They say when one door closes, another one usually opens.
And when a neuromuscular disorder closed the door on Coby Yamauchi’s ability to participate in competitive sports, another door opened on the world of competitive video gaming.
Thanks to his supportive family, as well as what can only be described as an innate gift, Yamauchi not only went through that door, but now finds himself on the verge of joining the elite professional gamers of the world.
He competes in tournaments all over the country and has developed a legion of online followers who eagerly watch his tournament play through streaming video. Soon, he may well be a pro himself, courted by big-name sponsors like Dr. Pepper, Doritos and Old Spice.
And he’s all of 14 years old.
Yamauchi’s journey to the big leagues of video games began when he was about 7 years old, not long after being diagnosed with a neuromuscular disorder that would leave him wheelchair-dependent by the age of 8.
The ability to run around on a field with friends, kicking a ball or shooting a basketball, may have been lost, but around that time, thanks to his older cousin Richard O’Brien, something else was gained.
O’Brien, a beloved figure in Yamauchi’s life who died in a skiing accident a year ago at the age of 19, introduced Yamauchi to the world of Xbox. As the saying goes, that was that.
Yamauchi took to video games like a fish to water.
“Richard was in awe of Coby’s ability,” says Coby’s mom Ana Yamauchi.
Indeed, in an essay O’Brien wrote a few years ago as a student at Davis High, he describes the transformation in his young cousin.
“Right away I noted his natural talent,” O’Brien wrote.
“For Coby, these games provide an escape from reality, an escape from his wheelchair, because in video games he is able to transcend his disability and be anywhere, doing anything,” O’Brien wrote. “He can once again ‘run’ around playing soccer, basketball and even snowboarding.
“When hanging out with his friends, video games (are) the one activity where Coby can still be very competitive, and the playing field is equal,” O’Brien explained.
On the road
One of the games O’Brien introduced his cousin to was “Halo,” a first-person shooter game. And “Halo” is the game at which Yamauchi has become so proficient that his world is on the verge of changing.
He is now on a team with three other players — 19- and 20-year-olds who hail from Pennsylvania and Illinois — and preparing to head off to tournaments in Dallas in April, Chicago in May, and Columbus, Ohio, in June.
If his team ends with a top-16 finish, he and his teammates will officially be considered “pros.” They’ll be eligible for big cash prizes — as much as $100,000 — and sponsors likely would come knocking on their doors. Given that Yamauchi has already finished a previous tournament as the top amateur, the odds are good.
“Hopefully, I’ll be a pro by the end of the year,” Yamauchi says.
In the meantime, his parents, Ken and Ana, have turned a room in their South Davis home into a large, comfortable game room, complete with multiple Xbox consoles and flat screens, where Coby and his friends can hang out and play.
“We wanted a place where his friends could come over, bring their own games,” Ken Yamauchi said. “It’s not uncommon for us to have a crowd here.”
Two best friends and supporters who are frequently there are Yamauchi’s classmate at Harper Junior High, Mark Bruemmer, and Emerson Junior High student Connor McCusker.
McCusker is not only a fellow “Halo” player, but Yamauchi’s “biggest supporter,” said dad Ken Yamauchi.
“Connor is always on the chat line, supporting Coby’s dream to become a pro,” he explained.
Whether with friends or online with his teammates, Yamauchi figures he spends about four hours a day during the week honing his “Halo” skills and even more time on weekends.
He sits in a comfy chair — his wheelchair off to the side — surrounded by a computer, several monitors and controls, with a headset letting him talk to teammates hands-free.
When asked why he’s so good at “Halo,” Yamauchi says, “because I play so much.”
But his dad thinks there’s more to it than that, given that Yamauchi was so good from the start.
Strong eye-hand coordination, the ability to anticipate what’s coming and being a good team player, both in terms of knowing where his teammates are and communicating with them, are all probably part of it, Ken Yamauchi said.
And there is also, he said, something in the way the body — and the mind — can compensate.
“He can’t do the things other people do normally,” Ken Yamauchi noted, “but you can see in the game, the way he’s moving around, it’s like his skills are enhanced.”
Fans follow along
Observers have been quite taken with this young gamer.
Through the website http://www.justin.tv, people anywhere in the world can follow along as Yamauchi competes. In one of his early tournaments, his dad couldn’t be there, so he followed the action on his phone, and took screen shots of some of the comments being posted along the way — comments like “Coby’s a beast!” And “He’s a cool little kid!” And one of his dad’s favorites: “He’s one bad-ass handicapped kid.”
Mom Ana Yamauchi said O’Brien was thrilled with young cousin’s prowess.
“One of Richard’s dreams was to go to one of these tournaments with Coby,” she said.
That was not to be, but Yamauchi’s determination certainly left its mark on his older cousin.
“I taught him about video games,” O’Brien wrote, “but he has taught me much more. Coby’s optimism in the face of the hardships he endures every day has completely changed my outlook on life, for he gives the message of positive attitude new meaning. He has made me realize that I need to pursue every aspect of my life with the same infectious smile and spirit he has.”
Those who knew O’Brien likely would say the same of him.
And of Yamauchi, his dad says, “We are very proud of Coby, with his positive attitude, emotional strength, bravery, courage, maturity and ambition to pursue his gaming talent to the fullest.”
Follow Yamauchi’s action live by logging on to http://www.justin.tv and search for him under COBYS2FAST.