COVID-19 Pandemic. There were a few cases here and there, but largely it felt like the U.S. had things contained in those early months. But, at a moment’s notice, the bottom fell out. Things began to change rapidly for U.S. citizens. Mask mandates, COVID protocols throughout stores, restaurants, and other facilities, social distancing, all these guidelines were given to us so that we could keep ourselves safe and COVID free. And what has been a close to two-year battle with the virus has left many depleted despite the arrival and spread of COVID vaccinations.
During this trying time, those that have been able to, have largely kept themselves behind doors. Working from home or trying to limit their interaction with the world as much as possible. And many, who were once avid outdoors people, social gatherers, and general extroverts have had to find new ways to cope throughout the pandemic. During this time, gaming has erupted as a service that links both distraction and sociability, and many who are non-gamers have found themselves getting their hands on titles from their childhoods or picking things up simply out of passing interest. League of Legends, Valorant, Call of Duty, Rocket League, Among Us.. All of these games have promoted that party atmosphere that we’ve been missing for the past two years and have helped us stay safe and COVID free as we look forward into a, hopefully, less COVID dominated 2022.
I’ve had the wonderful opportunity to sit down and chat with two amazing individuals in our gaming community, Dignitas’ own Emuhleet and an honored member of the United States Air Force, Master Sergeant “Jenes” Nesle, a leader within the US Air Force Gaming circuit. As I chatted with them, I’ve gotten to know them, their experiences within their scenes, the challenges they’ve faced, the good they’ve done, the problems that COVID has presented to them, and their plans for the future.
Backgrounds - Competition, Growth, and Inspirations
But first, as always, there needs to be an introduction. When it comes to these two, they’ve got storied, and likely familiar, backgrounds in the gaming world and beyond. As you know her today, Emuhleet is one Dignitas’ Valorant players and she also served as a leader on the previous CS:GO roster, but her connection to gaming runs deep.
Emuhleet: I got into gaming when I was super young. My brother and I used to always play GoldenEye on the N64, so that’s one of my earliest memories with gaming. And, of course, everyone loved Donkey Kong and Mario Kart, so all those games on the Nintendo 64 were my thing. Later in life, I started to become more competitive with FPS games. Golden-Eye was kinda the start of that since me and my brother were pretty competitive with each other. So, gaming definitely started when I was very young.
Coming into online gaming, Counter Strike was my first competitive game. Here in Southern California, we had so many local LAN tournaments and I started to go to as many as I could. First, I started spectating and watching, and then I quickly just wanted to join a team. So, I just kept going to as many local LAN events as I could.
Master Sergeant Nesle by day serves the United States as a noncommissioned officer within the United States Air Force, but when bonds need to be built and rest and relaxation becomes focus to rebuild, he’s a team leader of the Air Force Gaming circuit’s Rainbow Six Siege team. But Master Sgt. Nesle also has a deep personal connection to the United States Armed Forces.
Master Sgt. Nesle: I’ve been in the Air Force for 15 years and I joined all the way back in 2006. I am a master sergeant, which is an E-7 equivalent to other positions in the Department of Defense. And as a Master Sergeant, I’m considered to be a technical expert within my field and I am a frontline supervisor in operational departments. In short, I’m a supervisor’s supervisor and I make decisions relating to the usage of manpower and resources to get our missions done.
I was originally inspired to join the military by my step-father who was a member of the Navy throughout my childhood, and having been born in the Philippines the opportunity to join the military spurred me on, so that I could sort of “live the American Dream”, as it were, since the military afforded benefits I would never have there. And being the competitive person that I am, I wanted to be successful. So, the military gave me the opportunity to go to school for free, and experience a stable income, while experiencing the world.
Inside the Workplace - COVID and Culture Changes
But before these two were committed to their gaming worlds, there was a unique aspect to each of their lives. Both Master Sgt. Nesle and Emuhleet were deeply involved in their respective fields. Emuhleet served as Rehabilitation Nurse just before switching to full-time with Dignitas before the pandemic, and with such a short transition period between her fields, she’s maintained connections with her coworkers and friends from that side of the fence.
Emuhleet: It was difficult for me to stop nursing. Because I loved what I was doing. I loved that field and I connected with my patients since in a Rehab setting you’re there for thirty days or more. So, I had a good connection with everyone there from my therapists, to my doctors, and to my patients.
For me, working full-time as a nurse was just hard when my team had to travel for weeks at a time to international tournaments. Thankfully, my boss was super supportive and loved what I did, so getting time off wasn’t a problem. The problem was when I was coming back, because it felt like this wasn’t fair to my patients and to their healing process. So, that’s when I decided that maybe nursing was just something that I should stop for now.
Master Sgt. Nesle too fulfilled different duties before helping establish Air Force Gaming, as a dental hygienist, he was a bit off the frontlines of the pandemic before being muscled into action come the production of the vaccines. His day to day shifted drastically and he was brought to serve as a support member across various areas of COVID vaccination centers, a challenge that he says was daunting but one that was very fulfilling.
Master Sgt. Nesle: When I was deployed to help with the vaccination centers, it was a very different experience for me. Typically, in my dental field, we work hand-in-hand with the patient, but we never see the final outcome since we deal with a lot of prosthetic production. We work as a more satellite service for the entirety of the DOD Dental Treatment facility.
But deploying to COVID areas was an amazing experience. I got to see the patients first-hand and within my post-vaccination care role, I got to monitor any adverse effects from the vaccination and thankfully there weren’t that many issues. I got to see the community and their reception to the military and the reception to what we were doing. A lot of the moments were very touching when it came to the community wanting to come in and just hug us for what we were doing. Especially as a service member, it feels good to know that we’re in the right direction and that we’re helping out.
That community connection and emotional support is what enlightened Master Sgt.. Nesle’s experience, and in that same token, becoming a shoulder to lean on, and gaining her friend’s insight on what it's like to be a frontline medical worker through the pandemic has been an eye-opening experience for her. One that has challenged her day to day, but also put into perspective how lucky she is to be where she’s at amidst the pandemic.
Emuhleet: From having multiple conversations with my friends who are working in the nursing field, COVID has definitely been something that nobody could’ve prepared you for. So, that’s why I think having a good supportive community and friends can be extremely helpful. And I think that goes for everybody. During these last two-years, we’ve realized what actually matters. And it really hits you when things have kinda become an almost life and death situation.
In & Beyond the Workplace - Leadership, Competition, Opportunity
In many ways, their skills as healthcare workers and folded over into their gaming sides of their lives. Leadership, communication, forward thinking, all these folded into their gaming spaces and allowed them to excel there, even through the stress of all that was going on in the world around them. To top it off, they both became stars within their respective organizations. Emuhleet currently leads the Dignitas Valorant squadron, while Master Sgt. Nesle is both a mentor and team-leader in the Air Force Gaming scene.
And while both noted the skills and challenges they faced helped them become successful with their headsets on, what really mattered to both was the outreach and opportunities that their positions afforded to those around them.
Master Sgt. Nesle: Air Force Gaming is a platform where we help connect Air Force members together. And while gaming is the ‘focus’, it’s not the entirety of the goal. We’re a spread-out bunch and we are expected to move every two to three years, so the situation comes up where you’re leaving behind friends and connections you’ve made the past few years. But, with Air Force Gaming, you can stay connected with your best friends. And we utilize it as a form of resiliency. When people are reaching out in need, we’re able to provide mentorship or support. Even if it’s something like career guidance. We can help support our service members through any aspect personally or professionally that they might need. And that’s what makes being a part of Air Force Gaming such an amazing opportunity.
Air Force Gaming isn’t just a ‘get-together’ of servicemen for a community’s sake though, there’s a direction towards competition and competitive integrity that is extremely important. Beyond Master Sgt.. Nesle’s scene, Air Force Gaming covers multiple titles from Call of Duty to League of Legends and strives to mirror the professional competitive environments in the way they execute their own.
Master Sgt. Nesle: I run the competitive Air Force Gaming Rainbow Six team. So, I do everything from setting up our scrims to getting our matches and qualifiers organized. So, this could be finding staffing, streamers, analysts, finding players, making sure we’re keeping the player pool fresh because we want things to be consistently competitive.
Emuhleet, with her background in rehabilitation has utilized her streaming platform for mentorship as well. Helping viewers de-stress from their exhausting days with laughs and smiles, of course. But also offering a place that’s geared towards mental health and happiness. She’s noted that, occasionally, her stream evolves into a pseudo-life advice stream and that she’s 100% on board with that.
Emuhleet: On my stream, I’ll give advice that I would give to my patients because sometimes my viewers will come and ask for my advice. Of course, I’m not a doctor, but I try to help as much as I can in that sense. The field that I went into was the addiction field and mental health field. This was something that I knew that I wanted to do, because when I was growing up, I had seen many people that were struggling with addiction myself. So, that was a field I knew I wanted to get into because, when I was younger, I felt a little helpless. I wanted to give back in that sense. So, I went into Rehabs and I was a nurse there and I loved it. So, getting the opportunity to help my streaming community with similar things has been amazing.
What ties these two together though is a dedication towards service and opportunity. Emuhleet’s stream, though geared towards entertainment, is a haven for those that are struggling through their day-to-day life. Air Force Gaming, while focused on gaming and the fun of it all, is grounded in the opportunities for connection and mentorship. For Master Sgt. Nesle, his motivation to remain committed to Air Force Gaming, even the boring or difficult operational tasks, is thanks to the opportunity to shape the lives and futures of active Airmen. The words he can share, or the paths that he can open simply by connecting with a teammate or chatting during an event, can lead to gateways of other opportunities for participating servicemen.
Master Sgt. Nesle: In fact, what has kept me in for so long is the development side of things. As a master sergeant, I’m sort of an ‘old head’ gamer, and I’m playing with a bunch of twenty to twenty-three year olds, so one of the biggest inspiration points of Air Force Gaming, for me, is that we’re developing the future staff sergeants, technical sergeants and master sergeants through our mentorship. And they get to develop their skills by leading their small groups or teams, be that in games like League of Legends, or Rocket League. Unknowingly, you’re putting people in positions to make decisions on a digital scale, but they’re slowly creating that skillset to communicate with their peers and teammates. And that’s just from the mentorship part of things.
Additionally, our servicemen are occupationally coded in most things they do. So, for example, I fall under the medical branch as a dental lab technician. And not everyone understands what the medical technician does, right? And I might not understand what a ‘maintainer’ does (someone that works on F-15s). So, Air Force Gaming is basically that eye opening connection point to help members work through misunderstandings of what certain groups do within the Air Force. Something like Air Force Gaming just gives us a better connection and understanding to the ‘total’ mission of the Air Force versus just what my mission in the Air Force is.
Lessons Learned - Managing COVID, Growth Opportunities, and What Matters
Of course, COVID has loomed over everything. It has stalled hospitals, clinics, businesses, and the essentials we all need to live. What we don’t often consider are those programs or functions we participate in that we look forward to beyond the essentials. The community center programs, the recreation leagues, the calendar events at a community hub. These have all but been demolished by COVID and only in the latter half of the pandemic have they started to revive and inject more than just the bare necessities into our lives.
Master Sgt. Nesle, fortunately, had a positive challenge. Through the pandemic, Air Force Gaming blossomed and received a great reception amongst service members. As more service members found themselves seeking safe and alternative forms of entertainment that didn’t involve going out, gaming was the biggest attraction and the doors of the Air Force began to bust off their hinges when welcoming new members.
Master Sgt. Nesle: It all started about a year ago. We did a huge Air Force wide survey to establish a purpose and interest for Air Force Gaming. And from that survey we found a huge portion of our service members were gamers! So, that was an easy answer to see how we would be received as we expanded things.
Luckily, COVID had a sort of opposite effect for Air Force Gaming. It forced us to connect digitally, and it began to thrive in the middle of COVID. It forced more gamers to connect and reach out since they couldn’t get out in the real world. COVID weirdly became the backbone for what we were wanting to implement with Air Force Gaming within our first year towards our goals of utilizing it as a way to promote resiliency, mentorship, and connection.
Emuhleet noted that her teams faced challenges and a shift in preparation due to online tournaments and far less travel time because of it. Noting that things have been a major adjustment for her, and that she’s had to learn some harsh lessons herself.
Emuhleet: Something I had to learn the hard way is to know that you’re not alone. People might be posting on social media that their lives are perfect and happy, but behind that, you never know what they’re going through. Nobody’s life is perfect, to be honest. And with that, you will fall sometimes in your life. There’s going to be bumps in the road. But, at the end of the day, you’re gonna get back up. And it’s what you do when you get back up that counts. So, I’ve continued to push myself and I encourage everyone to be your own biggest advocate!
Now, with a year under their belt, Master Sgt. Nesle has noted positive reception amongst servicemen and leaders within the military community. Other branches of the Armed Forces have also explored gaming as a recruitment and connection point for their members, and Air Force Gaming has really served as an example of gaming done right in the military.
Master Sgt. Nesle: After the year the program has been up and running, we’ve had nothing but positive reception from Air Force leaders all the way from Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force JoAnne Bass to even at the local levels. The reception has been high, and we’ve found ways to utilize it in other means. Which is why I think it’s been beneficial. We use gaming as a form of connection to develop our Airmen. So, we’re constantly moving onward with our progression.
Looking to the Future - Goals, Impact, and Outreach
But, at the end of the day, both noted there is a tomorrow. There is a life beyond COVID. And while they work through their day-to-day and do the best they can, both still have goals in mind, positive outlooks on life ahead, and valuable lessons learned through their experiences.
Emuhleet: I still am looking for better ways to combine goals of combining gaming with rehabilitation, so for now, I’m just a very big advocate for mental health. I’m using my streaming platform for that. But, hopefully, I can find a bigger and more effective way of doing it for people around the world!
Master Sgt. Nesle: With Air Force Gaming, we’ve begun some efforts to open up to dependents of our service members as well. So, civilians and family can begin to get involved. Everything from family, retirees, and veterans. It’s something recent that we’re trying to accommodate. And I think what we’re doing is amazing. So, taking every opportunity to broadcast it and take hold of it is important. What Air Force Gaming does internally is already a huge deal, but we don’t give it enough credit for the huge opportunities and benefits we bring to our Airmen. When you can hop into Discord and solve a problem for someone that’s half-way across the world, that’s something amazing and valuable that should be supported.
Master Sgt. Nesle had particular words for those of us that might be inclined towards considering service in light of a program like Air Force Gaming. Noting that, again, it’s more than just video games that makes this program important. And it’s more than just the physical and mental work of the Air Force that makes it rewarding.
Master Sgt. Nesle: For those that are considering coming in, if you want to challenge yourself, and I mean challenge yourself, while making an impact on other people's lives, this is a huge opportunity for you. You will be taken away from what you’re comfortable with and put somewhere completely new, right from the start. And I speak from experience on that. I was in America one day and then Europe the next! But I wouldn’t trade this for anything. Every time you climb the ranks and through every little thing you do, you become a mentor to somebody. And you will receive letters, emails, or texts about the impact that you’ve had.
For me, it has been a huge opportunity. You make lifelong friends and people that you consider family. My military service has given me an understanding of what I want to leave behind in this world. The decisions I’ve made and the experiences I’ve had have helped mold me as an individual. The impact and impression that you leave on people's lives is something I wouldn't trade.
We want to thank both Master Sgt. Nesle and Emuhleet for their contributions towards this article.