OCW grant helps provide gaming tournament for Fort Irwin soldiers

Fort Irwin, Calif., is often referred to an island in the middle of the desert. A National Training Center for the U.S. military the installation is situated in the Mojave Desert 37 miles northeast of the closest town, Barstow.

In an effort to bring entertainment to the troops stationed in this remote locale, the base is in the midst of its second annual Desert Warrior Week. From April 17-21, troops engage in a series of competitions to see who wins the coveted Commanders Cup.

“We’re very remote and isolated so this provides them with awesome entertainment and experience,” explained Lacey Marshall, with Corporate Sponsorships & Advertising, MWR Fort Irwin. “This is a week where we put on all sorts of contests, and at the end we throw a big party and hand out awards.”

One of the first competitions of the week is a video game tournament, in which the soldiers competed playing “Madden” at the Morale, Welfare, and Recreation (MWR) facility – better known as the Warrior Zone. Through an Operation Comfort Warriors (OCW) grant, The American Legion provided the video games and other accessories, which was delivered by the nonprofit Stack Up.

Marshall said that the grant from OCW that provided the equipment Stack Up brought to them enabled this tournament to go on. “This was asked from the highest of our leadership being the CG (Commanding General) of the installation, Gen. Taylor, and it’s something that these guys like and want to have here,” she said.

When Marshall received the order to have a Madden video game tournament, they went to Stack Up to help fulfill that order. Stack Up founder and CEO Steve Machuga, a member of American Legion Post 283 in Pacific Palisades, Calif., rolled up the morning of the tournament to the Warrior Zone in his bright red, Stack Up-branded sprinter van with a couple crates of video games and accessories.

Stack Up is described as a military charity supporting U.S. and allied veterans through gaming and geek culture. The organization received a grant from OCW, which enables it to continue its mission.

“Operation Comfort Warrior gave us a big bag of money at the beginning of the year and said continue to do good work with it,” Machuga said. “And we’ve worked with them for some time now and they’ve been great. They allow us or help us to do our mission.”

Due to the OCW grant, Stack Up was able to provide the Fort Irwin Warrior Zone with a VR Oculus Headset and the copies of Madden needed for the tournament,

Machuga describes himself as, “one of those gamers who used to get shoved in those lockers back in the day.” He recognized the impact the video game industry has on our culture.

“We are in a different time when gaming has become a multi-million-dollar industry that is outpacing sports and music,” Machuga said. “Those kids who grew up on iPads with Minecraft and Fortnite are now our next generation of soldiers. So, it’s a natural progression. It just happened that this hobby that I loved turned into a global phenomenon.”

The tournament brought dozens of soldiers into the Warrior Zone to compete and watch. Spec. Ivan Lopez with the 111th ACR Iron Horse at Fort Irwin mentioned how recently there have been three tournaments hosted at the MWR Warrior Zone and was excited about the future, “Our regimental sergeant major has gotten light of it, and we now have another one forming,” he said. “And he now sees that gaming is a huge thing that brings a lot of soldiers in”.

When Lopez found out the game for the tournament was going to be “Madden”, he didn’t think many people would show up. But he was surprised by the turnout.

Spec. Miguel Sandoval of Fort Irwin’s 211th Gun-Slingers had a good attitude about losing his first match. “Video games are a hobby of mine and I like to test my metal against other players,” he said. “It’s just today, unfortunately, I met a better match. He’s been clearly playing the game longer than I have, and if it were a different game it could have turned out differently. But I had fun the entire time.”

Fortunately, Sandoval’s past experience with football gave him something to draw upon when playing this game. He also noted the benefit having a place like the Warrior Zone at Fort Irwin. “It helps unwind soldiers throughout the day,” he said. “Video games are nothing but a release, a place away from work, just something to enjoy to pass the time.”

His competitor in the match was Pvt. Dylan Deedrick of Dragon Team-Ops Group, who had a much different history playing “Madden”. “I’ve been playing video games ever since I was 6 years old,” he said. “I started playing ‘Madden’, it was just me, my dad, my little brother and sisters. We would have fun tournaments with each other. I would always win.”

Deedrick said that while he’s enjoyer other games over the years, “Madden just been the game I just stuck around ever since I was 6.” And when he found out the tournament was going to be “Madden”, he was ready for the competition. “It was my leadership who said we’re going to have a Warrior Week and they said the game is going to be “Madden’. I said, ‘time to test my skills, see how far I get.’”

After dropping off the copies of “Madden” for the tournament, Machuga set up an additional PC in a small private room that provided a direct link to Stack Up’s suicide-prevention Overwatch team. “We have an online presence through Stack Up called Overwatch, which is our 24/7 suicide-prevention team online through a program called Discord.,” he said. “It's for people who don’t have anyone to talk to if they need someone outside of the chain-of-command that they want to talk with.”

Spec. Casey Auman of Vulture Team-Ops Group spoke of the need for an option like the dedicated PC at the Warrior Zone. “I think it’s very valuable,” he said. “Some people aren’t very good at talking to people in person, so that gives them another way to talk about their problems or feeling through the Internet. Some people get sheltered and they are not used to this environment. People come from all over the country and join the Army, so it’s just a different environment for people.”

Marshall also spoked about the dedicated PC. “We find all the time that there are soldiers and officers that need some just someone to talk to and they don’t want to go through their chaplain or chain-of-command for whatever reason,” she said. “This allows them the opportunity to get what they need and want while staying within the confines of who they can talk to.”