Brian Peddie has long been a fan of fighting games, but the rapid button presses common with the genre can be difficult for him to perform. With his disability, Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, he experiences intense strain on his fingers and knuckles when trying to pull off specific movements and combos. These difficulties have helped him develop a greater understanding for players who require accommodations, leading him to eventually build an online community where professional players and beginners gather to compete, mentor one another, and are welcomed regardless of their disability.
The Fighting Game Community (FGC) is a strange amalgamation of varying groups that unite over their love of beating each other senseless with fictional characters. From professional tournaments to collegiate competitions, players enjoy determining who can come out on top through the execution of flashy combos. Peddie notes that the creation of his group did not originate with the intention of establishing a space exclusively for disabled players. Rather, the predetermined rules for access set a precedence for inclusion. Rules like not being a bigot, respecting the play styles of each member, and providing alt text or transcripts of videos lets everyone feel welcomed.
“Understanding that your way to play the game isn’t the only way, and respecting other approaches is both generally good for community attitudes, but also creates room for disabled players who don’t have full access to a game to play their own way, with no expectation that they’ll work on some additional input or strategy that might be physically painful or impossible,” Peddie says.
With the rise and acceptance of accessibility features in games, disabled players are finding more ways to compete alongside their able-bodied peers. While larger tournaments, organizers, and events still struggle to establish inclusive environments for disabled players, the options found in-game, along with on-screen information, and third-party modifications, makes fighting games accessible for numerous disabilities. Aside from the technical aspects, the communal and social natures of the genre provide opportunities for friendly exhibition tournaments that can foster a deeper understanding of game mechanics, as well as enable disabled players to feel welcome in a traditionally able-bodied space.
Beyond the features and tech, Peddie actively works to increase accessibility when streaming his community’s matches on Twitch. For deaf and hard of hearing players, he uses two forms of auto-captions, yet acknowledges they often struggle to capture everything correctly.
“It’s worth noting that auto captions are far from perfect, especially when considering the amount of FGC jargon that tends to appear on commentary,” he says. For blind and low vision players, he ensures that in-game music is turned off to reduce background noise, as well as choosing stages that lack background audio, and even prevents mirror matches, thus limiting audio confusion between competitors. While there are missteps in his efforts to be more inclusive, Peddie is always willing to learn and better himself for the benefit of his community.
“Many disabled players are used to having their concerns brushed aside, or hearing, ‘Yeah, I’ll look into that,’ with no actual action taken,” he says. “Showing that I’m willing to schedule a time to specifically check the stream setup after trying to implement a solution, actively advertising what works for our community, and generally being considerate of barriers beyond my own has gone a long way toward making our streams more accessible.”
Morgan Baker, a former Super Smash Bros. Melee (SSBM) competitor who now works as an accessibility lead and game designer at indie studio The Odd Gentlemen, echoes Peddie’s sentiments regarding inclusivity. She is profoundly deaf, and notes that the SSBM community generally respects and accommodates her disability, especially at tournaments.“I think eventually I made a reputation, since people I never even met would come up to me with their questions pre-typed on their phone. Honestly, I really appreciated it and it made me feel more comfortable in the community as a deaf woman.”
While no longer a competitor due to progressive arthritis, Baker remains in the scene as a tournament organizer. Within smaller events, she finds the Smash community to be relatively inclusive. However, larger tournaments and even tournaments for different games can generate accessibility and inclusivity concerns, particularly surrounding different equipment.
“Organizers won’t budge and be flexible about hardware-related accessibility, since if they do, there is a general fear that it’ll discredit that tournament,” she says. “For some fighting games, specific controllers are not tournament legal. It’s less of a specific organization issue, and more of an entire community problem. People are afraid that using alternative controls or special software will give disabled gamers an inherent advantage in the competitive fight game.”
Even though Baker understands and occasionally sympathizes with this belief, she ultimately argues that these ideals should be challenged, especially to create welcoming environments for disabled players.
“Is it really that important to use a traditional controller over a hitbox controller?” she says. “Is it really that important to make inputs in the exact same way? Are controllers that fundamental to a game? It’s important to question these things, especially from the lens of accessibility and inclusivity. More so, it’s healthy to challenge our perspectives, because for many games, as developers have shown, the answer is likely to be no.”
These questions and their subsequent solutions can lead to an increased presence of disabled players at both local and professional tournaments. Competitors like Emily “TokiMeki” Serrato and Mike “BrolyLegs” Begum have represented the disabled community at events like the Evolution Championship Series (EVO) or DreamHack. Both Serrato and Begum note that those within the FGC are kind and accommodating toward their specific accessibility needs.
“Never once did I feel alienated by my appearance,” Begum says. “Never once did I receive preferential treatment because I have a disadvantage. What the community looks at is your ability in-game. They recognized my talent despite my disability and only judge me off that. If I win, I am cheered. If I lose, I am congratulated on trying, and that is how it should be.”
However, Serrato acknowledges the FGC still has work to do, namely with exposure and sponsorships for disabled players. “Esports isn’t inclusive of disabled people. I say this because many talented disabled content creators/competitors are not signed to teams or highlighted in major events like CEO, EVO, Combo Breaker, etc.” Until these parameters are met, inclusivity is never truly achievable. Yet, as Peddie mentions, accessibility and inclusivity should always be at the forefront when creating and hosting events. By showing disabled people they are welcome, more are bound to join.
“A lack of disabled players in your game or community isn’t because they don’t exist, it’s because your game or community was created without them in mind,” Peddie says. “As soon as it was clear our community would actively change expectations and work to provide access, more and more disabled players showed up. We didn’t go out looking — we just made a space with disability in mind from the start.”