Gaming for a cause
Everyone has a hobby; some people run, some knit, some coach their kid’s soccer team, and an increasing number of us enjoy online gaming. In 2015, there were about two billion gamers in the world and that number is rapidly approaching the three billion mark. With consoles or devices spanning price ranges, the hobby can be easily and readily accessible, from playing Facebook games on your cellphone right through to high-specification gaming PCs. In addition, gaming has become a growing industry among those who simply want to watch others play or compete, with the global games live-streaming audience set to hit 728.8 million this year.
Even the U.S. Army, recognizing the popularity of gaming within its Soldiers, formed its own esports team of active-duty and Reserve Soldiers in 2019 as a recruitment strategy. The team travels across the country, competing in gaming tournaments, in addition to their everyday duties within the Army.
Leidos Senior Program Manager Ron Adkins, or Ronnie, as his followers know him, is a former member of the U.S. Army esports team, for whom gaming extends past an extracurricular activity, as he combines his hobby with philanthropy. Ronnie streams through Facebook Gaming, a video live-streaming service, where he has grown a following large enough to monetize his content. He raises money to build PCs for veterans, a cause to which he is closely connected.
Adkins has served with the United States Army since 2006 and has been deployed to Afghanistan twice as an enlisted Reservist. After his last tour, he found community within the gaming world with the Military Gaming League. “Veterans and military personnel—we get a lot of downtime, and what we end up doing with that downtime is either getting ourselves into trouble or playing video games, in a lot of instances,” Adkins says. “The military itself has been using video games and gaming simulations as a training mechanism for years.”
Adkins’ motivation to give back to the military community stems from firsthand experience of the consequences of downtime for service members, with the devastating loss of two of his good friends. After Adkins’ bunkmate from his first deployment to Afghanistan took his own life, Adkins knew that heartbreak was the catalyst for him to explore giving back, “for wanting to do what I can, even without somebody giving me a sign or a reason,” he says. “I wanted to be proactive.”
Post-deployment, Ronnie joined Dadbods Gaming, “a casual group of dads that hang out and play video games together.” Knowing of his service, the group was quick to reach out to Ronnie for their sponsored charity gaming stream for Stack Up in 2018. “Dadbods said they needed somebody to fill a six hour time slot, and I said ‘people are going to watch me play video games and give me money for charity?’’ Adkins chuckles. “When they said yes, I didn’t believe them, but I was familiar with Stack Up because I was a recipient of one of their deployment care packages.”
Stack Up is a non-profit organization striving to help service members “through deployments…and recover from traumatic physical and emotional injuries with the power of video gaming.” They aim to end the stigma of mental health and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) through a mutual interest in gaming between both military personnel and civilians. According to the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), more than 46,000 American adults died by suicide in 2018, with more than 6,400 veterans included in that figure. So while the loss of Adkins’ friends became his impetus for volunteering, he realized there was a greater need for help within the veteran community than he originally knew.
“During the charity stream, I made a whole $17 for Stack Up within that six-hour session, and I couldn’t have been happier with what I discovered as a means to give back,” Adkins says. “Fast forward a few years, and establishing myself as what we call a ‘content creator’, I do more than just live content, I also make funny gaming videos; things that people can laugh to and kind of take a break from the monotony of day-to-day work.”
In the past three years, Ronnie has seen exponential growth of his audience, now reaching over 100,000 viewers every month. He raised over $10,000 alone in 2020, all of which was used to contribute to his goal of “combatting veteran suicide one PC at a time.” Most gaming platforms have their own forms of monetization, where viewers can donate to the creators. Facebook Gaming, Ronnie’ preferred streaming channel, uses ‘stars’, which viewers donate to his stream and he accumulates revenue.
Ronnie uses the ‘star’ money he raises to build PCs, using new, pre-built parts, which he assembles on live streams and hands over to Stack Up as a personal charitable donation. The PCs later get donated to veteran gamers through Stack Up. “When I started partnering with Stack Up, I told them it was important to me that our community got to see where their efforts went to, and that we receive feedback directly from recipients,” Adkins says. He schedules games with the recipients, where they play live and talk about how the PC is running, and how gaming has potentially helped them for the better. “It’s important for me to do that because otherwise, folks are just donating to a blinded cause.”
“I target for building one PC a quarter, though based on the current rate that we receive funds, we are exceeding that goal by quite a bit right now,” he says. “In the meantime, I have turned the excess funds into direct community giveaways.”
Not too long ago, Ronnie gave two virtual reality (VR) headsets away to his followers, as incentive to keep donating and as gratitude for being involved in the greater cause. The giveaway was one of the ways he found word-of-mouth to be his most successful mode of promoting his platform. “It’s difficult because live streaming is becoming a very, very saturated market. Even though I have invested tens of thousands of dollars into the production value of what I do—the multi-camera setup, full HD quality, professionally-mixed audio, professionally-designed overlays—it’s hard to engage with new potential followers.” Ronnie finds himself competing for followers with thousands of other creators, although that’s not his primary goal.
“I’m not just a guy trying to make some money to increase my wealth,” Adkins continues. “So it’s imperative for me to network and establish relationships. When I go live, I urge those that want to be a member of the community to hit the ‘like’ button because ultimately, Facebook will then show my live content to other potential followers and that’s how I’m trying to grow this effort and community.”
He spends more than 20 hours a week streaming outside of his full-time position with Leidos, so naturally, Adkins has involved his family with his philanthropic efforts. In addition to his diligent moderator team, his wife Amanda also moderates the streams, runs the camera for live content, and manages the finances; “she was there with me when I bought my first camera to stream and we make production decisions together.”
The ever-growing Ronnie empire would be obsolete without the exceptional behind-the-scenes team and the most important element, the community. “The community behind these PC builds represents the native good that can be exercised under the right cause,” Ronnie states.
Between the considerable time commitment of running his charitable streaming platform and his role in program management with Leidos, it’s safe to conclude that Adkins excels at time management. “This is a hobby behind the scenes, something I have to manage my time against so that I don’t impact the things that I’m doing as a leader within Leidos,” he explains. “It’s all done in the time outside of working hours that I might be sitting and watching TV, which instead I choose to use that time to put a little bit of good back in the world.”
Looking forward, Ronnie hopes to find partnerships with larger companies that have pre-established followings that would be willing to support his cause and his community. “Additional exposure does wonders and brings all sorts of new potential support to our veteran charity efforts and it will mean a lot to know that an organization has put faith in confidence in me representing their brand.” He envisions these connections with PC-building companies to increase the amount of PCs that he can donate as he continues to generate charitable funds.
“I lost two very good friends to their own hand, one right after we had deployed, and I told myself, ‘If there's any impact, big or small, that I can make, I'm going to do my best to do that.’ And I chose gaming because it's really been a break from life for me as a veteran, and I know that it can help others, and I want to enable that.”