Splyce brings in ex-military members to mentor players

Patrick Sauer, a former U.S. Marine, was brought on by OverActive Media to help members of the Splyce and Toronto Defiant esports teams learn leadership, conflict resolution and other key social skills. Courtesy of OverActive Media

By the time he was 14, Patrick Sauer knew he wanted to be a Marine.

His father, an active duty Marine himself, set Sauer on that course. His son was born on Oct. 23, 1983, but Sauer didn't realize the significance of his birthday as a child. When he got a bit older, Sauer's father told him that his birthday was the same day that a suicide bomber killed 307 American and French soldiers in a barracks bombing in Beirut, Lebanon.

That knowledge gave Sauer even more determination. He finished basic training at 18 years old and then was sent to Afghanistan, where he did three combat tours as a Marine. Sauer went on to serve 16 years in the Marines, mostly in the Special Operations Command, where he traveled both the world and the United States.

Through it all, one thing stood out: leadership.

"One of the things that I had the uniqueness of in my career is that I was surrounded by some of the best leaders that I feel are in the military and that have since separated from the military," Sauer said. "The leadership styles that I saw, they ranged.

"During my time in the Marine Corps, I met leaders who were, in a sense, poor examples of leaders. They didn't put focus on their leadership skills or traits. Then I met other individuals who actually focused on their leadership skills. They actually studied it; they researched other leaders that they looked up to and really broke down those traits and how to emulate those people. That's when I realized leadership is this very complex -- a way of being, in a sense. It's not one single definition."

Now 35, Sauer hopes to share what he learned in the armed forces with esports players.

In January, Sauer was one of two former U.S. military special forces workers hired by OverActive Media, the parent company of esports teams Splyce and the Toronto Defiant. Together, Sauer and fellow veteran Thomas Hall work to teach young adults some of the leadership, relationship management and conflict resolution skills they learned during their combined 21 years in the U.S. Armed Forces.

Splyce co-founder and OverActive senior vice president Marty Strenczewilk said he's noticed the results. On March 17, Splyce finished second in the Call of Duty World League Fort Worth tournament. Its European League of Legends team is the fourth seed going into the League European Championship Spring Split playoffs.

"That type of immediate impact is very hard to find," Strenczewilk said. "We talk to a lot of very high-level folks that had great ideas, but you couldn't see the way they were going to be able to specifically, actually hit the ground running, and we're already doing that, mainly with Call of Duty and League of Legends. Obviously we're doing things with other games secondarily, but we can't hit all six right away."

Strenczewilk first thought of the idea of hiring former military personnel because of some of his current staffers. Two of those people -- his brother, OverActive senior manager of player operations Jonathan and Toronto Defiant general manager Jaesun Won -- both served in the military prior to working in the esports space. Strenczewilk wondered if his organization could use military tactics to influence the way its players compete and train.

Then, while listening to a Y Combinator podcast episode, Strenczewilk heard a talk with Echelon Front co-founder Jocko Willink, who had just launched a new company, EF Overwatch, meant to help place U.S. military special forces after their retirement from the military.

"This idea of people who have learned over decades the ways to train men and women in battle, the ways to help them deal with high stress, help with conflict resolution," Strenczewilk said. "If you talk about the main things we deal with that are huge problems with teams: communication is one -- that's a huge one obviously. Number two is stress management; we talk about momentum a lot in best-of series, but also stress management with a big match coming up and how you play to your full potential. And the most critical for long term is conflict resolution."

So Strenczewilk reached out to EF Overwatch, where he met its co-founder, former Navy SEAL Mike Sarraille. Sarraille wasn't familiar with esports, but he respected that Strenczewilk wanted to hire former special operations members despite their lack of experience in the space. Sarraille told ESPN that he founded EF Overwatch to help veterans overcome biases set by hiring managers in companies that seek prior field experience.

"A lot of people hire for industry experience, and they overlook these leaders coming out of the military, especially the special operations community, because they can't make that mental shift of hiring for character and training to skill," Sarraille said. "If you just hire for industry experience, it rarely works out. But if you take somebody with a no-fail, no-quit mindset, and you teach them how to do the job, your company will be very different from the rest of your competition."

Strenczewilk told Sarraille he wanted to hire one veteran to focus on building performance systems for Splyce and the Defiant. In the process, Strenczewilk interviewed both Sauer and Hall, and it became clear that his organization needed both.

"He hired the very guys that some of these guys play in some of their games to come in and teach them about teamwork -- how to operate as a team, how to dominate the battlefield and competition," Sarraille said.

"We talk to a lot of very high-level folks that had great ideas, but you couldn't see the way they were going to be able to specifically, actually hit the ground running, and we're already doing that." Splyce co-founder and OverActive senior vice president Marty Strenczewilk

Hall was always a gamer, but also an athlete.

"My high school I went to was different than most high schools," he said. "I was one of the jocks, you could say. But every single clique or group, everybody really hung out with each other. Every single weekend, whether it was sports season or not, everyone would get together at a certain friend's house and have their long, 12-hour marathon LAN parties of Halo and 007: Nightfire and everything else."

That continued when he enlisted in the Army, became a Ranger and deployed to Afghanistan. There, he said, soldiers would gather during their downtime and play simulated war games like of Rainbow Six, Call of Duty and Halo.

"Our decompression from real war is fake war," Hall said with a laugh. "That would be our stress relief, and the fact that we are in a war zone, that we're losing people, we're seeing death every day. It was definitely a big staple in our culture and our lifestyle. And it also translated back in the States. A lot of us being single guys all the time, we'd link up with our friends in the barracks and play video games just to decompress and relieve a lot of that stress. It's really carried on into now."

After his time in the military, Hall decided to go to college, and at 25, compete in Division I football at Iowa State as a defensive end.

"I had torn a ligament and a disc in my spinal cord. I had blown my shoulder out. My body was giving up on me from all the different selections and deployments in the military," Hall said. "That kind of clicked with me when they said I couldn't do it, and I wanted to prove I could do it."

Now, Sauer and Hall are tasked with passing on the lessons they learned to esports players. Sauer will build systems, while Hall will execute. Sauer has relocated to Rochester, New York, home of the Splyce organization, while Hall works remotely in the Midwest. But Hall has already begun traveling around the world -- from Toronto, to New York, to Berlin, to Fort Worth, Texas -- this time as an esports player development manager.

For years, esports teams have hired consultants, performance coaches and sports psychologists to help better their internal team dynamics. Some have worked, like Counter-Strike's three-time major champions Astralis, who have cited their sports psychologist as an integral part of improving interplayer relationships. Others haven't, and when immediate results aren't obtained, teams fire those staffers and move on.

But none have taken an approach like Splyce and the Defiant. Only time will tell if it works.

"A big part of their job is getting buy-in so they can work on trying things -- what works, what doesn't work and what will be next moving forward," Strenczewilk said. "I can see that when I'm sitting in on sessions, talking to players -- I obviously have a strong relationship with them. It's not a measurement in a more technical fashion, but more of an observation of seeing how those relationships are developing."