The idea of Esports in high school seemed so foreign to Nate Thompson that when he first approached the administrators at Munster High School he suggested a tech club.
In just one year, That tech club grew into has grown into an Esports program at Munster the Indiana school that is one of the top in the nation.
“The other day I was like, what have I done?” said Thompson, Munster’s Esports director, with a chuckle. “It is mind blowing, because I didn’t even think we would be able to do this. So to go from that to ‘holy moly, here we are and we are finding a ton of success,’ it is really awesome. I am having a great time. The kids are having a great time.”
The team leading the Mustangs program to the top is the Rocket League team, but Munster has done well in just about every game. The Mustangs made the playoffs in Counter-Strike: Global Offensive, Hearthstone, League of Legends, Tom Clancy’s Rainbow Six Siege and the aforementioned Rocket League in the program’s first year.
Rising senior Ray Hoitsma has been there from the beginning and is the embodiment of the program's growth. When he first came to the Esports program, it only had a team in one game: CS:GO.
“I wasn’t a part of that team, but I was helping out,” Hoitsma said. “I helped with the software and just getting things started. I didn’t join an actual team until the announcement of other games, when we partnered with HSEL.”
Hoitsma went on to captain the Rocket League team that has been at the top of the league since beginning in the fall of 2017.
For Thompson, the birth of the program began with appealing to the students and holding a meeting with whoever showed up. Thompson wasn’t expecting many, so when around 130 kids — about 10 percent of the school’s student body — showed up to the first meeting, he was pleasantly surprised, and a bit overwhelmed. The second meeting brought even more students in, so many in fact that they had to change the meeting location on the fly.
“I actually let them form their own teams for this first year,” Thompson said. “Because this was all new to me and I am a second-year teacher I just kind of — ‘let’s see where we can go with this.’ … There were teams where they were friends, and they knew each others’ play styles. I felt like that would be the best way to establish teams quickly.”
That worked out really well for Hoitsma. He knew some of his teammates before they even played in their first competition, so the chemistry was there.
In their debut season, the Mustangs placed third overall in the Rocket League tournament.
“We really felt that we could become the first-place team in the upcoming season,” Hoitsma recalled. “So, we practiced really hard. We developed strategies and team plays and we increased our chemistry.”
The efforts paid off, as the Mustangs found themselves in the finals against Generals Esports Club out of Washington-Lee High School in Arlington, Va.
“They were a really good team,” Hoitsma said. “We saw them coming in the bracket and we are like ‘we are probably going to play them in the finals.’ We talked to other teams and they said that they were really good. So they kind of scared us a bit, but that increased our desire to win.”
Right around that time, a new development at Munster really helped the Hoitsma’s team kick their preparation into high gear. Originally everyone in the program played from home, on whatever console or PC they had.
Thompson got some help from the community and, with the support of the school, the program was able to bring in nine PCs to help get the program to the next level. That meant Hoitsma’s team was able to prepare for the finals in the school’s official Esports room.
“It is completely different when the whole team is in the same room,” Hoitsma said. “It improves communication and teamwork, and it is a lot more fun. I think we perform better when we play at school.”
The Mustangs jumped out to a 2-0 lead in the best-of-five series for the title of the Holiday Majors.
The Generals countered, bringing the series to level and forcing the game to one deciding match.
“We were really nervous, but someone said, ‘let’s just have fun with it.’ It just kind of clicked. We can’t worry about the competitive side now, we just have to have fun.”
The final match played out like poetry in motion. The teams were tied 1-1 at the end of regulation, forcing overtime. Hoitsma found teammate Adam Wisniewski up-field and got him the pass. Wisniewski put it home, clinching the win for Munster.
“We were screaming like crazy,” Hoitsma said. “We were just jumping around. If someone was looking in through a window, they would probably be confused, like, ‘what are these guys doing?’”
Thompson never dreamed all of this could be possible, and neither did Hoitsma.
“I always thought video games were just a fun thing you do and have friends over for,” Hoitsma said.
“I never imagined playing video games at school, let alone the potential doors it could open up for us.”
With such a journey over the last year, it was fitting that at the end, Thompson was able to present Hoitsma with one of the first two varsity letters given at Munster.