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NMSU esports athlete with muscular dystrophy adapts and overcomes

John “WheelyNinja” Cully plays video games just like everyone else, except his style may differ from other players.

Cully, 20, has the medical condition Ullrich congenital muscular dystrophy, but that does not hinder him from doing what he loves — playing video games. He is an active member of the New Mexico State esports community, and is a junior varsity player on the Rocket League team.

John “WheelyNinja” Cully poses for a photo during an NM State Esports media day event January 28, 2022, in the Hardman and Jacobs Undergraduate Learning Center. Cully plays on the Rocket League junior varsity team and has been a part of the program for two years. (Photo by Patrick Jimenez)

Although Cully didn’t start PC gaming until 2012, he found his passion for video games at a very young age. “I started gaming probably in 2005. So, when I was around three years old,” Cully said. 

Cully uses a standard keyboard and mouse when he plays, which is different from the controller his teammates use, but it gives him the distinct ability to use one finger to press three buttons at once.

“I put my hand on [my keyboard] quite a bit differently,” Cully said. “My hands are kind of claw shaped … so, I can use that double jointedness to press buttons in different ways than most people.”

Cully describes being equivalent to normal gamers while playing, which he says doesn’t happen too often.

“After you figure out what works for you, the rest of it really doesn’t matter,” Cully said. “Then you’re on an equal playing field, which is a pretty good thing. You don’t get that very often when you’re in these situations.”

Miguel “RetroDevil” Phetteplace, is a manager and player in the NMSU esports community and gets inspiration every time he sees Cully and others with disabilities gaming alongside their peers.

“It makes me so happy because it means other people that struggle with different abilities can be involved with us,” Phetteplace said. “It allows us to open up our program to everyone.”

John “WheelyNinja” Cully demonstrates how he plays Rocket League in his bedroom on April 6, 2022. Cully has been playing video games since he was three years old and sees himself playing video games for as long as he is able to. Cully usually spends four hours a week practicing with the team. (Photo courtesy of John Cully)

Phetteplace said he loves to see Cully getting more involved with gaming communities and players. “People [with different abilities] have struggled their whole lives with stuff like this and they don’t get to be involved with things like sports as much,” he said. “[Cully] can compete and have enjoyment in something he can build friends with.”

Jeffery “Frawd” Mickle is a teammate of Cully’s on the Rocket League team and has been gaming with him for years. Mickle said he is excited to see video games reach broader audiences, such as people with disabilities. “I am super happy for [Cully]. I’m glad he has that opportunity [to play],” Mickle said. “Everyone has the potential to play at the same level.”

“After you figure out what works for you, the rest of it really doesn’t matter. Then you’re on an equal playing field, which is a pretty good thing. You don’t get that very often when you’re in these situations.”

Cully said the hardest part is finding the right equipment and accommodations for people with disabilities, and he indicated there are some games he can’t play.

“In most games, it’s not a part of the software; [it’s] mainly a part of the hardware,” Cully said. “For keyboard and mouse there really isn’t a whole lot out there.”

Cully would like to see more thought go into game design in the future in order to make the sport more accessible to gamers with disabilities. “I could see it, but I don’t see a lot of people working towards it,” Cully said. “A lot with disabilities is having to be adaptable. There’s not like a one-size-fits-all.”

Cully indicated he’s seen a lot of people who are disabled go into gaming, so there is clearly a need for more equipment and more options. “I have seen a lot of people go into the gaming community who are disabled,” he said. “The hard part is to find the right adapted equipment to use, and a lot of the time that isn’t accessible.”

One Comment

  1. Brody Scaggari

    Sup admiration for a young aspiring writer like Michael Chavez, I really enjoyed this article!!

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