Quad Gods interview: the first all-quadriplegic esports team levels the playing field

“All of us have the experience of being a prisoner in your own body,” says Blake Hunt. He’s one of eight members of the world’s first all-quadriplegic esports team, the Quad Gods. “Gaming is one place that you are allowed to escape, and then it becomes less about what you’re physically able to do and more about what you’re capable of.” 

Hunt and his fellow teammates are at a Central Park memorial service for Chris Scott, the gamer and former skydiving instructor who initially dreamed up the Quad Gods while receiving treatment for his spinal cord injury. In a film that’s packed with poetic reflections on what it means to live in a body that doesn’t always work the way you want it to, Hunt’s meditation on the power of gaming as a democratizing force, a form of physicality in and of itself, stands out to me as the central thesis of Quad Gods, which streams on Max on July 10th. At a time when there’s a lot to be afraid of when it comes to technology, particularly emerging technologies like artificial intelligence, Quad Gods offers a refreshingly optimistic counter-narrative of how these tools can level the playing field for people who society consistently brushes aside. 

Quad Gods is a lot of films at once. It elegantly weaves together a number of classic documentary formats like sports, competition, and animation, but what ultimately makes it work is the fact that it paints vivid and humanizing portraits of its central characters. As a viewer, you aren’t confined to the limits of an esports competition. Hunt and his teammates, Richard Jacobs, Prentice Hall, and Sergio Acevedo, generously invite you into their lives as they cross New York City — by wheelchair, car, and bus — take their kids to school, go on dates, and try their best to navigate a world that, in the words of Hunt, “isn’t really designed for us.”

I was charmed by Quad Gods, which was a passion project by director Jess Jacklin that was years in the making. Ahead of the film’s release on HBO today, I talked to Jacklin about how she uncovered and developed this story, the challenges of making a movie about screens, and what she hopes viewers will take away.

Photo courtesy of Alex Joyce

The Verge: How did you discover this story?

Jess Jacklin: I met Dr. Petrino, who was a neuroscientist in the film. I was confiding in him at the time because I deal with a lot of chronic pain for a condition I have. At the time, he was going into VR trials to help rewire pain receptors in the brain, and I was fascinated. I came down to check out what he was doing, and Blake Hunt, who is one of the subjects in the film, was actually a part of Petrino’s VR testing at the time. Chris Scott, who you saw [in the film], was really championing this idea of an esports team. It was sort of his idea, and they were all casually hanging out down there talking about it. I was like, “What? This is amazing. I have to get involved.” 

I met Chris first, and I was filming with him for a while. This is pre-covid days — this is 2018. I think they had picked a team name and were just starting to get a sponsor here or there, and he passed away. That was sort of what galvanized all of us — them to really keep going and me to really start pursuing it as a feature project.

It seems like you’ve had an interest in the therapeutic potential of technology for a while. How did this story challenge or confirm any preexisting ideas you had coming into it?

One of the biggest things I learned in the process of making this film was how to think about identity as a disabled person in terms of a social model of disability. It goes against what you might see in a traditional hospital setting, which is deemed “the medical model” in the academic world. There’s a lot of: How do you rehabilitate? How do you fix? But it’s sort of missing the idea of the full person, which is discounting this being a part of somebody’s life experience and them not necessarily wanting to change who they are but maybe wanting to lessen the amount of pain that they have or think about rehabilitation in different ways.

I felt like being around the lab and doing my research and being immersed in this world opened me up to all the nuances of the disabled experience, which, ultimately, I think I found in the film. For instance, somebody born without the ability to hear has a very different experience of themselves and their identity than somebody [who] went through a traumatic event and lost the ability to hear. This spectrum of the experience became something I was very interested in. Even within the three lead subjects — who you might think have all had very similar experiences — they’re all very different in what they want and how they see themselves. That became something I felt was really important to explore in the narrative as I was making it.

Quad Gods is a sports film, a competition film, an animated film, and a character study all in one. I’m curious how you thought about marrying all of those different formats and incorporating the competition into the narrative of the film.

I knew from the beginning that I didn’t want to make a traditional sports doc. I didn’t want there to be this relationship to plot and to “Will they win? Won’t they win?” It just never felt like it was the point to me. I also felt like what gaming was to them was something bigger than that. It wasn’t about proving that they were as good as other players or something like that. It felt too superficial for what the actual experience was. 

I thought, Well, the sports element can be nice for structure. It gives us a sense of something progressing, but I didn’t want to be tied to it, either. I thought of it as a nice device and also as a nice way to show the difference in opinion around it, too. It was a real point of tension. It comes in that scene where Richard asks the question, “What do we all want out of this? Do we even all want the same thing?” Because I was finding it meant something different to each of them.

Prentice Hall, Richard Jacobs, Alejandro Courtney, Blake Hunt exercising in Central Park
Courtesy of HBO

Your contributors see a lot of opportunity in technology, mainly in the form of video games, but there is also this scene you were just describing where they use AI to create their digital avatars. I’m curious how you think their attitudes toward these technologies and the very real benefits they offer counter and add nuance to some of the public skepticism and fear there is out there right now about some of these emerging technologies.

It’s offering something different to people who aren’t able-bodied. There’s so much potential in this stuff. The truth is a lot of them were gamers before they were injured. All three of the lead characters were already playing video games. This was just like, “Oh, great, there’s this technology now that allows me to do this thing that isn’t new, but I’m doing it in a new way.” 

I think generally, for the disabled community, having things designed with any kind of body in mind is a great way to think about design because it ends up benefiting everybody. The example they use a lot is the curb cut. It was created for wheelchairs, but then women with strollers could use it. When you design in an open way, you can include everyone.

AI came along in the process of making this, and everybody was having the experience of like, “Whoa… Oh my gosh, I just uploaded my photo into this thing, and now all of a sudden, I’m this character, and I can create this stuff.” It was really cool to see them exploring with it. I think they all found a really fun, creative outlet in it, even just in this avatar exploration. I found Prentice was writing scenes and exploring animation and playing around with AI just because of the process we were in. I think that I’m optimistic about what technology can offer. I think that it’s easy to be Black Mirror about everything, but I’m cautiously optimistic about what it can offer.

What kinds of visual challenges did making a film about technology pose, and what solutions did you find?

I remember early conversations with the editors and it being like, “Is this just going to be a bunch of people sitting at computers the entire movie?” I thought, “Well, the most interesting thing isn’t really the video games. It’s these people and their lives are really dynamic.” That’s where I decided to focus. It’s not really what you expect. You don’t really expect someone to be an Uber delivery person. You don’t really think about them raising kids and getting on and off buses. That, to me, felt like, “Well, I will have them sitting at computers sometimes, but I can at least balance the film with all these other dynamic scenes.” 

Do you have an update on the Quad Gods and how their team is doing this year?

One really exciting update is that Andy, who was the newest recruit to the Quad Gods and who you meet at the end of the film, just placed second in a big tournament. The next generation of the Quad Gods is coming in really strong, and so they were all on his livestream watching him compete for the championship. I mean, they ended up taking second place, which was amazing. I can’t remember what the game was, but he’s doing really well from just learning the quad stick when we filmed him to where he is at now. He’s gotten super good at it.

Quad Gods is streaming on Max starting July 10,

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