Muscle-bound, steely eyed and determined to succeed – Patrick Sauer is everything you’d expect from a former US Marine.
Three separate combat deployments to Afghanistan, working for the highly trained Special Operations, Sauer constantly scans his environment. The 35-year-old gives the impression he has energy to burn and has yet to kick the habit of analyzing people’s body language at all times.
Now that his 16-year service has come to an end, Sauer is drawing on his years of military experience to help mastermind a very different cause.
It was an opportunity presented to Sauer and Hall by Echelon Front, a company that looks to place military leaders into a variety of industries once they’ve retired from active duty.
The hope is that the pair will help give players and coaches the skills to improve performance on the virtual battlefield.
Drawing on lessons learned from the military, Sauer and Hall focus on factors such as leadership, conflict management and communication.
When Sauer talks his language is suffused with words such as mission, ordeal and battlefield, reflecting the intensity of his past life.
He insists players can learn a lot from both himself and Hall, but that it depends on how much they buy in to the concept.
“More importantly is what we can learn together. Because this is not a one-sided ordeal. It’s not just us preaching to the players and to the support staff,” Sauer recently told CNN Sport at the Call of Duty World League in London. Call of Duty is a popular first-person shooter video game where teams compete against each other in a variety of different formats.
“It’s about us conversing with them and developing a plan, a holistic approach to this together with them that’s catered to each individual so that they understand the mission and why we’re doing it.”
’24 hours a day, seven days a week’
Sauer now works countless hours to deliver player development programs and is constantly on-call for any personal issues his team might have.
Hence, he was up late helping a player deal with illness and talking him through his nerves on the eve of the Call of Duty World Championships.
“Twenty four hours a day, seven days a week, they can contact me,” Sauer said, with a steely glaze that that tells you he’s a man of his word.
“It could be that they’re having a personal issue at home. Maybe they’re having an argument with their significant other and they’re having a real hard time breaking through that communication barrier.
“We let them know that we’re here to support them, no matter if it’s in the game or it’s outside […] because any stresses are going to affect you inside the game.”
When the players are on stage, the 35-year-old Sauer shifts into another gear.
Perched on the edge of his seat, Sauer lives and breathes every second of game play and frantically takes notes as the team is competing.
He then uses those notes to provide feedback as to where his players can improve – often staying up to the early hours of the morning to complete his analysis.
Sauer also looks for signs that his players might be stressed – for example if they are moving back and forth from the screen – which can contribute to fatigue and a decrease in performance.
With esports players having to make decisions in milliseconds, he also keeps an ear out for any conflicts and arguments that might develop given the intensity of competition. After all, unity is key to any team’s success.
“In the military, you could be an outstanding shot, you could shoot straighter than anybody else but no one person wins a team fight,” said Sauer, who played computer games recreationally throughout is life.
“We try to show them how developing their teamwork or their team dynamics will result to increase performance, which will also contribute to wins in the battlefield.”
Working alongside Sauer was former US Army Ranger Hall.
Looming over everyone around him, Hall gives off the aura of something of Adonis. The 31-year-old served many deployments in Afghanistan but left the military six years ago to pursue a university course in Political Science before completing an MA in Conflict Management.
He says stress management is one of the biggest lessons he learned from the military.
“When bullets start flying, if bombs start going off next to you, your first reaction is going to be to rely on your instincts,” Hall told CNN Sport. “Your hearing is going to go away, your vision is going to get tunneled, everything’s going to be muscle memory.
“When our players get into high pressure situations, they’re going to experience the same things that we did. Our goal is to be able to teach them to control that, teach them to do things subconsciously, so they don’t have to actively think about it.”
Splyce’s Call of Duty team say they’ve been helped by the input of Sauer and Hall and have developed as a group.
Player Daniel “Looney” Loza told CNN Sport that adopting breathing exercises has helped him stay calm in stressful situations.
“Just taking a deep breath, just relaxing yourself and not getting your body tight. The game is a game of milliseconds and things like that matter,” he said.
Developing as adults
After his military career, Hall also enjoyed athletic success – playing American football for Iowa State University – and was keen to pass along lessons he learned playing traditional sports.
One mission was to banish the unhealthy image of esports players.
“Our approach right now is just analyzing what they’re doing nutrition wise, look at it and see where we can make changes,” said Hall, who has since left the role to explore a different industry.
“Are they eating a lot of candy when they could be eating more nutritional power bars? Are they eating fast food when they could be eating more healthy foods?”
Falling short of implementing a total ban on burgers, Splyce’s Call of Duty team has nonetheless become more conscious of the importance of a healthy living, something which has perhaps been absent from the industry.
From more regular sleeping patterns to better nutrition, players have been keen to adopt new concepts.
“I’ve gotten into fitness because they said that’s a good way to keep your body in shape and help mentally,” said professional gamer Loza. “I’m glad they’re on our side”.
Much like the veterans entering civilian life after the military, professional gamers may feel lost after their relatively short careers come to an end.
Teenagers sacrifice academic pursuits in order to focus on esports and the new initiative looks to set players up for life after gaming. Hall believes its his job the assist the players in the transitioning process.
“Whether that’s getting them financial training or getting them some kind of further education, whatever they feel they need, we’re here to support because eventually they’re all going to leave esports,” said Hall.
The pair have been surprised by the positive reception they’ve received since starting their new roles and players and staff are excited by the potential benefits.
In particular, players say their communication has improved, which has helped them through the more stressful periods of the game.
Splyce’s Call of Duty coach Mark Bryceland says his team are ahead of the curve in that respect.
“I think it definitely benefits [us] and I think that we are obviously the innovators of that and I think […] everyone else is going to jump on the bandwagon,” Bryceland told CNN Sport.
Life after the military
Both Sauer and Hall have certainly benefited from the new initiative as well – helping them transition from life out of the military.
Sauer says the process has felt “different” but his experience in the military has made the change relatively smooth.
“In the Marine Corps, we have a saying ‘Semper Gumby’ which translates to ‘always flexible.’ I just really took this approach,” he said.
“I’m going to learn a new position, a new job and I’m going to have new co-workers and, in the end, I’m going to be successful at whatever it is that I do.”