Michael Aguilar, M.B.A.
Earlier this fall, OU Information Technology strategist and Honors College staff member Michael Aguilar was named director of Esports and Co-Curricular Innovation, a new position within the Division of Student Affairs.
It is no exaggeration to say that Mike has been THE central figure in creating the foundation for esports at OU, helping communicate to OU administration the excitement and energy felt by students and creating a curriculum that would bring together multiple departments and disciplines on campus.
Here is a condensed and lightly-edited interview with Mike about esports at OU and their future role in higher education.
Q: When did you first start working at OU? The Honors College?
Michael Aguilar: I was hired in 2013 as a Technology Strategist for OU specifically catering to the business analysis and project management needs of The Honors College.
Q: You've said that you've been a gamer since the 1980s. Which games first got you interested, and which games are you playing now?
MA: My introduction to gaming was a family affair. In the mid-80s, my parents bought an Atari 2600 and we would take turns watching and playing games. We were stationed in Germany at the time and gaming brought us together. We enjoyed each other’s company while playing. Gaming became a means to enjoy laughter and leisure. The irony is that now I don’t have a lot of time to game. However, when I do have time, Heroes of The Storm is my go-to. The game is a MOBA, or Massive Online Battle Arena, developed by Blizzard Entertainment. The characters from Diablo, WarCraft, StarCraft, and Overwatch fill the playable matchups which just speaks to my soul as a Blizzard fanboy since the 90s.
Q: What was the genesis of OU Esports? When did you first have the idea to start the program, and what was the general timeline of the program up to now?
MA: In November 2016, the current CIO of OU IT came back from an Amazon summit and he asked, “What is Twitch?”. (Twitch is a premier streaming service focused heavily on gaming and creative live streamers - it’s now owned by Amazon.) At the time there were less than 25 universities across the U.S. and Canada with institutionally supported esports programs in some context. Now, in 2020, there are more than 225. I targeted a mid-Spring interest event that had over 100 in attendance for a Q&A, feedback, and to facilitate a League of Legends tournament. From there I found my original co-founding student VP and he introduced me to the organization’s future president which I’ll name in the following questions. In June 2017, we built the infrastructure of a six-pillar organization designed to mimic professional esports companies, industry needs, OU’s academic culture, and to provide a home for as many gamers as possible. In November 2018, OU IT sponsored the first elevation of the “Interest-Based” student organization called “The Esports Association at OU” to “Competitive Club” classification that caused a rebrand to “The OU Esports Club” providing us with university licensing. On September 1, 2020, Student Affairs, by sponsorship from Dr. David Surratt, the VP of Student Affairs and Dean of Students, appointed me as the Director of Esports and Co-Curricular Innovation. This was the founding of a new department which has been the milestone piece of Esports strategic plan since 2016. It rewards those students who have spent time and energy developing this across the organic elevations into future full-time employment positions at OU. The perfect realization of converting the dream of representation and equity building into reality. In November 2020, the Esports organization reached 1,600+ members making it the single largest student organization at OU, by more than triple.
Q: You mention 6 pillars of development. Can you briefly explain what they are?
Leadership: The tip of the sword and mentored to be the middle and future upper management of this now $1million dollar industry that is on track to match the NFL in revenue six or seven years from now .
Community: This is our own internal student life department focused on developing inclusive programming that speaks to the diverse interests of gamers. Whether they are a console gamer, on a PC, playing something casual like Among Us, or extremely competitive and playing Call of Duty. This also is the branch that engages K-12 and philanthropy initiatives.
Media & News: This is our own internal media outlet because we knew we had to be the one telling our own stories before we’d get any acceleration in acceptance and understanding. Here students and alumni can write opinion pieces, do event coverage, talk about industry news, or even do hardware or software reviews. Check out www.sooneresports.org to see for yourself.
Production: In the spirit of Media & News we had to create our own productions to showcase gameplay and create opportunities for more visibility. This means we’re growing our own producers and live broadcast talents that can do play by play announcing to leverage emotional draw that helps control a narrative, and to help educate people with regards to what they are watching.
Streaming Entertainment: Seeing influencer media grow before the impact of the pandemic caused many high school students to say, “I want to be a YouTube or Twitch Streamer”. Some may have rolled their eyes at the notion of streaming entertainment as a profession, but then COVID hit! Now several of these students are earning substantial incomes and enjoying quality of life at a young age, by comparison to their pre-streaming entertainment journey. Now, influencer media and content creation are core fundamental business practices for marketability and relevance, especially in pop culture and gaming communities alike.
Intercollegiate Competition: Represent The University of Oklahoma in formal competition! I always leave this one last because most people think it’s the only thing. All six departments are critical to healthy development with long-term lasting power. We are actively developing 10 teams currently across eight titles. They are: Call of Duty, Counterstrike: GO, League of Legends, Overwatch, Rainbow 6 Siege, Rocket League, Smash Brothers and Valorant. We add titles based on student interest and willingness to take ownership coupled with available collegiate sector tournaments with scholarship prize pools. This department also facilitates summer camps with a global reach capability.
Q: So, let’s get serious here. Scholarships, Curriculum?
MA: Yes. The goal has always been to offer scholarships for competitors but never exclusively. Each of those six pillars will have scholarship or student work-study opportunities. Because it’s the Honors College asking, I’ll let the viewership know some additional goals of ours. We will additionally launch scholarships for “First Generational Gamer” and “Women in Gaming and Esports” to help tackle diversity and inclusion issues in this industry early in our elevated timeline. When you ask? Right around the corner!
Q: Who are some of the students who have been instrumental in getting esports up and running at OU?
MA: This question makes me tear up just thinking about it because every semester I’m not where I think we should be - I must accept that some students involved across those six pillars are graduating. It fuels me to push harder and harder. Names! I want to highlight some serious champions this semester. To my students reading this - just know there are way too many to name here, but I see you! First, Kara Brightwell a Master of International Business student who functions as our Community Outreach Coordinator. Kara helped us raise over $5K for Oklahoma youth in need since July 2020. Joshua Riesenberg is an Instrumental Music Education major and one of our coaches who developed curriculum as we spun up summer camps despite COVID. Joshua executes at the highest forms of professionalism and tact despite some very frustrating times. Zachary Satz, an Art, Tech & Culture major, functions as our Marketing Director. Zachary helps keep an active presence across social media channels and internal news. Finally, Jonathan Hudson a Meteorology major is our Director of Intercollegiate Competition. Jonathan’s position is similar to that of an athletics director. He coordinates logistics and handles conflict resolution for the entire “Intercollegiate Competition” department. There are so many stories and champions in our four short years - it’s hard to condense.
Q: Moving forward with Esports at OU, how will you define success in the program? Where do you hope for the program to be in 5, 10 years?
MA: I have extremely high standards for the metrics by which success will be defined. We will create a diversity embracing community that fosters inclusion and forms pipelines to build equity. That has been my number one mission since the beginning. This core fundamental to our culture is how we’ve been able to sustain this level of development with zero funding and a large pool of student inclusion and contribution. Most anything we want to do can, to some extent, be easily launched when that is your cultural foundation. The next big objective is curriculum and research. So far, these topics have been out of reach due to the changing administrative landscape at OU. There are however at least ten degrees with logical and organic tie-in opportunities in the first wave of discovery. This is where my affiliation with the Honors College will, hopefully, become the spark needed to build some extremely exciting cross-departmental academic opportunities that will coincide with our execution plans and community building efforts.