On February 7, this tweet from Blizzard Arena Los Angeles got a lot of attention.
We don’t usually have American Sign Language (ASL) interpreters at the Overwatch League, so why were they there that day? Who were they interpreting for? And what is it like being a Deaf Overwatch League fan? How is it different?
Danik, age 13, is the person who originally requested the interpreters. He introduced himself to me on Discord as “a huge huge huge huge Harry Potter fan” who loves playing Overwatch and Minecraft, and aspires to play for the Los Angeles Valiant.
The World Health Organization estimates that around 466 million people worldwide are deaf or hearing impaired—that’s 5 percent of the global population. There are an estimated 300 different dialects of sign language used globally; ASL is the one used in the United States. It’s a visual, gestural language, which means it’s not only what you do with your hands that portrays meaning, but also your facial expression and movement.
When Danik requested ASL interpreters for his Overwatch League visit, Blizzard Arena staff reached out to The Sign Language Company, who Blizzard has worked with in the past for BlizzCon. That was how Blizzard Arena organized the two interpreters for this particular day: Ashley Change and Jann Goldsby. Although they had interpreted all sorts of things at BlizzCon—panels, Q&As, cinematics, even the concert—this was the first time either of them had interpreted an esports event.
“We have interpreted at BlizzCon for the last three years, and I actually have my own personal experience with Blizzard because I am a gamer myself,” Change said. “I was able to give Jann a little bit of background. We did have to do further research because we’d never done a tournament.”
That research involves conferring with others in the Deaf community, or the clients themselves, about signs that refer to words that only exist in the gaming world.
“There are definitely terms in gaming that you would never use in your daily life,” Change explained. “It’s very helpful to have the Deaf person there that does know the game. So, if there was a term like ‘ganking,’ if we don’t know the sign for that but they have a sign for that, then we can ask them. They feed that to us and we’ll use it.”
This is true for Danik and his friends, who created signs for Overwatch heroes.
Once the interpreters are informed about the unique terms for each event, the interpretation itself is a two-person job, one that comes with additional challenges.
“When they go to watch a tournament, their eyes are glued to the screen. If we hear an announcer say ‘oh my God!’ or if they say something funny, and the Deaf person notices everybody in the audience is laughing, then we will let them know, we will feed them that joke," Change explained. "We are there to provide access for anything that is going on, but when it comes to watching the tournament, their eyes are glued."
“My eyes will stay on the Deaf person when I’m in the ‘hot seat,’” Goldsby added. “If I hear something extra, something that the audience is reacting to, I can give it, and [Ashley] can keep her eyes on the game to keep track of where things are. Then we will switch—I’ll keep my eyes on the game, and she’ll keep her eyes on the Deaf person. So we’re very present during the game, and we still have to support each other.
“They didn’t have any limitations on asking someone, ‘Hey, where can I get that T-shirt?’ or ‘Can I get autographs after the show?’ [Danik] was able to approach one of the interpreters, and they were able to approach a worker to get their question answered, and they were just overjoyed and thrilled. I thought that was really fun—other than watching, of course!”
That’s how Danik got his shirt signed by his favorite Valiant players, Terence “SoOn” Tarlier and Brady “Agilities” Girardi, when he visited the arena. His experiences are, for the most part, the same as everyone else’s. He might not be able to hear the cheering of the crowd, but he appreciates the way the arena vibrates when they do—and during the matches, it was constant.
Amelia: that must've been so hype
Danik: The sound balloon thingy was fun
Amelia: a sound balloon? What's that?
Danik: the thing you get at the beginning
Amelia: The thunder sticks!
Danik: i didnt know that it had a name
While there are small differences between how Danik’s live experience compared to yours or mine, our enjoyment of the league is fundamentally the same. However, playing Overwatch is a much different story, and there are a few small things that Danik finds difficult—reacting to sound cues for ultimates like McCree’s Deadeye, for example.
What is it like being a deaf Overwatch League fan? In Danik’s experience, there’s not much of a difference. It might actually be a little bit cooler, with the sign language and all. But Danik is just like the rest of us.
Danik: I made this for the game I went to.
Exactly like the rest of us.
The Overwatch League will always try to accommodate Deaf fans by providing ASL interpreters at events—we just need at least a week’s advanced notice. If you are Deaf or hearing-impaired and purchase tickets for Overwatch League, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.