‘Quad Gods’ Review: Video Games Are Rehab in an Intimate Documentary About the World’s First All-Quadriplegic Esports Team

Dedicated video gamers are models of neural plasticity. With every “game over” and respawn, they illustrate the process by which our brains rewire themselves through practice and repetition, eventually allowing once-alien tasks like holding a controller to become almost second nature. Few arenas in life make it so easy to appreciate that “impossible” is really just a skill issue, a perspective that might prove especially motivating to people who can’t hold a controller in the first place; people who were told that many of the things able-bodied society deems second nature — semi-automatic behaviors like walking, driving, and engaging in any sort of meaningful competition — would always be impossible for them. The fact of the matter is that biology isn’t written in stone, and destiny is just a first-person shooter that nobody cared about until the sequel came out.

Dr. David Putrino has dedicated the last decade of his life to preaching that message through his work at Mt. Sinai’s Abilities Research Center, where adaptive gaming is such a vital part of the rehab process that six of his patients were inspired to form the world’s first all-quadriplegic Esports team: Quad Gods. Jess Jacklin’s poignant documentary of the same name doesn’t spend much time with Dr. Putrino, but his ethos is suffused into every minute of this film; much like “The Quadfather” (as he’s known around the hospital), “Quad Gods” only considers video games as a means to an end.

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This isn’t an underdog story about defying the odds within the Esports community, or even a pointed testament to the role that digital technologies will be able to play in the future treatment of spinal injuries (though Jacklin calls frequent attention to how VR, AI, and other such tools might help to repair severed mind-body relationships). On the contrary, this is a glancing but affectingly intimate study about four people who prove to themselves — and to each other — that their brains can be every bit as malleable as their bodies, so long as they’re able to remap the controls.

Each of Jacklin’s subjects has a different origin story, all of which were initially framed as more of a “game over” than a restart. When Prentice Cox (aka “Mongoslade”) snapped his spinal cord during a freak motorcycle accident, he was told that he would never walk again. When Blake Hunt (aka “Repnproof”) broke his neck as the result of a missed football tackle in his early twenties, the doctors said he should just be happy to be alive. And he is; a natural born charmer who moonlights as an Uber Eats delivery driver in his motorized wheelchair, Hunt is the most joyful member of the Quad Gods, even if his “you win some, you lose some” attitude to pro gaming isn’t always appreciated by his teammates.

Richard Jacobs (aka “Breadwinner1007”) wasn’t going to take his survival for granted after he got shot at point-blank range during a robbery, but the future President of the Quad Gods — a relatively new father at the time — didn’t have much reason to think he could hope for anything more. Like most quadriplegics, he was basically left to his own devices after a brief stint at rehab, and forced to respawn into a world that would only see him as a broken man. As the middle of six children in a family where being the best at something was the only way to get noticed, Jacobs found himself desperately searching for a new source of self-worth. One look at the clenched grimace on his face as he loses a round of “Rocket League” and you can tell that his competitive streak might’ve killed him if Dr. Putrino hadn’t found a new outlet for it.

And that’s really the crux of what “Quad Gods” is about: The struggle to maintain a sense of self in a world that assumes you no longer have one. “The biggest misconception people have of us is that we’re fragile,” says Hunt, and video games are merely framed as an avenue by which these men can dismantle that misconception in their own minds. Jacklin forgoes the opportunity to explore why “Rocket League” is the Quad Gods’ game of choice (it’s basically a combination between hockey and soccer, except all of the players are cars instead of people), just as she skirts around a more detailed explanation of how the accessibility controls work (the Quad Gods blow into a plastic tube around their lips, but the mechanics are something of a mystery).

What matters is that the Quad Gods can play the game. They can play it well enough to compete with able-bodied competition, and they can play it well enough to bond with each other as a team — a bond forged through the mutual confidence of a shared skill. Jacklin’s film is much less interested in how that confidence was achieved than in what her characters are able to do with it, and much of this documentary is spent on field trips that follow the Quad Gods as they re-engage with the world in ways that even their doctors may never have thought possible.

One of the film’s most powerful sequences finds the boys visiting a race track where Jacobs is able to drive a modified car for the first time since his injury, his trepidation melting into euphoria as his practice controlling a video game vehicle effectively prepared him for the real thing. It’s a stark contrast to a later scene where the team heads to New Jersey for a convention, and is forced to drive their chairs along busy roads that haven’t been designed to accommodate them. They eventually attract the attention of a local cop who gives them a police escort the rest of the way.

The gesture isn’t unappreciated, but it’s also indicative of a society that conditions disabled people to think of themselves as enfeebled afterthoughts (that most of the Quad Gods are Black and the cop is white adds yet another complicated dimension to how they navigate a frequently hostile world). These are proud men who have children, who have jobs, and who go on dates to see mid-tier Marvel movies and have sex like anyone else, and the way the able-bodied world chooses to accommodate them is due for some rewiring of its own.

But “Quad Gods” is less effective as a social issues doc than it is as a work of individual portraiture, and while Jacklin’s emphasis on camaraderie prevents her from digging all that deep into any one of her subjects, each of her primary characters proves sufficiently riveting all the same. Jacobs’ obsession with victory helps shape the film’s errant focus on the Quad Gods’ tournament prospects, and the tension that develops between he and some of his less determined teammates brings texture to a story that could easily have become dishonest and formulaic if it was just an Esports fairy tale.

For Cox, walking again would be the only win that matters, and Jacklin makes sure that his efforts to do that are inextricable from the Quad Gods’ “Rocket League” matches as opposed to feeling like an unrelated sidequest. If Jacklin never hits upon a seamless way of integrating Tim Fox’s super cool and vaguely “Tron”-like animation into the edit, their frequent use stresses the hyper-fluidity of the Quad Gods’ self-images, functioning like a character creation mode that bridges the gap between the supposed limitations of their starting builds and the infinite possibilities of what can still be achieved with them so long as they find the strength to keep playing.

Grade: B

“Quad Gods” premiered at the 2024 Tribeca Festival. It will air on HBO and be available to stream on Max later this year.

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