The Xbox Gaming Tournament at the 2018 Special Olympics USA Games was a first in the world of competitive video gaming. Xbox and Special Olympics partnered to facilitate the pilot video gaming tournament at a Special Olympics event, featuring Forza Motorsport 7 on July 2nd at the USA Games in Seattle, Washington. Players across the nation came together throughout the month of April to compete in prelims for a spot in the final tournament and a chance to win a custom-wrapped Xbox One X prize.
The Xbox Gaming Tournament originated from a hackathon in last year’s Microsoft One Week, where employees spend an entire week to go work on passion projects. Stephen Smith, Karen Woessner Smith, and Thomas Labuzienski all came together to map out what a competitive video gaming tournament at Special Olympics would look like.
The goal of this pilot tournament was to make esports more accessible, reducing the high bar to entry which currently causes competitors to feel intimidated. Xbox and Special Olympics put together a smaller-scale tournament, with high-quality production value, in hopes this model can be leveraged at other venues to empower all gamers that want to compete and bring the joy of esports to more people.
The athletes were competing for a chance to win a 2018 Special Olympics USA Games custom edition Xbox One X, of which there are only TWO in the world!
Unified Teams and Prelims
The competitors played in Unified Teams, a model within Special Olympics where teams consist of an athlete with an intellectual disability and one without. During the prelims, athletes across the country competed on the same tracks, with the same cars and those with the fastest combined times advanced to the finals. After qualifying rounds in four states across the nation, four teams from Utah, three teams from Washington, and one team from Connecticut that qualified for the 2018 USA Games.
The athletes competed in Forza Motorsport 7, a racing video game published by Microsoft Studios; the game was chosen by the team for its multiple accessibility features and existing esports presence. Speaking of esports, members of our very own Forza Racing Championship team showed up in full-force to manage the pilot competitive gaming tournament to professional standards and maintain competitive integrity.
Tournament Semifinals Bracket
To kick off the tournament, we were incredibly fortunate to have the Chairman of Special Olympics, Tim Shriver, speak to his excitement about the tournament being at this year’s USA Games, as well as his intentions to take gaming global to the Special Olympics World Games. His message on evolving our thinking to focus more on everyone’s different abilities really touched home on the message of inclusion of the USA Games.
For the semifinals, all eight teams competed in the same tracks/cars in two separate groups, and were seeded by their preliminary times. There was a diverse array of courses and cars to test the athlete’s capabilities whether it be managing twists and turns, or dealing with different handling capabilities of different cars. Scores were determined by points, which were then tallied up across the three races to determine their final scores. The top two teams from each semifinal bracket proceeded to the final four to compete for the ultimate prize, the custom 2018 Special Olympics USA Games Xbox One X console.
With four teams remaining, three teams from Utah and one from Washington, it came down to the final seconds in an action-packed, nail-biting finish. The crowd erupted into applause as the leaders of the pack crossed the finish line. Team Dempsey, aka “Team Shake and Bake” from Washington state were announced as the winners of the first-ever gaming tournament. The team, Timothy Dempsey and Nicholas Rasmussen, didn’t know each other before the preliminary tournament in April. They coordinated schedules as time allowed over the last few months, and that practice really showed off as they were able to take home the gold. The friendship and teamwork between the two in this tournament speaks to the success of the Special Olympics Unified Teams program.
Tim and Nicholas were presented with the 2018 Special Olympics USA Games Custom Consoles by Alan Hartman, the head of Turn 10 Studios, creators of the Forza Motorsport franchise. Tim Dempsey summed it up best with his response to the question “how do you feel” that he was “speechless” – to see this first of its kind video gaming tournament finish up with such excitement and a full house of spectators speaks to the future of inclusion and the future of competitive gaming.
The winning team, Nicholas Rasmussen and Tim Dempsey of Team Dempsey AKA “Team Shake and Bake” with Beth Knox, President and CEO of the 2018 Special Olympics USA Games.
The Next Day…
The following morning, the athletes and other members of the Gaming Special Olympics team were invited to tour the Microsoft Studios where they were given a tour of both 343 Industries and Turn10 Studios. Alan Hartman personally gave the athletes a tour of the gaming studio and even brought out a couple McLarens for the athletes to take photos with!
So, What’s Next?
Partnering with Special Olympics to bring the Xbox Gaming Tournament to life was an incredible experience, and we’re thankful for everyone’s hard work and dedication. The tournament was packed to the brim with spectators, and we’re thrilled by the excitement surrounding competitive gaming tournaments. We hope to take the lessons we’ve gained from this pilot tournament and apply them to future opportunities to empower more gamers to compete.