As part of its ongoing sponsorships for good programs, Verimatrix currently supports the San Diego, California-based Unified Esports League (Unified ESL), an initiative for inclusion that is changing the approach to esports, giving way for people with disabilities to enter the industry not only as professional players, but also as part of the wider community that works within it. We talked to Matthew Iske, the founder and general manager of this non-profit organization to learn more about Unified ESL and understand the importance of supporting inclusive initiatives such as this one.
In the end of 2021, Matthew Iske met with Tony Rubino, president of the North County Special Needs Foundation and coach of the Poway Padres, a nationally ranked Special Olympics Softball team that he has coached for more than 25 years. They began to discuss ideas for a new project that could benefit their local community. Based on their business experience and common passion to support people with special needs, they placed their sights on gaming – something that many people were engaged with, but had little or no organized structures aimed at serving people with intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDD). Thus, Unified ESL was born.
Iske explained that one of their first challenges was to understand how to translate the idea to something productive and healthy that takes advantage of the passion of the people to really harness their potential and their passion for video games.
As Iske explained, the idea is “to unify people from all walks of life through healthy and constructive gaming.” So, they not work only with those with special needs and those with disabilities, but also with at-risk community members and the general population – unifying everyone though videogames. Via a constructive gaming experience, organization gathers people to play together while also, teaching team building, social and emotional skills, communication prompts, how to win and how to lose. “It’s all of the stuff that exists in esports and comes with playing games together and learning about technology.” And like in any other sport, there are also related higher education opportunities and potential career paths that potentially surround the athlete. Unified ESL can help guide participants on their way to becoming active adults withing the gaming industry.
According to the World Health Organization, 1 billion people live with some kind of disability. Microsoft, owner of the Xbox gaming platform, which has been working on solutions for that community, estimated in 2022 that there are around 400 million gamers with disabilities worldwide, representing 20% of the gaming public – that reflects an estimated market of $2 billion.
Iske said the way Unified ESL became a vendor for the San Diego Regional Center, as the organization is already devoted to working with individuals with IDD and their families. And as he said, “in California there are 21 Regional Centers, so we should be approved to provide service for their clients, approximately 38,000 here in San Diego, and then throughout the state of California, where their network has over 330,000 clients.”
In addition to gaming, Unified ESL also provides access to what is known as STEAM education, a learning approach that emphasizes Science, Technology, Engineering, the Arts, and Mathematics, to motivate students to develop communication, problem solving and critical thinking. For this purpose, Iske and his team of around 10 volunteers have worked to set up their first Club House where they will be able to receive students and work with them on the different areas that surround the activity – players, designers, content producers, broadcasters, etc..
“This is our first gaming and technology room for Regional Center clients here in Poway, California. It’s a room at Abraxas High School, a continuation school with a split program (50% diploma and 50% transition program which is generally 14 to 22 years old, for special needs people)”, he explained.
The former computer lab has now been transformed into a proper gaming room, with special chairs, framed jerseys from esports team members and “all sorts of stuff” to create the same vibe as any other sports venue. And for this, as Iske said Verimatrix’s support has been essential because as altruistic and philanthropic as the mission is, the efforts still require funding and the first dollar is usually the hardest to get.
He said, “Verimatrix was the first to step up and help us build our home, and we couldn’t be more grateful for that. We couldn’t have done what we did without their support. Verimatrix was the first company to step up and say ‘hey, we’ll give you money to help you do this.’”
Darci Van Meter, director of operations & events at Verimatrix recognizes the importance of supporting these initiatives.
“This is a local community organization serving kids and teaching them about esports and beyond – as well as interest in the engineering world. Keeping kids involved in gaming provides skill-building and an educational impact in this market and beyond,” she said.
In fact, many of the kids and young adults the program serves may become engineers, coders and technicians in the future. Van Meter said, “It’s great that they can have free access to a place that is all inclusive for learning, fun and therapeutic benefits. Their disabilities should not diminish their involvement in society, nor from accessing the these types of opportunities. It’s all about supporting these initiatives and contributing to the local community in the best way possible.
Iske described an experience he’s noticed with one particular Unified ESL participant: “He loves to write, so he will be writing a blog post for us reviewing the games that we are playing. It’s also a chance for him to recount his own experience, so this will help him have a job and connect with other people with special needs on the internet. Additionally, it will help him to work on his creative writing skills.”
Others, he said, can choose to explore different areas including virtual reality or the technical side of information technology, live event production, or cybersecurity.
“We also hope to work with Verimatrix to increase opportunities for more youth, especially at-risk participants, to be able to understand and harness the career and college opportunities surrounding cybersecurity. At the same time they can could also work with parents and other participants to teach them how to keep everyone’s data and identities safer.”
Breaking down the barriers
Another key factor is the associated social scene. For people with IDD, isolation is sometimes difficult to tackle. Iske said, “Everything I’ve learned from working with this population is that one of the greatest sufferings is the loneliness that often comes along with it. It can be difficult to make a friend, it’s hard to get a job, it’s hard to get transportation, and you can be very dependent on your family or your support system to be able to be social. Helping to break down those barriers and provide that inclusion through something as cool as videogames and other technology is amazing.”
He continued, “I think we should take very seriously the importance of providing in-person events because, just as we can fill up football stadiums for other events, we can offer that support and all that love to someone with a special need. They should have the same opportunity to have that experience to step on stage and put it all out there, learning with the experience of performing under pressure with family and friends watching and supporting. There’s so much magic to being able to compete in person.”
Unified ESL is now preparing competitions, establishing more locations, and identifying possible competitors that want to play. On the horizon they already have a tournament series in San Diego for the high school and middle school general populations as well as for players with special needs in the program. They are also preparing for a large special needs tournament by the end of the year to take place in the Magnolia Theatre, at El Cajon, CA.
In the meantime, the program runs year-round from 3 to 5 p.m. Monday through Thursday. The program has three major points of focus when it comes to their players: health and wellness – it’s important to have to have a healthy body and a healthy mind to be a good gamer; the game theory and game strategy – the mindset, how to win, how to loose, how to deal with competition, adversity, teams, sport, etc,; and the motor skills – the hand-eye coordination that comes with playing videogames and playing virtual reality.
Iske said, “Virtual reality is amazing because it is one of the only things that gives the user true control over an experience, whereas in the real world, you’d have to and deal with the social consequences of learning that skill. But with VR, you just have to restart the program, so it’s a great way to start leading people into different jobs.”
The program is working closely with a company called Transfr VR that develops training, vocational solutions and other programs to rewire their software and create new solutions specifically for the special needs population.
Another big challenge the population has to overcome is to find adapted gadgets that will allow them to play games – sometimes with their head, feet or even with their breath. For that they’re working with a West Virginia-based company called Able Gamers.
“It all comes down to partnerships and solidarity, Iske said. “Because when we help one another, we are all winners.”