Special Olympics athletes build connections, form community through esports

The popularity of esports, here being played by the ASU League of Legends team, is growing rapidly. Among those competing are unified esports teams, thanks to Special Olympics Arizona and the Arizona Interscholastic Association. (Photo courtesy of ASU League of Legends/Twitter)
The popularity of esports, here being played by the ASU League of Legends team, is growing rapidly. Among those competing are unified esports teams, thanks to Special Olympics Arizona and the Arizona Interscholastic Association. (Photo courtesy of ASU League of Legends/Twitter)
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WADDELL, Ariz. – Nicholas Watson, 17, has spent the past eight years fine-tuning his esports skills and playing his favorite sports-focused games, including Madden.

Now, thanks to Special Olympics Arizona and the Arizona Interscholastic Association, Watson plays Rocket League on Phoenix Canyon View High School’s unified esports team, which started its spring season earlier in March.

Unified esports is the equivalent of a high school varsity team with regular season and postseason qualifiers, and athletes are eligible to play at the same state championships as any other high school team. The difference is that unified teams are made up of students with and without intellectual disabilities who come together to create a community of acceptance.

For Watson, the team is creating community, and he’s also learning to play new games like Rocket League, a game that combines cars and soccer.

“Nicholas has so much fun that he just starts to belly laugh,” said Watson’s coach, Nick Swanson. “Like it’s just this contagious laugh when he scores a goal, and he can’t even help himself.”

A 10-year partnership between Special Olympics Arizona and the AIA allowed unified esports to get up and running. In the fall of 2019, the AIA launched esports teams at high schools across the state, and that led them to give Special Olympics Arizona the idea to create unified esports teams.

“They were actually the ones that kind of put a bug in our ear back in March 2020 right before the pandemic hit,” said Katie DeVenuto, the AIA unified sports coordinator for Special Olympics Arizona. “‘Hey, you guys should really look at esports’, and we got shut down, and that was the first thing that I sort of took over as a first project during the pandemic.”

With the AIA’s help, a pilot season launched last fall with seven schools. DeVenuto said it became very apparent that esports would be the crucial bridge that Special Olympics Arizona needed to engage every athlete.

“We’re starting to recognize that not every athlete that we serve enjoys a traditional sport in the sense of a physical traditional sport like basketball or softball,” DeVenuto said. “There are a lot of athletes that love video games, and so this is another avenue to engage those athletes and to give them an opportunity to compete and make new friendships.”

Unified coaches are also looking to reach more athletes. Travis Haley, the unified coach for the Buckeye Union High School District, sees esports as an important outlet for athletes.

“Esports lets the kid who doesn’t want to go outside and play any physical activities have an opportunity to shine and even defeat some of his peers who do like those physical sports,” Haley said. “Really, I think it levels the playing field for all of our kids, whether your special education or not.”

Another big advantage for esports is that it lends itself to a virtual format because it’s already a virtual platform. That’s made it easier for athletes to still play games and connect with their friends and coaches, even when the pandemic forced them to isolate at home.

“When we are in this pandemic setting, our athletes are even more isolated, especially when they’re not able to go onto campus and see their friends or their teachers or mentors or their coaches, the people that they look up to,” DeVenuto said. “Being able to have something like esports helps us prevent that isolation, a little bit.”

Haley said that esports brings a lot of joy to more than just the athletes. Partners, students without intellectual disabilities, love being able to meet and hang out with the athletes – they all end up close friends. It also brings a lot of joy to coaches who have met students through unified esports that they might not have heard of otherwise.

“I like that we’re reaching kids we wouldn’t have reached before,” Haley said. “We’ve been doing unified sports the last eight years. It just keeps opening up doors for stuff for our students to do.”

Unified esports will be around long after the COVID-19 pandemic ends. Athletes, partners and coaches will continue to grow a program that means more than just a few esports games.

“It’s equally gratifying for everyone involved,” Haley said. “The Special Olympics athletes get embraced like they don’t have anything that would be considered a disability, and the partners get embraced for being humans. I think that’s something we don’t, as a culture, embrace being human a lot.”

For more stories from Cronkite News, visit cronkitenews.azpbs.org.

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