Colleges and universities across the country have felt the surge of esports and related careers in the field. One such school is Oklahoma University, whose growing esports program has become a nationally recognized institution across the country. At the helm is Michael “Mike” Aguilar, OU’s Director of Esports and Co-Curricular Innovation. Aguilar, a lifelong gamer, envisioned a new kind of programming for students and got to work making that dream a reality. Since its inception in 2017, the OU esports banner has housed thousands of students who have all been involved in the organization and competed in various esports titles.
We at Stropse had the opportunity to sit down with Mike Aguilar and talk through his connection to gaming, his transition to leadership, and his transformation into a champion of the field we’ve all come to know and love.
Growing Up With Gaming and Challenges
Aguilar grew up in West Germany with a father stationed in the U.S. Military. Though his father’s work was challenging, his family would come together most nights over an Atari 2600 and play classic games such as Pitfall and Space Invaders.
“Gaming at the very early age in my life became a family thing,” said Aguilar. “It wasn’t something that my parents bought as a babysitter. They bought it as something for the family to do collectively.”
His world of video games expanded even further when the NES came out and he was introduced to Mario and Zelda. He’s also a massive fan of Mega Man to this day, proudly displaying the Mega Man statue in the background of his office. But back in his adolescence, these games and the culture surrounding them— from EDM to the Walkman and even broadband— represented a coming-of-age. With time, Aguilar’s love of games grew from Brood Wars to World of Warcraft and many other increasingly-mature titles.
But Aguilar’s personal growth hit a point in the road when he graduated high school in 2000 and struggled in college.
“I went right into college, which was probably one of the dumbest decisions I’ve ever made, because I just wasn’t mature enough to understand what I was doing for myself,” he said. He struggled academically in his first year of undergrad and then enlisted in the military in July of 2001. Following his service and five years in the reserves, Aguilar went back to school earning both his Bachelors and Masters degrees. At the same time, he worked at a PC repair shop known as PC Club and eventually worked for Apple.
One element of Aguilar’s work which stuck with him was his time at the Oklahoma Juvenile Facility. It opened his eyes to the perception that Americans work reactively instead of proactively, especially when it comes to helping individuals in the prison system. This, as well as his time as a Genius at Apple, set him up for mentorship work down the road.
“What’s Twitch?” The Million Dollar Question That Set the Spark
In 2013, he arrived at OU as a technology strategist working with the honors college. But in 2016, the CIO of OU’s IT department asked him a question that kicked off the revolution. “What the hell is Twitch?”
“From that point it was like, hold my G-Fuel, let’s get going. Did this question just get asked?” said Aguilar.
It was that point when the gears began to turn and Aguilar developed the esports curriculum at OU. And while initially he began to research models to follow, it soon became clear he needed to create his own way, which took a few months.
In the summer of 2017, he sat down with members of the OU staff and outlined three key questions: what does the industry need, what will this do to advance curriculum and what would students want to do in the organization. This birthed another idea.
It Takes Pillars To Create A Foundation
Following that meeting, Aguilar went straight to work developing leadership positions and a foundation on which to base the organization.
“We created our first nine-plus student positions of leadership and the six pillar infrastructure of how we would approach our development for OU as our bid at ‘How do we do esports,’” said Aguilar.
The six pillars he laid out are leadership, community, news and media, production, streaming entertainment and intercollegiate competition. Each of these, Aguilar explained while breaking down their core components, play an integral role in the esports community at OU. Whether it’s raising money for charities, playing on the biggest stages or reporting the news, each one allows students to have unique experiences in the esports world.
He also talked about the element of failure in gaming. He explained that he wants to show students failure: by first teaching failure, further failures can then be avoided.
“If I can teach that lesson, their life becomes exponentially easier earlier in life,” he said. “So many people get demoralized by the topic of failure… People that play games need to understand that in every game, you fail every time you play. And that’s part of the process to getting that achievement.”
He referred back to each of the pillars and the student leaders behind them to explain how this model of esports organization is successful “By empowering students to have their voice and [take] ownership of those pillars with my oversight and that feedback loop” while also “Letting them drive each one of those and really instilling a community of collaboration.”
Let’s Play – How OU Inspires Community Involvement
Aguilar explained that anyone who is registered as a student can be a member in the OU Esports Association whether one is earning an undergraduate or doctoral degree or even learning at branch campuses. He also explained that there is a discord open to the public saying that “We use discord as our primary conduit to feed because it meets the students on their own ground.”
He also explained that involvement in the club depends on the student. A student can choose to be as involved or not involved as they want. If they want to play games with their friends, so be it. If they want to join and get actively involved, that is their decision. He also expressed a lack of membership fee, saying “that would be kind of anti- the goal, which was just to create an environment that welcomes everybody.”
Students are also responsible for selecting the games played. However, Aguilar divides these thoughts into two camps: community and esports.
Community, Aguilar says, entails a want and need by the community, and if paperwork is finished for it, then the game joins the growing list of games played by the organization.
Esports is a bit more complicated.
“Whenever we bring on a new title… To formally represent the university… [We need] testament to the success of intentionality,” he said.
This includes documents and paperwork to build policies and make sure standards are put in place by the university. This was especially true when students approached him about forming a Rainbow Six Siege team. The game heavily involves shooting, which is often frowned upon on campuses across the country, which made official registration difficult.
“It’s the optics of how it’s received, and teaching them that they have to see the world through those eyes so they can have the defenses against those arguments,” he said. “It’s really the first order of consideration when we talk about those specific titles.”
Transitioning Gaming Into Passion
If not abundantly clear, Aguilar loves his job. But even more than a fleeting passion, he defines this position as his purpose.
“I found that my biggest strength is in this position and my purpose in life … as one of the earlier parts of the millennial generation, I function majorly as a translator between those generational gaps,” he describes.
In his work as the coordinator of the program, he works with not only students but also members of the faculty and staff at OU. And in a growing field such as esports, it may be hard to bridge the gap between the older and younger generations.
When explaining this divide, he reiterates the educational aspect of the program.
“Even if it’s not a path to pro, it is a path to education,” he said. “Outside of the walls of OU and outside of the scope of me being in higher education, I’m interested in creating opportunities, regardless of what the different definition of the pathway is.”
Ultimately, we asked him what his aspirations are for the future.
“At the core of [our]… Lessons learned is inspiring youth in the next generation through gaming, about being empathetic, about understanding the power of community,” he said.
“And so if I can impact my part with that, and hopefully my peers, you know, in any industry can approach that mentorship… Understanding differences is our strength instead of our divide, then we all benefit.”
The nature of both collaboration and friendly competition in esports fosters a natural bond between players. But at OU, Mike Aguilar is taking these fundamental truths to the next level. With his own foundation and the foundation of the curriculum behind him, Aguilar is cementing a legacy which will not only skyrocket esports into the future, it will build up pilots to steer the way.