Ashley Marku’s years of service in the armed forces gave her a unique skill set that made her a natural choice to serve as Redbird Esports Varsity Overwatch team’s first student coach.

“I’ve always been impressed with the leadership skills students obtain from being connected with a service branch, whether having served or are currently in an ROTC program,” Redbird Esports Program Director David Kirk, M.S. ‘16, said. “It’s always difficult to ask a student to put aside personal relationships and step into a position of higher authority over their peers, but I was confident Ashley’s background and skill set would make this an easy task for her.”

Marku, a senior computer science major, served in the United States Marine Corps for five years after graduating from high school. Her father and grandfather both served in the Marines, and she saw it as an opportunity to build new skills and broaden her horizons. After completing her service in 2014, she worked in the software industry before deciding to come to Illinois State in 2019 to finish her bachelors’ degree.

Marku also started broadcasting video games on the streaming platform Twitch in 2014 to supplement her income and share her passion for gaming. Eventually, Marku got into Overwatch, a competitive videogame in which two teams of six individual shooters battle over a variety of objectives. Players pick a character in one of three roles and coordinate closely with their teammates to win.

Marku was drawn to the game due to its fast-paced, pick-up-and-play nature and unique cast of characters. When Marku learned that varsity esports were coming to campus, she immediately knew she wanted to be involved with the Illinois State Overwatch community.

“It’s a way for students that maybe aren’t as traditionally athletically inclined or have a strong passion for gaming to have an avenue to compete and represent their school and do all these cool things,” she said. “So, when I saw it, I thought it was absolutely amazing. It’s time for universities to hop on the esports train.” She started streaming her matches in the Redbird Esports Discord server and other players noticed her high-quality play. When varsity team tryouts were announced, she decided to compete for one of the roster spots. She didn’t get the role, but Kirk was impressed with her communication skills and asked if she would consider coaching.

Headshot of Ashley Marku
Ashley Marku

“During the initial team tryouts, we noticed that Ashley was often the most vocal on the team, regardless of the players we had her paired with,” Kirk said. “Her ability to be a vocal in-game leader even when she wasn’t the highest-ranked player on the team was impressive and something that initially made me want to approach her for the coaching position.”

Marku initially had no interest in coaching but decided to take the role due to Kirk’s confidence in her.

“David has been extremely supportive,” she said. “I am thankful that I took him up on it, because if it had been anyone else that approached me about coaching, I probably would have said no. He has a way of putting your mind at ease even if something seems like a really daunting task.”

Marku estimates she spends 12 hours a week preparing for practices and coaching the team. A lot of her time is spent reviewing footage of the team’s performance during matches and working with the team’s head coach, Megan Lomonof ‘05. Lomonof currently plays in the United States Army Band and was a major force in getting the U.S. Army esports program started. Lomonof coaches the team remotely, and Marku works with the squad during physically distanced practices at The Vault.

The Overwatch squad begins its season on February 20. The regular season runs through March, with the playoffs starting on April 10. The team started formal practices in January and Marku expects them to do big things this year based on their preseason performance.

“I like seeing the improvement when a player is really receptive to the input you have on them and they implement it and they feel that satisfaction of getting better,” Marku said. “Just seeing that is absolutely amazing and such a fulfilling experience.”

Marku expects to graduate this spring and already has a job offer from Wabtec Corp., a Chicago-based transportation company. She is excited to start her post-Illinois State career but wants to stay involved with Redbird Esports in any capacity she can.

“I’ve already talked to David and Megan asking what I can do when I graduate,” she said. “Even though I might be up in Chicago and working, I want players to know I love seeing where this program is going and how fast it’s getting there. I want to stay a part of it for as long as possible.”

Redbird Esports currently supports Overwatch, League of Legends, and Rocket League at a varsity level. They also support a number of other game titles at a club level including Rainbow Six Siege, Call of Duty, CSGO, Fortnite, and more. If you want to stay up to date with the Redbird Esports program you can follow their announcements and updates on Twitter. They also live stream the majority of their competitive matches on their Twitch channel.

If you’re looking to support our Esports program, consider making a gift during Birds Give Back to help the team unlock $10,000 worth of scholarships for talented student leaders like Ashley Marku.