The U.S. Army allocated millions of dollars to sponsor a wide range of esports tournaments, individual high profile Call of Duty streamers, and Twitch events in the last year to specifically grow its audience with Gen-Z viewers, and especially women and Black and Hispanic people, according to internal Army documents obtained by Motherboard.
In many cases the sponsorships ultimately did not happen—the Army ordered a stop of all spending with Call of Duty’s publisher Activision after the company faced a wave of sexual harrassment complaints. But the documents provide much greater insight into the Army’s goals and intentions behind its planned integrations with Call of Duty and other massive entertainment franchises.
“Audience: Gen-Z Prospects (A18-24),” one section of the documents read. “Focus on the growth of females, Black & Hispanics.” Motherboard obtained the documents through the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).
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A table included in the documents lists the funds the Army planned to spend on various platforms, events, and streamers. At the top, is Twitch and its HBCU [Historically Black Colleges and Universities] Showdown. Previous seasons of this esports league had players compete in Madden and NBA games. The Army planned to spend $1 million on sponsoring the event.
The documents show that the U.S. military considered gaming and, in particular, Call of Duty, as a potentially useful branding and recruiting tool. For example, the Army proposed using Twitch influencers to "create original content videos showcasing the wide range of skillsets offered by the Army," and to use influencers to "familiarize [their] fans on Army values and opportunities." The Army also wanted to throw tournaments that featured "soldiers & top names in gaming." Another goal of the campaigns was to increase the Army's "favorability" in viewer surveys.
According to the table, the Army intended to spend $750,000 on a mix of the official Call of Duty League Esports tournament, streaming service Paramount+, and the HALO TV show, which aired on Paramount+. The Army also planned to spend $200,000 on sponsoring the mobile version of Call of Duty, including with “reward-based inventory.” The documents suggest the campaign would provide in-game currency to players who viewed Army video ads.
The Army allocated $150,000 to be spent on Stonemountain64, a popular streamer who often plays Call of Duty: Warzone to his audience of 2.32 million subscribers on YouTube. Stonemountain64 often uploads gameplay footage of himself roleplaying as a tongue-in-cheek commanding officer during matches of Warzone.
The documents also mention high profile streamers Swagg, who has 2.66 million subscribers on YouTube, and Alex Zedra. Zedra previously provided the likeness for the character Mara in Call of Duty: Modern Warfare (2019) and is a self-described “All American, 2A [second amendment] Gun Slinger.” Swagg and Zedra are listed next to an asterix under the table, which says the Army will reallocate funds based on conversations with the streamers. None of the streamers or their representatives responded to a request for comment.
The table adds the Army allocated $300,000 for OpTic Chicago. OpTic is an esports team which has worked with the Army before, including taking members of the team to fire sniper rifles. The “audience alignment” for Optic Chicago is also Gen-Z, according to the documents. One motivation behind the partnership was to “continue to familiarize OpTic fans on Army values and opportunities,” according to the documents.
The Army also planned to spend $675,000 on a WWE sponsorship and $600,000 with gaming media outlet IGN, according to the documents. Neither company responded to a request for comment.
An August 2021 email included in the documents says “At this time, we intend to ‘pause all activities’ immediately with Activision due to serious allegations of sexual harassment at their workplace, and also recommended tha the Marketing Engagement Brigade not send their eSports team to the tournament.” The email came around two weeks before a planned Army sponsorship of an upcoming tournament. “I bring this to your attention because of the brand reputation issue,” the email adds.
Activision acknowledged a request for comment but ultimately did not provide a statement. Twitch told Motherboard that Twitch Ads, the company’s advertisement service, did not receive sponsorship from the U.S. Army for specific streams or for the HBCU Esports League in 2022. Paramount acknowledged a request for comment but did not provide a statement.
A U.S. Army spokesperson told Motherboard in an emailed statement that “Army Marketing’s goal for sponsorship is similar to all our advertising purchases which is to reach a specific market in support of Army recruiting. Ad recall and favorability are important as they are both industry accepted measures of effectiveness of the advertising and sponsorships we purchase. In Army marketing, we must meet the youth where they are and that is online.”
The U.S. military broadly and the Army specifically have been struggling to recruit Gen Z. Covid restrictions hurt recruitment efforts, but so have shifting perceptions of the military and high standards around physical health, tattoos, and past drug use. The Pentagon needs young recruits to keep going and it's struggling to reach them. The Navy specifically used Twitch in an attempt to recruit new Sailors.
The U.S. Army has its own esports team, which has repeatedly run into controversy over the past few years. Both the Army and equivalent Navy esports teams banned Twitch users who asked about war crimes during streams’ chats. After a month-long hiatus, the Army team returned to Twitch.
Update: This piece has been updated with a statement from the U.S. Army.