Mike "BrolyLegs" Begum learned to play video games with his face. As a kid, the Texas native pinned the rectangular NES controller against his wrist while he negotiated the buttons and D-pad with the surprising malleability of his nose and cheeks. It was there, on the floor, with his eyes cranked to the top of his sockets so he could see the TV screen, where he learned to beat Super Mario Bros.
BrolyLegs suffers from arthrogryposis, a rare genetic condition that seizes up crucial joints in his arms and legs. Traditional sports were out of the question, but competitors always find a way.
BrolyLegs eventually discovered a better solution for gaming: his tongue. It was a surprisingly solid stand-in for a thumb, with a flexibility that allowed him the elegance needed to master a squirrely analog stick. His condition was no longer a barrier. BrolyLegs was starting to get good, and in 2004 he competed in his first Super Smash Bros. tournament. Today, he's 29 years old and a fixture in the Street Fighter V scene, maining the defensive hair-bunned Interpol officer Chun-Li.
Watching him at work is mind-boggling. Complete stone-cold focus, flat on his stomach, one hand clawed over the right trigger and bumper, his lips engulfing the left stick. Occasionally he thrusts a cheek over to the side to depress a wayward X button. You have not lived until you've seen a man in the middle of a high-stakes tournament bang out a Super Combo with his head. BrolyLegs' pinned tweet says it all: "No legs, no hands, no excuses. Always been my motto. No matter what obstacle comes my way I FACE it head on."
"I wake up with a smile everyday because of where my video game career has taken and the journey I have been on," says BrolyLegs over email. "Places I thought were never possible to go to because of my disability became a reality in competing in fighting games and I can only thank everyone for their support in getting me there."
Things were rough earlier this year. BrolyLegs' van broke down after Evo 2016, meaning he could no longer reliably travel to interstate tournaments. His laptop went on the fritz, which kept him off his Twitch channel. So in February he turned to AbleGamers, a multinational charity that equips disabled players with custom gaming rigs to match their needs. He was hoping to score a good deal on a laptop.
"Instead, they decided to offer me a new laptop in exchange for me representing the charity on my streams and tournaments," says BrolyLegs. "Of course, I accepted and I have never been happier to be a part of a great organization."
Steve Spohn, COO of AbleGamers, hadn't sponsored anyone in the esports industry before—it's expensive, the business is volatile, and success is far from guaranteed. But he tells me that establishing a team for BrolyLegs was worth taking the chance.
"We had been looking into the proper way to offer a sponsorship. Our funding levels are very tenuous. We have to make sure we spend our money as wisely as possible," he says. "I realized if we didn't step in he'd be missing some tournaments. So we jumped on it."
BrolyLegs' story is about a gamer who got good the same way anyone gets good—by taking lumps against stiff competition. Pro gaming is the one sector in competitive sports where the differently abled aren't segregated into their own bracket. There's no defense to a perfectly timed Spinning Bird Kick, no matter how it's input.
While BrolyLegs might not be the best Street Fighter player in the world, right now he's capable of holding his own in any tournament, against any player. In May, he placed ninth at Space City Beatdown - Chapter 2 in Texas; the winner of his bracket was Bryant "Smug" Huggins, a top-50 player as ranked by the fighting game repository Shoryuken.
"I do like that disabled gamers are not treated differently in tournaments," BrolyLegs says. "Everyone that signs up wants to win and that is exactly how it should be."
There are plenty of stories about people overcoming a degenerative condition to approximate a normal day-to-day life, but that cloying, soft-focus praise can be dehumanizing in its own way, despite even the best intentions. Traditional sports have always struggled to hand over personal agency to the differently abled, but esports can be a great equalizer. In BrolyLegs, you have a challenger who's not a mascot, and more than a Make-A-Wish recipient subbed in for one tearful play from scrimmage.
"We think it's important that there be a certain level of visibility for people with disabilities. There's a segment of the community that, rightfully so, don't like the heartwarming stories," says Spohn. "They don't want to be seen as special cases, they want to be seen as everyday gamers. Broly really represents that. He's just a guy who happens to be disabled who's kickass at Street Fighter."
Spohn would like BrolyLegs to be the first of many competitors united as an AbleGamers team. No, it probably won't rival the likes of Team SoloMid or Cloud9 anytime soon, but it's clear that AbleGamers would be a prospective landing spot for disabled players entering the scene.
"It's something we would love to do," he says. "If Bill Gates was to descend down to my office and offer us a billion dollars, all the disabled gamers in the world would get all the sponsorships they want, but that's probably not super likely. But the heartfelt answer is that I would love to continue to do this, and I hope the gaming community continues to support us so that we are able to turn around and [support more sponsorships]."
Disabled or not, it's hard to find stability in esports. There's no financial solubility in the long hours grinding Street Fighter ladder matches, but for now BrolyLegs has a brand new laptop, a regular streaming schedule, and yeah, a fixed van. He feels lucky, but he also intends to hold up his end of the bargain with AbleGamers. Evo 2017 is this weekend. For the first time in his life, he'll be entering with a banner on his shoulder.
"All I want is for AbleGamers to get their names out there and be as successful as possible. Because they change lives," says BrolyLegs. "They support people who feel like it is impossible to game and AbleGamers proves them wrong. I want to do my very best to take this team far and get them the recognition they absolutely deserve."