MISSOULA – When he was 7 years old, Solomon “Solly” Albertson-Gore was gifted a video game. The Lewistown native recalls Nintendogs ꟷ a real-time pet simulation video game ꟷ as the moment it began.
“I remember just being so incredibly amazed at the virtual experience and that feeling has just never left me,” he said. “I’m fascinated, obsessed actually, by all of it.”
Later, as a 9-year-old, Albertson-Gore became enamored with Wii, the popular, record-selling home console that many families enjoyed in their living rooms virtually bowling, dancing and playing Wii sports.
Fast forward to today, and Albertson-Gore is a sophomore at the University of Montana, still playing video games and majoring in the very field that grabbed his attention as a youngster ꟷ game design and interactive media, one of UM’s newest technology majors.
The major is a blend of computer science, art, writing, music, design and critical thinking and strategizing – all elements which Albertson-Gore said has kept him interested and active in the land of virtual gaming for the majority of his young life.
Before enrolling in college, Albertson-Gore spent a summer not in front of a screen, but traversing landscapes on foot in the grueling work as a wildland firefighter. Reflecting in the mountains about his future, he told himself it was time to focus on a career.
His path to UM began at a moment that most Grizzlies recall ꟷ a distinct feeling of coming home when visiting the campus and a “knowing” that UM was the place for him. After dabbling in a few majors, including music education (he plays the tuba and trombone), he found himself in computer science classes.
But chance would have it that a friend would invite him to a campus pizza party with a group of other students interested in gaming, who were trying to promote esports at the University.
“There were more than 60 students at that first meeting, from all different kinds of majors and backgrounds who also shared a passion for gaming like I do. It was incredible,” he said. “I fell in love again with the gaming community and gaming in general.”
Now designated as an official UM sport, complete with University jerseys and scholarships for players, Grizzly Esports teams are governed by rules and regulations of the National Association of Collegiate Esports. The NACE includes more than 170-member schools and 5,000 student-athletes. At UM, esports involvement and interest is growing exponentially – a fact that has propelled UM to be the best area for gaming in Montana right now, according to Albertson-Gore.
Grizzly Esports includes teams for League of Legends, Overwatch, Rocket League and many others. Albertson-Gore is quick to clarify there is no violence in the games. Rather, students focus on games that privilege strategy and critical thinking. A shoutcaster for the games that livestream, similar to a sports broadcaster that narrates the play-by-play, Albertson-Gore also is an assistant coach for the Overwatch team.
“It’s become like a group of best friends who all have the same interest,” he said. “No one is allowed to play for hours upon hours ꟷ you have to keep your grades up and people are there to make sure you have a good balance with school with a set practice schedule and that you get some outside time in, too.”
Desiring a bit more creativity in his academic path than traditional computer science training, Albertson-Gore was introduced to Michael Cassens, assistant professor in UM’s School of Visual and Media Arts, who offered an independent study to him in 3D sculpting and game engines. After the Montana Board of Regents approved game design as a new major at UM, Albertson-Gore was one of the first students to sign up for the degree, housed in UM’s College of the Arts and Media.
“It’s so new that many students are unsure of what, exactly, is involved,” said Cassens, who also serves as the director of UM Esports. “It’s an interesting blend between the rigor of computer science, combined with the art of design and media.”
The gaming industry’s annual earnings exceed tens of billions of dollars per year, with gaming revenue set to top $159 billion in 2020, according to Reuters. The pandemic has created even more new fans, as a replacement for in-home entertainment and professional sports.
Cassens said that bodes well for UM students as far as employment opportunities, as the possibilities are limitless, including many that don’t even exist yet, from jobs like flight simulation and drone operation to 3D artistry and concept design to virtual and augmented reality development.
“The field and its technology are rapidly evolving and the demand for professionals with critical thinking, modern technology, code and storytelling skills is invaluable,” Cassens said.
Just one of many future plans, Albertson-Gore would like to one day start a gaming firm in Montana and eventually start a high school esports league (including his own high school, Fergus High School), with hopes that the players will find their way to UM, he said.
“I know for certain I want a job in esports and gaming,” he said. “UM is really the gaming center of Montana right now and I never dreamed this would be an opportunity for me. I’m beyond grateful to be doing something I love and actually majoring in it.”
Albertson-Gore, who is enrolled remotely at UM from his home in Lewistown this semester, said esports has allowed him to stay connected with his friends and his major during the COVID-19-induced social distancing while generally keeping close to home.
“It’s pretty amazing to slay dragons with people on screen, but then realize they are your friends in real life too and that you’ll get to see them soon.”
Contact: Michael Cassens, director of UM Esports, assistant professor, School of Visual and Media Arts, 415-787-0577, email@example.com.