8 finalists from across US military compete, connect through USO’s Madden tournament
Stars and Stripes November 9, 2023
Kolton Lehman, a staff sergeant in the Marine Corps Reserve, had what he calls a “once-in-a-lifetime experience” at Super Bowl LVII in February. He’s hoping to make it twice in a lifetime next year.
Lehman, 28, is one of eight finalists in the United Service Organizations’ third annual Madden NFL gaming tournament, hosted in partnership with the National Football League. The finalists will compete in-person Sunday in Dallas before the New York Giants vs. Dallas Cowboys Salute to Service game, with the two winners receiving two tickets each along with travel accommodations to Super Bowl LVIII.
In last year’s second annual tournament, Lehman won the PlayStation side. Last year’s tournament was split between PlayStation and Xbox; this year, all consoles including PlayStation, Xbox and PC were combined into one thanks to cross play in the latest version of the game, Madden NFL 24.
“The trailer that the games are played in, it’s like a $100,000 trailer paid for by the NFL, put together by the USO, and they go out there and travel all across the country so that these service members have a chance to go out there and play,” Lehman said of last year’s finals in Las Vegas. “… And then afterwards we got to go to the game, and it was a pretty entertaining Raider game. Raiders tickets are some of the most expensive tickets in the NFL, Raiders home games, and they had like nine of us sitting in the lower bowl.”
This year’s tournament began in September with four weeks of virtual qualifiers. Competitors came from all service branches across three regions: the Americas; the Pacific; and Europe, the Middle East and Africa. The eight finalists — Lehman, Army Spc. Trevor Bethke, Space Force Spc. 4 Ryan Cabase, Air Force Tech. Sgt. Michael Clark, Army Sgt. Jawan Ferrell, Army Sgt. 1st Class Charles Massey, Marine Corps Lance Cpl. Matthew Zataray and Marine Corps Cpl. Eric Ruiz — were the top players from their respective regions’ virtual finals held in October.
Cabase, 21, who is stationed at Buckley Space Force Base in Colorado, competed for the first time this year but has been playing Madden since he was 4 years old. He had a bit of a learning curve with the new version of Madden, which released in August.
“I’ve competed before in other games competitively, but I’ve never competed in Madden” he said. “… Playing the tournament, I was surprised to see what level of competition was within the military. The initial qualifier, I actually struggled a bit. I would kind of blame that on me just making dumb mistakes, but also just because I only had two weeks of play time [with Madden 24] to try to catch up to everybody else who’s been playing since the release. So it was a little shaky on the first tournament, but then the second tournament came around, I think I played 10 times better.”
A military brat who grew up moving around the world, Cabase was raised as a 49ers fan by his father. He’s looking forward to meeting the other finalists in the tournament — and telling them about life in the nation’s youngest military branch.
“There’s a couple of people that are just now finding out that I’m Space Force, so they’re all curious to hear about what I do and what’s it like being in the Space Force,” Cabase said. “And I’m also curious to know what everybody else is doing for their jobs at their respective bases. So it’s always fun competing in these military tournaments and being able to meet different people and connect with other branches and stuff like that through gaming.”
Lehman isn’t the only returning champion. Charles Massey, 38, was one of the winners on the PlayStation side of the first annual tournament. Originally from Atlantic City, N.J., he’s currently stationed at Fort Shafter, Hawaii, but will transition to Fort Cavazos, Texas, during the finals.
“I will physically leave this base on the 10th, right, and then turn around, get off the plane, take a nap, and then drive to Dallas within four hours and then play the tournament, and then I will be stationed in Fort Cavazos, which is in Texas,” Massey said. “I’m probably the only one out of all the competitors who is practicing … on a little small TV in a cramped hotel room with my wife and son.”
Massey won tickets for himself and his brother to attend the Super Bowl in 2022, where they met Tampa Bay Buccaneers tight end Rob Gronkowski, Dallas Cowboys linebacker Micah Parsons and Arizona Cardinals wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins. As a lifelong Cowboys fan, Massey said the experience meeting Parsons was particularly memorable, and he’s looking forward to being in Dallas for this year’s finals, playing with the Cowboys in Madden.
“It’s crazy that it’s going to happen that way, but the pressure is on because it will be the best thing for me,” he said. “I might cry on the field. For me to win it with the Cowboys at the Cowboys’ stadium on the field, I might cry.”
First-time competitor and finalist Trevor Bethke, 25, originally from Nebraska, will fly to Dallas from Hohenfels, Germany, where he’s been stationed for two years and nine months.
“My family’s going to be meeting me at the airport; I haven’t seen them in over two years,” he said.
Like the other finalists, Bethke has enjoyed connecting with his fellow service members across the world, and is “happy to be a part of something that’s so big,” he said.
Lehman, who works as a distribution engineer in Tampa, Fla., and reports for duty with the reserves in Virginia, remembered connecting with his fellow competitors in Las Vegas last year and is looking forward to doing it again.
“When we got to the hotel from the airport, you walk in, everybody’s hustling and bustling around the lobby,” he said. “But then you see a group of five dudes with short haircuts all gathered around, they look about the same age, you just walk up and be like, ‘Hey, are you guys here for the tournament?’ And within 10 minutes it’s like we’ve all known each other forever. Me and the other Marine are fielding crayon jokes. … We’re all dogging on the ‘chair force’ guy over in the corner. It’s so quick the way that military members are able to connect with each other when they’re in the same room because it’s what we do. But at the same time, it is that military brotherhood.”