Danik Soudakoff is a 14-year-old fan of the video game Overwatch. He's also deaf. To make Overwatch more accessible to members of the deaf community, he decided to actively help make it more inclusive and accessible.
In "Hand Eye Coordination," the latest short film from Fan Stories by ESPN, we learn that Soudakoff worked with an American Sign Language translator to create custom signs for Overwatch game elements, characters and moves. The adoption of these new signs doesn't just make Overwatch easier for the hearing-impaired to watch; it also means deaf players can play faster and more efficiently.
In esports, where rapid response time and smooth communication are the difference between winning and losing, this is a big deal. Below are the signs he developed last year for Overwatch's 27 heroes at the time (there are now 30):
It's cool to see this subject treated as lovingly as any other great sports fan story. ESPN's come a long way since claiming esports isn't a sport. In 2014, former ESPN president John Skipper was quoted as saying, "It's not a sport. It's a competition. Chess is a competition. Checkers is a competition. Mostly, I'm interested in doing real sports."
It took Skipper time to change his tune, and he eventually did, but ESPN missed out on numerous opportunities to capture younger audiences as esports ballooned into what it is today.
Skipper left ESPN in 2017 and was replaced by Jimmy Pitaro, co-chair of Disney Media Networks. And where esports is concerned, Disney doesn't mess around.
In 2017, Disney worked with ESL to make an esports series for its kids channel, Disney XD. Disneyland Paris just hosted the last Dota Major. And last summer, Disney inked a deal with Blizzard Entertainment, the publisher of Overwatch, to broadcast Overwatch League matches across a passel of Disney streaming services and networks, including ESPN.
It isn't just ESPN that needed a change of perspective, though. As esports grows toward the mainstream, it's also grappling with matters of inclusion. Its capacity as a digital sport, free of physical boundaries and the myriad physical constraints that define traditional sports, should make it more inclusive by default—both in terms of gender mixing in competition and welcoming members of the disabled community.
In neither case has its track record been remarkable when compared to the size of the opportunity. But because esports publishers can control the game, their pro leagues and the way all their content is consumed, both live and online, they play a critical role in changing that.
Blizzard's track record isn't perfect. But Overwatch is among few video game titles whose logo features a woman, and it's shown visible support for Soudakoff's work.
Here's a video of Soudakoff meeting his favorite Overwatch League team, the L.A. Valiant:
Blizzard also works with the Sign Language Company to embed ASL interpreters into events upon request. Six months ago, it demonstrated a commitment to improving diversity and inclusion measures by launching the Inclusion Nexus, a separate section of its BlizzCon event, dedicated to showcasing and promoting efforts to make all its touchpoints more accessible and welcoming.
"People tell me that video games have changed their lives," said Kelly Stevens, a diversity and inclusion leader at Blizzard Entertainment, at the time. "I know someone who has an autistic child, who tells me that the social interaction in their online games has allowed their child to be connected to other people. I get to see what kind of impact these programs and initiatives have on people, and it's the reason I continue to do my job."
"Hand Eye Coordination" was directed by Brendan Gillan and Thomas LaGrega. It went live last Saturday.