 2019, reaching out directly to Maj. Gen. Jeannie Leavitt, then-commander of Recruiting Services. “I emailed her directly and I was like, ‘Well, shot in the dark. We’ll kind of see what happens,’” he said. “Thirty minutes later, I get an email reply back. I was even surprised that I got a response, but she’s like, ‘I love this idea. Let’s move forward.’”
What we’ve kind of realized through all these processes is there’s a lot of bureaucracy when you’re trying to get things going, especially things that are innovative, new, never been done.Capt. Oliver Parsons, Air Force Gaming leader and chief
The Air Force connected the team, then only three members, to another Airmen who had pitched a similar idea, and he joined the AFG team. In November 2019, the AFG concept got leaked to the Air Force amn/nco/snco Facebook group, and the AFG community saw explosive growth, increasing from only about 50 gamers to about 2,000 in just three days. A month later, the team made their official pitch to Leavitt via teleconference, but she thought AFG was a better fit for the Air Force Services Center, and the organization’s focus shifted from primarily recruiting to resiliency.
“What we’ve kind of realized through all these processes is there’s a lot of bureaucracy when you’re trying to get things going, especially things that are innovative, new, never been done,” Parsons said. “You know a lot of leaders are skeptical at first, but then as soon as … we kind of explain what we’re doing and what we’re all about they’re like, ‘Oh, I can get behind that.’”
Asked by an Airman at AFA’s 2019 Air, Space & Cyber Conference if he was aware of Air Force Gaming, Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein said he was. He said connecting with Airmen and creating an environment where they feel like they belong is challenging. Goldfein said he often stops at dining facilities when he travels, then finds Airmen sitting by themselves, usually with their back to him, “so they can’t run away” when he approaches. As he sits and talks, he keeps an eye on the stack of plates and Styrofoam takeout containers near the entrance, watching to see which ones people choose. His “unscientific surveys” suggest, he says, that Airmen increasingly choose to go back to their rooms alone.
“I worry sometimes we unintentionally incentivize a little loneliness in our Air Force,” Goldfein said. Gaming has the potential to help change that.
Since its founding, Air Force Gaming has held more than 10 resiliency engagements, collectively reaching 1.2 million people, including 20,000 unique livestream viewers. Airmen have spent at least 300,000 minutes talking to each other while playing or watching games.
In late March the team held its first livestream—a 36-hour gaming event dubbed “Operation Resilient Quarantine.” And in April, the grassroots Air Force Gaming team partnered with Air Force Recruiting Services for a community game night. Airmen played Call of Duty Warzone against Air Force-sponsored Indy 500 race car driver Connor Daly, said 1st Lt. Matt Matuszak, AFG assistant chief and gaming innovation leader. The roughly six-hour stream brought in around 10,000 unique viewers. Every Airman who wanted got a chance to play against Daly.
“We saw it as a way to connect with Airmen, and just give them an opportunity to play with each other and with Connor,” Matuszak said. “It was a very fun event … and we were able to develop so many relationships to further continue our relationship with Air Force Services going forward.”
As the organization grew, so did it’s leadership team. All seven of AFG’s leaders today are mission-essential Airmen. They come from seven different bases across four time zones. Each works 40 to 60 hours a week trying to grow the gaming organization, none of that on Air Force time. They also balance family life.
Staff Sgt. Craig Bercsa, a 2A377B Green Flag MX Liaison at Nellis Air Force Base, Nev., for example, has five children, including two infant twins. “He’s the leader of our eSports program,” Parsons said. Matuszak is a missileer at Minot Air Force Base, N.D., who has been pulling two-week nuclear alerts since the start of the pandemic. When on alert, his work for AFG goes on hold.
“It’s definitely tough on the family life,” said Parsons, who teaches soon-to-be missileers at technical school at Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif. He is transferring to the force support career field this summer so he can further pursue the team’s dream of incorporating AFG into the Air Force.
“Our end goal is to be able to get that manning and to be able to do this full time,” he said. “We can’t even fathom what the future holds and what the possibilities would be if this is our regular Monday through Friday day-to-day job.”
Esports, short for electronic sports, is a form of competitive gaming, where gamers can square off individually or as part of a team on livestreaming platforms such as Twitch that enable them to watch, play, or chat with millions of other players across the globe. Professional eSport tournaments are becoming more and more popular and usually pay out cash prizes, some in the millions of dollars for elite athletes. Esports origins can be traced back to the Space Invaders Championship in 1972, which had 10,000 participants. Fast forward to 2020, and eSports is now a $1 billion industry.
Not Just For Kids Anymore
Sixty-five percent of American adults say they play video games, and nearly 80 percent say games provide mental stimulation and/or stress relief, according to the games and eSports analytics and market research site Newzoo. There are 450 million global eSports viewers, including 222.9 million enthusiasts and 272.2 million occasional viewers, meaning gaming is not only a way to connect, it’s also a great recruiting tool for the Air Force, said Parsons.
Air Force Gaming wants to utilize low-cost gaming and eSports activities and programs to offer virtual resiliency and indirect recruiting opportunities, which its leaders say will help build and strengthen the Total Force.
The Air Force Services Center (AFSVC) at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland, Texas, is beta testing a USAF eSports team, where like other Air Force sports teams, Airmen will attend a tryout camp before making the team. Parsons is the first coach and is responsible for putting the team together. Air Force Gaming is serving as the team’s training platform, said Col. Marc Adair, director of operations for Air Force Services.
“In early 2019, AFSVC initiated a review on how to implement eSports across the Air Force—in particular, how best to support our Airmen when it comes to delivering resiliency,” Adair said. “Since we already had an existing working concept for an eSports program, Captain Parsons provided an opportunity to test the virtual concept, capture lessons learned, and allow AFSVC to deploy an eSports program in a deliberate manner that will best meet the Airmen’s needs.”
The service center aims to create a community services eSports program, and it plans to launch an Air Force All-Stars Series this summer, which Adair said would be an “Air Force E-gaming branded experience focused on readiness and resilience, featuring tournaments that link Airmen gamers against celebrity athletes.” The All Star Series will include six professionally produced livestreamed episodes that will include commentary by “notable e-game sportscasters and content for NBA, MLB, NFL, and UFC segments,” Adair said. “It is all very preliminary,” he said.
Some Air Force leaders are imagining how gaming can help them connect and interact with the Airmen they lead. Last June, Air Combat Command boss Gen. James M. “Mike” Holmes, an F-15 pilot, fought his son, 1st Lt. Wade Holmes, an F-16 pilot, in a combat flight action game that was livestreamed on Twitch.
Thousands tuned in to watch the Holmes’ dogfight and even crash their aircraft. But viewers had real questions, too. During the stream, the Holmes’ discussed the pilot shortage, communications from the E-3 AWACS, the importance of air battle managers, and also answered questions about the aircraft they fly. They talked about the differences between real high-speed performance flying and arcade simulations, and offered advice to potential new recruits on joining the Air Force.
The younger Holmes was the clear winner in the virtual battle, but the wider Air Force won the day.
“This type of alternative interview format is a really great way to engage with our audience,” said Michelle Clougher, chief of the ACC public affairs command information division, in a release. “We’re always looking for a different way to tell the Air Force story, and these two rock-star pilots have a lot they can share. Ten years ago, we never would have thought to have our top fighter pilot play a video game while broadcasting it live to the whole world, but as our technologies evolve, so do we. We must communicate in a way that is meaningful and connects with people.”
A few months later, Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force Kaleth O. Wright gave gaming a shot during a resiliency-focused event dubbed “Friday Night Wright.” During the stream, Wright talked about fostering an environment of inclusiveness and resilience.
“Be authentic, and be vulnerable,” Wright said at the time.
He encouraged leaders to stay connected to their Airmen, even if it means pushing themselves outside of their comfort zone, later joking that he thought he “was going to be good because I asked him to play Tecmo Bowl 95,” but [I] ended up getting “my butt kicked,” said Wright.
“This wasn’t a stretch for me. I don’t play video games, but I do enjoy spending time with Airmen and spending time with people,” Wright said. “A little time spent with our folks can go a long way.”