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The Blind Masters of Fighting Games

Silence is not something found in abundance at fighting game tournaments. Hype is the currency the fighting game community trades in, and skilled play is a press that mints hype.

In Cologne, Germany last October, Red Bull held a team tournament for “Street Fighter V” called the Pit. Like most tournaments, the atmosphere was electrifying. When Team ECV, including Sven Van de Wege, took the stage, a hush fell over the crowd and suddenly the atmosphere resembled that of a golf tournament more than a fighting game tournament.

The crowd went silent because the announcer had prompted them to do so out of respect for Van de Wege, who is blind and plays using only audio cues.

He lost, but the crowd nonetheless erupted like a volcano for him.

“I lost my match against an Akuma player, but I got such a big applause that it felt like I won the tournament,” he later told Variety.

Van de Wege was diagnosed with cancer at the age of 6. A tumor in his brain destroyed his ocular nerves and robbed him of his sight.

Before losing his vision, Van de Wege played games often. The thought of no longer being able to indulge in his hobby terrified him, but his fears were assuaged when he visited a friend who owned “Street Fighter 2” for the Super Nintendo. At first he listened intently to the sounds the game made as his friend played, and slowly it dawned on him that he might be able to learn to play through audio alone. He discovered that every punch, every kick, and every special move performed by the cast made a unique noise. An attack being blocked sounded different from an attack that connected. Van de Wege knew he could take advantage of this to learn the game inside and out, and that set him on his journey to becoming the talented fighting game player he is today.

During his first tournament at Sonic Boom 4 in Spain in 2017, Sven played an Akuma named Musashi who he beat soundly. He played a measured game, and were it not for the commentators’ awe it would be impossible to tell that one was watching a sighted player get trounced by a blind player.

“I’m sorry for the guy who lost against me, but it was really nice,” he said.

Some tricks that Van de Wege uses, which sighted players might take for granted, he learned when he picked up games such as “Mortal Kombat 2” and “Killer Instinct.” In “Mortal Kombat,” when one character is a single hit away from losing the round, an audio chime plays and Shao Khan can be heard laughing in the background. In both “Mortal Kombat” and “Killer Instinct,” the game’s music also swells and becomes more dramatic once a player’s health dips below a certain threshold.

Most clever of all is how he takes advantage of his in-depth knowledge of his character to ascertain how far away his opponent is. Because he knows how fast Ken’s signature hadouken travels across the screen, he is able to almost echolocate his opponent based on how long it takes him to hear the blocking sound effect. The longer it takes, the further away the opponent is.

Mike Wassel, who goes by the handle BlindNDangerous, also shared some accessibility insights with Variety.

Wassel was born three months premature and had to be put in an incubator. While in the incubator, too much oxygen was administered which caused his retinas to detach. While some of his sight was preserved, he only retained the ability to perceive bright light in his left eye, and his right eye was left with only 20/800 vision. What that means is what a sighted person can see clearly at 800 feet, Wassel needs to be 20 feet from in order to see.

When he was a kid his family was given a computer which came with “Dig Dug” installed on it, which  he learned to both launch and play through immense trial and error. Today, Wassel uses a screen reader – a device which converts onscreen text into synthesized speech – and a litany of keyboard shortcuts to make life a little bit easier.

His tribulation and perseverance led him to discover other games which, today, include “Mortal Kombat X,” “Injustice 2,” and “Killer Instinct.”

One way he was able to get started with these games was through the use of guides for the blind on navigating the menus and the necessary inputs to get into training mode or an online match. He spoke of one service called Aira which connects a blind person with a sighted person for assistance with a variety of tasks, including writing up menu guides so that blind gamers can pursue their hobbies with the least amount of difficulty possible.

Most modern fighting games, Wassel notes, use a stereo audio field which makes figuring out where each player is on screen rather simple. NetherRealm Studios fighting games, including “Injustice,” also have several unique accessibility functions. For instance, a quiet tone plays when you fill one bar of super meter in Injustice. Other tones of various pitches are used to indicate when you or your opponent are within range to use an interactive environmental object on the various stages.

Ross Minor, a Paralympic swimmer and fighting game expert, is another individual who found solace in the accessibility of the genre.

Minor spoke candidly with Variety about how he lost his sight. When he was 8-years-old his parents got into a heated argument over their impending divorce. Tragedy ensued as his father barreled into Minor’s room and shot him in the head. His father then entered his brother’s room and did the same to him before committing suicide. His brother died later that evening at the hospital. Minor was left with no vision in his right eye. His left eye had to be removed. Additionally, he lost his sense of smell.

Despite this tragic act of violence, Minor persevered. He did not want to lose something that brought him joy, and he certainly did not want to miss out on what every kid was into at the time: “Pokemon.”

“When I was a kid I just wanted to fit in with everyone else. So I made it work,” he said. Without sighted assistance, Minor has beaten every “Pokemon” game to date.

When he was 13 he found a website, audiogames.net, and from there he learned that fighting games were considered highly accessible. Mark Barlet, founder of The AbleGamers Charity, echoed that sentiment in a statement to Variety.

“Fighting games by their very nature are very blind accessible, and when I first saw a match that had a blind player, I was in tears.”

Minor bought an Xbox 360 just to play “Mortal Kombat 9.” It was his first fighting game, and by his own admission he felt out of his depth, but stuck with it. If you take a gander over at his Youtube channel nowadays you can see him regularly destroying online opponents in more recent NRS titles.

Of course, learning to play these games was an arduous task. Despite all of the inputs for combo strings and special moves along with their accompanying frame data — how punishable or safe moves are on hit or on block, and how long the animations take to wind-up — screen readers cannot easily deduce and vocalize this information. Through trial and error, though, and the help of guides written up on community sites such as Test Your Might, Minor was able to overcome his initial hurdles and hone his skills.

In his profile on Test Your Might, Carlos Vasquez, who posts as Rattlehead, jokes that he is the “real life Kenshi of the MK community.” Vasquez is one such player who has helped Minor and other blind members of the fighting game community step their games up.

Born blind due to cataracts in both eyes, Vasquez recovered some vision when the cataracts were surgically removed at 7-months-old. However, years later glaucoma set in and gradually took away his sight once more.  

“I had to learn new ways to adapt to my daily living and growing up in public schools. At first, it was scary as the time passed and I was losing my sight more and more. I struggled with depression. As the years passed and I was exposed to new adaptive ways of living, I began to accept my situation. Rather than focusing on the losses, I started learning to be like any other person around me,” he told Variety. “After it was announced to me that there was no cure for my sight, I struggled with the news for several months. However, I made a promise to my family that I would not be limited because of my blindness. I was 11 years-of-age at the time. I decided to learn everything that would assist me in becoming as independent as possible.”

Like others, gaming was a hobby for him that, with the loss of his sight, was put in jeopardy. But he attended his local arcades whenever possible and had a fondness for “Mortal Kombat.”

“I really got into it when I realized that I could pull off everything that a sighted player was able to do. This motivated me tremendously. Throughout the later years, I just played at a casual level, but really enjoying and looking forward to a new installment of ‘Mortal Kombat.’”

When “Mortal Kombat 9” was revealed, it became apparent that NRS wanted the game to be a part of the wider tournament scene. Before that, Vasquez says, he had no idea that people gathered together to watch and compete in fighting games. Witnessing his first tournament and the level of play opened a door for him into a world of skill he couldn’t have previously imagined.

“I thought I was pretty good at the game, but that really opened my eyes. No pun intended,” he said.

He dug deeper into frame data for “Mortal Kombat,” learned more complex and situational combos, voraciously studied character matchups, and attended local tournaments. In the fighting game community, iron sharpens iron and nobody hesitated to play with him, to teach him, and to practice with him.

“They were impressed at first, but all they wanted to do was to play and compete.”

In 2013 Vasquez attended his first major tournament: Evolution 2013. He made his tournament debut on the most prestigious stage known to fighting games and performed admirably. In his pool, he made it to the finals of the winners bracket, but jitters set in and he was dominated on stream by Crazy DJT, who would go on to win the “Mortal Kombat 9” tournament at Evo that year. Shaken, but slowly regaining composure, he faced another veteran of the NRS fighting game scene, Tyrant. Vasquez was eliminated in that match, but says that he felt much better about his performance in that match than in his loss to Crazy DJT.

During his time at Evo he was approached by a designer from NRS named Hector Sanchez. They had a lengthy conversation about accessibility. One potential feature they discussed was adding sound cues to detect when a player approached interactable objects in “Injustice.” To Vasquez’s surprise, this feature was later added to “Injustice.”

With additions such as this, fighting games are only becoming more accessible over time. Players like and Minor hope that navigating menus via audio cues will soon become easier as well, but for now blind players are finding ways to thrive both online and in person at tournaments.

Lurking beneath the surface of just mashing buttons and slugging it out online, there exists a fathomless ocean of depth to explore in fighting games. They require a confluence of skills to master. They test your composure, your manual dexterity, and your intuition. What Van de Wege, Wassel, Minor, Vasquez, and myriad more prove is that sight is not a strict necessity to compete.

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