A National Star student celebrates while playing FIFA on an Xbox

This group of Xbox gamers with disabilities has one goal – to play in a FIFA tournament

“When I play FIFA, I’m just like everybody else. I’m equal.”

There’s a group of young people at National Star College who love to play Xbox. They regularly get together to play games, usually FIFA, in which they can pretend to be Cristiano Ronaldo, Harry Kane, Paul Pogba, scoring goals and winning trophies. There’s also bragging rights to be won, too.

But something much more important happens for the members of this group while they play – they become completely immersed in gameplay, with or without a disability.

National Star is a set of specialist colleges that works with young people with disabilities and learning difficulties, helping them realise their potential. For some young people that may be learning to drive their own power wheelchair or have a voice for the first time by learning to use electronic communication devices. For others it may mean learning how to direct their own care so that they can live as independently as they can and work.

For one group of students, they wanted to play Xbox as another way to socialize and play with others.

Simon Welch, Principal of National Star, said gaming was creating significant benefits for the group.

“We know that young people with a disability are more likely to be marginalised in society,” he said. “They can suffer with things like loneliness. Gaming can be something to build a social network around. So for National Star, it was about supporting that in the right way.

“The group of gamers saw a FIFA tournament that they wanted to take part in, just like other young people their age were doing.”

A student at National Star plays FIFA on an Xbox

National Star contacted the British Esports Association to see if they could help arrange tournaments for people with disabilities. The association is a not-for-profit national body established to promote esports in the UK, increase its level of awareness, improve standards and inspire future talent.

Tom Dore, Head of Education at the British Esports Association, loved the idea of setting up a bespoke tournament and contacted Xbox to see if they could help with equipment.

“Xbox was the obvious choice because it has the Adaptive Controller,” he said. “It’s been brilliant working with them and it was great to know we had their complete support. We worked with National Star to draw up a list of equipment for three players from four colleges to play a tournament and Xbox contributed Xbox Series S consoles and Xbox Adaptive Controllers for each player.”

National Star and the British Esports Association set up a round-robin FIFA tournament featuring students from National Star, Cheltenham; Oakwood Court, Devon; Aurora Boveridge College, Dorset; and Hedleys College, Newcastle. Everybody played against each other over four weeks to win points for themselves and for their team.

Welch revealed the challenges of catering to different needs for each member of the group. Dan uses four switches to drive his power chair. Christopher uses a standard Xbox controller and utilizes the controller’s “assist” mode. Alex has limited mobility in his arms and hands, and uses a cradle for his right arm, which he uses to press two small switches. He uses his left hand to operate a specially adapted joystick. Then there is Piyush, who uses his left foot and his left arm to press two buttons. Every member of the team has a different way that they play, and their gaming setups are arranged in a way that is right for them.

A student at National Star plays FIFA on an Xbox

Dan is 21 and has Cerebral Palsy. He uses four switches similar to the ones on his tray (directional switches he uses to drive his chair) connected to the Xbox Adaptive Controller and then remapped so the output is the same as a joystick. He also uses the two-button setting in FIFA with two head switches. When he plays FIFA, he always plays as his favourite team, Chelsea.

“Before the Xbox Adaptive Controller was available I had to watch my brother play games but now I can get involved, too,” he said. “Gaming has allowed me to connect with my friends and peers, and I’ve also made new friends at other colleges by playing them at FIFA.”

The feedback from the players and organisers has been overwhelmingly positive.

“It makes me happy that I can be in a competition, which I’ve not been able to do before,” Dan said. “It makes me feel part of something. I want to keep playing in as many tournaments as possible. It’s been amazing.”

National Star and the British Esports Association want to grow the tournament to include other colleges and gamers with accessibility needs, and invited two National Star players from the pilot to take part in an exhibition match at the British Esports Championship Finals, which were held on July 3 at Confetti in Nottingham.

National Star students play FIFA on an Xbox

“It’s an opportunity to engage with a wider demographic of young people,” Dore said. “If they’re not into traditional sport, if they’re not into music, if they’re not into drama, where are they getting their team-based activities from? And where are they being celebrated for success in the same way? If you’re into technology and you’re a gamer, now you have that chance.

“I spend a lot of time talking to headteachers, senior leaders and decision makers within education and young people. I usually have to get them past the point of looking at this as video gaming and view it as a team-based, social, competitive activity. Once we get people realising the team-based skills that gaming builds, the digital skills, the STEM skills, the cyber skills, the creative skills, that’s when the lightbulb goes on.”

Welch agreed: “It would be great to have more accessible tournaments across colleges. I also want to explore how to use gaming in our curriculum at National Star. It’s not about teaching gaming or how to game, it’s about using esports as a vehicle for learning and how you map that to the world of special education.”

For more information about the Xbox Adaptive Controller, visit the website.