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Xbox and the Special Olympics are leading an esports ‘inclusion revolution’

The Gaming for Inclusion event is hosting its second annual tournament on September 10 and 17 in collaboration between Xbox and Special Olympics. The goal of Gaming for Inclusion is the result of multiple years of collaboration between Microsoft and the Special Olympics that dates back to 2018. The two have partnered to create numerous events, but when COVID forced so many Special Olympic events to be cancelled, a new, greater need for virtual ways for people to connect was needed.

I spoke with Special Olympics CTO Prianka Nandy and last year’s Rocket League champion Billy Seide to learn about the initiative that’s looking to expand the reach of esports to all players.

Widening esports

For Nandy, the event was a new way to bring the mission of Special Olympics to the public, especially for youth, in a new and exciting way. Aside from giving those with learning disabilities a platform to compete, connect, and learn, it also aims to break down boundaries by hosting Unified brackets where one Special Olympics athlete and one celebrity, such as a WWE wrestler or social media influencer, team up to compete together.

Seide, last year’s winner, had years of experience in competing with the Special Olympics but was fairly new to competitive gaming at the time. “I’ve been with Special Olympics since 1999 (softball basketball, bowling, floor hockey, volleyball, pentathlon — which is five events),” Seide tells Digital Trends. “I am the chairman of the active leadership Council for Special Olympics. Got into competitive gaming in 2020 … when Special Olympics New York first introduced it. And, in 2020, I just said, ‘All right, might as well go for it.'”

Three shoutcasters on couches.

Billy is a noted WWE fan and was able to team up with former superstar Ember Moon (now Athena in AEW) in last year’s competition. He practiced just by playing with friends and watching YouTube videos but admits he can’t do some of the more advanced techniques due to playing on PS4. He wasn’t sure how he’d do in the first tournament because it was his first time, but he won the Unified league where he was partnered with Moon. For Seide, the tournament was more about having fun and meeting people than winning.

Seide loves the connections this event opened up to him and encourages others to participate, saying, “You’ll meet some new friends. I mean, I met friends from Illinois last year. … It goes all around the world, so you meet new friends.”

Inclusion revolution

This year, Nandy and the team have focused the event on just one game, Rocket League, which was a favorite among the participants. However, the event is growing in terms of opportunities for more leadership roles. For example, this year, all the shoutcasters will be Special Olympics members who will get special training from Xbox.

Evolution and change have been necessary for the event, especially over the last few years. After the Covid-19 pandemic forced the organization to cancel so many of its in-person events, turning to a virtual event was needed. However, Special Olympics and Microsoft turned that limitation into a new opportunity that has set the initiative up for future success.

“Covid-19 and the suspension hundreds of thousands of annual in-person events worldwide meant Special Olympics had to pivot to supporting virtual experiences,” Nandy explained in an Xbox Wire post last month. “Our digital transformation partners at Microsoft brought their expertise in developing scalable and accessible digital platforms that allow people of all abilities to build connections with others through the universal language of gaming. Together, we’ve shaped an innovative program that will last well beyond the pandemic.”

Both Seide and Nandy have high hopes that the Gaming for Inclusion event can grow in the future. Seide wants to see more games included — such as MLB titles, Madden, and NHL Hockey — and they both hope that more local chapters of Special Olympics will start hosting more events virtually and in person. At the moment, they are focusing on scaling up to host multiple events, increase their streaming presence, and get more attention and participation. It’s all part of what Nandy terms “the Inclusion Revolution.”

A banner ad for a Gamers Unite event.

As far as this year is concerned, Billy seems confident in his chances to win once again. “I would like to defend my title. I mean, right now, I’ve been practicing as much as I can cause I’m working at a supermarket — I’m doing that — I’m the chairman of the Athlete Leadership Council for Special Olympics New York, so I’m working with the local and the state to go over meetings and agendas, and I’ve been practicing softball. … I’m trying to do all that, so I would like to defend my title, but anything’s possible.”

The second Gaming for Inclusion event will kick off on Saturday, September 10 with the main bracket, followed by the Unified league with celebrity guests the following weekend on September 17. Everyone is encouraged to tune in to watch live on Twitch to support these athletes and help bring more awareness to a growing demand for inclusivity in gaming.

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