By USO Staff
For the second year in a row, the USO and the NFL have partnered to give service members the opportunity to take their love of EA Sports™ Madden NFL to a competitive level through the Salute to Service Showdown tournament. In partnership with the USO, the NFL will award two winners (one on the Xbox platform and one for PlayStation) two tickets each to Super Bowl LVII in Arizona in February 2023.
The winners also earn advanced placement in the Madden NFL 23 Championship Series (MCS) Last Chance Qualifier, the final online tournament which provides Madden NFL players the last opportunity to qualify for the Ultimate Madden Bowl, the crowning event of the MCS.
The Salute to Service Showdown’s top eight players will travel to Las Vegas to compete in the finals on November 13, 2022, ahead of the Las Vegas Raiders Salute to Service game. The finals will air on the USO Twitch channel at Twitch.tv/theUSO.
Many of these players couldn’t believe they had an opportunity like this.
“I’ve been talking to friends and family and telling them I’m going to be flown to Las Vegas to play video games. It’s ridiculous,” said Kolton Lehman (handle: Kaptaink11; U.S. Marine Corps).
He was just as shocked when he made it to the second round and contacted his chain of command to see if he could participate, even though it was a drill weekend.
“It was approved so I could go play Madden, which is insane,” he said.
C.J. Murray (handle: byrie_irving; U.S. Army) has experienced that same level of encouragement.
“Everyone has been so supportive, like leadership approving my leave and people telling me, ‘You’re the best player. You have to make it to the Super Bowl.’ I’m pretty lucky.”
Kenyatte Harris (handle: Spot3mDot3m; U.S. Navy) will be visiting Las Vegas for the first time.
“It’s been amazing. It brings me joy that I have a chance to travel to play a game I’ve played for years. I never would have thought I could do that,” he said.
Harris’ brother, Christopher Wescott, finished first in last year’s tournament for Xbox and took one of his fellow Air Force service members to the Super Bowl. Harris was wrapping up boot camp at the time and knew he’d want to compete the following year.
However, a couple of this year’s finalists might have a leg up on the competition.
Leo Jones (handle: lmoney556; U.S. Air Force) made it to the final eight last year as well and is excited to be back. He takes every chance he can to play with other service members through USO Gaming, including at USO Centers, base-supported events and at USO Mobile vehicles.
“I’m really into gaming, and hopefully this will get my name out there to other military members,” he said. “I’ve stayed in contact with a couple of guys from the tournament last year and we play together all the time. Hopefully, the competition will grow next year.”
Jones said he is sure to be back.
Like Jones, Lehman has played in other competitions. While at the University of South Alabama, he took first place in a fraternity’s charity Madden NFL tournament.
The Perfect Partnership
Football is an American tradition with strong roots, just as strong as the USO’s connection to military service members, making them an ideal match. Through USO Entertainment tours and events, the NFL helps service members stay connected to family, home and country through football.
“Even before I entered the service, I saw how the NFL interacted with the military … meeting players and coaches — the legends,” Harris said.
“To see that the NFL supports the troops the way they do is an amazing feeling, because not only do we look up to the athletes, they look up to us as well. To have that special bond of camaraderie when we come together, it’s a great feeling and I’m blown away.”
Lehman said he thinks of the USO as “the seventh military branch” because the organization has been by his side throughout his ten years of service.
“They take care of us in such a way that you’re not surprised when you’re in the middle of nowhere and your command says that the USO is coming out. Of course they are, and the NFL backing that just feels right. It’s a validation.”
Building Bonds through Gaming
Jawan Ferrell (handle: iiamwan8k; U.S. Army) said he jumped at the chance to participate in the tournament, looking forward to testing his skills and seeing how he stacked up against other service members. But for Ferrell, the tournament has been so much more than that.
“Taking part in this tournament is honestly one of the most emotional moments of my military career,” he said. “You have the highs, and you have the lows. Gaming lets you chat, laugh with one another, and just share those experiences. While we’re loading up for games, we talk about where they’re stationed, what their job is, and what branch they’re in. You don’t always get to interact with multiple branches, so that has been very cool.”
Player Andrew Rosas (handle: Junar; U.S. Army) eagerly anticipates meeting fellow contestant Dylan Walker (handle: djw8494; U.S. Navy) in-person. They’ve gamed together online for several months, and Rosas was actually the one who told Walker about the tournament. They’ve become such good friends that they’ve promised to give their second ticket to the other if either of them wins the tournament.
Rosas explained that he enjoys meeting people stationed all over the world. Gaming gives them a shared experience.
Meanwhile, Walker feels that gaming lets service members carry on a casual conversation, unlike a phone call, which can feel a little more rigid and formal.
“I can play the game and just enjoy the company of those around me, in the game.”
Harris expressed a similar sentiment.
“You can build friendships with these guys — and you don’t know these guys from a can of paint — and just playing games with them gives you a connection,” he said.
Murray has also forged bonds while gaming.
“My closest friends are the friends I know from playing Madden,” he said. “You talk to these guys basically every day. The military is a 24/7 job. Playing the game is our way of bringing ourselves back down to earth.”
A Chance to Relax and Recharge
Service members face a range of stressors in their daily lives and duties, including everything from intense physical activity and emotional strain, to monotony and isolation. Gaming gives them a break from the demanding responsibilities that come with serving our country.
“You do the same thing day in, day out,” said Ali Zaidi (handle: its2eaze; U.S. Marine Corps). “So you appreciate a little break from the routine and to have a chance to escape into a world that you know is not the real world. Having the opportunity to decompress, play a game, and not have to worry about what’s going on for a little bit is definitely a good thing.”
Ferrell said he can see that the USO and NFL really care about service members by the fact that they are giving troops an opportunity to get away from the day-to-day challenges of military service.
Staying Connected to Friends and Family
Service members also use gaming to spend time with loved ones back home, which the NFL supports through USO Gaming and USO-NFL events.
Rosas logs on to game with his family as often as he can.
“When I was overseas, I would play games with my family members. With the 14-hour time difference, it was pretty hard, but we found the hours that could work best for us.”
Now that he’s back stateside, Rosas plays regularly with his stepdad, brother-in-law and nephews.
Jones explained that gaming has always been a part of his lifestyle.
“It’s a staple. Most everybody I know grew up playing video games together; we can keep that connection by playing online.”
Year-Round Gaming Events and Opportunities
Service members can take advantage of USO Gaming activities in USO centers worldwide, as well as in Mobile USO vehicles, both of which provide reliable Wi-Fi access, gaming consoles, TVs, and computers. The USO Gaming program also provides an online community and content through its USO Discord and Twitch channel.
The NFL supports USO centers and USO Gaming activities all year-long; in fact, in 2022, the two organizations introduced a state-of-the-art USO-NFL Gaming Trailer that delivers entertainment and connectivity on-the-go and to remote locations. It will be traveling along to Las Vegas with the finalists.
The USO and the NFL have made a commitment that, through the lens of football, both organizations will strive to keep our service members connected to the things they hold dear: family, home and country.
The USO and NFL partnership spans over 55 years because of their shared belief in making a difference to active-duty service members and their military families.
“Knowing that something that I love as much as the NFL has a joint partnership with the USO and supports the military means a lot. It shows that they appreciate what we do,” said Zaidi.
“Sacrifices have been made by many service members before me that enable people to play football at this high level. They give us entertainment wherever we are, even when we’re overseas. It’s a mutual appreciation.”
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