It doesn’t have Master Chief supersoldiers yet, but the military does have its inaugural esports champion.
The Air Force won the first-ever service-wide video game tournament playing the latest iteration of the first-person shooter Halo with its iconic main character, beating out the Army, Marine Corps, Navy, Coast Guard and Space Force to nab the championship title.
Around 1,000 people were in attendance to watch the first showdown as the military seeks to capitalize on the rapidly growing interest in esports, the term widely used for electronic sports and gaming. The branches went head-to-head on "Halo Infinite" May 28-29 at the Tech Port Center + Arena in San Antonio, Texas.
"This win means more for esports as a whole than it does for me, obviously it means a lot to me, but for esports this is the first federally recognized event," Senior Airman Cole Schlegel, with the Department of the Air Force's team, said in a statement. "So, we are the roots, this is definitely going down in the history books. This is awesome to be a part of."
The origin story of the competition goes back several years. Capt. Oliver Parsons, a missileer assigned to Minot Air Force Base, North Dakota, and later Vandenberg Air Force Base, California, created a group called Air Force Gaming in 2019 as a way for airmen interested in gaming to connect with one another from around the country.
Since then, it's grown to more than 25,000 gamers connected to the Department of the Air Force, including active-duty airmen and Space Force Guardians, National Guard and Reserve members, and civilian employees.
The group has since become an official part of the Air Force Services Center, headquartered at Joint Base San Antonio. A large percentage of airmen -- about 86% between the ages of 18 and 34 -- identify as gamers and play anywhere between four to 10 hours per week, according to the center.
Some of the best of those players were on display at the tournament, known as the Armed Forces Esports Championship.
In the end, Air Force Gaming beat the Army Esports team in the final round on May 29.
The winning members of the team were Staff Sgt. Shane Posey from Buckley Air Force Base, Colorado; Staff Sgt. Trey Christensen from the Kentucky Air National Guard; Airman First Class Allyson Stephenson from Joint Base Charleston, South Carolina; and Schlegel from Joint Base San Antonio.
The meteoric rise of esports has led the military, including the Air Force, to use video games as a way to build community among their airmen, many of whom are already playing their consoles in the barracks. The services are also using it as a way to grow interest and expand recruiting efforts to a younger generation.
A major draw for the military is the reach esports has on streaming platforms such as Twitch -- often garnering many more views than it receives on other social media platforms. There will be an estimated 29.6 million monthly esports viewers in 2022, up 11.5% from 2021, according to market insights from Insider Intelligence.
The military's involvement in video game culture has angered some, including U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., who introduced an amendment in July 2020 to prevent the armed services from using congressionally provided funds toward "any video game, e-sports, or live-streaming platform." Her effort ultimately failed.
With the rising popularity, Air Force Gaming expanded its offerings last month, creating a minor league that allows gamers of all ages, including retirees and young family members.
"This is the first season we are allowing widespread participation," Parsons said in a press release last month. "Anyone at an installation; any Air Force ROTC and U.S. Air Force Academy cadet; dependents ages 13 and over; and any Civil Air Patrol and JROTC cadet can participate."
Some of the most popular games played by Air Force gamers include first-person shooters such as "Call Of Duty," but there are also titles that appeal to younger generations such as "Rocket League" and "Fortnite."
More video game tournaments will be announced in the coming months.
"After two seasons and the third season underway, the success of Air Force Gaming will keep growing, bringing Air Force and Space Force Gaming to our other military communities while empowering our community to practice, compete and build camaraderie, leadership and connectedness," Col. Christopher Parrish, Air Forces Services Center commander, said in a press release.
-- Thomas Novelly can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @TomNovelly.