Special Olympics Washington cancelled all Unified high school sports during the 2020-21 school year, due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Instead, the group encouraged schools to participate in its “Virtual Winter Games,” which included a wellness cup, a fitness heptathlon and an esports tournament.
Washougal High School’s Unified team members chose the esports tournament, which matched teams against each other in “Rocket League,” a popular vehicular soccer video game.
Panthers coach Dani Allen said most of the Washougal competitors hadn’t played the game before, but learned quickly, performed well and had a lot of fun along the way.
“It was something new and kept them active and connected with others. It was something they all looked forward to,” Allen said. “Not only was it fun, but it was a really big learning experience for all of them.”
Washougal’s two squads placed first and third in the Unified Champion Schools division of the Virtual Winter Games’ E-Gaming Championship, held the first week of March.
Unified sports combine students with and without intellectual disabilities on the same team in an effort to support student-athletes of all abilities.
“Everybody needs to feel needed and important, and this is one way to do it,” Allen, who coaches Washougal’s Unified basketball team and 2019 state championship-winning soccer team, said.
Allen hopes to soon offer other Unified opportunities, such as flag football, to Washougal students interested in Unified sports.
“Hopefully, we’ll keep everybody involved as long as they want to be,” Allen said.
Washougal’s Unified students were able to stay involved this winter thanks to “Rocket League,” a best-selling video game known for its easy-to-learn mechanics, fast-paced action and blend of cooperative and competitive play.
Controlling rocket-powered cars, players aim to knock a ball into their opponent’s goal and score points over the course of a match, which combines aspects of indoor soccer and demolition derby.
“To me, it seems like a cross between foosball and soccer,” Allen said. “It has all these different fields that you can play on (with) different themes. Some of the fields are super short and narrow, and some of them are giant, and sometimes your car goes on the ceiling and you can’t get it off. And sometimes, if somebody else runs into you, your car blows up and you’re out of the game for a few seconds until your car can respawn. On the field, there are little power-ups that you drive over that give you a rocket boost to go faster. In order to ‘demo’ somebody’s car, you have to be in full rocket-boost power. To try to bump the ball to get it to where it needs to go is a whole other skill in itself.”
Allen, an art teacher at Jemtegaard Middle School, and seven Washougal students started preparing for the competition in early January.
During the first several virtual practice sessions, they downloaded the game onto their consoles, registered their “gamer tags,” and learned how to issue and accept “friend invites” and create private matches. Then they began to hone their skills on the virtual field.
Two of the students, Brayden Cassell and Daniel Wood, had played “Rocket League” before, Allen said, so “they knew exactly what to do for each console, which just blew my mind. It didn’t matter what console the other kids had. They were able to explain it either to the kid or to the parent or to the sibling that was trying to help them out, how to get to where they needed to get the stuff they needed in order to participate with us. They were so patient and so kind when they were explaining exactly what to do and what buttons to push and how many times to push that button. It was just amazing to me.”
“It’s a fun experience to help out and to be a part of the team,” Kasssel said. “The best part is seeing everyone’s face when they score, whether it is in basketball, soccer or ‘Rocket League.’ They light up instantly.”
The tournament called for three-person teams, so Allen split her students into two squads, named the Lightning and the Raptors. They played each other in a semifinal match, in which the Lightning emerged victorious to move on to the final.
The Lightning — led by Wood, “an awesome ‘Rocket League’ player who could put it in the net from anywhere on the field,” according to Allen — won the championship match, while the Raptors defeated their final opponent to take third place.
The results were especially gratifying to Allen, whose life “totally changed for the better” after starting to coach Washougal High’s Unified squads several years ago.
“Every time we had a tournament, I always cried, just a little bit, tears of joy and happiness,” she said. “Then when we tried ‘Rocket League,’ and it was a whole new (experience). After each practice, I was always amazed at what they could do and how they were doing it. Watching them interact with each other, after each practice, I just wanted to call somebody and tell them how awesome it is and how proud I am of them. Then after the state tournament, I was just over-the-moon thrilled with everybody and everything they had learned. It was just amazing.”