Justin Bragg isn't new to starting a college esports program from scratch.
Doing it during a worldwide pandemic? That's another animal altogether.
But after being hired at Purdue Northwest in March, Bragg recruited a team and — with the university's other sports on pause because of the coronavirus pandemic — had a successful mini-season in September and October.
The Pride swept a pair of exhibition matches from Wichita State, 2-1 and 2-0, before losing 2-1 to North Carolina in the PlayVS exhibition playoffs.
It was an auspicious start for PNW's 14th varsity sport and the first esports program at a public university in Indiana.
Pride athletic director Rick Costello has watched the sport's exponential growth — there are now around 200 college varsity programs across the country and about 40 high school teams in the state — and figured it'd be a perfect fit at a university with strong STEM focus.
Once the decision was made to add esports, it was time to hire a coach. And Costello believes Bragg is the perfect fit.
The 2014 Illinois graduate started an esports program at Illinois College in downstate Jacksonville in 2018 and this year guided the Blueboys to a 9-2 record that included wins over Missouri, Wichita State and nationally-ranked Grand View among others.
Bragg is not just an accomplished coach, he's also a pretty good player, and that can only help as he recruits new athletes for the Pride.
"Justin's got quite a rep from his playing days," Costello said, noting Bragg was once ranked in the top 10 nationally among League of Legends competitors.
Bragg has big dreams for the Pride.
"Hopefully we'll have 60 to 100 students on the roster in the next five years or so," he said. "The other goal is to be competitive."
Like many other activities this year, PNW's esports competition was conducted virtually. That did present some challenges.
"It's difficult, because it's easier for me to coach students when we're all together," Bragg said. "People get distracted when you're in a room by yourself."
Felix Barrera can attest to that. The sophomore from Munster is looking forward to seeing both his classmates and teammates again.
"I learn a lot better when I have a person speaking in front of me," Barrera said. "(In remote learning), you start thinking about other things. It's so easy to wander off in your mind."
While he has learned to focus both in the classroom and in esports practices and matches, Barrera believes there's no substitute for being there.
"We can talk all we want over the communications we use," he said, "but I never get to see my teammates in person."
It looks like the sports side of things will stay that way through the next semester. Though PNW's spring schedule isn't final yet, Bragg expects it to be all-virtual with a possible return to in-person competition next fall.
But he's glad just to have the opportunity denied so many other Pride athletes since the pandemic took hold in March.
"We definitely feel lucky in the fact we can still compete even if it's not the way we would do it normally," Bragg said. "We still feel bad for those other sports with these restrictions (that mean) they can't play."