Gaming is for everyone, no matter your background, where you come from, or what major you study. And at the University of Montana, that’s what sets the foundation for their esports program, Grizzly Esports.
There are currently around 300 members enrolled in the program, and nearly 100 of them play competitively by choice, according to Michael Cassens, assistant professor of gaming and interactive media and director of UM Esports.
“We actually had hoped that we would have maybe 20 to 25 players,” he says referring to the program’s inception. “It started with about 60 and we’ve grown from there. This year we’ve added probably about 50 more players, just freshmen alone.”
According to Cassens, the players make up at least 25 different majors.
“They come from all over campus. I mean English majors, Biology majors, Math majors, Computer Science, we have people from everywhere,” he explains. “And to us, that’s the beauty. I think about the first year we started this. I’m like, ‘Ok, we’re going to put in this structure that allows tutoring and I’ll pay tutors and so forth.’ And I remember this young person looking at me and saying, ‘Why would you need to pay me? I’ll be happy to tutor, I just love math.’ And so that’s what they do. They just help each other out. They did that organically. And to me, I’m like, ‘This is amazing.’
While its membership is rather vast, each member understands who they are and what makes the program so special. It’s all about inclusivity and community.
“The impetus of all of it was creating a space where students could feel like they belong,” says Cassens. “And so, it’s creating infrastructure and creating a support system, creating an academic home along with the competition.”
An esports program was something he immediately wanted to embark on since taking a role in the school of visual media arts, alongside starting a degree program in game design and interactive media at UM. And the message he wanted to send was that of acceptance.
“For me, the main idea behind it was can we create a community for players to feel like they could just be themselves and be surrounded by people who would support them from all different points of view and all different walks of life,” he says. “Especially students they may not otherwise have an opportunity to meet. Because we tend to get into our silos of majors, I wanted them to have this unique opportunity to be able to meet and be around other people but share this commonality of enjoying and playing games together.”
Cassens’ love for gaming started back in the days of Atari. Growing up in a town of around 500 people, he would venture out to the local hardware or grocery store where he’d play Centipede or Asteroids on the arcade machines there.
“I played a lot of video games that way when I was growing up and just found it as a place of not only fun, but as a different world to be in,” he says. “It’s something I’ve always enjoyed. I’ve never been, personally, a competitive esports player, more so just enjoying games and the bridges that are built because of them. Whether it’s video games or board games or card games, for me it’s the conversation and the community that gets built because of them. I love seeing that excitement in the kids’ eyes that they have this place where they can find common ground.”
There are 50 scholarships given out each year to students. According to Cassens, they award scholarships differently than your typical college esports program, because he believes in focusing on the whole student, not just their skill level.
“What we really care about is that they are willing to participate in the multiple charitable events that we put on every year,” he explains. “We raise money for our food bank or the children’s hospital and so on. Any of those things qualify and if you do at least one of those a year you qualify for our scholarship.”
From a leadership perspective, he thinks of himself and his colleagues as the “guys on the side.” Cassens encourages his students to look to their peers in deciding who will lead their team.
“We give them the ability to sort of self-govern, but with a little bit of guidance that says uphold our value system, treat each other with respect, and be there for each other,” he says. “Look to who’s going to be your leader. Look internally at the players that are there. Find your captains. Find your coaches and then raise them up to that level. They may not necessarily be the best player as far as ranking and so forth, but they may be the best leader. That’s what we try to look for and highlight as we’re going through that process.”
It’s all about creating a space where each member lifts the other up, and while they may face toxicity in their everyday lives, they have a support system that builds them up.
“I care and I don’t care about how good somebody is at a game,” he says. “What I really care about is do they want to feel like they have a place to belong. And if they do, we just say come and be with us regardless of your background, regardless of who you are, we just want you. And we just want to treat you as a person.”
Like any other sport, the players practice together in a facility. They sign up for practice times so that it’s part of their weekly course schedule. While that serves as their formalized practice, players can also practice individually at home. However, he believes in promoting a healthy balance.
“We try to impress upon them that this is just a part of their lives, not all of their lives,” he says. “We try to regulate how many hours they spend so they don’t overextend themselves.”
For each of the players, however, gaming is a passion. It’s allowed them to meet some of their best friends and serve as a pathway to their future careers.
Meet the players
Sarah Houser, a junior at UM studying Political Science and History, is captain of the JV Overwatch team and also plays for the Valorant team. She joined the esports program in October 2021. Unlike Cassens, her love for gaming didn’t start at a young age, but during the pandemic, to which she says it’s “completely flipped my life on its head.”
“I didn’t think I’d be into gaming, but during the pandemic I found myself really bored,” she explains. “I decided to play on a Switch and I was like, ‘Oh maybe I’ll play on a PC and start gaming on that.’ And then it slowly became an addiction and something I want to base my life around. It’s been a huge passion of mine and just an overall joy. It’s also led me to some of the closest people in my life. I literally met my best friend in the Overwatch game chat lobby.”
As captain of the Overwatch team, Houser spoke of her appreciation for the program’s focus on diversity and inclusivity.
“I know on the Overwatch team non-binary and females outnumber men and so does Valorant,” she says. “The University of Montana very much focuses on inclusivity and acceptance for everyone who wants to join esports. I feel like not many people come in and feel shunned away from the program.”
She says she’s considering a focus on media arts because of her newfound love for gaming.
“I’d like to do something in production,” according to Houser. “This year, I’ve recently gotten an opportunity to work as an intern for the esports program here on campus as a production intern and a broadcasting intern. And I’d love to do something within production, potentially for the League of Legends World Championship.”
The LoL World Championship is an annual professional tournament that hosts teams from all over the world to compete for a multimillion-dollar prize.
Kora Lawrence, one of the newest members of the team, plays on the JV Overwatch team and subs in for the varsity team as needed. Lawrence is an artist studying media arts with a concentration in game design and interactive media.
As a recent transfer to UM, Lawrence saw Grizzly Esports as an opportunity to find community and make friends.
“I see it as anything from a pastime to a passion,” says Lawrence. “I use it to destress, even if it’s a competitive game it’s less stressful than other aspects of life. I also see it as a way to make friends and find a community to spend time in. That’s why I joined esports to begin with. I saw there was a community and I knew that going to a new school would be difficult to make friends and I saw this as a perfect opportunity. I’m friends with basically everyone on the Overwatch team and we like to hang out a lot, not just play Overwatch.”
Speaking to the team’s mission of inclusivity, Lawrence found a home within the program.
“I personally feel really welcomed,” Lawrence explains. “I’m trans, and so I really feel like people respect me and appreciate me for that aspect, but also for me individually. I never feel like my needs aren’t met. There are so many times where I’m offered more than I can accept. People just want to help me feel like myself and feel like I’m part of the team and part of the community. And I’m not alone there. There’s a lot of people who are in the LGBTQ community and they feel like they’re seen and important to the actual community.”
A mother of two, and soon to be three any day now, Megan Newell is one of the team’s graduate student members. She’s been with the university since 2018 and joined the esports program in 2020. She’s enrolled in the doctoral pharmacy program at UM while also pursuing a master’s degree in business administration.
She started as a player on the Apex Legends team, but is now a member of the varsity League of Legends team, a game she has played for longer than she would like to admit, she says.
Gaming has always been a big part of her life, and it all started when she was around the age of 6.
“Gaming is kind of like my outlet, and it’s always been my outlet,” she says. “It’s just been a way that I can kind of destress and at the end of the night, typically is when I get to gaming. It’s just always kind of been like a happy place for me. And it’s been a place where I’ve met a lot of my friends and kind of just formed this nerdy little community that I really really value.”
As a mother, her love for the university’s esports program goes simply beyond her love for gaming, but for the helping hand her peers lend when she needs it the most.
“I’ve been a mom the whole time that I’ve been a part of the program, and everybody that I’ve met in the program, whether it’s the director or our coach or the team members, has been incredibly welcoming and helpful with any time that I have to bring my kids in or any time that I have to navigate working around having my kiddos and them being potentially sick,” she explains. “I’ve always loved that since I am considered a non-traditional student with having a family and being in school still. I have mixed-race kiddos and they have always been welcome. There’s been absolutely no issues there either so it’s just been an overall positive experience for me with the esports program here.”
The beauty of it all is that it’s not simply an esports program, but it’s a family. Each new member, Cassens explains, is in it for the long haul.
“At the beginning of every semester, we always have an orientation just to give an overview of who we are,” according to Cassens. “I always say, ‘once you’re on our team you’re part of our family for good or for bad.’ You get to be part of who we are from here on out, and we’ll help you out as best we can with your academics, your social life—all the things that make college college. We just want to have another part for you so that you don’t have to feel like you’re doing it all on your own.”