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Gaming for Inclusion: The Special Olympics Esports Event

Gaming for Inclusion: The Special Olympics Esports Event

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Gaming is an opportunity for many to escape and take an adventure anywhere and anytime. Xbox and Special Olympics have teamed up with other corporate sponsors to make sure access and inclusion grow in gaming. In mid-September, the Special Olympics, along with Xbox and other corporate sponsors, held a virtual gaming event. BGN asked Jenn Panattoni, Head of Xbox Social Impact, a few questions about the event.

Can you describe the event? What is this event intended to promote?

The Gaming for Inclusion esports tournament is a multi-day experience hosted by Special Olympics and Microsoft. [The tournament] empowers Special Olympics athletes and Unified School partners to compete through gaming. The tournament took place from September 12 to 14 and saw athletes competing in Forza Motorsport 7, Madden NFL 22, and Rocket League. The finals took place on September 18. The celebrity supporters of Special Olympics include NBA All-Star Jayson Tatum, NFL legend Jamaal Charles, WNBA superstar Jewell Loyd, and WWE Superstars Dominik Mysterio and Ember Moon. The tournament is a way for us to work with a nonprofit partner toward our shared goal: inclusion. At Xbox, we believe that gaming is for everyone, that everyone should feel welcomed, and that everyone should feel a sense of belonging within the gaming community. This event is a meaningful and important step to making esports more accessible. It provides athletes with a new way to compete.

Jenn Panattoni – Head of Xbox Social Impact

How were the games selected?

Games are selected based on accessibility features and established esports programs. Special Olympics also polled athletes to determine which games they liked playing the most. For example, many Special Olympics athletes in the United States compete in Rocket League in several mini-tournaments during the year. Additionally, Forza Motorsport 7 was a title played last year — it was quite popular with athletes — and many asked for it to be included in Gaming for Inclusion.

What was the selection criteria for this year’s participants?

Key criteria for participating in this year’s Gaming for Inclusion event were: being in good standing as an athlete within their local Special Olympics Program, being a minimum of 15 years of age, having access to an Xbox console, and overall, possessing a passion for gaming along with the spirit of great sportsmanship.

We recently talked to Melissa Boone about Microsoft’s diversity, inclusion, and accessibility efforts. How did this partnership with the Special Olympics begin?

First, Melissa Boone is amazing and I’m glad you had the opportunity to chat with her! The partnership with Special Olympics and Microsoft began back in 2014, and we expanded that partnership with a focus on gaming in 2018. The first esports tournament was at the 2018 Special Olympics USA Games, which happened in our backyard of Seattle, Washington. The idea started from Microsoft’s Hackathon, where a team spent a week developing the idea, pitching it, and then another team chose the idea. As a result of my background in social impact and gaming, I was selected to produce the tournament. It’s still one of the highlights of my entire career to have produced both the 2018 and 2020 tournaments.

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For anyone who has ever had the privilege of observing the Special Olympics, there is an undeniable sense of fellowship, real sportsmanship, and competition. How do you see a virtual event like this continuing this legacy?

You’re completely right about that. I see the Gaming for Inclusion esports tournament furthering those values, especially with Unified Pairs, because you’ve got to coordinate and communicate if you’re going for that win. I swam competitively growing up, and sometimes when I’m gaming, my heart rate elevates just like it used to before I got up on the block at the start of a race.

For the last six or seven years, the Special Olympics has implemented a campaign to support inclusion of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.  Would you discuss how this event supports the ongoing campaign?

The Choose to Include Campaign — I love their tagline and it’s incredibly meaningful. This event supports [inclusion] by engaging Special Olympics athletes where they have told us they want to be — gaming. One of my favorite stories of the 2018 Xbox Virtual Gaming Event was something Tim Dempsey said. He was part of a Unified Pair and they won that year. When talking about his teammate on the tournament, he told me, “Not only did I gain a friend, I gained a brother.” That meant so much to me, knowing that playing on Xbox was a way for Tim to connect with a new person.

Gaming is a powerful connector for people, especially during the pandemic when people were in isolation. I know a lot of folks, myself included, who leveraged gaming as a way to stay in contact with friends and loved ones.

What tasks can the gaming community do to support the Special Olympics Inclusion Campaign and Microsoft’s focus on diversity, accessibility, and inclusion?

If people want to support Special Olympics, they can donate on their website or they can donate their Microsoft Rewards Points either on the Xbox console or on Bing. You can learn more about how Xbox believes that gaming is for everyone and learn the work that we’re continually doing to make that [inclusion] a reality here: For Everyone | Xbox.

What actions are necessary to support a family member or friend who may want to participate next year in this extraordinary event?

Ask that person or their family to get involved with their local Special Olympics chapter. Each state has a Special Olympics program; contact them and ask how they can be informed of future gaming events or see if they can be involved in any gaming programming.

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