On March 11, moments before tipoff, the NBA game between the Utah Jazz and the Oklahoma City Thunder was postponed due to concerns related to COVID-19.
After it was announced that Rudy Gobert, the Jazz’s starting center, had tested positive for the virus, the postponement turned into a tidal wave of cancellations that spread throughout the country. First, the NBA season was suspended indefinitely. Then every professional sports league in the country followed with their own suspensions of play or postponements.
The wave found its way to the banks of the Hudson River as the U.S. Military Academy canceled sports for the rest of the academic year cutting short spring sports seasons, while ending wrestling and other sports just before their national championship tournaments.
The same wave caused the academy to indefinitely postpone the return of cadets from spring break leaving them spread throughout the country.
With sports at every level canceled and more free time on their hands thanks to being at home, Class of 2020 Cadet Nick Basile and his teammates on the Army West Point esports team saw an opportunity to fill the void with content.
Basketball, hockey and baseball season smay have been impacted by COVID-19, but social distancing in a room all by themselves was a moment gamers had been preparing for, and frankly, dreaming about for years. With no requirements other than a computer, fast internet service, a microphone and an opponent, the esports season was able to continue as traditional sports went into hiatus.
“It was kind of like a joke amongst all of my friends. They’re telling us to sit at home and not do anything and not go out and we’re like, well that’s kind of what we do anyways on a Friday night,” Basile, the captain of the esports team, said. “We want to play video games. We saw this opportunity and all the other sports aren’t working, but our league is still going. We’re still part of the Collegiate Rainbow Six League. We’re still going with that. The content does not stop for Army West Point esports.”
The West Point esports team became an official club at the academy in January and joined the Collegiate Rainbow Six League. The league includes about 140 collegiate teams that compete in head-to-head matches of Tom Clancy’s Rainbow Six Siege.
The season had already started before the COVID-19 pandemic and has continued even as other sports have shutdown. In recent weeks, West Point has played matches against Oklahoma State and Ole Miss with competitors playing from their own homes and communicating via voice chat and a Discord server.
“We almost knew right away (that we could continue playing) because we know this is the nature of esports,” Victor Castro, the officer-in-charge of Army West Point esports, said. “We know we live in the digital domain. We know the only thing we depend on is internet connection and ... the capability of what they brought with them.”
Basile said it took some work to get everyone set up in their new reality as they figured out what equipment they had, the capabilities of their home internets and adjusted to their new schedules during remote learning. Once the kinks were worked out, they hit the ground running, he said, and they have been streaming on Twitch three times a week on average.
The team has also used Instagram, Twitter, Facebook and YouTube to reach a wider audience and continue to promote West Point while other teams cannot.
“The team has been awesome,” Basile said. “I couldn’t have asked for a better group of people to start this team with and get things going. They’ve been great at keeping up on the content and keeping things moving. We’ve stayed motivated, despite all this. They all saw this possibility and this opportunity where Army West Point esports can step into the light and we’ve all capitalized on it. It’s been great.”
Along with their normal collegiate matches and streams of Rainbow Six, Counter-Strike and Call of Duty, the team recently hosted a Call of Duty Modern Warfare tournament for the West Point community. Twenty-nine duos competed in the double-elimination tournament and the semifinals and finals were streamed on the team’s Twitch. Castro said duos made up of current cadets and alumni as well as professors and their families competed.
“We had a ton of interaction on our Twitch chat, which was really cool to see people interacting, talking about the games and commenting,” Basile said of the response to the tournament. “We had a huge boost in social media followers across all of our platforms. We also had a big influx into our Discord community, which is awesome. We love seeing people come into the server. We have a whole bunch of people in there talking now.”
The team also recently played against the Army esports team in an exhibition match and with the help of Army Marketing they became a Twitch partner last week. The partnership allows them to have more features on their streams and there are plans for Twitch to feature the team on its homepage, which will raise the team’s profile exponentially.
Basile said they have already seen the amount of people tuning into streams roughly double in recent weeks. And, much in the same way the Army esports team was created as a recruiting tool, Class of 2022 Cadet Colin Jones, the West Point club’s social media manager, said they have been able to reach prospective cadets through their streams. Along with talking to prospective cadets in their chats on Twitch and Discord, members of the team will invite them to play alongside them and then answer questions they have about the academy over voice chat while playing.
“A lot of these high schoolers are getting interested in playing esports at the academy, and they’ll message us on Instagram or Twitter and say, ‘Hey, how do I join the team?’” Jones said. “That gives us a good opportunity to say reach out to the admissions office.”
To see the latest streams from the Army West Point esports team visit them at Twitch.Tv/ArmyWestPointEsports.