Should the Army be allowed to exhibit at gaming festivals like Insomnia? – Opinion on the blurred line between recruitment and engagement, plus comment from the Army, RAF, Player 1 Events and more

army insomnia gaming festival

Some call it ‘recruitment’, that it’s planting a seed in the mind of children, others say it’s ‘engagement’. 

Esports News UK editor Dom Sacco offers his opinion, and talks to the Armed Forces, Insomnia and members of the UK esports community to ask: Is esports and the army a force for good, or something to be wary of?

A couple of months ago, Richard Lewis wrote this piece for Dexerto: ‘Why ESL must get rid of the US Air Force sponsor.’ It’s an important article and I recommend giving it a read.

He said: “I think there is something perverse in the way the military recruits, the way it insidiously inserts itself into the lives of young, working class people and their interests.”

The piece got me thinking. An image appeared in my mind, an image I had seen a few weeks prior.

Esports News UK had been reporting from Insomnia Gaming Festival at the Birmingham NEC in mid-April 2022. It was a great event overall, and despite some problems with the CSGO LAN, the esports tournaments went relatively smoothly. It was a much welcome respite and social gathering for the UK esports community following the pandemic.

Once again there was the LAN hall for your more hardcore gamers, and the expo hall for the more casual, younger gamer and families, featuring exhibitors like gaming hardware brands, retailers and esports organisations like Excel and Endpoint.

GGBET MPU blast gif - June July 2024

One exhibitor stood out amongst them all. They didn’t just have PCs or goodies, they had something else. Something much bigger. 

A tank. 

With children clambering on top to have their photos taken. 

That’s the image Richard Lewis’ article conjured in my mind, a photo taken by esports producer Jakub ‘Atroix’ Szmyt, and the image I retweeted which prompted me to call into question the Army being allowed to exhibit at gaming events like Insomnia.

I received many different responses, from both sides of the fence – and some on it.

“It’s incredibly predatory.”

“The British Army can be an excellent career, providing skills and education. I was part of the CCF at school, and loved it.”

“Armed Forces in gaming is nothing new. America’s Army game was being heavily promoted at E3 back in 2000.”

“It’s like any other kind of targeted advertisement. Should the Army not be allowed to run advertisements on TV when children could be watching?”

“It’s more about planting the seed/idea and normalising, which is the problem.”

“There’s no doubt that British forces like the Army, Royal Navy and Royal Air Force (RAF) have benefited internally from esports in recent years. It’s a positive activity for service personnel to engage in, make friends and have some downtime. But that’s not what this is about.”

Another esports source told me they think that the Army’s engagement of young people through gaming is “about showing the positive community aspect of esports, and to counter some of the negative press in the US of their army using esports for hard recruitment, which isn’t what the UK military is doing”.

“They treat it like all sports, as both a positive engagement with civilians so they get to see the armed forces as human, just like everyone else, and also to support their troops’ interests, which increasingly include gaming,” the source said. “It’s also a fun way to play out interbranch rivalry in a fun and safe way.”

It all seemed to prompt more questions than answers, more division. And it’s true – this isn’t new: the Army has been at Insomnia and gaming events for a number of years now. But does that make it right? 

X7 Esports’ director of esports, Tony ‘Newts’ Newton, shared his perspective as someone who has worked in the Army Air Corps, who at one point actually ran his old esports organisation Bulldog from Afghanistan

He also raised the point: “So the Army recruitment team is an issue. Would you say the British Army esports team having a stall there is an issue? As that could be seen by some as recruitment as well.”

It touches on a very good point. Where is the line drawn? Is it okay for the Army to have esports initiatives internally, but not at a public LAN? Some said they felt uncomfortable seeing people in uniform playing amongst younger people, others liked it, and found the outreach and information from the Army to be valuable.

And on that note, I have to say, there’s no doubt that British forces like the Army, Royal Navy and Royal Air Force (RAF) have benefited internally from esports in recent years. It’s a positive activity for service personnel to engage in, make friends and have some downtime. There’s been some good charity activities for veterans and others.

A British Army esports tournament raised almost £2,000 for mental health charity Combat Stress a few months ago, and a 72-hour stream by the Army Air Corps will aim to raise more money for the charity on July 14th to 17th. The Charities Cup returned for 2022, with UK and USA armed forces going head-to-head in Call of Duty to raise money for good causes.

OJ Borg is about to host a new show dedicated to UK armed forces’ esports activities with British Forces Broadcasting Service (BFBS), which I’m sure will be positive.

So it’s clearly been good for the wellbeing of some existing and former service personnel. But that’s not what this is about. This is about future personnel, years from now.

This is about the recruitment of young people who do not have minds mature enough to make a decision on choosing a career that could put their lives at risk on the frontlines of war. And as a father, that’s something I am personally uncomfortable with.

It’s not just about Insomnia, either. Esports was prevalent at Armed Forces Day on June 25th 2022 for the first time. (Update: Pixel Bar won the first Armed Forced Day Esports Championships, beating the Army, Navy and RAF gamers.

Produced by BFBS, the event will see five teams from local schools, colleges, cadets and the community going head-to-head against a team from each of the British Army, Royal Navy and Royal Air Force esports teams in Rocket League matches. More young people engaged, having fun, with the military at front of mind. 

As I said, I’m still not comfortable with it. But I don’t want this article to be about me. So I also reached out to others for their views. I wanted to hear what the Army has to say about it, and what Insomnia’s process is when accepting exhibitors into their events.

How much is the UK military investing in esports?

british army esports playing

The results of a freedom of information request sent to Esports News UK shows that the UK military has spent hundreds of thousands of pounds on its esports programs and marketing from 2017 to 2022.

The Ministry of Defence (MOD) states that £135,000 was spent on British Army Esports for the fiscal year 2019-20, £10,000 on 2020-21 (lower due to covid) and £153,000 in 2021-2022. The RAF and Royal Navy did not receive any MOD funding for esports over those five years.

In terms of the amount of funds the MOD has spent on having a presence at gaming conventions such as, but not limited to, Insomnia Gaming Festival, this stood at £174,467.17 as of June 2022.

In terms of the amount of money the MOD spent on having a presence at Insomnia 68 alone in April 2022, this stands at £83,867.71.

Defence People Secretariat said in a response to the freedom of information request: “Under Section 16 of the Act (Advice and Assistance), I can provide the following context to the information provided above: UK military Esports is a community of regular and reserve forces, including veterans and likeminded civilian gamers who are passionate about gaming and take part in their spare time. 

“It operates mainly online using free internet apps such as Discord and Twitch.  Although personnel are keen to attend esports events, special authority is required to attend engagement events. Expenditure on events is seen as positive for the welfare of serving personnel and allows for positive engagement with the general public. A welfare grant provided much of the expenditure. The Army spending figures in 2020-21 were lower due to the lack of competitions  during the pandemic and that some of the previous costs were linked to foundation expenditure.”

‘We do not use esports for direct recruiting’ – the Army

In May, the BBC published an article on the military’s affinity with gaming, with Army saying there’s a difference between this kind of outreach work at Insomnia – and recruitment. 

Lt Col Tim Elliott, Head of Army Esports, said: “We can interact with people, they can ask questions to soldiers – there’s no pressgangs, we’re not actively recruiting, it’s just growing understanding. Lots of people don’t have anyone from their family in the Army any more.

“We’re trying to make sure individuals know all they want to know about us, the intention is not to take people to a careers office. If people are interested in that, then we point them in the direction of recruiters – but we’re focused on trying to get beyond the mystery and misunderstandings surrounding the Army.”

While Lt Col Tim Elliott says it’s not used for ‘direct recruiting’, it is a byproduct of engagement, as seen from this image from Insomnia posted on the British Army Esports Facebook page: ‘Search REME (Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers) jobs.’

Laws around age and army recruitment

In the UK, recruits must be at least 16 years old to join the Army as a soldier, and can start their application as young as 15 years and nine months old. And those aged between 12 and 18 can join the Army Cadet Force.

The Army opts for the ‘engagement’ focus instead and lets recruitment agency Capita focus on recruitment. 

The Army’s statement to Esports News UK

We also reached out to the Army for further insight, particularly on its interest in esports.

Lt Col Tim Elliott, Head of Army Esports, told Esports News UK: “The British Army see the benefit of esports in two ways. 

“Firstly, as it is a popular pastime activity for our soldiers we have created an Army Esports community that provides a social environment for gamers to meet online and organise matches, tournaments and leagues. This is proving very popular with a community of approximately 4,000 gamers. 

“This is a great welfare capability and encourages teamwork, good communication, problem solving, hand-eye coordination and better understanding of digital technology. 

“Secondly, this online presence is also popular with civilian gamers and Army Esports has generated strong links with online gamers, teams and organisations where soldiers have been able to give an insight into Army life for those that wish to know. 

“The Army does not use esports for direct recruiting, but we realise when interacting with civilian gamers, either at festivals or in online events, we are in a position to explain why we do esports and answer questions about what we do as soldiers.”

Lt Col Tim Elliott, Army Esports

“As we are not recruiters, if an individual wants more information about joining we will point them in the right direction.”

The Army also published some tweets from the event, including comments from some members of the public, and a look at its stand: 

‘We make sure we work with organisations like the Army for the right reasons’ – Player 1 Events 

Phil Crawford, marketing and social manager at Player 1 Events, which organises Insomnia, sent Esports News UK the following statement: “When we work with organisations like the Army, Navy and RAF at Insomnia, we make sure that it is for the right reasons and that we communicate openly about our goals and intentions. 

“In this circumstance, the BBC article outlined it very accurately, the Army wanted a stand at Insomnia to better understand the community and to represent themselves to that community as being more than what the media and modern culture have portrayed. 

“As with every exhibitor attending Insomnia, our focus is making sure they are aligned with our objective of bringing a “passion for play” to the community and the Army does genuinely seem to want to bring that aspect of having fun and gaming together, which is what we’re about.”

‘Esports is more for our existing personnel than engagement with the public’ – RAF

Group Captain Dan Penter, Chair RAF Esports, told Esports News UK: “Military Esports is about creating somewhere for gamers in the Armed Forces to meet and game together. 

“For the Royal Air Force, attending events like Insomnia or Rapture is more about widening the appeal of a team to our existing personnel than engagement with the public.

“In March 2019, the Royal Air Force formally launched its community video gaming association to support the large number of gamers who are serving. As a multi-game clan it has more than 4% of the Royal Air Force playing via Discord and has started developing its own competitive teams.

“The Royal Air Force’s focus is support of our people, providing a community to find other military gamers. Insomnia is the highlight of our calendar. We had 27 players in the RAF Gamers Network clan group in the i68 BYOC and provided support to the gamers from military charities such as BLESMA, who were also there.”

Dan Penter, RAF Esports

“During the COVID lockdowns, the RAF was able to support online events and provide a welfare/mental health support function to our players – and I know the British Army and Royal Navy also did the same with their teams.

“In the last 12 months, the Royal Air Force has teams competing in the top 64 in the Amateur CoD League (ACCL), European Halo tournaments and in the top 150 for Tier 6 World of Tanks. We also have teams routinely competing in other esports such as LoL.

“In terms of engagement, on the two occasions that the Royal Air Force has had a presence in the Insomnia Expo, it has been heavily focused on getting our players there as opposed to engagement. At i62 we had a small market stall and 20 players. At i65 we had a flight sim stand using DCS and 50 players (35 seats in the BYOC). We also had players in the BYOC and competing at I64 and I68.”

‘Service personnel are still humans, they’re still gamers’ – BezzaBing

Daniel ‘BezzaBing’ Bingley served as a corporal with the British Army until he was medically discharged in 2017. 

Gaming has since become a bigger part of his life, and he has described playing as a great way to keep in touch with his friends and positive for mental health. He also helped arrange the aforementioned Charities Cup 2022.

He told Esports News UK: “Service personnel are still humans, they’re still gamers, even though they’re wearing a uniform. Even though I’m a veteran, I still game. You can still be a gamer and be in the military.

“When you’re in the Army, you have a lot of downtime. Games are a good networking tool to manage your mental wellbeing. The whole Insomnia event is there to publicise gaming. Do we complain if we have a load of firefighters or nurses down there playing games? 

“In terms of how I perceived it, this Insomnia event wasn’t about [recruiting] kids, it was about publicising these guys are in the military, they’re gamers and they’re passionate about gaming. They had teams there playing. They weren’t there to sit there and get people to join the Army. They wanted to play against other teams in the UK. 

“I was there to give opportunities to veterans and disabled veterans to feel valued and be part of a network, meet people and socialise. Gaming is a community. 

“Even though I’m ex-military, there are people out there who don’t like the military. There are people out there who have left the military and don’t want anything to do with the military anymore. Fair play to [those in the Army] who also game, it shows they can game and have a professional job. They have a drive and ambition to have a positive impact on society.”

‘Innocence is eroding fast’ – final thoughts

ENUK editor Dom Sacco offers his opinion

I can hear the points from those who sent comments in for this article, and I’m not denying the positives that esports has brought the forces. Internally, I think it’s great. But externally, bringing a huge tank to a gaming festival for families and having kids hold assault rifles doesn’t sit right with me personally. I think there is a better balance that can be struck here.

Regardless, I appreciate receiving comments for this article. It would be very easy for the Army to ignore requests for comment in a piece like this. The Army, RAF, Royal British Legion and Insomnia went on the record with comments and explained their reasoning, and I hope to hear from the Royal Navy (including the Royal Marines) in the future as well. 

It does show they are open to dialogue, as opposed to the ‘ignore it and they might stop talking about it’ strategy, which I see elsewhere in esports and it just seems to result in more coverage. 

I understand in some ways, things are different across the pond, and it does seem the US military has been criticised more openly than the British Armed Forces for its esports activities. For example, the US Army paused its video game streams after accusations of violating free speech. Orgs like Complexity have partnerships with the US army, but I haven’t seen partnerships quite of that scale in the UK – yet.

Finally, at the top of this article, I asked: Is esports and the army a force for good, or something to be wary of?

I realise now it is both. The lines are blurred. 

It’s also up to parents to help inform their children around such matters, and in this digital age of information overload and spin, it seems more than ever that children are required to think critically, to think maturely, and to navigate different opinions to truly think for themselves, at a younger and younger age, as time goes on. 

My five-year-old has seen the Ukraine flag at charity fundraisers at his school. He’s not been told about tanks and explosions and death. But he’s not stupid, he knows it’s about war.

Innocence is eroding fast.

As a parent (and allow me to speak frankly for a moment), that shit terrifies me.

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