Like many gamers, Charley Gentry loves to load up his favorite first person shooter, connect with some friends online, and pit his skills against other players. But there is something about Charley that distinguishes him from most gamers. Charley has no arms or legs.
“I was born like this,” Gentry explains. “They don’t know what caused it, and they didn’t pick it up on the ultra sound,” adding, “So basically when I was born they were like uh-oh.”
Gentry’s love for games began as a child. “In the beginning it was the original Nintendo and those games were easy to play. Over the years as the games got more complex I had to get more complex and had to adapt to the games.”
Adapt indeed, Gentry created a procedure on his own that allowed him to play games even using complicated control schemes. “I put a normal PS3 controller on my chest, and I was able to use my pectoral muscles to hit R2 and L2, and then I could use my chin for the analog sticks, the D pad, and triangle, square, circle, and X,” explained Gentry.
Despite his uncanny ability to wield a controller, Gentry has been vastly limited in the titles he can play. Gentry explains, “The developers of the PS3 games stopped allowing button mapping and made ninety-eight percent of their games to where R1 and L1 were the primary or alternate actions. I’m completely unable to hit R1 or L1 and so that has limited my gaming experience.”
This is where Tempe-based company Evil Controllers came to the aid of gamers like Gentry.
The company specializes in controller and console customizations for modern gaming consoles. Typically, video game console controllers that come in the box are mono-chromatic, and one size fits all. Evil Controllers on the other hand offer products like custom face plates which allow players to express themselves by choosing unique patterns and color combinations to give their controller a personalized touch. For those who care less for aesthetics and focus more on functionality, modifications to the D-pad, thumb sticks, or button locations can give players an edge by increasing reaction times. For someone like Gentry, an Evil Controller’s modification can open up his gaming choices by moving some buttons around, adding extra buttons, or being built in such a way that it can be held easier.
Adam Coe, President of Evil Controllers, started the business during his freshman year of college at the University of Arizona at the age of 19. Coe taught himself the methods of modifying a gaming controller to help improve his own performance in his favorite game at the time, Halo 2. He quickly realized the popularity of his modification after getting reactions from friends and other gamers, and decided to sell his controller on E-Bay. The controller was an instant hit. Coe knew he had started something special and decided to drop out of school to commit full time to developing his company. Eight months later, Evil Controllers was born.
“It was really a no-brainer,” explained Coe of his decision to create controller modifications. “I believed in the concept of having more buttons accessible by more fingers, which meant faster response times, and better gameplay.”
But it wasn’t until Coe met with an intriguing gamer named Randy Fitzgerald that he really discovered the true purpose behind his work.
Fitzgerald is perhaps most notable for his debut appearance on the Pro gaming circuit during the 2007 Major League Gaming competition, using the pseudonym “NOM4D,” where he helped his team reach the “Rainbow Six: Vegas” semi-finals, using only his mouth to play.
In an October 2009 interview with Tara Tefertiller from AbleGamers.com Randy Fitzgerald goes into detail about his condition, “My disability is called Arthrogryposis. It is a non-genetic muscle and joint disorder. Basically, underdeveloped muscles and joints in my arms and legs.”
Adam’s brother Jonah explained that meeting with Fitzgerald really solidified their desire to not only provide customization options for able bodied gamers, but to allow disabled players to better enjoy the games they love.
While Fitzgerald came up with his own controller design, Evil Controllers built the prototype and acted as Fitzgerald’s pro-gaming sponsor. This allowed him the opportunity to spread the word about accessible gaming. Anyone who may have spent time looking through button layout options in their favorite video games may even recognize a configuration called “Nomad,” which was named in recognition of Fitzgerald’s amazing abilities.
Despite video games becoming a more mainstream pastime, that hasn’t exactly meant that Evil Controllers finds an easier time finding customers. Coe explains, “With our focus on modded, pro, and accessible controllers it can be hard to guide the brand while educating gamers on all our possibilities. We can adapt to any controller, but we find that education is difficult because of this evolving industry and the fact many gamers are unaware modified controllers even exist.”
The growth of esports and the professional game scene has opened up a new set of customers which may fuel the continued growth of Evil Controllers. Players who travel from state to state participating in professional video game tournaments appear to seek out “tournament legal” modified controllers. Any advantage they can obtain when large prize pools are on the line, seems to a be worthwhile investment for many of these players.
Most of Evil Controller’s business comes from gamers seeking aesthetic or gameplay affecting customizations, but Coe seems committed to the growth of his accessible gaming sector. “I try to allow them to game like anybody else and a lot of times the cost of the modifications prevents them from being made,” explains Coe. His company has been operating for nearly 10 years, and it seems that accessible gaming will continue to play a pivotal role in his business model. Coe elaborated, “We dedicate 25% of our resources and focus to accessible gaming, however we wish it was 90%. With a smaller staff with unique skill-sets for building these custom controllers, it can be difficult at times to keep up with the demand.”
Funding is always the biggest issue when it comes to these elaborate customized controllers. In some cases an apparatus that would allow the use of a single button or joystick could potentially cost thousands. Coe hopes to find sponsors willing to fund more accessible gaming projects in order to keep costs down so that he can continue helping people game the way they want and need to.
“It’s a nice feeling that I can compete and not just be the guy that tags along because people like hanging out with me, I actually contribute something to my team,” explains Gentry about how the new modifications feel. “I was unable to throw grenades, now I can get ready to storm a building and throw a flash bang and go clear it out with my friends. Before, I couldn’t do that because the buttons were inaccessible to me.”
In the same Ablegamers.com interview, Fitzgerald shared his emotion and his hope for the games industry, “I think it should be an industry standard that all games should have fully customizable button layouts. That fixes ninety percent of the problem right there,” Fitzgerald paused for a moment and added, “I beg the industry to not leave us disabled individuals behind.”
It’s likely that if inventor Adam Coe and all the individuals at Evil Controllers who help design, build, and market the special modified controllers have anything to say about it; the gamers who play at a slight disadvantage now will soon be competing on a level that will challenge the best.