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MUNSTER — When 2018 graduate Adam Kojich returns to Munster High School, he goes straight to the school's Esports Arena, which celebrated its grand opening last week.

As a founding member of the Munster Esports team, he was one of the first students in the state to receive a varsity letter for his role in the competitive gaming team, and now he seeks to give back to Munster's up-and-coming gamers.

"It's crazy; it is absolutely insane to see," said Kojich, who started the team with four friends at the high school. "Our idea was we just wanted to play some video games with a bunch of friends. We just want to come together and play instead of going home every day."

It’s one of the first Esports teams in the Region and among only a handful of teams across the state.

Nate Thompson, a Munster High School earth/space science teacher, developed an early love of gaming, at one point playing the game Starcraft to an almost-professional level. When Kojich and a couple students struck up a conversation about gaming with him a couple years ago, the idea to form a social club for gamers came naturally.

Early iterations of the club took many forms — looking to include elements of technology and robotics. A small group of five students organized its first LAN, or local access network, tournament at the school during spring break in 2017. By July of the year, Munster Esports became a school board-approved team.

After open houses and recruitment, the group started with about 120 players practicing more than a dozen different games in its first year. Now, Thompson said, the team has decreased in size to become a smaller group of dedicated players.

“We want to build a community based around video games and technology,” Thompson said. “Anything kids can do with their cell phones.”

Realizing the difficulty of providing quality coaching to such a wide variety of teams, Thompson said the group scaled back in its second year to focus on three major games commonly played in the Esports community — Rocket League, Overwatch and League of Legends.

Thompson also brought in two co-coaches — Sarah Adams, who teaches Family and Consumer Sciences at the high school, and her husband, Jake Adams, to coach Overwatch specifically.

Within Munster’s overall Esports team, there are two Rocket League and Overwatch teams, and one League of Legends team, each having between five and nine players depending on the game. In total, there are 43 individual competitors participating in Munster Esports this year.

And the team is good. Last year’s Rocket League team took second place nationally.

“These are a lot of the non-traditional students, but we’re giving them that team atmosphere,” Thompson said.

Munster Esports competes against high school teams downstate and across the country from their Munster Esports Arena in a converted testing room near the front of the school. The team will send competitors to its first out-of-state tournament this May at Lawrence Technological University in Southfield, Michigan.

Teammates raise their own money to play, built several of the team’s 16 shared computers, and even splashed their arena’s walls with a fresh coat of paint over spring break.

“It’s more than just video games,” Thompson said. “It’s kids planning as a team.”

The coach said it’s not always an easy sell to parents, but, just two years in, Munster students are already reaping the rewards. As one of the few high school teams in the state, Thompson said colleges regularly scout his players.

Haley Mize, a junior graduating early in December, has received a scholarship to play Esports at Trine University where she plans to continue competing in Overwatch.

“There's a future out there just because of Esports," Mize said. "It builds a community, and it's nice to have someone to lean back on at the end of the day."

After just a year with the team, Mize is the group’s vice president. She plans tournaments, organizes fundraisers and communicates with school administration for the team.

But more than that, Mize sees her role as an opportunity to break down barriers for women in Esports — a sport Coach Sarah Adams says can often be male-dominated.

“In the gaming world, the biggest issue we have is toxicity,” Sarah Adams said. “We’re very strict on how they treat each other and talk to each other.”

For Kojich, who helped found the team, coming back to Munster Eports means being a part of a greater community.

"We went from just a couple of us thinking 'Hey, let's start a club' to 'How are we going to fit 200 high schoolers in a classroom?' " Kojich said. "It's beautiful."

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Education Reporter

Carley Lanich covers education in Lake County and throughout the Region. She comes to Northwest Indiana from Indianapolis and is an IU-Bloomington grad.