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Gaming the system: Streamlined process could bring esports sooner than later

Montana High School Championship Series Esports State Tournament
Posted at 1:30 PM, Jan 31, 2024

MISSOULA — Video games have been on the leading edge of technological and graphic upgrades for decades. Now, they’re set to pioneer advancements in Montana High School Association (MHSA) processes.

Thanks to a recently approved amendment to how emerging sports are added to the MHSA’s offerings, Montana could soon join the 18 other states that sanctioned high school esports for the 2022-23 academic year.

What was previously a convoluted system that required years of work to grow an emerging sport from an idea to a sanctioned reality was streamlined in January when the MHSA executive board changed the process for adding a new sport or activity. The new process requires that at least 10 member schools, or 25% of the schools in a classification, agree to participate in the emerging sport on a provisional basis. Those schools then request approval from the MHSA executive board. Once approved, they participate in the new activity for two years and report their progress to the board. At that point, the membership will vote whether to officially sanction the activity.

“It’s more of a pilot program for adding sports rather than our current procedure, which has schools voting to study the new sport and form a committee and the following years bringing it back to the annual meeting for an official vote to be sanctioned,” MHSA executive director Brian Michelotti said, simplifying the previous process that often took years of work just to get to the formation of a committee to study the feasibility of adding a new activity.

“The big one coming up is esports,” Michelotti continued. “Probably 30 or 40 schools already have esports, they’re offering it as a club sport. … In the MHSA's case, we will pilot that esports program. Eventually we’ll come back to when the season is, what to do, what games to play and all the details it takes to put this in place. Also, participants at schools would at that point in time need to follow all of our eligibility rules. Then schools will eventually try it out. If it works, they come back (to the annual meeting), bring it to the membership to vote to have esports fully sanction.”

According to the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS), esports, or competitive video gaming, is the fastest growing high school sport in the nation, and “45% of current esport athletes say that esports is their first experience in an after-school activity.”

Montana High School Championship Series Esports State Tournament
Gamers compete at the Montana High School Championship Series esports state tournament at the gaming den on the University of Montana campus on May 6, 2023.

The sport is growing fast enough in Montana that Missoula Hellgate High School proposed appointing a committee to study esports at the annual meeting in January 2023. That proposal was denied, so Sidney High School was set to bring forth another proposal this year.

Before the board heard Sidney’s proposal, though, it had already changed the process for adding a new sport, opening the door for Sidney to spearhead esports’ addition to test the new process for emerging sports.

“I think that was a good question when we presented to all the caucuses (at the annual meeting), was what is the benefit if MHSA gets involved and, you know, if you have a good club right now, why are we looking at doing this?” said Chris Lee, the activities director at Sidney. “And I think for me, as the AD, I’m supportive of it because we see the benefit it gives to the kids in our school. It's not stealing from your football players, it's not stealing from other sports. We balance that out. We let kids participate in multiple activities. But I think the long-term goal through MHSA would be that it's the same recognition that all these other athletes get.”

Esports has long fought stigmas that it’s socially isolating, desensitizing or can lead to violence, but gaming proponents say they’ve seen nothing but good things come from their programs. For communities with esports, the clubs, which are largely made up of male students but do include some female gamers, have unified and connected kids who might not otherwise run in the same circles.

Marne Bender is the esports coach at East Helena High School but is not a gamer herself. Though her brother has forged a career in the gaming industry, Bender admitted she originally viewed gaming as a waste of time. As she’s learned more about the games and people who play them, she’s also learned about the benefits of esports.

“One thing that is really, really important to me is that esports is very inclusive,” Bender said. “So, I do evaluate kids on skill because we want obviously our highest-skilled kids so that we can excel in that regard, but I am paying attention to how they are as a human. Are they not getting written up in school? Are they dedicated? … All those things that I think most coaches think about, we take into consideration. But it's really important for us to, if a kid is new, that they're a part of it somehow. They may not make a JV or varsity team, but they're on a practice squad and they're learning and they come to matches or they're a substitute.”

East Helena gamers
East Helena gamers compete at the Montana High School Championship Series esports state tournament at the gaming den on the University of Montana campus on May 6, 2023.

East Helena is the reigning state champion in two games — Super Smash Bros. and Rocket League — in the Montana High School Championship Series, which was established by the University of Montana’s esports program in the fall of 2022. Fifteen high schools participated in the inaugural season last year, culminating with the championships in the spring.

Teams also compete in Overwatch and League of Legends. The four different games require users to utilize varying skills. Rocket League, for example, is essentially soccer with cars. Two opposing teams, made up of three cars each, try to put a soccer ball through a goal. Overwatch, which is best played with five players on a team, is first-person shooter strategy game. League of Legends, also played with five players, is a multiplayer online battle arena game with an overall objective to defeat the opponent's base. Super Smash Bros. is a fighting game where different characters possess different abilities. Each gamer specializes in a different game — much like traditional athletes excel in specific sports.

Gamers compete online remotely from their school classrooms or computer labs, except for the state tournament, which will be hosted in the University of Montana’s esports space. Platforms can include gaming consoles like PlayStations and Xboxes, but personal computers and Nintendo Switches are the most popular in Montana. Competitions can be streamed on the live-streaming service Twitch, and parents are welcome to attend in person.

“I think the power behind esports is the ability to give a population of, like in the case of high school students and stuff, give them that activity, give them that outlet, give them that ability to to be a part of something, and I think really it goes beyond gaming,” said Cale Patenaude, the assistant director of Griz Esports who helped establish the Montana High School Championship Series. “It's not just sitting there playing video games. It's giving kids these tangible community feelings and making them feel like they're a part of the school, part of something going on that gives them pride, gives them a sense of meaning and stuff like that.”

Montana High School Championship Series Esports State Tournament
Gamers compete at the Montana High School Championship Series esports state tournament at the gaming den on the University of Montana campus on May 6, 2023.

Bender and Russell Biniek, a lifelong gamer and the esports coach at Sidney, can attest to the community. East Helena and Sidney are separated by 450-plus miles, but the two have formed a bond that wouldn’t have been possible if limited to face-to-face competition.

During a Super Smash Bros. JV match last fall, an East Helena student with cerebral palsy was playing with his team against Sidney. The student didn’t fare well in the match and was quickly eliminated. But instead of immediately packing up and ending the competition, the Sidney players offered tips and pointers to help the student improve at the game.

“The next week, I kid you not, he knocked off his first (opponent) in a match, and my room — because I have four Super Smash Bros. teams — erupted for him because that was a huge deal,” Bender said. “He finally, like, you know, had something going toward a win. … Everyone just lost their mind. So I texted Russell and I said, ‘I don't think you have any idea, like, how big of an impact your kids had on my kid.’”

“There's this community aspect of working together. … We’re here to help each other grow in the same situation,” Biniek said. “And basically by the end of that, by the end of our fall season, the (East Helena student) was actually knocking players off and he knocked off a couple of my players as well when we were playing. So that makes them feel good.”

Beyond the connections and compassion, Bender and Biniek have noticed other benefits to their esports programs. Attendance is up, grades have improved and students have developed translatable skills. Esports encourages collaboration, communication and team building, which can help with confidence and mental health.

Both coaches noted the opportunities, including college scholarships, esports presents kids who might not be interested in or capable of participating in traditional sports. Biniek estimates 90-95% of his esports athletes do not or have never participated in another sport.

“The leadership, the communication, teamwork, dedication, commitment, all of those things that are instilled by sports, these kids have never experienced, so that’s one of our primary focuses,” Biniek said. “And then we know, for example, having it tied to academics, we're able to help keep the kids eligible and make sure they're on track to graduate. And then the skills that we learned through the play — and this is just like any other sport — translate into the workplace and help give real world experiences.”

“A lot of people don't understand (esports). They just think it's playing video games, but there's a lot more to it,” Lee said. “So I think we're just excited to be, you know, on the leading edge of Montana’s esports and getting it pushed through the right way.”