“I believe that you shouldn’t pick a nickname yourself — people should give you a nickname,” Dutch Street Fighter V player Sven van de Wege told me recently. When Sven entered his first tournament in Madrid last April, his screen name, which many players use to show off wild pseudonyms, was simply “Sven.”
Sven defeated an opponent named Musashi easily, 2-0, but didn’t make it to the bracket rounds. This would have been a respectable but unimpressive showing at a tournament, if it weren’t for one detail: Sven is blind, and plays by ear.
Most of Sven’s online opponents — especially those who lose to him — don’t even know he’s blind. His Street Fighter V rating on PlayStation Network vacillates between Gold and Ultra Silver, the fourth- and fifth-highest ranks, on a scale of eleven. As you might imagine, getting there took some work.
“There are so many different sounds in most games. You have to discover what each sound means,” Sven told me. “It’s like learning a language. In the beginning, you’re translating every word that you hear to your own language. But after a while, you can do it in real time. When somebody’s shooting a fireball at me, I don’t think, ‘Oh, what was that sound?’ I react automatically.”
Sven plays Street Fighter with headphones, and the big-budget, highly detailed sound effects provide all the information he needs. Between the time his main character, Ken, fires off a hadouken and the time he hears its impact, he can calculate the distance to his opponent. Adaptations like this, and the precision honed through experience, let him play with the same tools other players use. But many gamers with disabilities need special equipment, which can be expensive.
AbleGamers is a West Virginia-based charity that helps develop and supply such hardware. The charity was founded by Mark Barlet after one of his EverQuest guildmates had to skip a raid because her multiple sclerosis symptoms were getting in the way. When Barlet couldn’t find a gear-based solution for her, he started the charity. With help from their manufacturing partner, Evil Controllers, AbleGamers offers grants for equipment like the Adroit Switchblade, a $400 box that maps every Xbox button and stick function to any device that uses a standard 3.5mm plug for output. There are PS4 controllers that work with just one hand, and the QuadStick, an FPS controller meant for your mouth. As an avid gamer, I found the knowledge that there are people out there making tools that would let me keep playing if I ever acquired a disability surprisingly moving.
But many tournament-level gamers with disabilities just use stock gear. Perhaps the most famous is Mike Begum, based in Texas, who goes by the handle “BrolyLegs,” or “Broly” for short. He was born with arthrogryposis, a congenital condition that severely limits the function of his limbs. So Broly plays Street Fighter with his face. He lies prone, propping a standard Xbox controller against his chin, working the stick and buttons with his cheek and mouth. In YouTube videos of Broly at tournaments, a crowd surrounds him, jubilantly cheering him on. But it wasn’t always like this.
“No one told me I couldn’t do it, but I could see it in their eyes,” Broly said of his first tournaments. “‘What are you doing here? Is this a joke?’ I wanted to prove them wrong. I didn’t want to be a joke. I didn’t want to be a stunt or just a feel-good story. I wanted to do well. I watched the videos, and I practiced at home, and I played against people, and I put in the work.” Now he regularly places in tournaments around the world, has thousands of followers on Twitch, and is a celebrity on the competitive Street Fighter circuit.
“The game doesn’t really cater to me,” Broly said. He can’t hit every button that most players can. So he plays as Chun-Li, the character that works best with those limitations, with a control scheme to match. “Light punch and light kick at the same time is a throw. I have a light punch button, but I don’t have a light kick button,” Broly told me. But one of his buttons is mapped to a “three kicks” action. “Since the ‘three kicks’ has a light kick in it, if I push punch and ‘three kicks’ at the same time I will get a throw. That’s the kind of improvisation that I have to do.”
Broly has been one of the best Street Fighter players for years now, but word of up-and-coming challengers travels fast. “I’ve seen Sven,” Broly told me. “It really got me remembering when I first started on Street Fighter. People were like, this is amazing, this is crazy, how is he doing it? But I didn’t do it for the praise. It was for me, my validation, the knowledge that I could compete with anyone in the world.”
Thousands of miles away from Broly but intimately connected to him by the Street Fighter network, Sven is still known as “Sven” on PSN — he hasn’t been able to change his account name. But in person, he’s started using the nickname people spontaneously gave him at his first tournament: Blind Warrior.
Tony Carnevale is a senior writer for Studio@Gizmodo.