THE DIRECTOR'S BACKGROUND
When I first sat down to research and develop gaming and esports community structure at OU in Fall 2016, no matter what I did my own experiences always kept me focused on the importance of community. My first gaming memories were in the 80s in West Germany when the wall was still up and our Atari 2600 become a means for me to connect with my older siblings as my parents sat and read or watched behind us. In foreign land, the need for friends and family is critical in youth. Gaming was my escape but also my hub in the house. The Atari with the Apple IIe in our house set my own path of being in technology-based fields with the addition of shows like “Transformers”, “Top Gun”, “Star Trek” and “Star Wars”, nerd and geek culture were my home.
Over the course of the ’90s & ’00s I would grow with gaming and the birth of online gameplay both competitively and community-based in things like Starcraft Broodwar, World of Warcraft, and Counterstrike 1.6. During each of my times in those titles, there was always a group of friends, community, and fellowship. Being good in a game was then shared with friends for praise, or being shown their footage was an opportunity that offered celebration. Ultimately it was World of Warcraft where community would be the most important aspect overall on top of some very stressful types of gameplay.
One of my favorite memories, which is 1000 times easier to talk about in 2022 than it was in 2005, was marrying a couple in-game, then a large portion of the guild flew to OKC for a WOWBQ (World of Warcraft BBQ), as I’ll call it, and then they married in person. The photo from that weekend (which I’ve misplaced) was a perfect resemblance of what gaming is defined in my head today and especially in a university setting. You had different political parties, races, genders, religious beliefs, physical abilities, ages (17-40), and career types in a single photo that got along with each other actively. Defining “gamers” is hard when you’re actually respectful of who gamers are, which is everyone.
APPLYING IT IN THE WALLS OF A 130+ YEAR INSTITUTION
Building anything that you want to stand long past your time takes intention, patience, strategy, and determination. Since 2016 I have struggled plenty with burn out, roadblocks, and the constant battles of failure and success, often times on a daily/weekly basis. This was especially true from the 2016-2020 portion of our 5+ year timeline when there was zero preexisting energy on a large scale to properly reference inside of OU and not enough outside. So we had to pioneer processes, establish our place, and build relationships. While there are variables that differ from other universities many started with humble student org initiatives and willed them into existence. Many are still not elevated despite being over a decade old now. The topic of esports in education is inevitable from my seat and not just in higher ed either.
That aside, taking OU Esports community-focused emphasis and making it the first real pillar of development and culture further aligned us with the success we are achieving in the 2020+ parts of development. Ensuring we were aligning with universities policies, student handbooks, and my own experiences developing virtual communities helped us secure our foundation really early on while we waited for OU to acknowledge and enable us in the years ahead.
The idea of diversity, equity, and inclusion is often applied as the intentional design strategy to evolve programs and practices to be more conducive to those ideals in general. Having grown up as a big introvert that often struggled to fit in, I often felt like an outcast. Couple that with gaming as topic and stereotypes would plague the topic along the way, such as “Gamers are lazy”, “Gamers aren’t great students”, “Gamers are non contributors”, etc. While I honestly won’t argue those are complete fallacies, I will argue that they are not exclusively true one way or the other and actually the numbers are quite lower than most would believe. The missing piece I’ve found with the gaming and esports topics is always structure. Setting expectations, providing guidelines, and empowering the community to take ownership and accountability of itself has produced one of the largest student-led communities at OU to date now pushing over 2.8K members at the time of this article.
The intention of all of this was to provide a welcoming environment for everyone to be involved. Lurkers, students wanting to be more active, prospective students, or alumni now could be connected to the university’s growing endorsement of the topic of gaming and esports. Through the community hub, all parties could then choose to explore more opportunities past that. This could be an event planner, a journalist, a persona covering live game competition, a content creator, or a representative of OU in intercollegiate esports against other universities. This also ensures that students in development are part of the gaming community origin as a requirement and learn that culture before being in a development. It also aligns with many university student affairs and student life initiatives to provide engagement, opportunity, and value to an institution of choice if they do choose to pursue further investment in their educational journey.
DRAKE "DR. AKE" BROOKS, INTENTION TURNS INTO VALIDATION
In August 2018, I had the first opportunity to address a new incoming freshman and transfer class during back-to-school events that would become a standard event every year from that point on. The org and developments had only officially formed as an interest-based student org in September 2017. During our back-to-school event weekend, we’d host small tournaments, party game events for fellowship, and invite the entire campus to attend to learn more. This took us from 250 students in org to over 600 with an average growth of around 400-600 every new school year. Many freshmen everywhere are nervous about finding their communities, making new friends, and finding new topics to explore. Gaming meets a ton where they already are.
Despite the influx, we’ve identified that the majority of that new energy coming in doesn’t quite do much after back to school and instead lurks in the shadows, hangs out from time to time in online events, and doesn’t get quite active. However, in their sophomore year and after they have gained some confidence many start getting active across all of our opportunities. There are always exceptions and this is only one of them that I’ll now share about how this all ties together.
Drake “Dr. Ake” Brooks was one of the very first students I met that Friday. As I had expected he was reserved, shy, and unsure of himself initially, but once he understand my intentions and what we were trying to build at OU he immediately became one of the exceptions in the community. Drake became an active voice in chat channels, attended more events, and found not only friends to game with, but also found people to hang out with, and it even helped him connect dots in his own college, The University of Oklahoma School of Meteorology.
In a conversation with Drake’s mother recently she referenced her concern for her son’s ability to find his place on campus and referenced the emotions of dropping him off and the imagery of seeing him already looking lost as the next chapter of his life had arrived. She goes on to share that after an hour of her and her husband heading back to Indiana she called to see how he was doing. To her surprise, he was at the event in the picture next to this text.
“You all kept him from being lonely and homesick from the very first day. When we dropped him off, I thought he would sit in his room and be lonely by himself….nope! He was at an esports event! I knew then all of you would take care of my boy.” – Tammy Brooks, Drake’s Mother
One year later Drake was helping welcome the next freshmen and transfer class to OU and reciprocating the very energy that helped him find comfort at his new home 365 days prior. In his second year, he’d attend practically everything we put on from gaming events focused on fellowship, to philanthropic opportunities to perform community service, all while still being very present in the text channels of our community Discord.
Drake was never involved in our competitive teams, media pillars, or event coordination. He was simply a community member which represents the larger percentage of the 2.8K member community who are only interested in gaming for fun, fellowship, and camaraderie because of common ground and interest while still being free to have different thoughts, opinions, and paths of study. I share this story as means to connect the dots of our community intention and why it is so important to us as it all became validated in the worst possible way.
VALIDATION FROM AN UNFORTUNATE SERIES OF EVENTS
In April 2022, we lost three OU meteorology after chasing storms and doing what they love and are learning to do as a career, one of which was Drake. As the news started to sink in, we were asked to provide any photos and media including Drake for montages, documentation, and coverage of this tragic event. As our student leadership combed through our archives the memories and thoughts started to come back and it really hit me. As photos were discovered, meteorology senior and OU Esports Streaming Entertainment Director Matthew “Silverplussonic” Miller forwarded photos from Fall 2018 and then Fall 2021 to Drake’s mother who shared that memoir reflecting back on his first day of school. The intention of our program received the best possible validation of community and fellowship intent. However, it was from the most unfortunate series of events in how we received it.
I often am the student just as much as I am the mentor and I love everything about that balance as more and more students find the power of their own voice earlier in life than I did. It is what we wanted to build from day one and it has fueled myself and our program, community, and development to now being university-backed with full-time staffing and more still to come. Drake is a prime example of the very student this community was built for and through, that would help him elevate with a solid foundation to be able to leap further and further ahead in life.
Thank you to the Brooks family for allowing me to reference our conversation and for affording us the opportunity to share time with Drake.
While I usually default to Bruce Lee’s “Be Like Water” quote in most things I think I’ll take a queue from Drake’s Xbox profile quote instead, “Yet, even amidst the hatred and carnage, life is still worth living. It is possible for wonderful encounters and beautiful things to exist”. – Hayao Miyazaki
Rest in Peace Drake “Dr. Ake” Brooks. <3
On May 9th at the National Weather Center on the Southern tip of the University of Oklahoma campus a celebration of life was hosted by the School of Meteorology and College of Atmospheric & Geographic Sciences on behalf of the three students who passed. Here is our tribute to Drake and gift to his family as we give our own stories and remember the importance of community.