Twitch.tv is a live-streaming platform that has exploded in popularity over the last several years. The platform, focusing primarily on broadcasting live video game content, attracts the curious eyes of over seventeen million visitors each day, and has been cementing itself as the de facto “king” of live video game streaming over the last half decade. In 2020 thus far, viewers have spent over 950 billion minutes watching content on Twitch. Of its immense viewing congregation, fourteen percent are between the ages of thirteen and seventeen, making Twitch a particularly valuable resource for those looking to market to Gen Z.
Coincidentally, after missing recruitment goals in 2018, the Army turned to Twitch in advertising and recruiting efforts aimed at teens. As part of its Gen-Z-centered campaign, the Army has been leveraging esports to reach the substantial centennial population on Twitch. To their credit, this campaign has certainly borne fruit; the Army’s push to use esports in recruiting has generated over 13,000 recruiting leads so far this year. This success has caught the eye of several prominent U.S. military branches, including the Air Force and Navy, who have also begun to establish a presence on Twitch and in esports. While the Navy stresses that its embarkment into the Twitch space is simply to have members of its esports team “connect with the gaming community,” the lines between recruiting and outreach have been materially blurred. In fact, qualifications required to become a member of the Navy’s esports team “are identical to the qualifications needed for recruiting duty.”
While the minimum age to enlist in any branch is seventeen, the military now has a channel to begin recruitment dialogues with Twitch users as young as thirteen. This practice has drawn the ire of many, who are deeply concerned with the idea of the military using video games to “conflat[e] military service with shoot ‘em up style first person shooters.” In fact, the U.S. Marine Corps stated in a memo that they would not be joining their compatriots in establishing an esports team precisely because the realities associated with combat and military service “are too serious to be ‘gamified’ in a responsible manner.”
Not only does the use of video games for recruitment purposes lead to the trivialization of war realities, the Army’s esports team has also come under fire on multiple occasions for its questionable conduct. In particular, the Army’s Twitch channel was reprimanded by the platform in July of 2020 for violating Terms of Service. In the offense, the Army’s Twitch channel promoted a giveaway encouraging viewers to register for a chance to win an Xbox controller worth $200. When viewers clicked the link to enter said giveaway, they found themselves not on a page with contest information or further details about the giveaway but instead on an Army recruitment form for which children as young as twelve could sign up. This exploitive maneuver was brought to the attention of Twitch, whose spokesperson admonished, “This promotion did not comply with our Terms, and we have required them to remove it.”
The Army’s esports team has also recently raised eyebrows for banning viewers of their Twitch channel for sharing negative sentiments about the military. As many as 300 users were banned for making statements such as “what’s your favorite u.s. w4r cr1me?” in the Army’s Twitch stream chat, implicating major First Amendment issues. While the Army maintains that they were simply exercising their authority to restrict harassment, the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University (“The Institute”) argues that the comments in question actually do not constitute harassment as defined by Twitch’s Terms of Service. Contrary to the Army’s contention that they are free to regulate discussions on their recruiting sites, The Institute further asserted, referencing Ward v. Rock Against Racism, 491 U.S. 781, 791 (1989), that “restrictions must be content-neutral and narrowly tailored to serve a significant governmental interest.” According to The Institute, the Twitch bans levied by the Army are not content-neutral but instead stem from disagreements with the messages conveyed, and therefore fail this standard.
Among the critics of the military’s use of Twitch in recruitment efforts is Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who recently proposed an amendment to the Defense Appropriations Act, 2021 in an effort to end the practice. Her proposal targeted H.R. 7617, the bill that will allocate funds in 2021 to a large portion of U.S. Department of Defense military activities, including operations, maintenance, and the budget for military personnel. If passed, the amendment would have effectively eliminated the military’s pursuit of recruitment through esports by ensuring that none of the funds appropriated to the armed forces through H.R. 7617 would be allowed for use on Twitch or for any esports activities. To note, the Army has already invested over $1 million in a marketing deal with Twitch while the Navy recently expensed $2 million for the services of a marketing agency, in part, to advance “[its] takeover of E-sports pages.” However, the amendment failed its July 30, 2020 House vote by a count of 126 yeas to 292 nays.
Although Rep. Ocasio-Cortez’s amendment ultimately did not pass the House, its proposal certainly raises questions as to whether and to what extent the military should be allowed to proceed with recruitment efforts aimed at centennials moving forward. As technology continues to grow at an exponential pace, so do forms of entertainment and methods of communication. Twitch is at the forefront of this new wave. With Twitch visitors between the ages of thirteen and seventeen totaling over two million every day, the potential for engagement with minimal oversight between members of the U.S. military and young teens is great. Whereas, in the past, recruiters would have to wait behind desks in high school gymnasiums to speak to potential recruits, the military now has the ability to deploy auxiliaries online to connect with individuals still in junior high school. Given that teens are so easily impressionable, it may be duplicitous to conflate the realities of military service with the video games they turn to for entertainment. Therefore, when deciding on future legislation that will affect where, when, and how the military can conduct recruitment campaigns, it will be prudent, as Rep. Ocasio-Cortez exhorts, to act with reservation and caution, “rather than entering with both feet in and then trying to undo damage that could potentially be done.”
 This figure was calculated from data on Twitch’s advertising page. 14% of all Twitch users are between the ages of 13 and 17, and in 2019, the platform garnered an average of 17.5 million viewers a day. By multiplying 17.5 million with 14%, it can be deduced that about 2.45 million Twitch visitors each day are between 13 and 17.
About the Author: Austin Peng is a J.D. candidate in the Class of 2022 at Cornell Law School. As a University of Miami graduate with a degree in Economics, Austin is interested in issues involving financial regulation and investment funds. He is an online associate for the Cornell Law Journal of Law & Public Policy and serves as the co-president of the California Law Students Association and the secretary of the Business Law Society.
Suggested Citation: Austin Peng, Virtual Recruitment: The Military’s Campaign into Twitch and Esports, Cornell J.L. & Pub. Pol’y: The Issue Spotter (Nov. 20, 2020), http://jlpp.org/blogzine/virtual-recruitment-the-u-s-militarys-campaign-into-twitch-and-esports/.