Mike Begum – Competitive Gamer

“Handicapped. Disabled. Physically challenged. Crippled. Abnormal. Different. Every word to describe what I was, I’ve heard it all. Twenty-five years of living it all out. I've felt trapped, incapable, useless, and extremely dependent of others during the course of my usual day. My only escape is my perfectly capable mind. Something I have been blessed with all my life.”

So begins devoted gamer Mike Begum’s newly released autobiography, My Life Beyond the Floor, an 87-page e-book chronicling his adventures as a son, a brother, a friend, a survivor, and, perhaps most relevant to readers of this magazine, a serious competitor. Despite severe physical limitations, Begum, who wrote the book by holding a chopstick in his mouth, competes in video game tournaments throughout Texas and, recently, has been traveling to various competition events across the country.

Begum was born with arthrogryposis, a rare congenital disorder that causes severe joint contractures and muscle weakness. As such, his arms and legs, which are bent at odd angles, are largely useless for such ordinary endeavors as walking, driving, flexing, kicking, stretching, picking up objects, and playing video games (more on that later). As if that weren’t enough of a cross to bear, he also has multiple scoliosis.

Indeed, everyday life is a struggle for Begum, but he doesn’t want to be pitied or fussed over, just treated normally with the occasional helping hand. He appreciates (and welcomes) the assistance he receives from friends and family, but he admits it’s not always easy asking for help—he hates the idea that he might be a burden on anyone.

“My biggest frustration in life is getting off the ground,” he said. “I can’t go anywhere without my family having to pick me up off the floor physically. I only wish to find a way where I can transport myself off the floor without having to depend on others so much.”

Begum has used an electric wheelchair periodically throughout his life, but he’s much more comfortable in a prone position than he is sitting up. Begum spends most of his waking hours flat on his stomach, using his arms and shoulders to prop up his torso and head. Sitting for too long in a standard position makes Begum sore and tired, so he avoids it when he can.

When Begum was in elementary school, his (now deceased) father, an expert welder, converted an electric wheelchair into a motorized bed, meaning he can maintain the prone position for hours at a time instead of having to sit. Begum must be lifted onto the customized cart (usually by his brother and sister), but once in place he can move around pretty well.

Speaking of moving around pretty well, Begum manipulates the images on his television set with surprising grace and fluidity, especially considering the limitations placed on him by his disorder. Watching Begum play video games, which he does by propping a controller in his hand and using his face to push buttons, is truly inspirational.

In a recent interview, I asked Begum to describe his gaming method.

“I use my left hand to hold and support the controller to my face,” he said. “My hands act like a table so my face won’t have any trouble positioning over any of the buttons or joysticks. I then place my left cheek on the joystick to get some grip on it. To move my character, I move my face to use my cheek in different directions. For the buttons, I use my tongue inside my mouth to push buttons like a single finger. I never press the buttons with my tongue solely. Instead, I push through the interior of my mouth to eliminate any health concerns.”

Mike Begum was born April 26th, 1988 in Tampa, Florida, where his father owned an auto repair shop while his mother stayed home with the kids.

During a fateful visit to the shop, “an elderly woman came by to have her vehicle looked at, and saw my mother standing by,” Begum said. “The woman placed her hand over my mother’s stomach. After feeling her, she revealed a prophecy to my mother: Please don’t be alarmed, but there is something wrong with the baby.”

The woman also told Mrs. Begum that her son would be a “great figure in the community” and “respected by all,” but that didn’t stop her from insisting that the woman leave the shop.

A short time later, Mrs. Begum got a sonogram without her husband’s knowledge and was told that she needed an emergency C-section. After being contacted about the dire situation, Mr. Begum rushed to the hospital. He arrived just in time to hear one of the doctors yell, “Oh my god, this baby is severely deformed!”

Begum’s parents were devastated by this news, but over time they grew to accept what had happened. They loved their son, gave him the medical care he needed, and worked hard to make his life as normal as possible. In fact, when Begum was just two-years-old, they bought him something more befitting of a kid with fully functional arms and hands: a video game system.

“Gaming started in my life at the age of two,” Begum said. “I had recently recovered from several surgeries, and my birthday was just around the corner. At my birthday party, my parents gave me an unusual gift: a Nintendo Entertainment System or NES for short. The reasoning for getting their disabled son this machine is still a mystery to me, but I think it was something my father was interested in trying. I believe he wanted to merely show me the way it worked, and have me watch him complete the games he bought for it. My mother was not very keen to the whole video game entertainment scene, but she also thought it was a good idea for me to watch and learn from dad.”

Begum’s father bought a number of games and would get his son to watch him play, but then something incredible happened: Begum, using his wrist and chin and a healthy dose of toddler ingenuity, figured out a way to play the games himself. Amazingly, after a few weeks of trying, the gaming prodigy beat Super Mario Bros. 3—a fairly difficult title for anyone to complete—before he turned three-years-old.

“My learning how to play video games stunned both my parents,” Begum said. “They could not believe their son could achieve this without the muscle capacity of a normal child.”

Watching other kids engage in physical recreation, such as running down the street and playing tag, remains a painful memory for Begum. One day, when he was eight-years-old, the enormity of the limitations caused by his condition sunk in. With tears streaming down his face, he asked his dad why he couldn’t ride his brother’s new bicycle. His father didn’t say why, but Begum, experiencing a rather dubious epiphany, realized that he already knew the answer: he simply didn’t have the physical capabilities of the other children.

Fortunately, video games, along with a prodigious imagination and the will to fight, helped Begum avoid a potentially depressing life and gave him a fantastic, readily available outlet for his pent-up energy, competitive nature, and desire for independence.

“All I wanted was to have something I could do on my own,” he said. “My life was catered to at every minute. Video games truly granted me a freedom from this. I found something I could actually do on my own. No dependencies, no physical struggles, no obstacles in my way. This hobby was an alleviator of my sorrow and frustration at not being able to do the things others could. Sure, it still pained me to look out the window and see others doing outside activities with full use of their bodies, but I always had something that would be my escape.”

Although he’s never tried the older consoles, such as the Atari 2600 or ColecoVision, Begum has owned almost every system released from the NES forward. His favorite all-time console is the Super Nintendo, which was a “huge part of his childhood” and has a “ridiculous amount of masterpieces” in its library, including his favorite game for the system, Mega Man X.

Despite his affinity for the SNES, Begum’s favorite game of all time is Sonic Adventure 2 Battle for the GameCube. “There is literally not one thing wrong with the game, and I am a huge fan of Sonic,” he said. “The characters, music, stages, difficulty, and replayability all come together to make the ultimate gaming experience.”

Begum’s current game of choice is Street Fighter 4, the popular one-on-one brawler for the Xbox 360.

“The competitive nature in me keeps me playing the Street Fighter franchise for hours on end,” he said. “I thoroughly enjoy traveling to tournaments and meeting all kinds of people playing Street Fighter IV.”

You wouldn’t necessarily know it by his otherwise kind demeanor and friendly, unassuming smile, but Begum is a ruthless gamer, taking delight in pummeling his more able-bodied opponents into the ground.

 “Competition in gaming has been a part of my life since my early teen years,” he said. “I have met my very best friends through competition, and the doors it has opened have been monumental in my life.”

Begum’s first tournament occurred at a video game store in 2005 during his junior year in high school, when he was visiting his mom in Houston, Texas. To the astonishment of those watching, he finished fourth in a field of 64 competitors. The game was Super Smash Bros. Melee for the GameCube.

Begum, who now lives in Houston with his mom, was emboldened by the experience and elated by the fact that he could hold his own against most any gamer of any skill level, so he began competing in tournaments as often as possible.

In 2011, when Begum heard about the Evolution World Championship in Las Vegas, Nevada, he was determined to go. EVO, as it’s commonly called, is the Super Bowl of fighting game tournaments.

“Every year in July, players from all across the world fly in to compete in the biggest event of the year,” Begum said. “But this sort of trip was expensive, so with the help of my friends, a fundraiser was created to help get me there. I was humbled by the help a lot of people gave me to get to the tournament,” where, much to his delight, he placed 64th in a field of hundreds of gamers.

One of Begum’s biggest fans is Killeen, Texas resident Josh Jones, former event coordinator for a charity organization called Gaming World Wide, which was instrumental in getting Begum to the EVO tournament.

“When I first sat down with him at [a store called] Joysticks Gaming in Killen, I was blown away by his never-ending smile,” Jones said. “He had shared with me his struggles, his hopes and dreams. Needless to say, I was nearly in tears at his never-ending spirit and his ability to move forward.”

After the interview, Jones setup up a live stream of himself playing Begum at Street Fighter IV, in which Begum is one of the world’s foremost Chun Li players.

“He went 40 wins and had only one loss against me,” Jones said. “At that point, I was beyond stoked, and, well, humbled at the fact that he gave me some fighting tips after beating me senseless.”

On January 19, 2013, Begum received what he calls the biggest honor of his life at the Texas State Trading Card Premiere held in Austin. Hosted by world-renowned scorekeeper and industry ambassador Walter Day, the event recognized Begum for “overcoming physical limitations to compete at the highest level on fighting games” and for his “important contributions to the global video game culture.”

During the award ceremony, where Begum received a commemorative plaque and his own trading card, he gave a short speech in which he vowed to never quit gaming “no matter what disability I have or what stands in my way.”

In addition to soundly trouncing fellow gamers at street-fighting sims, Begum, who has a bachelor’s degree in business management, hopes to tour the country one day, sharing his story in order to motivate others to succeed at their chosen field. He also wants to open a business where people could come to play video games while he provides tips and helps them hone their skills.

Given his disability, it would’ve been easy for Begum to give up on gaming and never pick up another joystick or gamepad, but he’s a fighter and a survivor, both in real life and in the gaming world. And he remains extremely grateful for his family and friends, as he says in his new book:

“Sometimes it is best to accept the situation you are in and trust that your loved ones will accommodate you for whatever you need. It is no burden on your part when the ones who care do it out of love. However, this should never discourage you from doing everything you can for yourself. People can be very resourceful when it counts the most. I wasn't going to take my disability as an excuse. What I needed was to think positively and work with the tools I had. I began practicing getting off my bed by myself until I had it mastered. No way was I going to let my disability take every aspect of my being. Nothing is impossible when you try. That is living. Fighting has been at the core of my being since the day I was born and will stay in there until the day I die.”

His pal, Josh Jones, adds, “Mike Begum is someone I admire, respect, and would do anything for, and he feels the same way about his friends and family. The world truly needs more spirited individuals like Mike Begum. We really do.”

~Brett Weiss is the author of the Classic Home Video Games book series (McFarland Publishers), and of The 100 Greatest Console Video Games: 1977-1987 (Schiffer Publishing). For more info, check out his website: www.brettweisswords.com