Sports and national security often cross paths. The Duke of Wellington famously observed (albeit probably not in these exact words), that “The battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton.” Gen. Douglas MacArthur absolutely did say, “Upon the fields of friendly strife are sown the seeds that on other days, on other fields, will bear the fruits of victory.”
War and sports are about to intersect again, but these sports won’t be grounded on grassy fields. The new teams and technology of 21st century warfare will draw from the players of electronic sports, aka esports.
Most people engaged in esports are under 30. Most people who plan for war are over 30. The great militaries that work to bridge this generational divide could gain a major competitive advantage in future national security conflict.
Esports is the field of virtual, organized competitive gaming in which individuals and teams compete against each other, often for cash prizes. There are rankings, sponsorships, leagues, and a lot of advertising. High schools, colleges and universities have teams. They offer scholarships, academic courses, and research and development opportunities. NBC, ESPN, TBS, and Telemundo broadcast esports competitions.
Any sport that attracts that many people and that much money will also continue to attract a lot of technology. For that reason alone, the esport world deserves our attention.
Esport technology involves collecting, storing, processing, and moving big amounts of data fast and displaying that information in an ever more accessible and realistic virtual environment. All the key areas of technology are dual-use, applicable to civil and military use. They could all be impacted by what are expected to be the most impactful emergent technologies, including 5G and 6G data networks, artificial intelligence, quantum computing and virtual reality systems.
A lot of the technology that appears in war games could show up in real war. From training, planning, testing, exercising, and preparing for fighting, to managing armed conflict, the technology driven by esports could wind up on battlefields the way technologies developed through air and car racing influenced the engineering, design, and manufacture of cutting-edge weapons in World War II.
The key to leaping ahead in any sort of competition is to experiment, innovate and integrate emerging technologies faster and better than the other guy. Esports is already a testbed for what Gen. George Patton called “the musicians of Mars,” orchestrating all the capabilities a commander can bring to bear on the enemy on a battlefield. Only a competitor who wants to lose the next war would refuse to listen.
Esports is also a fertile recruiting ground for high tech warriors with high tech knowledge and skills. The U.S. Air Force has already figured this out. DRL, for example, runs a global, professional drone racing league where pilots control custom-built drones equipped with cameras that zip through a course at up to 90 miles an hour. This is like a training league for drone top guns. The Air Force is now a prominent sponsor of DRL, running recruitment ads on their social media platforms. As the Center for a New American Security has observed: “developing familiarity with [esports] platform norms and rules will assist the services in using such platforms effectively for recruitment.”
Militaries can also learn from world-class players how they develop, train and practice the quick-twitch skills and reaction times needed for competitive gaming. In addition to learning constructive skills, knowledge, and attributes of gaming and networking warfare, militaries will learn about the challenges. One example is mental health. Some world-class gamers play 10 or more hours a day while constantly texting and communicating with fans and other gamers. Some have demonstrated pathologies akin to PTSD, a response to the mental strain of intense gaming. On the other hand, some have also argued esports can provide mental health benefits.
None of this is to say the gaming world is prime to become part of the U.S. military-industrial complex. Currently, the most dominant games are Dota 2, Counter-Strike: Global Offensive, Fortnite, League of Legends, and StarCraft II. Many who play these games are Chinese; no advantage to the West there. (Notably, the Chinese government in 2019 recognized esports as a profession; you can be sure Beijing views the benefits the same way the West should.) And many Western players are interested in, well, just playing games. They don’t particularly like distractions and disruptions.
For a while, intelligence agencies were worried about terrorists coordinating and recruiting on video-game chats. It appears, however, that the gaming world is not particularly fruitful space for extremist recruiting. That’s because the gaming environment views outside distractions as an annoyance. This suggests that successful intervention in the space—and successful exploitation of the esport experience—will require militaries to understand gaming culture as well as gaming technologies.
The emerging technologies of the 21st century will likely be as transformative as the digital revolution of the 1990s. The world of esports sits at the crossroads of many these capabilities, with the potential to remake virtually every aspect of human life, including conflict. Connecting with the cutting-edge of esports could well be crucial to winning the next fight.
This piece originally appeared in Breaking Defense