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Esports and National Security: An Emerging Opportunity and Threat for the United States

Esports, despite at least 40 years of underlying development, is an emerging industry. And the instability of esports at all levels has once again been reaffirmed as the global economy overcomes the effects of the pandemic. With instability comes risk – both within the industry and across the broader society wherever it interfaces with esports and affiliated organizations within education, sports, and technology.


As the industry undergoes yet more instability and restructuring, it's important that we take the time to understand esports' effects on broader society, in addition to its direct economic and cultural influence. This is an ongoing and developing conversation in which everyone, whether you’re directly involved in or impacted by esports or not, is a key player.


Esports' ability to serve as a catalyst for positive social change is well understood by those involved in it, and outsiders are becoming increasingly aware of how they can reach people from all walks of life with esports-based programming. This was most recently affirmed by the grant monies committed to esports-based programming oriented against targeted violence and terrorism (TVT) under a program directed by the US Department of Homeland Security. In 2022 alone, nearly $1.7 million (almost 10% of total funding) was awarded to esports and esports-adjacent work.


These initiatives are indeed beneficial, but more action is required both within the industry and outside it by those stakeholders who — whether they know it or not — are deeply affected by esports' existence and volatile development. For this reason, we're launching the Esports National Security Review to begin reaching those stakeholders and fostering awareness and transformative action towards a better, more holistic esports for everyone.


What Work is Being Done?

There is growing awareness by governmental, industry, and nonprofit stakeholders as to esports' positionality as it relates to their direct interests. In the same way, there is an emerging awareness of esports' positionality as it relates to their indirect interests, and it's in this space that the Esports National Security Review strives to make the most impactful gains.


The grant funding provided by DHS was a profound step towards increasing awareness among divergent stakeholders and converting what awareness does exist into something more actionable as to esports’ national security ramifications.


Three grants were made to esports and esports-adjacent work. The largest of $750,000 was awarded to the World Wide Scholastic Esports Foundation (or NASEF). The next largest of $687,763 was awarded to a coalition led by the Center on Terrorism, Extremism, and Counterterrorism at Middlebury College, with support from Take This and Logically Ltd. The smallest award — but by no means the least significant — of $226,260 was made to the United States Esports Association. Across these projects, DHS funded near-comprehensive research and scholastic programming from youth through college.


Where these projects, and many others like them across the United States, intersect with DHS's national security interests lies in the pro-social benefits engagement in esports offers to anyone looking for them. You don't have to be the next professional athlete to find community, explore and develop an informed sense of self, and actuate positive change in your community through esports. Ultimately, for esports to thrive as a well-integrated sociocultural phenomenon and to achieve a viable economic existence, maturation, expansion, and cross-society engagement with traditional spaces must be achieved.


What Work Must be Done?

We believe that there are three concrete places that the esports conversation must go in order to achieve positive gains against esports’ implicit national security threats and to capitalize on esports’ national security opportunities.


Building Communities of Practice

The first step towards realizing potential change is bringing everyone together in alignment with the same agenda. Simply put, for our industry to achieve collective action towards a better future for all, we must agree on the basics: what does that future look like, how should we strive to get there, and what should each of us commit to the collective effort. Only then can the confluence of people and place blossom into meaningful dialogue that engenders positive change.


Some spaces like this exist, of which two communities of practice come to mind.


The first community, and the one most directly related to the nexus of esports and national security, is the Extremism and Gaming Research Network. The EGRN is a consortium of like-minded and motivationally-aligned organizations pioneering research and praxis at the intersection of online gaming and terrorism. The roster of member organizations encompasses governmental organizations, nonprofits, for-profits, and colleges and universities across the world who are dedicated to creating new knowledge, sharing knowledge once created, and coming together to advance best practice in the fight against online extremism. Supporting the front lines, the EGRN’s efforts are led by top researchers, and many high-level subject-matter experts from government and industry organizations rely on the EGRN and its members’ contributions to understand and combat terrorist use of the internet in relation to online gaming.


The second community, albeit only tangentially related to the national security question, is the Fair Play Alliance. The FPA is a coalition of game developers and gaming-adjacent organizations that are organized around the issue of “fair play,” which is roughly equivalent to the antithesis of the colloquial idea of “toxicity.” For traditional stakeholders or others not endemic to esports, “fair play” can be thought of as pro-social behavior, whereas “toxicity” can be thought of as anti-social behavior, both within the gaming context. What counts as toxicity is difficult to strongly define, and a comprehensive understanding of fair play is even more difficult to pin down. Also, many game developers and other gaming organizations are oftentimes reluctant to engage with or are even unaware of the magnitude of the issue of toxicity. The FPA thereby serves broader society by allying with developers to advance pro-social structural change in game design and the design and monitoring of gaming spaces.


The United States Esports Association is a proud and active member of both organizations and encourages others, especially our friends and colleagues, to join.


Understanding Esports’ Place in Society

While convening likeminded people and groups is foundational to change of any kind, the kind of transformative change in the way we organize our industry, our prevailing business models and operating principles, the way we interact with those outside of our industry, and even the way we discuss what we do relies upon whole-of-society, and not just industry-wide, change. Esports did not grow up in a bubble, nor should we mature the industry within one. To an even greater extent, we must combat any efforts, whether conscious or unconscious, to promote an other-centric esports story and instead must co-create and advance a fully integrated narrative that, through collective action, can be brought to fruition.


For this reason, it is essential that the esports stakeholders most directly engaged in the work of our industry become ambassadors for change, embodying the ideal of esports as a pro-social sociocultural phenomenon that has a central role to play in the development and re-development of contemporary society. The world is rapidly changing as a result of the catastrophic failures of other, more traditional industries that have embedded themselves deeply into the heart of society. These industries, like the people who pioneered their subversion of human civilization, are on the decline, and young people across the world who hail from all walks of life — irrespective of race, gender, and creed — see a future for themselves and their posterity only in a fundamental upheaval of the modern world. Esports is uniquely positioned, therefore, to take hold of their discontent, to unify their diverse ideologies around a central cause, and to champion societal change in all respects.

Esports is uniquely positioned, therefore, to take hold of young people's discontent, to unify their diverse ideologies around a central cause, and to champion societal change in all respects.

But while young people may find community in change, real action that drives progress and puts ideas into practice relies not just on their consent but, as well, on the buy-in of those same traditional stakeholders who stand in stark opposition to many of the ideologies and modes of being that landed us squarely into the circumstances of the present time. It has been well-documented and repeatedly observed, both empirically and anecdotally, that Western societies are experiencing a transformative discontent and social adhesion that threatens peaceable co-existence and a sustainable future for all.


What is often lost from this conversation, however, is that the present ideological dispositions of young people — as was the case for those of their parents, grandparents, and grandparents’ parents — were not formed in a vacuum. Rather, feelings of disenfranchisement, loss of stable sense of self, and the deconstruction of longstanding community and the institutions that systematized them come on the heels of the disruption of stable and prosperous material conditions: the American dream.


So too must we understand all of the many diverse sociocultures surrounding esports, not in isolation but as directly responsive to the material conditions Americans both at home and abroad are facing, and will face in the future, as society progresses. Without a material foundation, any sociocultural analysis of esports will be incomplete, a house built on sand.


Actuating Change across the Homeland

The result of these first two points — that we must build communities of practice and fully understand esports’ place in society — bring about the third and ultimate point. Bolstered by community and knowledge, we must actuate change across these United States, beginning with esports and moving outwards, in the defense of the sanctity of the American homeland.


Understanding Esports' Threat and Opportunity Landscape

Action without thought is wasteful, and thought without action is a waste. In the same way, any action by any stakeholders, in or adjacent to the esports industry, needs to be grounded in verifiable observations about the industry and the people therewithin. Given the purpose of the pursuit at hand, special attention must be placed on the way people and organizations interact within and around the industry, the manifested incentive structures of internal and adjacent stakeholders, and the types of stakeholders that are primed for subversive action given situational or systemic factors.


Within the broader society, practitioners and governmental bodies have a sense of the threat landscape and, thereby, the corresponding opportunity landscape wherewithin corrective or preventative interventions would be maximally impactful. For a great breadth of reasons, the equivalent understanding of esports as a sociocultural phenomenon as well as of the emergent industry that is continuously taking shape around it is severely lacking. This critical lack of understanding, and in some cases a lack of even a basic awareness of the most evident of threats, is a veil that blinds people to all aspects of the national security question in relation to esports — both the threats and their corresponding opportunities.


But as is the case for traditional malign actors, this issue is most well formed in the minds of those who wish to exploit the opportunities in the advancement and actualization of the threats. This competitive disadvantage grows in parallel with the growth of the whole of esports across the world, both as an economic and sociocultural phenomenon. The longer we wait to properly address this issue head-on, the more time we give subversive forces to take root and, as a result, increase the difficulties of addressing the issue at a later date. This increasing difficulty comes hand-in-hand with costs and knowledge barriers, thus challenging any corrections and interventions, especially those led by non-endemic stakeholders.


Combating the entrenchment of malign forces within esports activities and throughout the surrounding industry requires, first and foremost, an identification of the characteristics of this entrenchment and the ways, means, and incentives for malign forces to pursue and maintain it. Germane observations have trilateral use — for practitioners, the industry, and malign actors — and while sensitivity to the potential for malign use of observational data is important, what is more so is the need to prime practitioners for success in their work. Prioritizing sensitivity is also critical, as the esports activities that materialize into the public forum are a subset of the total esports activities across the industry, much of which occur in controlled spaces.


Part and parcel with the need for germane observational data collection is the need for knowledge-sharing and upskilling for direct and indirect stakeholders alike, regardless of positionality as to the national security question in relation to esports. Paramount to these ventures, in very limited part, is the creation of wrap-around supports that increase over time in the degree to which they are holistically-informed, ethically-constituted, and comprehensive in topical depth and breadth.


Mobilizing Cooperative Cross-Stakeholder Action

The crowning feature of our approach to the national security question in relation to esports, understood as a component of this third and final point, is that we must synthesize the gains from all the previous components into an actionable plan for identifying, conceptualizing, intervening, adjudicating, remediating, and preventing the malign subversion of esports.


What is most notable about this final component is that, given the present nature of global esports and especially the state of esports throughout the United States, there is a glaring lack of genuine coordination or control over any meaningful amount of esports organizations, much less their players, talent, support, and business professionals. This fact of life means that our approach to working at the nexus of national security and esports priorities must be informed by a multi-stakeholder concept of the space that is actuated and sustained by diverse and autonomous players by means of cooperation.


The decentralized nature of esports, which has become characteristic especially of the state of the industry throughout North America and, in particular, the United States, complicates the direct application of traditional national security interventions into this and adjacent spaces. For this reason, coupled with a lack of targeted legislation, it is necessary to pioneer new approaches to attaining favorable national security outcomes in relation to esports, where these approaches are informed not only by traditional learnings but also by the genuine input, feedback, and criticisms of the stakeholders upon which ultimate action relies. Esports are not conducive to top-down action nor to the imposition of rules and use of language that are foreign and, whether intentionally or negligently, cast the space and those within it in a false, untrue, or propagandized light. Ignorance of these and countless under-documented social rules casts a looming trap for non-endemic practitioners.


We believe it is therefore the case that a meaningful partnership across stakeholder classes is the only legitimate foundation upon which action can be built and from which positive change can be achieved. Whereas the national security question is inherently multi-stakeholder, so too is the case with that question in relation to esports. And whereas an effective and robust national security apparatus is reliant, to varying degrees and respects, upon cross-stakeholder cooperation, so too is the case with that apparatus within and about the esports context. This approach is not only effective for these reasons but also for the emergent perceptions of authenticity and legitimacy that only cooperation and voluntary consensus can achieve.


Factual authenticity and legitimacy are, it goes without saying, of prime importance, but without the perception of these things by endemic and non-endemic stakeholders alike, the fact of the matter is moot. This would be counterproductive, especially since we can reasonably assume that a strong cooperation focus leads to some loss of efficiency and that a strong voluntary consensus focus leads to some loss of control. Insofar as these forces are, at least in some non-trivial part, necessary and essential for success in any of many national security activities across any of many national security priority areas, then an effort must be made to align perception with fact. If this can be achieved, then we believe that a strongly unified industry can emerge, with a dual foundation in its own identity as well as that of the national security community.


Risk of Non-Aligned Reciprocity

In addition to the risk of rejection, hostility, apathy, or other forms of adversity among esports communities in response to national security activity within the space, there exists the very real, very tangible risk of reciprocal action by non-aligned actors, whether foreign or domestic. This risk has transpired, and is presently transpiring, in dangerous ways.


Threat of Non-Aligned Nation-Building

First and foremost, as has been discussed by both the literature and professional media, esports has become a tool for many foreign nation-states to pursue nation-building goals, to transform their national agenda in response to emerging sociocultural and economic phenomena, and to redefine their national image in the eyes of the global community. In the best of cases, this presents an opportunity for young countries to establish their place in the global order and for older countries to solidify their relevance in these increasingly tumultuous times. In the worst of cases, however, esports offer human rights offenders a chance to alter their image without changing the policy on the ground that helped to shape it. We cannot turn a blind eye to our own legacy of human rights offenses, but so too can we not allow others to alter theirs without first remedying the conditions that justify their ill-regard. It is necessary that we recognize evil for what it is and combat it without end.


However significant a threat it may be, esportswashing is far from the only attempt to subvert esports as a tool for nation-building, and perhaps a more significant threat to American interests is the multi-polarization of state influence within the esports context. It is disadvantageous to the United States’ strategic global and domestic interests that the industry be centered around other poles, most profoundly those of our foreign and ideological adversaries. But this is the case, and has been for the considerable past, and there are no signs that this trend has any intent of stopping. Given esports’ proximity to other industries, some of which are specially related to the United States’ strategic interests, esports trends are in many ways a reflection of related megatrends, where the relationship between the two is one of push and pull. This adds unignorable urgency to national security issues in relation to esports, lest the United States be outmaneuvered in tangential spaces.


Threat of Global Subversion

What is less discussed, if it has been covered at all, is the ability for non-aligned actors to leverage the mainstreaming and mass adoption of esports particularly amongst young people in the pursuit of agenda-enhancing and propaganda-amplifying activities in public fora. Though there have been limited instances of this throughout the United States, the tides are changing, driven in some part by developing inter-state relations and bolstered capabilities among foreign actors who are not reliant on the United States to a sufficient extent to have successfully hedged their non-alignment. It is difficult to overstate the degree to which the United States is globally non-competitive in esports, which comes at a tangible cost: the under-capitalization upon pre-existing rapport and the cession of global advantage.


It is difficult to overstate the degree to which the United States is globally non-competitive in esports

Under-Capitalization upon Pre-Existing Rapport

The first cost — the under-capitalization upon pre-existing rapport — mirrors similar situations in other industries, especially those that have more recently emerged. The United States was once the global powerhouse in industrial manufacturing and technological innovation, but through market-driven processes, we as a nation have lost our edge and necessarily allowed other states who do not share our national character to replace our prominence. This situation has not substantially harmed our global reputation, however, and the United States continues to benefit from our historical positionality. This is changing.


In much the same way, the American esports economy is massively under-developed, is foundationally unstable, and lacks any serious developmental leaders to drive unfavorable trends into the opposite direction. Simply put, the world gets on without the United States being present in the global esports conversation in any serious and meaningful capacity. But where traditional industries have found ways to capitalize on pre-existing rapport, the lack of rapport in this space coupled with prevailing inaction and apathy leave the United States flailing behind the rest of the global community. And while some American organizations find global success, without the kind of national support offered by other nation-states for their esports economies, our prospects for influencing the global conversation and aligning it with our interests are slim. With support, it may have once been easy to center global esports around the United States. This is no longer the case.


Cession of Global Advantage

This observation leads to the second cost — the cession of global advantage — which is the necessary consequence of the first when left unrecognized and untamed, as has been the case. As the United States continues to underperform and lag critically behind the rest of the world in esports, allies and adversaries alike have taken up the banner of global, regional, and national esports development and have founded institutions that are shaping the future of this industry to match their interests. Far from any development being beneficial, it is now the case that the global development that is occurring is having the effect of refocusing the conversation on new global players with their own aspirations and key strategic interests, many of which are not aligned with those of the United States.


With time, these new institutions are disrupting the traditional global order, which has the effect of similarly disrupting, or wholly dispensing of, the United States’ ability to perform — and excel — in this novel arena.


Threat of Domestic Non-Alignment and Subversion

While the threats of non-aligned development and subversion are most clearly observed and understood within the global context in relation to traditional state actors, esports, at least throughout the United States, additionally suffers from vulnerabilities to domestic actors. Naturally, these actors have divergent interests in relation to those held by foreign actors, most of which are nation-states or agent organizations thereof, but the ultimate motivations are the same. Coupled with parallel domestic national security threats, and resultant strategic priorities, emergent urgency arises as to addressing the nexus of domestic extremism and esports, encompassed by extremism’s broader nexus with online gaming.


What is of particular concern is that, as the United States’ esports presence relatively diminishes and as the American esports economy continues to unravel, there will be an opportunity for adverse forces, whether domestic or foreign in origin, to establish a foothold among niche spaces and promulgate extremist ideologies. Promulgating such ideologies should be concerning on its own, but even more so should be the opportunity for non-aligned and subversive domestic actors to destabilize, radicalize, and compel vulnerable bystanders to ideological action. In even the best of cases, this sort of activity would add to existing criminalities present throughout esports communities, which themselves are driving by prevailing instabilities and lack of structure. As volatility persists, the threat of social isolation increases, further enhancing threats.


We must Align Esports Interests with the United States' National Security Priorities

At the end of the day, with any profound societal change comes an expansion and diversification of the national security threat landscape. The more touch points that societal change has with other parts of society, the more exposure there is to disruption or subversion of the sacrosanctity of the American homeland. Understanding the esports industry in these terms will be critical moving forward if the United States is to regain competitiveness and rejoin the global community in this macro-trend.

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