He's caught the nation by storm since being named the starting quarterback for Oklahoma. Baker Mayfield is a gamer... Literally, he's a gamer.
Written by: Mike Houck // Video Production: SoonerVision
Photography: Ty Russell // Site Design: Russell Houghtaling // Art: Michele Archambo
It's the week after he racked up a school-record 572 yards of total offense against Tulsa, the most by an FBS player in a game this season.
Baker Mayfield sits fully engaged on the front of his seat, eyes whipping back and forth across the mammoth video being thrust upon the wall by a high-tech digital projector. The image is coming from the back corner of the room at an angle, yet curiously appears squarely on the wall as if the projector is facing it head on.
Opposing players race all around him, trying to take down Oklahoma's elusive quarterback. Time after time they try, but they are unsuccessful. Even for onlookers who may have never before witnessed a game, his skill is apparent.
Mayfield’s teammates receive his urgent instructions, and if they mess up, he hastily and sternly communicates his displeasure.
When it's all said and done, he's carried his team to victory — just like almost every other occasion over the last seven years.
No, Mayfield is not in the quarterbacks meeting room evaluating OU’s offensive performance against the Golden Hurricane just days earlier. Far from it. He is alone in the living room of his east-Norman apartment, sitting on a brown couch immediately beneath a 10-foot-long American flag, doing what he enjoys more than almost anything else: dominating a multi-hour session of the video game Halo 3.
Critically acclaimed and one of the most commercially successful first-person shooter games to ever hit the market, Halo 3 is set in the 26th century and features humans battling a collection of alien races in an interstellar war. While the action is intense and the graphics complex, in a nutshell, the object is to shoot your opponents before they shoot you.
Most of the time Mayfield plays online with strangers. He wears a headset, complete with a microphone, so he and his teammates can converse and strategize. The first team to a certain number of "kills" wins.
And Mayfield wins a lot. In fact, he almost never loses. He was so fanatical about Halo 3 as a freshman at Lake Travis High School in Austin, Texas, that playing football for the perennial powerhouse started getting in the way of his video gaming. So much so that between his freshman and sophomore years he said he contemplated cutting back on football so he could devote more time to nabbing cybernetically enhanced creatures on screen.
"He told me at one point he was about to quit football when he was in high school and just play video games; become a professional video gamer," says Jaxon Uhles, a redshirt sophomore fullback for the Sooners who lives with Mayfield in their heavily sports-decorated two-bedroom apartment.
While Mayfield says that might be a little bit of a stretch, he fully admits that his Halo 3 addiction did reach the “serious” stage. But it’s also what allowed him to excel at the game — then and now.
"When I was little I think I played it way too much," says Mayfield, who was raised in Longhorns territory but grew up rooting for the Sooners. “I’ve played so much that I’m really good with the controls. When I’m thinking about what buttons I have to press, I’m already pressing them.
“Being able to move around and shoot at the same time is something that you're not very good at if you just started to play the game. It's just kind of second nature for me. And I know the map or the course really well, so I can jump around on things and keep shooting and stay alive."
Staying alive is something Mayfield does extremely well. And when he doesn’t, his temper has been known to flare.
Choice words occasionally get issued. Gaming equipment has been busted. Vehemently questioning the integrity and/or intelligence of the CPU is relatively common.
“He likes to go in his bedroom, put on his headphones and play against other people,” says Uhles. “He’s obviously a competitive person, so he really gets after it and he doesn’t like losing at all. He’ll start yelling at the TV if stuff doesn’t go his way. That’s when I shut the door. It gets loud.”
Mayfield corroborates Uhles’ claims.
“I hate to lose,” Mayfield says. “I don’t care who it’s to. Even if it’s online to a 5-year-old from across the country, I can’t stand losing.”
Just how good is Mayfield at Halo 3? Ask him. He’ll tell you.
“One-on-one, I don’t think there’s anybody on campus who can beat me,” he says. “I’m gonna put that out there.”
Keep in mind, more than 25,000 students are enrolled on the OU campus. Surely he can’t be serious.
Start researching, though, and it doesn’t take long to realize he might not just be talking the talk.
“I’ve seen him play a lot of video games,” says Uhles, who has lived with Mayfield for more than a year. “And one-on-one, I don’t think I’ve ever seen him lose in Halo.
“He is very confident in his playing ability. He always challenges random people he meets. He’s an outgoing guy, so he’s always letting people know he’s good at it and challenging them.”
Ryan Spangler is a senior on the OU men’s basketball team and an avid video game player who is even more familiar with Mayfield’s abilities. What’s his assessment?
“He’s legit,” says Spangler. “That’s the word for it. Legit.
“I used to rule Norman in Halo, at least among all my friends,” continues Spangler. “But then Baker came along and he was the best. So I started to jump on teams with him. We can’t be beat on doubles. We’ve never lost as teammates.”
Asked about Mayfield’s assertion that nobody on campus is good enough to beat him, Spangler starts to answer before the question is even finished.
“There’s definitely not. I’m telling you, he’s really good. He’s really good.”
Spangler remembers a particular encounter with a pair of pretty good — and pretty cocky — opponents in a doubles game with Mayfield after he first arrived in Norman following his transfer from Texas Tech at the beginning of the 2014 spring semester. Because Mayfield had just gotten a new Xbox console, the personal ranking emblems doled out by the game listed the two Sooners as beginners. The opposing players talked trash before the action began, only to quickly discover something was evidently awry with the player-rating system.
“Baker was at his apartment and I was at mine,” says Spangler, “and we were both on our headsets. You can’t hear your opponents when the game starts, just before it begins and after it ends. So once it starts he tells me to just hide out and let him go one-on-two against them. He dominated them and we won pretty easily. They hopped off pretty quickly afterward.”
Spangler is one of several OU student-athletes Mayfield plays with when he’s not teaming up with strangers from around the world. They include football teammates Grant Bothun, Ty Darlington, Matt Dimon and Connor and Trevor Knight, as well as basketball players C.J. Cole and Daniel Harper.
Darlington, the guy who snaps the football to Mayfield every Saturday, explains Mayfield’s video game prowess and demeanor probably as well as anyone.
"I feel like I'm a pretty solid Halo player,” begins Darlington. “Not great, but maybe slightly above average. I enjoy playing the game. Baker takes it way more seriously than I do. He's got like code words and calls that he uses. It's like we're out on the football field and he's making calls and stuff, like where to go and things like that. And I’ll have no idea what he's talking about.
"He just takes it so seriously. When we’re all playing together, he puts the team on his back and carries all of us, and he gets really upset when we don't do our part. Connor and I are trying to get on his level, but we're not there yet. He's a pretty unforgiving mentor."
Mayfield doesn’t hide the fact he has a very low tolerance for mediocrity among his Halo teammates, even if they are some of the same guys with whom he lines up on the gridiron.
“When I play with them, yes, I try to be on their (Halo) team,” he says. “But it can be very frustrating. They’re not very good, bless their hearts.”
And Darlington says it’s not just Mayfield’s Halo teammates who hear it from him. Opponents are the recipients of his tongue lashings, as well.
"The best part is listening to him talk trash to like 12-year-olds,” says the senior center. “He's great at trash talking. Everyone has a player name and he'll start picking apart their name before the game. Then he’ll tell them they're about to get beat, they stink, they're wasting their time playing against him, just over and over. It's good stuff."
There was a time when Mayfield was one of those pre-teens just getting acquainted with video games and experiencing more L’s than W’s. He and his older brother, Matt, often bonded during backyard games of football and baseball. When they weren’t playing ball, they could usually be found sitting on bean bag chairs in their parents’ study, duking it out on the TV screen with controllers in hand.
“Before Xbox and Halo, it was Nintendo 64,” says Matt Mayfield, who is a 2012 Texas A&M grad living in downtown Austin. “We got into some pretty heated video game battles with Hydro Thunder, James Bond and some of the NCAA Football stuff.”
Then one year Matt got the first Xbox for Christmas, and Halo came with it.
“We both got hooked on that,” he says, “but I continually beat him for so long and I kind of got burned out on it. And that’s when Baker picked it up and became very, very good at it. So it used to be I would thump him pretty bad, but then after a few years he got to where he could beat me.”
It seems Baker only recalls the most recent matchups between the two.
“He hated playing me,” he says. “He wasn’t much of a video game guy. But when he wanted to play I’d already be in there playing. I’d beat him and he’d get so mad, because that was his brother who was five years younger than him.”
Sometimes the clashes turned personal. Matt Mayfield doesn’t recall what precipitated the situation, but one of their game encounters resulted in a physical altercation.
“One of the last times I remember playing video games before he got good at them, we got into a fight,” recalls Matt. “There’s no telling what happened (that led to that), but we got into a wrestling match.”
Eventually Matt graduated from high school and moved to College Station. When he’d visit home, he and Baker would fire up their Xbox. But Matt says by that point, Baker had practiced so much that it wasn’t fun to play him anymore.
“With the competitive streak that both of us have, I decided to just bow out at that point,” says Matt.
Baker did anything except stop playing. He planted himself in front of the 32-inch TV (that now sits in his Norman bedroom) and played Halo for hours upon hours. By the time he reached high school, he was an exceptionally good player.
While his friends were hanging out with each other on Friday and Saturday nights, Mayfield was participating in virtual-world combat half a millennium in the future. He developed a new set of friends communicating via the video game, even though he had never met them.
"A few guys and I got a team together and started playing online matches,” remembers Mayfield. “You set up against four other guys and you compete; play best out of three. It got pretty serious for a while. We would text each other and let each other know when we'd be getting on to play. Two of them from Pennsylvania knew each other and the other one I think was in New Jersey."
Mayfield says he was so consumed with Halo 3 that he did give some thought to what it might be like to pursue a professional gaming career.
“There are people, who, that’s their job,” he explains. “That’s what they do for a living. They get sponsored and have some really serious teams. They travel around to tournaments, bring their own TVs and play on a big stage with announcers and big crowds. It’s called MLG — Major League Gaming.”
But for Mayfield, football — and perhaps logic — won out.
“I wanted to do it, but looking back I’m glad I didn’t. That would have been pretty nerdy. I’m glad I didn’t give anything up for it.”
As successful as he was and evidently still is when it comes to Halo, Mayfield’s other gaming focus has gained him a heavy amount of notoriety. As the starting quarterback his junior and senior seasons at Lake Travis High School, he led his teams to a 25-2 record and won the 2011 Texas 4A State Championship with a 16-0 mark.
He earned the starting job at Texas Tech as a true freshman and, despite missing multiple games with a knee injury, went on to be named the 2013 Big 12 Offensive Freshman of the Year.
After an unexpected transfer to Oklahoma where, again, he initially walked on, Mayfield, now on scholarship, has the Sooners 4-0 heading into Saturday’s game against arch-rival Texas. He has already accounted for 17 touchdowns this season (13 passing, four rushing) to tie the OU record for a player in his first four career games at the school. He ranks second in the nation in points responsible for per game (25.5), fourth in passing touchdowns per game (3.33), sixth in total yards per game (380.0) and eighth in passing yards per outing (345.5).
Add it all up and over his last three-and-a-half seasons he has compiled a 34-4 record as a starter.
Is it possible that some of the skills Mayfield’s acquired as a video game player actually help him on the football field?
“Maybe,” he says. “One of the things that’s important in both Halo and football is multi-tasking. You have to put your thoughts into play quickly without hesitation. It’s all about being able to react quickly.”
Also, a radar appears in the lower left portion of the screen in Halo, telling players where their opponents are in relation to them.
“That’s the other thing I could relate to football, is being able to look at my receivers, which would be my guy on the screen, and then feel other guys moving around, which would be the radar in the bottom left corner. You have to be able to see things out of the corner of your eye.”
Asked if he’s more competitive playing Halo or football, Mayfield says there was a time early in his high school days that he would have picked Halo. But that’s certainly not the case anymore.
“I love playing football,” he says. “There’s nothing like going out there for an actual game on game day.”
Especially when that game is in Cotton Bowl Stadium, and you’re quarterbacking your childhood-favorite Oklahoma Sooners against your hometown Longhorns.
Games like Halo 3 are played at extremely competitive levels. There are even professional leagues, complete with televised matches. The video above is from the Major League Gaming Columbus championship match in 2010. The purse for the competition was $56,000, a relatively small amount in the e-sports world.