Stay Plugged In’s Karoline Maitland had the opportunity to speak with Marne Bender, the coach for the East Helena High School esports team and the East Valley Middle School esports team.
Located in East Helena, Montana, East Helena High School is about to complete its second season of esports. The school planned to begin its program in early 2020, but with the outbreak of Covid-19, the school was forced to delay its start date until the fall of 2020. Coach Bender shared that there were times that students needed to compete remotely and thankfully, esports is something that is able to do just that.
In addition to coaching the East Helena High School team, Bender also coaches the East Valley Middle School team, which currently competes in Rocket League. She shared that the middle school team has their first competition tonight and they are beaming with excitement to take on another school based in Albuquerque, New Mexico. The team consists of nine students, and hopes to expand in the future but is currently at maximum capacity due to equipment limitations. The middle school team competes in a free league that was founded by local teachers.
Coach Bender, who spoke about the programs with infectious enthusiasm, shared that having an esports team has really created a sense of community for her students. She noted that making a connection with your school, whether it be through a group of friends or teachers, is a positive thing everyone needs. Bender considers herself to be a life skills coach more so than an esports coach. While her background is not exactly in esports, she shared that she was inspired by her brother to start the program. Community is one of the most important aspects of Bender’s esports teams. She plans game nights throughout the season where students can come together and bond while playing games like Just Dance and Wii Sports. This is something that Coach Bender finds heartwarming; seeing the students connect with each other while having fun doing something they are passionate about.
The Montana High School Athletic Association does not sanction esports as an official sport, so the team competes through HSEL and the PlayVS Mountain West Region. Their current offerings include Valorant, Minecraft, Halo Infinite, and Super Smash Brothers Ultimate, with the hopes to add Mario Cart in the near future. The team is limited to five gaming PCs, but that has not stopped students from joining the team. Bender shared there are approximately 25-30 students involved with the esports team; from players to streamers, social media managers, and even graphic designers. Valorant is the most popular title, with 14 players, but Smash is definitely their most competitive game. The students have a real passion for esports and their team, many of them taking it upon themselves to recruit fellow students to participate in the program.
Varying ages and skill levels can often bring challenges to the team like communication and leadership. The middle school team will be a force to be reckoned with as they continue to level up their Rocket League skills, but Bender's hope is that she will be able to help foster positive communication among the team. The students do so much on their own, she shared, and while she does not consider herself a gamer, she has two assistant coaches who are well versed in esports.
High school junior, Landon, is a Smash player who Bender said is not only incredibly talented but is a great mentor for his teammates. He brings a gentle approach to coaching his fellow Smash players; helping them to improve their skills with positive communication. Landon is one of the players that would like to pursue esports at the collegiate level, and his leadership skills will help him as he explores the opportunities that exist within the esports industry. Coach Bender also identified a sophomore who consistently researches the team's opponents to improve their competitive advantage, noting they are super encouraging to fellow students.
When asked about top competitors in the Montana area, Bender shared that they have not actually had the opportunity to compete against many local schools as HSEL operates on a national level and does not share information about their competitors until right before the match begins. The high school team recently played Sidney High School which is based in Montana and was thrilled to have the opportunity to compete with a local school.
The future of the East Helena esports teams is expected to take off as more students join the program. Bender hopes one day Montana will have a State Championship tournament, as the experience of playing in a state-wide competition would be an exciting opportunity. To learn more about East Helena High School’s esports team, follow them on Instagram. Plus, stay up to date with the latest high school esports news by following Stay Plugged In on social media.