Computer gaming has become a critical skill set to support U.S. national security. We are not talking 20th-century Pong or killing time playing Minesweeper; computer gaming today is leveraging accelerating information technology for ever-more extensive and richer immersive experiences.
Traditional sports, from the World Cup to the Super Bowl, garner huge audiences. But e-sports are gaining rapidly, with major viewership growth year over year. For example, more people watched the finals of the 2014 League of Legends World Championship than Game 7 of that year’s World Series.1 As a sign of e-sports’ growing commercial pull, major sports franchises are bringing e-sports teams into their portfolios, as are university athletic programs.2
Once the realm of teenage boys hiding in their rooms, bingeing on warm Coke and cold pizza a la Matthew Broderick’s character in 1983’s War Games, e-sports are being professionalized. They are bringing modern science to human optimization in the human-system interface. Specialized training facilities include nutritionists, athletic trainers, coaches, exercise spaces, and high-end equipment as competition ramps up in what is already a multibillion dollar business space.
The military is waking up to this. Army recruiters have an e-sports team, as does the Air Force Academy. In December, the Navy announced the end of Super Bowl recruitment advertising, freeing resources for e-sports ads and the formation of a recruiter e-sports team.3
Is this just a recruitment visibility issue? Are e-sports athletic? Does frantic thumb movement put one in the category of a golfer or a basketball forward? From those closest to e-sports comes a surprising answer:
[N]ot only are e-sports players athletes, but they deserve a training regimen crafted specifically for their needs—a strong core, perfect posture, hand-eye coordination, and strong forearms, hands, wrists, and fingers. Additionally, professional gamers should be training with cardiovascular exercises, focusing on nutrition and partaking in cryotherapy.4
E-sports’ professionalization includes specialized exercises, training programs designed to optimize human performance over long (often multiday) competitions, nutritional and dietary guidance to reduce basic needs’ interference [hint: toilet] with gaming, and mental training. Like runners wearing advanced tracking systems, this involves serious monitoring in training and competitions to enable learning to enhance performance by leveraging “big data” and artificial intelligence (AI) analysis of the accumulated data.
The e-sports gaming environment brings back memories of being among Navy personnel on duty in combat information centers on board ship during combat operations, working with joint task force command personnel, and images of data-intensive combat roles such as Air Force personnel controlling combat sorties from an airborne early warning and control aircraft. E-sports—and the training regimes to optimize capability—seem to have direct parallels with some military operational requirements.
Considering what is happening with AI and e-sports leads to this question: When it comes to preparing for 21st-century warfare, are e-sports capabilities and training more relevant than the ability to play football?
Perhaps, in the search to optimize military capacity, the Naval Academy should start recruiting for and competing in e-sports. E-sports programs could help the military enhance system operator and even Pentagon desk-jockey capacity and performance.
Perhaps, as the military faces China’s AI challenge and embraces AI’s importance and the need to optimize the human-machine system interface and collaboration, the 2030 version of the Commander’s Cup will be awarded to the academy that dominates in the virtual world.
1. “Tracking Company: 427 Million People Will Be Watching esports by 2019,” SI Wire, 11 May 2016.
2. Daniel Oh, “Why the NBA, NHL, MLS, and NFL Are in on esports,” Front Office Sports, 12 February 2018. As to universities, “the scene has ballooned to include around 50 programs, with a national governing body known as the National Association of Collegiate Esports.” Sean Morrison, “List of Varsity esports Programs Spans America,” ESPN.com, 15 March 2018.
3. Ben Warner, “Navy Drops TV Ads: Trades Super Bowl Spots for Esports, YouTube,” USNI News, 18 December 2019.
4. Darren Heitner, “New Athletic Training Facility for Excelling in esports,” Forbes, 23 May 2017.