As Kolton Lehman advanced in the USO/NFL Salute to Service Showdown video-gaming tournament, he could not contain his emotions. He got excited over big plays that his team made during the two-month-long "Madden NFL 23" tournament, screaming and talking trash.
But when Lehman, a sergeant in the Marine Corps Reserve, won his bracket in November, earning him two tickets to Super Bowl LVII between the Kansas City Chiefs and Philadelphia Eagles in Glendale, Arizona, on Sunday, he got quiet fast.
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"When [the clock] actually went [to] zero, it was shocked silence," Lehman told Military.com. "So ridiculous, like, 'I'm video gaming; I'm going to the Super Bowl.' Saying that out loud now, it doesn't really register."
Lehman, who won the PlayStation bracket, and Marine Corps Sgt. Ali Zaidi, who prevailed on the Xbox side, are going to America's most popular annual sporting event largely because of USO Gaming, which started up about two years ago.
Besides hosting tournaments -- and showcasing players on Twitch, a livestreaming service, and the Discord app -- the United Service Organizations has content creators, gaming ambassadors and “rapid-response gaming kits” that are sent to service members in austere locations. Service members can bond through their favorite games at 11 gaming centers worldwide. Its mobile gaming trailers include consoles, TVs and computers; one has been on-site in the two weeks leading to the Super Bowl, allowing fans to experience the resources available to military gamers.
This is not your grandparents' Atari.
"We are trying to plug gaming into every piece of the organization," Callum Fletcher, USO director of global gaming operations, told Military.com.
Thirty-six percent of video gamers were in the 18- to 34-year-old demographic in 2022, which aligns well with the target audience of service members that USO Gaming is trying to reach.
While USO Gaming is relatively new, the recognition of how video gaming can benefit the military is not. During a time in which the services are struggling to meet recruiting goals, gaming has been used as a tool to attract potential service members. It has been shown to enhance camaraderie, boost morale and even help some veterans deal with mental health issues such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and anxiety.
Service members can join esports teams, which feed into their competitive nature and allow them to escape the stressors of military life. In 2022, the Defense Department held its inaugural Armed Forces Esports Championship, which was won by the Air Force.
USO Gaming connected with about 600,000 service members through its online and in-person outreach in 2022, according to the organization.
"We consistently have service members who go into our centers to play with their friends," Fletcher said. "I was actually at Eglin Air Force Base [in Florida] in December, and one of the leadership actually came into the center, and I chatted with him for a few minutes. He said, 'I come in multiple times a week to play 'Final Fantasy' online with my son. That's how I connect.'
"It really is different for everybody, but it's a social experience."
When Lehman was deployed to Japan 2 years ago, his small unit of engineers was attached to a platoon of about 30 service members. The engineers kept largely to themselves until they heard some commotion in the barracks one weekend. The door was open.
"You peek your head in, and you see five guys sitting around a PlayStation on a little crappy barracks TV that they spent $50 on at the PX [post exchange] just to kill some time," Lehman said.
When he asked the service members what they were playing, they replied, "Madden." It was an immediate icebreaker.
Lehman said he felt a similar camaraderie when he arrived in Las Vegas for the finals of the second annual Salute to Service Showdown tournament. Four finalists each in the PlayStation and Xbox brackets faced off before a Raiders home game on Nov. 13, the survivors of a tournament that attracted a total of 174 registrants.
A facilities manager at a plastics manufacturing company in New Jersey, Lehman said he plays video games an average of 15 hours a week. He is scheduled to fly to Arizona on Friday.
"As a football fan, I'm excited to be there in person," Lehman said. "Anytime you do an event like this, whether it's a big concert or game, the energy in the air or atmosphere, it's going to be electric. I cannot wait. It's going to be awesome."
-- Stephen Ruiz can be reached at email@example.com.
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