Fighting games are communal by nature, and the broader Fighting Game Community (FGC) and the many pockets of it that pop up around different games regularly create and participate in events based on their favorite games. From Super Smash Bros. to Mortal Kombat to Street Fighter, players of varying skill levels gather to compete, occasionally teach, and celebrate their favorite fighting games. The FGC fosters growth and support to both professional and casual members of all walks of life, so it’s only natural that events catering toward disabled players would form, too.
Fighting game popularity amongst disabled players has evolved with the broader accessibility movement. Control remapping, difficulty settings, and even the upcoming Street Fighter 6’s different control modes to allow for easier moves and combos are all tools that can alleviate or even remove barriers preventing disabled people from properly playing. These inclusive design practices and accessible features were directly responsible for the creation of The Sento Showdown, a Mortal Kombat tournament exclusive to blind/low vision players. Speaking with IGN, Showdown founder Carlos Vasquez dove back into the tournament’s origins, reminisced on its evolution and continued prominence within the FGC, and explained his hopes for the future of fighting game accessibility and disabled inclusion.
The Beginning of the Sento Showdown
Vasquez is no stranger to the competitive scene. In 2013, he competed in the Evolution Championship Series, and in 2019 participated in Combo Breaker, a collection of community-based shows and events. After his 2013 performance, he had the opportunity to share accessibility concerns with several developers from NetherRealm Studios, and these exchanges directly led to a key accessibility feature being added to Injustice. Blind/low vision players have the capability to enable audio cues based on their position within stages, particularly as they near interactive objects. Since 2013, this option continues to appear in every NetherRealm Studios game.
Yet, it wasn’t Mortal Kombat’s accessibility nor popularity that became the defining factors for the creation of the Showdown, but rather a desire to connect with members of the community spurred its inception.
“We were pretty much stuck when the pandemic started and [The Sento Showdown] was a way to keep the competitive spirit at the time,” Vasquez said. “The way it officially started was one of the [general FGC] community members put out a tweet from an idea that was discussed privately, from what I was told, and that tweet came out and was like “Wouldn’t it be nice to have a tournament for blind players?” That tweet blew up, essentially, and I commented, and I was like “Hey, we can do something about that.”’
Despite competing in professional and local offline tournaments, Vasquez never hosted or organized his own event. Thankfully, with the help of several friends and a willingness and interest from the blind/low vision FGC, the Showdown slowly took form. Of those early hurdles, Vasquez notes that initially he and several others needed to research how to properly set up tournament structure, as well as casting the matches.
“We started learning how to organize brackets, how to run the tournament, how to conduct the streams live as it’s going on, and it was quite an experience learning all of these new things and getting to know how much effort it takes to just organize something that looks very simple online,” he said. “Behind the scenes, we had some people that offered some prizes, and so we took on that opportunity and the ball just kept on rolling.”
Along with the logistics of creating and hosting an online tournament, Vasquez needed to determine which platform would be the most accessible for competitors. Prior to the release of the current generation of consoles, Xbox’s systemwide accessibility was more conducive to the needs of blind/low vision players. Magnification, narration, and text to speech are just some of the features that visually disabled players use to game without sighted assistance. And with this level of independence afforded by Xbox’s platforms, players could participate without requiring extra accommodations.
The Showdown in Action
The general sense of camaraderie within the FGC meant that Vasquez immediately received support from able-bodied and disabled players alike. Since he and several other Showdown organizers were longtime competitors, members of the Mortal Kombat, Street Fighter, and Tekken fanbases actively encouraged establishing a tournament of this type. With such a wide system of support from so many playerbases, Vasquez and others within the FGC chose Mortal Kombat to show newcomers that not all fighting games required complex inputs or a mastery of in-depth mechanics.
“Whereas with Mortal Kombat, it’s more about the combinations of special moves, even combo execution,” he said. “It’s very simple in comparison to other fighting games. Now, of course, the more you get into the competitive setting, the more difficult it gets. Mortal Kombat, for example, has specific mechanics to the game, such as flawless blocking or wave dashing – that allows you to move fast around the screen – little things like that are what people started to really get into at the time, and that’s what made it easier to run a tournament.”
The Sento Showdown prides itself on bringing intense competitive action, not only for able-bodied viewers but also for disabled participants. And the overall quality of matches attracted the attention of prominent FGC members, as well as developers themselves. But even before any matches took place, Vasquez explained that interest in the Showdown was already there.
“The first year when we hosted it, [NetherRealm Studios] actually went live when we ran top eight,” he said. “So, they were watching, and before we went live, they went live on their own Twitch stream and were casually playing the game and talking to the fans. When I went live on my stream, they pretty much [raided] our stream after that.”
The FGC showed support not only through views, but also through the donation of impressive prizes like copies of MK11, an Xbox One, and fight stick for that first year. And NetherRealm Studios was not the only major company to promote the event in its early days. During its second year, Xbox connected with Vasquez to broadcast the tournament to hundreds of followers. Not only was Xbox the console of choice due to its systemwide accessibility, but they also supported disabled players by highlighting their competitive skills.
“The second year was a very special one because we were able to get in contact with Xbox, and our top eight was streamed on the official Xbox Twitch,” he said. “They were impressed by the gameplay and just the hype overall that we brought, and even some of the producers talked about how they enjoyed watching the grand finals because it went down to the wire.”
This year’s Showdown, which aired on Vasquez’ Twitch channel several weeks ago, featured prizes like a statue of Kitana from Mortal Kombat 11, a custom hitbox fightstick with The Sento Showdown logo embossed in braille, a PS5, and a prize pool of $530. Every prize was donated through varying organizations or members of the FGC that wanted to support the Showdown during its third year. While Vasquez is excited for next year’s competition, he is still concerned about continuous community support, and what that might mean for the Showdown’s continuation.
The Future of the Showdown
Despite the viewership and community-gifted rewards toward the Sento Showdown, and its clear success thus far, Vasquez is ultimately unsure of its longevity. Unlike larger tournaments like Evo and Combo Breaker, the Showdown is still a grassroots event that highlights blind/low vision disabled players, and the cost of supporting the tournament each year currently outweighs the support and exposure. Sento only survives thanks to the donations from the community that allow for worthy prizes to be awarded, but there’s no guarantee of those year to year. Without that help, there would be no appropriate rewards for the high level of competition. And the irony is not lost on Vasquez that the tournament currently requires the help of sighted allies to actually be run because of the use of bracketing websites like Start.gg and Challonge.com, though he hopes events like the Showdown can improve that space as well.
“I feel like the more we do these things, the more awareness it will start generating, like ‘Hey your website needs to be more accessible with screen readers.’ So, the solutions that we made right now are that we have sighted allies that are part of our volunteer team that will use the official website to run the bracket behind the scenes, but we also created an accessible Word document that has the layout of what the bracket would look like as you progress.”
This level of accessibility awareness is also key in dismantling negative stereotypes regarding disabled players. Despite needing extra accommodations to create the Showdown or even participate, Vasquez wants the FGC to not only respect disabled players but remember that they also compete in tournaments alongside able-bodied peers. And that’s ultimately the Showdown’s greatest mission – to demonstrate the need and desire for accessible tournaments, as well as showcase that disabled players can and deserve to compete alongside their able-bodied peers.
“The main thing that we also want to do is note that just because there’s a disability doesn’t mean you have to tone it down,” he said. “Some of us do play against sighted players outside the blind FGC, you know, we play against top level players, and we go toe to toe with them a lot of the time. I think it’s because they either get surprised the first time, and are like ‘Whoa, how is this happening right now,’ but once we continue playing with them, that mentality of ‘You have a disability and I don’t’ kind of goes away, because now we’re just worried about if my character is better than yours.”
What started as a response to a tweet has since evolved into an FGC event that promotes inclusivity and accessibility. Not only does The Sento Showdown bring high-level action, it also demonstrates that it’s entirely possible for events to not only be accessible to spectators, but also to competitors. While the Showdown’s future may be in flux, Vasquez hopes the work already done with it can help continue to push the industry, and the FGC at large, toward elevating disabled players alongside their able-bodied peers.
“My hope is that it remains in the history of video games as a platform that did its best to promote accessibility and also to promote a community-based setting where people can come in and not necessarily know about fighting games. I just hope that it’s remembered in that manner.”