Service members are often rewarded for working hard and winning competitions that showcase their skills. Two U.S. service members were recently rewarded for winning a video game competition with the trip of a lifetime — an all-expenses paid vacation to the Super Bowl.
Video games aren't just for kids anymore — they haven't been for a long time — and the more gamers there are in the U.S. military, the more it's become a popular way to pass the time, boost camaraderie and even help in recruiting. Gaming is increasingly being integrated into military Morale, Welfare and Recreation programming. For example, Air Force Gaming is an e-sports platform that lets its more than 15,000 registered users play in casual community tournaments and in the official Department of the Air Force Gaming League. Earlier this year, the USO opened its first gaming center at Marine Corps Base Quantico, Virginia.
Gaming's Growing Influence
Air Force Master Sgt. Christopher Wescott, 33, of Philadelphia, is the superintendent of intelligence for the 305 Air Mobility Wing at Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst in New Jersey. The 15-year veteran has been gaming for more than two decades and has competed in USO Gaming tournaments throughout his career, including during deployments.
Army Staff Sgt. Charles Massey, 36, of Atlantic City, New Jersey, serves in the 18th Medical Command at Fort Shafter, Hawaii. The 14-year veteran has been gaming for nearly two decades as well and has competed in several national tournaments — even winning $16,000 within a year and a half.
"E-sports have become a big thing that's something where people can make money," Massey said. "People are seeing that this is more than just a leisure time activity."
Massey and Wescott said gaming has helped them through tough times in their careers.
"I've learned patience from playing Madden," Massey said. "You've got to weather the storm and wait for things to come to light before you freak out and jump the gun."
"I'm in charge of about 18 people, and it's pretty draining. I don't get to focus a lot on myself," Wescott said of his Air Force job. "[Gaming] helps me escape from the hardships of the military lifestyle for an hour or two every day."
Both men said their military units have always supported their competitive ambitions, which was great news when, in January, their gaming talents helped them earn an experience they won't soon forget. During the NFL Salute to Service EA Madden Gaming Tournament hosted by the USO, the pair won fully paid trips for themselves and a companion to Los Angeles for the 2022 Super Bowl.
"This is probably one of the best experiences I've had since I've been in," Massey said right after the trip. "I've been to Israel, Egypt and Guam, but this probably takes the cake."
The VIP Experience
The day before the big game, Massey and Wescott attended the Super Bowl Experience at the Los Angeles Convention Center. In a large ballroom, there was a Comic-Con style stage set up for visiting service members to ask players questions, but Massey and Wescott got the VIP treatment. In a back room, they had exclusive meet-and-greet access with players including Tampa Bay Buccaneers superstar tight end Rob Gronkowski, rookie Dallas Cowboys linebacker Micah Parsons and Arizona Cardinals wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins.
"I gave Gronk my controller to spike," Wescott joked.
Massey, who's a huge Cowboys fan, got Parsons to sign his personal gaming controller. A big gamer himself, the 22-year-old Parsons' face lit up when he learned the duo was there for winning a Madden gaming tournament. Massey and Wescott said that happened a lot.
"Even Rob Gronkowski was like, 'You got here from playing Madden? That's crazy,'" Massey said.
"There were these rich people who own oil fields and stuff sitting with us in the hotel lobby, and they're like, 'How'd you get tickets?' And I said, 'I won a video game.' Or [my friend] would brag and say, 'My buddy won an Xbox tournament.' And they were like, 'What? I paid thousands for my ticket, and you guys got here from playing Xbox?'" Wescott said. "It was real funny telling that story over and over again."
They also got passes to skip the lines at the other convention center autograph stands and photo opportunities.
"The line for the Lombardi Trophy was two and a half hours, and we were in and out in 5 minutes," Massey said.
On game day, both men soaked in the moment as best they could through some tailgating and celebrity sightings before moving into their seats to watch what turned into a great game.
"I couldn't have asked for a better ending," Wescott said. "And the halftime show was legit — one of the best I've ever seen."