Blistered fingers. Game tape. Film reviewsYou’d think this was a story about a college football team, but Ringling College doesn’t have a football team. In fact, they don’t have any NCAA athletics at all. What they do have, however, are the Ringling Rollers, the college’s Varsity esports team. Since the program’s inception in 2020, the Rollers have proven to be just as exciting–and competitive–as any traditional sports team. Esports have been around about as long as video games have been, with roots in face-to-face arcade video game competitions. However, the industry’s come a long way since your dad went head to head with his buddies in Space Invaders. 

In the 2010’s esports became a global phenomenon, with tournaments featuring million dollar purses and online streaming services allowing people across the globe to watch these matchups. It only made sense then, that in March 2020 Ringling College began an intramural esports program with games from Super Smash Brothers to Call of Duty. “When I came to Ringling in 2015 I was kind of surprised that we didn’t have an esports program,” says E Ramey, Director of Recreation and Student Wellness at Ringling College and founder of the program. “For me, starting the program was just a lot of trial and error in figuring out what the students’ interests were. We already had a pretty big Super Smash Brothers club that we knew we could either turn into a JV or Varsity team. After starting the program virtually, all things were a go when we came back to campus in person.”

Photography by Wes Roberts

In the Spring of 2021, three clubs were formed in Super Smash Bros, Overwatch and Valorant to determine how the Varsity team would be constructed. With the help of newly hired Head Coach Nick DeAngelis the Ringling Rollers were off to the races with their first Varsity season. In gaming terms, the fall of 2021 was a “beta” season for the Rollers–the team had to gel and come together, as well as switch to the Open league for better competition. “The leagues for college esports aren’t as straightforward as the NCAA,” says DeAngelis. “Obviously NACE (The National Association of Collegiate Esports) is one of them. We had to work to get our team into the proper channels so that we could scrimmage other teams, schedule practices and compete with other schools. If you have a team it doesn’t matter how talented they may be if they can’t compete against other teams.” 

And so the Rollers competed. That next semester, the Rollers Varsity Super Smash Brothers Ultimate team had a perfect 18-0 record en route to being crowned the Varsity Plus Fall 2022 East Coast Divisional Champs in NACE’s Star League. In the spring, the JV team won the 2023 East 5 conference. The success, it turns out, wasn’t just good for the Rollers as a whole but for the individual team members as well. “What’s really cool is that a lot of these students haven’t really done team based anything. I’ve seen so many of these people not only get better at the game, but break out of their shell,” says DeAngelis. “These students are building communication interpersonal skills and I’ve seen them become a lot more articulate and outgoing–not only in the game but just as people as well.”

Now entering the fall 2023 season, the Ringling Rollers have teams dedicated to three different games: Valorant, Super Smash Bros and Overwatch, with Varsity and JV members for each game. The Rollers have come a long way since the days of casual video game clubs–all Varsity team members receive a scholarship as well as branded jerseys and gear along with a new home–a 1,200 square foot esports arena with 10 state-of-the-art gaming stations, with 4 console stations all including an 83” television, an Xbox Series X, a Playstation 5 and a Nintendo Switch. “The arena is a huge step in the right direction for the program here,” says Ramey. “It gives back to the community, but also to the students who have been fighting to have this aspect of the esports program. Previously, it was like playing tennis with wooden rackets instead of titanium. Now, we have the ability to figure out how to be the best program that we can be.”