‘Soldier first, gamer second’ — Meet the Special Forces soldier who now plays video games for the Army full-time
"When 'Halo 3' came out, that's when I figured I wasn't going to be good at the 'Halo' series anymore," David said. "And that's right around when I joined the Army. They may be linked."
Editor's Note: This article originally appeared on Business Insider.
US Army Sgt. 1st Class Joshua David, a Green Beret, can speak two dialects of Arabic and handle a Special Forces attack dog.
But David isn't conducting close-quarters combat training for the Army at his regular job — he could instead be found playing video games, for hours on end, as a member of the Army's esports team.
David, an active-duty soldier, is getting paid by the federal government to play video games.
The 30-year-old Oklahoma native started off playing video games during the Nintendo-64 era with titles like “Perfect Dark” and “GoldenEye,” and eventually made his way to the Halo series following the launch of the Xbox.
“When Xbox came out with 'Halo: Combat Evolved', I pretty much became obsessed,” David said. “When 'Halo 2' came out, I chased that.”
The third title of the Halo series eventually tempered his expectations and set him on the path to public service.
“When 'Halo 3' came out, that's when I figured I wasn't going to be good at the 'Halo' series anymore,” David said. “And that's right around when I joined the Army. They may be linked.”
“There's probably a good relation there,” David joked. “That might be why I'm not good in school, because I was playing too much Halo.”
With his academic prospects dimmed, David, who “didn't know anything about the military,” joined the Army as an infantryman in 2008.
“I didn't even know what a Ranger was,” he said, referring to the title earned by completing one of the Army's light infantry training schools. “It got offered to me in Basic Training and I said, 'Sure.'”
After a few years in a Ranger regiment and two deployments to Afghanistan, David tried out for the Army's Special Forces selection process and then made his way to the 5th Special Forces Group. Four deployments later, he volunteered to become part of the Army's newest initiative with the esports community and began streaming video games on a full-time basis.
Much like the difficulty in the Special Forces selection process, the Army had to filter through thousands of applicants for their esports team — about 6,500 in total.
Not all of his colleagues in the Special Forces community were on board with his career move while others cast friendly shade: “He was doing the 'Call of Duty' thing in real life and now he's doing it in a video game,” David recalled.
“When I got offered to do it full-time … it was probably about 70-30 in favor of what I was doing,” David said. “Guys my age and younger really are open and they understand what was going on.”
“Some of the older guys weren't that happy,” he added. “You know, they don't really understand how many people actually play videos games and watch it. But once you start showing them statistics, they really start to open up.”
Esports and game streaming has exploded in recent years. Business Insider Intelligence estimates esports viewership to increase at a 9% compound annual growth rate (CAGR) from 2019 to 2023 — from 454 million to 646 million — nearly doubling the audience from 2017.
A separate study from the Activate consulting firm indicates that the number of American esports viewers will exceed the audience from every other US-based professional sports league, except the NFL, by next year.
David's transition from using real weapons to firing them in-game wasn't all too difficult and he says there wasn't an overlap with his military training. But there were other social barriers he needed to overcome in order to fit in with his new community.
“For me, being a little older than what most people … by 8-10 years, I'd say the hardest thing for me is that I had to learn the terminology,” David said. “There's so many words people use these days that I have no idea what they're saying.”
David's day starts out just like any other active-duty soldier in the Army: physical training (PT) in the morning and a day out of the week for administrative tasks.
“Just like a normal unit, we have PT every morning, usually around 6:30; and then go eat breakfast; shower; get in your uniform,” David said. “We're usually back to work by 9:00. Basically from there, we're either practicing our game and creating content for YouTube or whatever social media platform.”
The esports league is part of the Army's broader Marketing and Engagement Brigade based in Fort Knox, Kentucky, where other military marketing teams are also stationed, such as the Golden Knights parachuting team.
“So the cool thing about the esports team is that we're right next door to the Army Crossfit and Strongman Team — so we get that unique opportunity [for] them kind of designating a workout for us,” David said. “So now we have all these, you know, 'nerdy soldiers' because of how much video games they play.”
David and the Army's other esports players stream to the public for roughly five hours a day, and then select highlights for upload on platforms like Twitch.
“When you're gaming … it's really hard to get off that and then go sit back and try to clip stuff and create content if you want to do multiple platforms,” he said. “There's really not enough time in the day to do everything, so you have to try and micromanage that time.”
'I want to enlist as a gamer'
As a community outreach program and a recruiting tool, David and other members of the Army's esports league are bombarded with questions from potential recruits. Through their conversations, the esports team realized there have been misconceptions about what they do and how to become a member.
“I'd say the biggest misconception about our program is that you cannot join the Army to be a 'video game player,'” David said. “It's not a job in the Army where you can just come off the street and say, 'Hey, I want to enlist as a gamer. Let's do that.'”
“You're still an infantryman, you're still a medic, you're still something,” David added. “You can try out as an extracurricular activity, and maybe make the E-sports team.”
Because the Army and every other military branch does not offer it as an occupational specialty, recruits are not able to join the esports league at the beginning of their military careers. Once they become a soldier, they can apply to become a member on an extracurricular basis, and then, hopefully, transition into becoming a full-time streamer or competitive gamer on the team.
“It's almost daily — the younger guys, 16-17, they're like, 'I want to do what you're doing,'” David said. “But then they kind of want to do everything that I'm doing and they don't want to put in a lot of work. To even be a Green Beret, it's two years of school.”
“But I actually get a lot of interest on this,” David added. “Guys actually talk to me about wanting to game, and … maybe they want to try out for Special Forces or want to be a Ranger.”
Soldiers with the esports league are also required to abide by certain rules, such as not being able to solicit subscriptions from the Army's official Twitch account and keeping their profanity down to a minimum.
“The last 12 years of my life I had quite a mouth on me,” David said. “When we're streaming to the Army channels, we definitely try to be family friendly because you never know who's going come in and watch you.”
“We're usually very good about our language,” David added. “I mean, every now and then we'll slip up, followed by a quick apology, Especially if we're in the heat of the moment in a 'Call of Duty' match, sometimes we do slip up.”
Once a soldier becomes a member of the esports team, they are assigned that role for the next three years. Soldiers must maintain the Army's requirements, including keeping up with its physical standards.
“If you're in any kind of negative standing in the military, or if you can't pass your PT test, you're not even eligible to try out,” David said. “Soldier first, gamer second.”
“You just got to remember: Yeah you're a gamer, but at the same time you're a soldier representing the United States Army,” David added. “A lot of gamers these days are pretty toxic, especially in the “Call of Duty” world. You might be best player … but if you can't portray the Army in a positive light, there's nothing we can really do with you.”
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