Participants smile for a photo at the 2020 Angel City Virtual Games' Aug. 3 sitting volleyball clinic. Photo courtesy of Angel City Sports.

Angel City Games Goes Virtual, Hosts First U.S. Esports Competition for Adaptive Gamers

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As a popular adaptive sports festival moves online out of necessity this year, it sees broad participation from a number of countries as travel is no longer required.

The Angel City Games are taking place virtually this year, as the U.S. continues to grapple with COVID-19 cases and social-distancing restrictions.

Since its founding five years ago, the annual adaptive sports festival for youths and adults with physical disabilities — which typically takes place on the UCLA campus — has hosted thousands of athletes and allies for competitive events in wheelchair basketball and tennis, archery, track and field, swimming, table tennis and sitting volleyball. Organizers have converted what is usually a four-day, in-person event to three weeks of online programming featuring sports clinics, challenges, educational workshops, family socials and concerts.

More than 80 athletes and celebrities are participating as guest speakers or workshop facilitators. The lineup includes 17-time Paralympic medalist Tatyana McFadden, six-time NBA All-Star Pau Gasol and veteran mountaineer Kirstie Ennis. Organizers originally aimed to have six nations represented — as of Aug. 1, more than 640 participants from 11 countries have signed up.

The 2020 Angel City Virtual Games will also include the first-ever esports competition for adaptive gamers in the U.S. on Aug. 29: a Forza Motorsport 7 race open to all ages and ability levels. The new event reflects the growing international community of disabled gamers and, in turn, the gaming industry’s move to begin creating adaptive controllers and improving game accessibility settings. (In the U.S. alone, there are more than 33 million gamers with disabilities.)

The annual Los Angeles-based competition was founded in 2015 by Clayton Frech, a father whose son, Ezra, was born a congenital amputee and went on to become a track and field athlete. Angel City Games initially began as a two-day event featuring wheelchair basketball and track and field, and has since expanded to become the largest Paralympic-style adaptive sports event on the West Coast. Angel City Sports, the nonprofit born from that first Angel City Games event, offers year-round adaptive sports clinics and equipment rentals.

Camille Mahlknecht, Angel City Sports’ program director, says organizers decided to shift the 2020 Angel City Games online in early March. With the communities they serve usually being high-risk, Mahlknecht says it wasn’t worth the wait to see how the coronavirus pandemic would progress.

“It was so early that there weren’t too many examples to pull from, and so it was just a matter of our team deciding: How can we make an impact to our athletes when so much of what we do is about connection in person, being able to be with someone who’s like you, being outside in the sunshine, getting active?” Mahlknecht says. “When all of those elements are eliminated, how can you still make an impact on the computer?”

After surveying their athletes, Mahlknecht says Angel City Sports staff discovered that most participants lacked the equipment necessary to participate at home and that being together with peers and coaches — even virtually — was the most important thing to them. A partnership with insurance company The Hartford, the sponsor of the 2020 Virtual Games, allowed them to send free workout gear to 450 participants. Expanding the event from four days to three weeks allowed athletes more time and opportunities to reconnect with friends and mentors.

Emma Limor has been a volunteer for Angel City Sports for four years and is one of the organizers planning the esports competition. To build their roster, Limor says organizers reached out to adaptive gamers from around the world through social media and Twitch, the popular esports livestreaming platform.

“They’re so cool,” Limor says.“They’re coming up with these inventive, creative ways to engage with esports in a way that, really, nobody else has ever done.”

Despite the circumstances, the online-only format has brought unexpected benefits. Not having to physically travel to Los Angeles eliminated financial barriers for international athletes, and the at-home setting allows parents and siblings, who previously couldn’t attend, to support their athletes from their living rooms. The video platform has also proven to be inviting for younger participants.

“A lot of the time, we feel more comfortable when we’re behind a screen,” Limor says. “Being able to compete from a different angle — not in person, not presenting your physical body — has allowed a lot of younger para athletes to come out of their shell and begin to participate.”

The coronavirus pandemic has disproportionately impacted the disabled community across multiple fronts. For example, people with disabilities are at a higher risk of contracting COVID-19, and they can experience delays in receiving up-to-date public health information due to news sources not being accessible for those with vision, hearing or cognitive disabilities. For adaptive athletes who spent years training to compete, the postponement of the Tokyo 2020 Olympics delivered a devastating emotional blow. And for those with an ambulatory disability, leaving the house for a quick walk to break quarantine’s monotony is not a readily-available luxury.

The isolation required of social distancing can take a significant mental health toll, too, which Mahlknecht says was one of the reasons organizers chose to expand the schedule of the 2020 games. Now, during Angel City Games Zoom calls, group chats buzz with athletes reconnecting with friends whom they haven’t seen since last year’s event.

“Those smiles and those inside jokes that have carried on, even though we’re not at the track, have just been really special,” Mahlknecht says.

For Limor, that sense of community carries an impact that is incalculable.

“It’s not just a sports competition,” Limor says. “It’s also a festival where we all come together and celebrate who we are.”

The 2020 Angel City Games continue from Aug. 3-9 and Aug. 24-30. Registration is open all summer, with pay-what-you-can donations accepted in lieu of a registration fee.

Los Angeleno