Behind the scenes at the Warrior Zone, the U.S. Army’s esports program

U.S. Army Warrior Zone founder John Talaske gave us an inside look into the branch’s esports initiative, detailing its history, fighting game circuit, and future prospects.

John Talaske built the foundation for what would become the United States Army’s Warrior Zone Program, an initiative that melded the gaming world with the branch’s Recreation Centers. Talaske’s own background in gaming served as an inspiration for this project, which is now installed in multiple U.S. bases.

From modest beginnings

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His start in gaming began with Doom and expanded to encompass multiple titles, and Talaske was soon hosting his own tournaments out of his home. “I started playing the freeware version of Doom on my Packard Bell 486 computer in the early ’90s,” he recalled. “I started hosting LAN parties at my house and invited other people from work. We discussed the idea, since the 16 and 17-year-olds of the world were playing these games, that we should make them available for new soldiers coming into the Army.”

Talaske then created a Counter-Strike server that connected soldiers with civilians. “I contacted some friends that that ran a dedicated server, and they helped me create one of our own,” he said. “It was called ‘Fort Lewis Soldiers,’ and we let people know that they would be playing with real soldiers. The program grew and started to generate challenges from other ‘clans’ both civilian and military. We also contacted the folks from the game ‘America’s Army’ to create a server and become an official host so that civilians could play with our teams.”

It was after this initiative that the Warrior Zone project began. “In 2008, the Army was looking to build a new type of recreation center based on the information collected from focus groups consisting of young soldiers,” Talaske explained. “Gaming topped the list of activities they were looking for. Since Warrior Zones were going to be built Army wide, one of the key considerations was to be able to play with other soldiers across the Army…. and the idea was that even if you transferred to a new base, you could still play with old friends.”

“No time for talk. Let’s do this!”

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Since then, the Army has been involved with a multitude of competitive games, from Counter-Strike: Global Offensive to Call of Duty – and now, Street Fighter V. The U.S. Army hosted its own SFV tournament circuit in August of 2018, which the finals of which took place on September 1st. Talaske said this initiative was brought about by another survey that determined player interest in the genre.

“A survey was conducted to find the favorite games amongst the Army,” he said. “Community and fighting games were consistently at the top of preferred tournament play.” Street Fighter’s Air Force powerhouses weren’t even at the forefront of this thought: turns out, Guile and Charlie aren’t even the Army’s favorite fighters. “Guile and Charlie were not a consideration in the selection for the first series, and actually received very little play in the first 3 matches,” Talaske confirmed.

As this is the Zone’s first fighting game circuit, organizers are treating it as a learning experience, shifting their focus to the genre’s 1v1 format as opposed to other games’ team-based structure. “Fighting games involve a different dynamic in tournament play from what we’ve done in the past, “Talaske explained. “Being able to focus on a 1 vs. 1 player format instead of a 5 vs. 5 team allows for greater individual attention. Recruiting other players to form a team can be difficult, and fighting games makes it easier to get into a tournament… [to] play the rounds and practice the necessary skills.”

A future in fighting games

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While the SFV tournament circuit is meant to provide fun in the soldiers’ off-time, it likewise helps build focus and strategy. “Our main goal with the Warrior Zone Program is to build resilience,” Talaske stated. “The soldiers work hard, and deserve the best in their off-time. We also build a social environment in the facility so that it is more than just playing a game. The program focuses on getting soldiers to work together to form teams, build strategies, and support each other.”

The SFV circuit won’t mark the end of the Army’s fighting game engagement. John assured that there will be more tournament circuits in the future, with a variety of fighting game titles. In fact, the JBLM Warrior Zone hosted a Dragon Ball FighterZ tournament this September, on Saturday the 8th, streamed on theJBLMWarriorZoneTwitch channel.

Whether it be collecting all seven Dragon Balls or winning the King of Iron Fist Tournament, it looks like the Army has a bright future in the fighting game field alongside its other esports initiatives.


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