The ESL (Electronic Sports League) has announced a partnership between itself and the US Air Force for the Intel Extreme Masters (IEM) North America 2020 and the ESL Pro League Season 11. It comes not long after the ESL announced a similar partnership between itself and Dreamhack with the US Navy. I’m assuming next week we’ll hear something about another partnership with the US Army, Marine corps or even the Space Force!

Whilst this does come across as a big push for the US armed forces trying to recruit more young folks, the partnership does include the support of the AnyKey group: an advocacy group that “supports diversity, inclusion, and equity in competitive gaming.”

As toxicity becomes a major problem within eSports and the competitive gaming community, this partnership is designed to bring together a more unified and collaborative player base. AnyKey will be launching a Changemaker Program later this year with the US Air Force in order to fund and raise awareness of their goal of diversity, inclusivity and equality.

The vice president of brand partnerships, Paul Brewer, said: "We’re honored to welcome the US Air Force as our first Official US Armed Forces partner for ESL tournaments and leagues," (Sorry, US Navy, looks like you aren’t quite ‘official’ yet), "We continue to partner with organizations who share ESL's values and, as a supporter of AnyKey, we are especially excited to work with the US Air Force to fight toxicity in gaming and to drive awareness of diversity and inclusion in eSports."

This is all well and good when spreading a positive message like this. But the level of advertising for the US Air Force to push young, vulnerable and inexperienced gamers into thinking of a career in the US military is something to consider. "This partnership provides the perfect platform to generate public awareness about the Air Force and the many opportunities we have to serve. The Air Force has a lot in common with gamers, especially the intellectual challenge that both provide. The Air Force and ESL also greatly value integrity—a core value for each of us," - Maj. Ross McKnight, Chief of Air Force National Events Branch at Air Force Recruiting Service, said.

Both the US Navy and US Air Force have their presence at eSports live events, but more importantly, they're also integrated into the live streams of the same events. Even timeouts at the ESL Pro League and IEM are now officially branded as “Air Force Tactical Timeouts”.

Whilst there is an argument to be made about providing gamers, or anyone for that matter, with potential career opportunities, there's probably a time and a place. There's a level of exploitation at play during eSports events in particular, where the gung-ho fun of Counter-Strike: Global Offensive can be manipulated to drive engagement in military service without allowing potential recruits to make fully informed, rational decisions. These campaigns are often well thought out, targeted sponsorships aimed at individuals who perhaps feel they have limited career opportunities. 

The pairing with AnyKey’s goals and values is certainly a lofty ideal but the whole package does raise a few interesting moral questions.