This article comes towards the end of a stream of others discussing the best digital platforms of 2020, and though I don’t wish to contribute to the deluge of rankings, Minecraft unquestionably has a place in the list. With its player base and viewership reaching record heights, content creators like YouTuber and streamer Dream finding massive success, and Minecraft’s use as a stage for notorious musicians makes its highest-selling-game status seem almost... cheap.

Minecraft eclipses game. It’s now simply another place to go.

Aside from Minecraft being a content and revenue machine, its prevalence last year had roots in a more simple and pure, and childlike obsession with construction that only it truly possesses. Minecraft’s ideal strikes at the core of what it means to be inside, desperately searching for outside’s replacement.

I think this spirit is perfectly embodied by the story of a small, colorful room in the center of the collegiate Minecraft universe, its walls lined with portals leading to the sprawling campuses and structures built by college students across Minecraft’s empty planes.

IML Hub
IML Hub

Labelled the IML Hub, it stood as a sort of symbol for the early COVID fervor of students reconstructing their campuses, growing communities around the replicas of their former homes.

In short, it provided the launch pad to a solar system of college Minecraft planets.

The Hub was a project of the Intercollegiate Minecraft League (IML), a United Nations-esque organization born to unify the burgeoning landscape of college Minecraft communities under their IML banner. Most of their existence has been on Discord where they’ve hosted a few events, like a fireworks show on July 4, and have acted as a directory and bulletin board for the host of colleges present in the server.

IML University Directory
IML University Directory

The Hub was a continuation of their core mission, and brought together the individual Minecraft servers of USC, University of Washington (UW), UC Berkeley (Blockeley) and Berklee College of Music. While this article dwells on a romantic image of the Hub, the system spawned out of Blockeley inviting UW to share a server to reduce costs.

“It was originally going to just be us, but it was kind of expensive to pay half that price, and we didn’t need all of what we were going to pay for. That’s why I reached out to USC and some other schools to pitch sharing servers so we could split the prices up,” according to Mura, a senior UW student and leader of their Minecraft server.

The result was a series of Discord group chats delightfully titled “[University Name] Move In Day”, according to sophomore Rohit Mittal of Blockeley, where participating colleges were folded into Blockeley’s network. USC was the last server to join on September 9.

Together, USC, UW, Blockeley and Berklee had easy transit between each other’s worlds.

Mittal did most of the maintenance of the network through a Minecraft plugin called Bungee. It allows for easy teleportation between worlds, generally used to better organize the different worlds a server may operate. When joining USC’s server for instance, a player spawns in an area surrounded by art galleries and parkour courses, but can walk to campus a few chunks (distance measurement in Minecraft) away, all in the same world.

If players wish to play in the Survival game mode — gathering resources and building their houses — they’d teleport to the Survival world. If they wanted to play mini-games, they’d teleport to the mini-game world. Essentially, if a singular Minecraft world is a planet, a Bungee server is a planet with moons.

And to restate the running metaphor, USC’s server is a planet to IML’s solar system of university planets and their respective moons.

While the Hub started out as a means to reduce costs, Mura mentioned the benefits of an interconnected system, saying it could “liven up the player base and make the servers more active.”

Brian Herron, staff of the USC Minecraft server didn’t notice any huge increase in the day to day activity, but said that every so often “People would come over to look around.”

Showing people around the place you’ve built is one of the more satisfying Minecraft traditions. It’s sort of like re-discovering the work you’ve put into making the place House Hunters (in this case campus hunters) ready. Coupled with the ability to visit each school’s campus, the IML Hub could have been a dream come true for admissions staff and high school students doing their summer college tours.

It was also fun for some alumni.

“I’ve been to Berkeley’s campus in person and my dad is an alum, so I remember when we merged and I found out that they had their own server, which I explored with my dad,” said Devin Rosenthal, a USC junior and staff member of the Minecraft server.

With the easy travel came the removal of all privacy. Hitting the tab key in any school’s world would bring up a list of every player on at the time across all servers. Of course, this sparked a bit of competition as to who had more players on their respective server.

Screenshot of friendly competition over player-base from the IML Discord server.
Screenshot of friendly competition over player-base from the IML Discord server.

The competition was felt mostly with UW it seemed, “they would always have people on but when we would have more members than them we would brag,” said Herron.

Rosenthal agreed with the sentiment, also saying, “I remember that the other schools (UW and Blockeley especially) always had a lot more players than we did.”

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The competition wasn’t felt by all, however.

“Blockeley to be honest didn’t really care much. UW seemed to be more obsessed with the competition and we just played along with it,” according to Elliot Choi from Blockeley.

Regardless, it was still enjoyable to check out the other servers, and “whenever we had events on each other’s servers, we would go and support,” Herron said.

Halloween especially was a spectacular time for all the servers, each hosting some kind of event that turned their campus into a spooky hell-scape.

USC Alumni Park fountain filled with lava.
USC Alumni Park fountain filled with lava.
Blockeley halloween-ified.
Blockeley halloween-ified.
University of Washington's trees on fire.
University of Washington's trees on fire.

I remember visiting the UW server while they were setting up their event, checking out their decked out server crawling with zombies, when I was ushered to one of their satellite servers (an aforementioned moon) as a guinea pig to test for bugs. I spawned in space, facing an expanse of tiny white particles dancing against a myriad of planets attempting to be spheres. Planets of martian red rock, planets of gold, dirt and grass, planets of wool of differing hues and others mimicking those found in an Adventure Time episode.

University of Washington's planet world
University of Washington's planet world
Planet with the internal design of an Adventure Time episode.
Planet with the internal design of an Adventure Time episode.

Some UW players — at this point seeming like extraterrestrial deities — summoned me to determine if the planets were accessible for lower life forms like me, a wandering player from another galaxy. I was told to jump on the head of a player by the name of Narumitsu who flew us around, darting from planet to planet, asking me if I could open the doors people had built in their Tin-Tin planet look-alikes. I tried, but the doors immediately shut in my face. Narumitsu would go quiet, their avatar standing catatonic for a few seconds until their player’s head would twitch, and they would type “how about now?” in chat, followed by an AARRGH when it still didn’t work. As a reward for my assistance, I was offered a planet of my own, but the hour was growing late, and I was being summoned back to a homework-ridden reality.

The system continued with everyone paying their rent from September 9 until Blockeley decided to opt out of the Bungeed server, ending it on October 31.

“We realized that it was much cheaper to buy a server that only had the resources we needed and host on our own,” said Onnowhere, who prefers to go by his alias, and is part of Blockeley’s staff.

“In hindsight we don’t think it was worth it because our backend guy [Mittal] had to quadruple the work he had to do because now he was managing the routing/firewalls/configs for 4 servers now,” he said.

The Bungee’s unhooking marked the heat death of the first iteration of the university Minecraft solar system. Mura enjoyed the project, saying “I would have kept it going. I kind of liked it, having the chance to go between the servers.”

Herron agreed, saying “YES, OF course it was a good idea.”

Marc “Oidoldol” Yu, the leader of Berklee’s server appreciated the time in the server, and the greater IML community. “Besides being a great opportunity for my school to get involved with other colleges, IML has allowed me to make friends that I know I’ll be keeping in touch with for awhile, including a few that I play Minecraft with very often.”

The opportunity remains to revive the system, though Choi doesn’t think Blockeley would pursue it in its original context. Mura mentioned that, “we do have the choice to do it again under the current [server] hosts that UW is under.”

Choi still has reservations about reconnecting, citing potential issues with the amount of coordination to make the system work the same across all servers with Minecraft’s frequent updates, though Herron maintains that it’s possible to make work with plugins.

Regardless, the IML Hub now lays at rest, but their Discord server quietly lives on — a grand, two dimensional solar system in its own right, and a bastion of some of the pandemic era’s most ambitious digital construction.