MISSOULA – High school freshman Freddy Jimenez showed off his video games skills last weekend against the University of Montana’s Grizzly Esports team. Jimenez and three teammates from Heart Butte High School beat UM in the first game of an in-person tournament hosted by Big Sky State Games in the University Center Ballroom.

Jimenez and his classmates cheered and high-fived each other after victoriously playing Rocket League, a video game that uses cars to play soccer. The experience at the tournament gave Jimenez a taste of university life and a reminder that he could one day earn a scholarship to play esports in college.

“It opens up doors,” he said. “Ten years ago this wouldn’t even be possible.”

UM’s Grizzly Esports team started as a student club in 2012 and became an official University sport in 2019, complete with maroon jerseys and scholarships for 50 of the more than 100 players. The team has since become a leader across Montana in the world of competitive video games, competing in League of Legends, Overwatch, Rocket League and other online arenas.

The tournament last weekend was a huge milestone for the team, said Cale Patenaude, assistant director of Grizzly Esports. The tournament featured other collegiate teams from the region including Washington State University and Carroll College. But it also was the first time UM invited area high school teams.

“We wanted to create an experience that brings high schoolers from esports to the University of Montana,” Patenaude said.

Esports is a booming business at the professional level, with players competing for millions in cash prizes. And it is growing at universities, with UM competing in the National Association of Collegiate Esports, which includes more than 170 schools and 5,000 student-athletes. Now the sport is gaining popularity in high schools.

About a dozen Montana high schools started teams within the past two years and paid to compete in national online leagues because the Montana High School Association does not officially recognize esports.

As more Montana high schools became interested and fees to play in the online leagues became more expensive, UM Grizzly Esports decided to step in and create a league for the high schools.

Last fall, UM Grizzly Esports formed the Montana High School Championship Series, which now features 15 schools from all over Montana including Sidney, Cut Bank, Great Falls and East Helena. The teams play each other in Rocket League, Overwatch and Super Smash Bros.

“We thought we could stand something up that could be just for Montana schools,” Patenaude said. “Now we have 150 high schoolers competing across Montana.”

The top high school teams will come to UM’s Gaming Den on Saturday, May 6, for a state championship tournament.

Marne Bender, an esports coach for East Helena High School, brought some of her players to last weekend’s tournament at UM and expects her team to qualify for the May 6 state tournament.

East Helena High started an esports team in 2021 and now has nearly 30 players. Besides learning teamwork and competition, Bender sees the social and academic benefits for the students, which include a few middle schoolers who are allowed to play on the high school team.

“I was kind of an anti-gamer and now I’m a coach,” Bender said. “You just have to show people the benefits and that it’s not this anti-social thing. It’s actually super social.”

Esports also can be a pathway to college for high school students, Bender said. She makes sure her team maintains their grades and shows them the various careers that relate to esports such as information technology work, game design and event management.

“I have kids who when I tell them they can get a scholarship to college with this, their jaws drop,” Bender said.

Many players on UM’s esports team felt the same surprise when they discovered playing competitive video games in college. The team prides itself on building a strong sense of community and a support system that helps each other study for tests and handle any other stresses.

“I feel like college didn’t really start for me until I found out about the esports program,” said Blake Heintzelman, captain of UM Esports’ Rocket League team. “I feel like I found a place where there’s a lot of people with similar interests.”

Heintzelman graduated last year with an undergraduate business degree and is now enrolled in UM’s Master of Business Administration program. Heintzelman’s experience on the esports team made him realize he wants to pursue a career in esports operations including tournament organization and player management.

“It really helped me find out what I want to do with my life,” he said. “It’s the perfect fit for me.”

Heintzelman believes any high schooler interested in esports at UM will want to join for the community that has been built.

“I couldn’t imagine it being better somewhere else,” he said. “The team is so helpful and so inclusive. Come for the community first and play your game second.”

Colten Dahl, a senior at Sidney High School, plays on his school’s esports team which formed two years ago. The team didn’t participate in last weekend’s tournament, but they plan to make the 10-hour drive to Missoula for the May 6 state championship.

Dahl, who will attend UM in the fall, can’t wait to get to campus in May to compete against other high schools and meet some of UM’s esports players. Dahl isn’t sure if he will try to play esports in college, but for now he’s enjoying the comradery that comes with the sport.

“It brings so many people together who otherwise wouldn’t have anything to connect them,” Dahl said. “That’s really powerful. There’s very few things that can do that.”

- by Kyle Spurr, UM News Service -

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