AUSTIN, Texas — Michael Espinoza has been blind since birth. And yet he's been playing video games since he was about 6, now even beating sighted players in online matches. Confused how those facts might square up?
"Growing up, there were things that I either couldn't do or was told I couldn't do," he told VICE News. "Luckily, I'm really stubborn." And he's really good at playing by sound.
Espinoza starting playing games with his cousins on a Sega Genesis at their grandma's house. Then his parents bought him a PlayStation for his 7th birthday, opening up an entirely new universe. "I was hooked," he said.
He started with games like Spyro the Dragon, Crash Bandicoot, and Grand Theft Auto before switching to fighting games like Street Fighter, Soulcalibur, and Mortal Kombat — his absolute favorite.
For one, fighting games didn't require navigation, so Espinoza could focus completely on memorizing a game's sound design — how different moves sound depending on who is making them, and from what distance.
He's put in a lot of time training on the sonic aspects of the games, five to six hours a day for a period a few years ago, before he started working in IT for a technology firm. He'll carefully study "an individual punch's sound, an individual kick's sound... every aspect of what makes a character tick, sonically speaking," he says.
After years of practice, Espinoza describes learning a new game or character like learning a new instrument. At this point, he knows the theory of sound design in gaming, so to speak, so it doesn't take him that long to dial into a character's sonic universe.
These days, Espinoza regularly beats sighted players online, which holds particular meaning for him. "Beating a sighted person online when you're blind is probably is one of the most gratifying feelings I have ever felt," he said. "It makes me feel like my skill doesn't have to be dependent on other people's perceptions of what I can do."
This segment originally aired January 10, 2019, on VICE News Tonight on HBO.