Social good

Gaming for Inclusion

When in-person events were suspended worldwide due to the pandemic, Special Olympics knew it had to pivot to new programs to continue giving athletes ways to connect, compete, and build community. In March 2020, the CEO of Special Olympics Washington made a call to Microsoft and Xbox with a simple request: Could they expand on their gaming pilot event from the 2018 USA Games—but do it completely virtually?
Gaming for Inclusion together with Microsoft event logo, Xbox logo, and E ESRB rating logo. female and male Special Olympics athletes. Madden NFL 22 logo next to game play image of the back of Tom Brady. Forza MotorSport 7 logo next to game image of race car driver with helmet. Forza Motorsport 7 – legacy game; not currently for sale. Rocket League logo next to game play image with race cars.

Gaming for Inclusion

When in-person events were suspended worldwide due to the pandemic, Special Olympics knew it had to pivot to new programs to continue giving athletes ways to connect, compete, and build community. In March 2020, the CEO of Special Olympics Washington made a call to Microsoft and Xbox with a simple request: Could they expand on their gaming pilot event from the 2018 USA Games—but do it completely virtually?

The answer was a resounding “yes.” And so, the 2020 Xbox Virtual Gaming event was born. The event connected Special Olympics athletes from across the US, drew more than 100K fans online, won ESPN’s Corporate Community Impact Award, and highlighted how esports can play an important role in fostering inclusion.

Xbox’s mission is to empower the gamers of the world to play the games they want, with the people they want, anywhere they want.

Jenn Panattoni, Head of Xbox Social Impact

Building on the learnings and successes from past events, Special Olympics partnered with Microsoft and Xbox again to launch the inaugural “Gaming for Inclusion,” an esports experience to engage people of all abilities and invite more Special Olympics athletes to compete.

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The virtual event took place September 12-18 with a multi-game series hosted through Microsoft’s esports platform Smash.gg. Special Olympics athletes and Unified partners competed in bracket-style tournaments, and the crowning champions went on to compete in the Celebrity Showcase event featuring Special Olympics celebrity ambassadors and supporters on September 18. Spectators were able to livestream the action, now available on demand at Xbox’s Twitch channel and Special Olympics’ YouTube channel. The on-demand Celebrity Showcase is available on YouTube with American Sign Language (ASL) and Audio Descriptions (EN).

“With the ‘Gaming for Inclusion’ experience, we want everyone to have fun, and hope more people will see gaming as a place for them and that they are welcome here,” says Panattoni. It’s also a meaningful and important step in making esports more accessible by empowering Special Olympics athletes with a new way to compete.

Meet the athletes

Two Special Olympics athletes who competed in the 2020 Xbox Virtual Gaming Event share why when it comes to inclusion, gaming matters.

“I love Special Olympics because esports has beat the boredom of having to stay home so much over the last year. Talking, laughing and competing with everyone online is one of the coolest experiences ever.”

- Stephanie
Home: Oak Lawn, IL
Favorite Xbox GameMinecraft

"Gaming helps me make new friends."

- Wesley
Home: Brandon, MS
Favorite Xbox Game: Madden and WWE

Building an esports program

In 2017, Special Olympics approached Microsoft to help tackle its biggest challenge: growth. Special Olympics uses sport as a platform to engage people with intellectual disabilities (ID), providing them with valuable resources for better healthcare, education, and unified leadership. But globally, the organization serves 6M athletes—a small percentage of the estimated 200M people around the world with ID. How could they reach more people worldwide?

A team of employees participating in Microsoft’s Hackathon took on the challenge. Together, with support from Xbox’s Gaming for Everyone team, they developed a plan for growing Special Olympics beyond the traditional playing field in the world of esports. They tested out their new Special Olympics Gaming Initiative by hosting the first-ever Special Olympics Gaming tournament at the 2018 USA Games.

Large group of men and women on stage in Special Olympics gear, holding up awards.
First-ever Xbox Gaming Tournament hosted at 2018 Special Olympics USA Games. Special Olympics Champion of Inclusion, Jenn Panattoni, is front row and fourth from the right.

Following the success of the gaming tournament in 2018, Special Olympics planned to hold its next in-person esports event at the USA Games in 2022—that is, until the pandemic and events of last year led to the 2020 Xbox Virtual Gaming event. Now, Special Olympics is looking to the future with esports as a virtual part of its programming.

In particular, Special Olympics and Microsoft plan to follow up the inaugural “Gaming for Inclusion” event in September with training programs that help local Special Olympics organizations set up their own esports tournaments through Smash.gg. The goal is to set up systems for year-round gaming practices and competitions in preparation for the 2022 “Gaming for Inclusion” experience—and beyond.

“Our digital transformation allows people of all abilities to build connections with others through the universal language of gaming,” says Prianka Nandy, Chief Information and Technology at Special Olympics. “Together, we’ve shaped an idea into an innovative program that will last well beyond the pandemic.”

Help us build inclusive communities

Donate your Microsoft Rewards points to Special Olympics and support inclusion on and off the field. Help advance a global movement of youth leaders to create a world where we all are included, regardless of ability.