This article originally appeared on Motherboard Netherlands.
Sven van Wege, known online as @BlindwarriorSven, went blind at age six.
Still, he’s been playing Street Fighter V at a professional level for the past year. He’s already won games at tournaments in Spain, Italy, and Germany. Though he hasn’t made it past the group phase in any of them, his level of playing is comparable to that of a gamer who can see.
Sven has a big dream: He wants to make a living playing games. To compete in new tournaments, he’s started a crowdfunding campaign. In three months time, he raised almost 440€. It’s enough for a few plane tickets, but not enough for this weekend’s biggest tournament for fighter games: EVO 2017, where 2,600 people will compete and the winner will take home $50,000.
“Plane tickets are 1,000€ now,” Mariam, Sven’s girlfriend, calls out from the kitchen. Sven is playing in his chair, his headphones halfway on. He’s busy beating me up on the screen, while patiently explaining how exactly he does it.
After a few tatsus, he says: “I paid the registration fee last week. My name is already in the brackets.”
“So now you have to go?,” I ask.
“Yes,” he says.
The three tournaments he’s competed in helped to raise his name recognition, which resulted in the organization ECV, which supports people who play online sports, offering to help with his crowdfunding. By playing a lot on Twitch, he hoped to make enough money in the last week of his campaign to make it to EVO. He told me at the time that the chances of that happening were “50-50.”
Before I started writing this piece, I had already decided I wasn’t going to write much about Sven’s blindness. He’s blind and I can see, but I wouldn’t make a big deal about it. “Blind people want to play the same games as ordinary souls,” he’d told me in an email. My mission was to show that blind people can game, just like people who can see do.
But then I met Sven at the tram stop, where he picked me up together with Miriam, who is also blind. Instantly, I realized that nothing in this world is designed for blind people. Games aren’t. Trams aren’t. Computers aren’t. Sidewalks aren’t. Nothing is. Every little thing becomes an obstacle to overcome.
Sven sent me perfect emails without any errors; he keeps track of brackets on tournament websites that aren’t made for blind people; Sven and his girlfriend Miriam take me back to their front door from the tram stop without trouble.
When we’re right by his front door and he’s trying to put the key into the lock, he points over his shoulder behind him, to a trash can. “There used to be a lavender bush right there. That was easy,” he explained. “I knew I had arrived when I smelled that.”
It’s important to keep all of this in mind while I talk to him about his life and the way games have impacted him. “Last year, I was incredibly grumpy. I was very bored. I wasn’t doing well,” he says.
Miriam and Sven.
He’s seated in one of two gaming chairs, which are located in the center of a darkened room. He tells me about Miriam, who bought him SFV5 in August of last year. Initially, he was too depressed to play, but she forced him. “One thing led to another, and now I play tournaments,” he said.
“I think gaming kept me going when I went blind,” he said. “One day I could see, the next I was blind. I had to put my frustration somewhere, and I found relief in video games.”
Sven went blind in August 1992, after a tumor in his forehead had damaged his optic nerves. He had to stay in the hospital for months because he also suffered from leukemia.
“When I got home, the first thing I did was get behind my computer. I quickly noticed: Hey, this doesn’t work anymore. It took a while for me to realize I could still play fighter games,” he said. “At first, I played a few hours a day. Then, for months, I would just sleep, eat, play, sleep, eat, play. I didn’t go to school at the time because I was still recovering. So, yeah. Gaming played a huge role in my childhood, and it still does to this day.”
The notion that games are very important to blind people hasn’t quite reached mainstream game-developers, he says.
“My goal at EVO is winning, of course,” he says. “But I also hope to meet people who can help me make games more accessible to the visually impaired and the blind. There are many more people out there just like me.”
“I can play this came because I hear what happens,” he said. “Press any button.”
I press on the X and Ryu jabs his elbow into the air.
“Ok, that’s a medium kick or punch.”
I kick again. Low, this time.
“Light kick or blow,” he says, and shoots a fire ball into my face.
“Look, I just count to see how long it takes, and this way I can measure how far away from me you are; one jump or two.” He jumps once, and gives me an uppercut with fire (a so-called X-special), waits until I try to get up again, and kicks me down once more.
“It’s a matter or timing,” he explains, while he keeps kicking me into the ground.
“There are small problems that come up,” he says. “If you touch the arrow for short time only, the forward movement isn’t audible.” In his world, a quiet enemy is an invisible enemy, and every move that doesn’t involve a sound, leaves him guessing about what is going on. “I would like to say to Capcom: ‘You’re almost there, but change this too. Then I can fully participate.'”
Many games that aren’t currently accessible to blind people would be if they featured a few extra sounds. He tells me how, together with his girlfriend, he played all of Pokémon. “We can play that, my girlfriend and I, because we learned what certain sounds mean. When you walk into a wall, you hear a sound. When you walk through grass, you hear a sound.”
Still, all the words featured in the game are silent. In that way, it’s more coincidental than anything that these games are playable for blind people, because game developers are unaware of the fact that blind people can play too. Specialized games for the blind are usually very basic, “with sounds and boxes you can check. Very simple, but we also want adventure just like everyone else does.”
Last year, Sven wrote to Nintendo to volunteer as a game tester.
“Nintendo in the Netherlands referred me to Japan, but they didn’t have the office’s actual contact information and I couldn’t find it anywhere either.” These are painful incidents: “When you get an answer like that, at first you think, well, never mind, but ultimately I can’t let it go, because [being a tester] would be good for me.”
That’s why Sven is so keen on going to EVO 2017 in Las Vegas this weekend. “I’ve seen what happened in Europe when I showed my face for the first time, and you know what Americans are like: When they notice something new or special, they make a big deal out of it. So I hope I can put myself on the radar of the big boys. Not just for me, but for everyone.”
Unfortunately Sven didn’t meet his crowdfunding goal to go to EVO; here’s his GoFundMe page if you want to help him make it to other tournaments.
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