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Ringling College's Growth in Collegiate Esports in the Midst of a Pandemic

The Smash varsity team practices with anti-bacterial and mandatory mask wearing at one of the facilities.
The Smash varsity team practices with anti-bacterial and mandatory mask wearing at one of the facilities. / Photo taken by Andrea Saravia Pérez.

With majors such as Virtual Reality Development and Game Art, it was no surprise that there was a small esports scene at Ringling College of Art and Design back in March of 2020. Back then, there were video game clubs that fostered a casual environment for students to play with their peers in their spare time. Some, such as Hanz Ago and E Ramey, were looking into a more competitive scene. By reaching out to students in various ways remotely, plus with the assistance of a coach who specializes in esports, this is how the Ringling College of Art and Design esports varsity teams came to be.

Sometime in March of 2020, E Ramey, who organizes the recreation and wellness department of the college, had taken notice of the interest some students had in esports. He had managed to land a partnership with Mission Control, but the plans of how to implant esports varsity teams came to a halt due to the Coronavirus pandemic and students having to spread across the world. The partnership enabled students to keep in touch with one another by playing games (some casually, others competitively).

It was thanks to Mission Control that a vast majority of the current Overwatch team members found out about the esports teams that the college was hosting, including Isaiah "OneDaySale" who is now a member. Katie "Unixx" Vautrinot, who also plays as a tank player. Others, like Zach "SonOfAtlas" and Hanz "RawSauce" Ago, found out thanks to e-mails that were sent out to the student body. Currently, Zach is the captain of the Overwatch varsity team, while Hanz is the captain of the Smash varsity team.

First, E Ramey had to find out what games students were interested in, and with the transition to remote learning coinciding in timings this was no easy task. “Some of the biggest struggles were finding the games that people were interested in. This was especially true when it came to Mission Control because the games located on the app were not the predominant games Ringling students play except for Smash and Mario Kart. However, when it came to creating the actual esports team, the biggest struggle was recruitment. We weren’t sure what the Fall would have in store for us, so we weren’t sure who would be attending and be able to play.”

“The struggles were quickly gone once we developed a form to figure who played what games, what games were liked the most, and that students really wanted to be involved and compete against others.”

Nick “FlowStateGG” DeAngelis, otherwise known as Coach Nick, found out about Ringling through two people who specialized in collegiate recruiting. He would later become a key figure in assisting Ramey with creating the esports teams. While E Ramey had experience managing the Ringling soccer team, Nick was the one who not only had experience as a professional esports player himself but as a coach and with an education background in coaching and a certification in sports psychology. As they recruited more students and solidified the teams, they now have a varsity Overwatch, League of Legends, and Smash team. 

But not every game was able to make this smooth transition, in large part due to the differences in ping since students were literally all over the world. A case example of this is the emergence of the Smash varsity team; a team that unlike the League of Legends or Overwatch team has practiced almost entirely in-person with adequate Covid-19 protocol that includes social distancing, mandatory mask-wearing, and antibacterial galore. 

Hanz Ago has played in the competitive Smash scene before, and wanted to bring that passion to the college by creating a Smash club in March of 2020. He went on to explain,

“We were talking to the coach and one of the things with Smash is that it is very hard to do virtually because the online is actually not supported by the current Ringling wifi because of the NAT type. So, usually, colleges and I’m pretty sure Ringling too, run a NAT type-D internet and what that means is that… that type of Internet is not compatible with the Nintendo Switch servers.”

Currently, the coach and the team are in conversations with the administration of the college to solve this issue. In the meantime, the varsity Smash team meets in-person with mandatory mask wearing, antibacterial gel, and social distancing.

Smash was one of the games that was not able to transition into a remote mode as well as others, such as Rocket League, League of Legends, or Overwatch. 

These last few games were the ones the team wanted to focus on. For Coach Nick, it was important to know what was the one game everyone should focus on making an “official” team first, in order to expand into other franchises. 

“The goal was just to have one team to start. We got a little more interest, so we figured we'd kinda start planting the seeds in other teams. The goal is to have one main team, and it was gonna be League at first but it kinda fell through because we didn't have enough people to get that rolling. So Overwatch is taking that slot.”

What Introducing Esports To An Art School Is Like
The Overwatch varsity team has been successful thus far, having won scrims against other varsity teams. / Courtesy of Blizzard Entertainment,

Sometime in the spring semester of 2020, more emails were being sent to the student body including the link to a Discord server that students could be a part of to show interest in the varsity team. The options were Overwatch, League of Legends, Rocket League, CS:GO, Valorant, Rainbow 6, Call of Duty, and Smash. Out of those games, eighteen people showed an interest in Overwatch, fifteen in Smash and twelve in League of Legends. Those were the games that had the most interest, and so they were the first teams to be established. 

Each team had its own schedules, and the structure of practices varied. In a way, this serves as a reminder that esports do act like traditional sports. Overwatch practices, for example, consist of playing the game and then rewatching clips from either the practice itself or from collegiate-level play similar to the level the players are currently in. Rewatching clips is useful since players find flaws in their gameplay while receiving constructive feedback on how to improve. The actual practice serves the purpose of improving the synergy between players. Because there are so many members in the team, Overwatch players rotate, and while some play competitively other players would practice in quickplay matches while waiting for the other players. 

Smash practices now take the form of a tournament. Throughout the semester, Hanz worked one-on-one with each player and would play the role of a matchmaker of sorts. Players of similar levels would play against one another while socially distancing and utilizing a few television screens. Most players bring their own Nintendo Switch console, and hand sanitizer is offered in whichever room the team decides to practice in. There may be a free-for-all screen, as well as multiple one-versus-one screens. In the beginning, the Smash team had to play a tournament within itself to determine the ranking, strengths, and weaknesses of each player. That said, both Hanz and some Smash teammates wish to be able to practice remotely. Remote practices would enable even more students to join the team easily and safely. While as of now more students can join the team, it will prove a challenge to find a spot for a large group of students to play locally against one another. 

Hanz looks at the various screens where people are practicing, and provides advice on how someone could have done a better job at the end to defeat their victorious opponent or analyze the combos of the players. While giving constructive feedback, the overall atmosphere of the practice is a positive one in which growth is encouraged. Each player is having fun playing the game and receives the tips with optimism for their next match. Below, is a match between him and AsianShack, another team member.

This is similar to the Overwatch practices, where at times players review footage and clips of their games with the coach in order to find faults and what to work on. Because only six players can play competitively at a time, team members rotate, and while some play competitive, the remaining team members practice in quick play or competitive even in smaller groups. While playing competitive, one team member live-streams the match and members are encouraged to save their clips and share them on the Discord server. 

There have been practices where a large majority is spent analyzing footage from collegiate Overwatch teams at a similar level to the current team, in order to see trends or faults that we may fall victim to and how can we improve that. The team captain, Zach, has even offered one-on-one coaching to players before in order to ensure that everyone is at a similar level.

Zach managed to create a Discord server where players can communicate with one another, and this was useful when reaching out to prospective students with an interest in esports. On April 10, 2021, most members of the Overwatch team played games against incoming freshmen who were interested in being a part of the team. On that same day, the Smash team streamed among its members. 

Another one of the DPS players of the main Overwatch roster, Konrad "Muffincannon" Losiak, designed the logos and posters to help with the brand of the teams which were all under the name of Ringling Rollers. With jerseys and t-shirts, the team members took pictures of themselves wearing their new gear to solidify the brand and spark some interest in prospective students.

The jerseys and shirts were designed by Konrad "Muffincannon" Losiak, who is also a Graphic Design senior in Ringling College of Art and Design.
The jerseys and shirts were designed by Konrad "Muffincannon" Losiak, who is also a Graphic Design senior in Ringling College of Art and Design. / Courtesy of Ringling College.

In terms of what colleges can do to help either create or support preexisting esports programs, Coach Nick recommends institutions to maintain an open mind to the opportunities that esports offers despite not being around for as long as other traditional sports. 

“The first step is to accept that it’s a really booming industry with a lot of opportunities, I think Ringling did a great job with that, they were super open as soon as we addressed it to them and from there it's all about supporting or getting some sort of coaching because I think that is very important for any team.”

E Ramey thinks a similar way, adding that universities should listen to the students. 

“The students are the driving force for making esports happen because this is something we are not used to. We all grew up playing some type of video game, but this is vastly different. I mean, esports is going to be in the Olympics, that is wild. The students know what it takes to play these games, they know all the materials you need to be the best, and they know the time and effort it takes to get better. So when it comes to improving the esports team or aspect, connecting with the students is a great first step.”

Speaking of the students, some have found this as a great way to make new friends during a time where socialization is hindered by remote classes and limited contact to prevent the spread of Covid-19. With a shared passion for a specific game (or multiple, since currently, students can be part of more than one varsity esports team) there is a great ice-breaker already for players to use. 

While waiting for games, platforms like Discord are great for teammates to communicate with one another and to form friendships remotely.
While waiting for games, platforms like Discord are great for teammates to communicate with one another and to form friendships remotely. / Courtesy of Blizzard Entertainment.

On top of that, it is encouraged for players (particularly those that are part of a varsity team) to regularly practice outside of the established practice hours, and having a team member to practice with is a great way of forming a friendship during a pandemic. 

Once the risk of Covid has been mitigated, Ago looks forward to using flyers and more social media content to draw the attention of the student body in order to recruit more members to the Smash team. Right now, the Smash team has a Twitch and YouTube channel that they use to stream in addition to word of mouth and other marketing techniques. Looking even further into the future, the captain has his eyes set on conventions where he could introduce the team to the Smash competitive scene. 

Regarding the future of the Overwatch team, the Ringling Rollers have expressed an interest in gaming rooms—a room full of computers meant to run high-quality games, however, the team has expressed that they are comfortable with the remote modality that is currently adapted to minimize exposure.

For the time being, each varsity team is growing and hopefully, other games are incorporated into the Ringling College esports scene. If you, or someone you know, are interested in having an esports team at your local college, reach out to everyone who you know would participate. Then, pitch the idea to the administration, and from then on focus on branding and spreading the word. Hopefully, the story of this college can help other teams grow across the nation.