WATCH: Blind video game champion takes on Twitch audience
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By: Kilian Fichou
With a joystick in one hand, a Braille device under the other and a mask over his eyes, BlindWarriorSven efficiently disposes of yet another opponent.
"I put this mask on because sometimes people tell me I'm not really blind," he says with a smile, in reference to the sore losers he has beaten on the video game streaming site Twitch.
Sven van de Wege was only six when he was struck by cancer. He lost his sight, but was determined not to let his disability get in the way of his childhood passion for video games.
And it hasn't: the 35-year-old Dutchman has beaten some of the world's best players at tournaments around Europe, and claimed a champion's title for playing the iconic "Street Fighter" series.
His hearing is his crucial weapon. Van de Wege navigates his way around Street Fighter V, a game with "a very detailed sound design", using solely its sound effects.
After years of training for several hours a day, the volume of his opponent's footsteps tells him how far away they are; the sound of each punch and blow tells him how to react.
"By those audio cues, I'm able to know if I'm on the left, if I'm on the right, how I need to attack," he explains.
Streaming with no screen
It's a skill he's now monetising via Twitch, a website with some 30 million users per day - most of whom log in to watch others play video games.
Putting together a streaming studio adapted to van de Wege's needs required specialist equipment as well as a fair amount of creativity from the gaming champion, who works by day as an IT engineer.
The studio, which sits within his apartment in The Hague, includes two computers hooked up to a Braille display.
This device translates comments from the stream's live chat into Braille that he can read by touch, allowing him to interact with the viewers watching him play.
There's no computer screen in front of him, just a wall.
"I don't need a screen, and it saves energy," he points out.
He finds that "the most difficult thing is keeping an eye on the chat": the comments, offering encouragement or wisecracks, whizz by and can be difficult to follow even for seeing players who are focused on trying to crush their rivals in the game.
Van de Wege, who joined Twitch in 2017, challenges subscribers to his channel every Sunday in furious combat.
"When I play versus my viewers, I think eight out of 10 matches I win," he says.
A headset stays glued to his ears, so that he can track his enemies' every move via the side effects.
Accessibility features needed
The Street Fighter obsessive occasionally dips into other games, although he says too many titles lack the accessibility features needed for players with disabilities.
Twitch has faced pressure to encourage diversity on the platform, particularly since the best-paid players on the site are overwhelmingly able-bodied white men.
In May, the site added some 350 tags to allow members of different communities to find each other more easily, including one for people with disabilities.
But van de Wege says Twitch could do more to make the platform accessible for sight-impaired players.
Deciphering the messages in the live chat can be difficult because people post images, which messes with his Braille device.
"I wish there was an option that you could just have a plain chat without all the graphical stuff," he says.
Van de Wege currently holds affiliate status on Twitch, where the size of his payouts is linked to the number of subscribers - he has 3 000 - and the amount they donate.
He currently earns less than 100 euros a month on the platform but hopes to one day achieve partner status, which would allow him to stream as a full-time job.
"If I had thought 'I'm blind, I cannot play video games anymore', I would have given up," he says.
"If I can do it, I'm sure that more people can do it."