‘Quad Gods’ Review: HBO’s Esports Documentary Upends One-Size-Fits-All Disability Storytelling (2024)

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An effectively conventional documentary that would probably work better as a 90-minute pilot for an ongoing docuseries than as a standalone film, Jess Jacklin’s Quad Gods does one unconventional thing extremely well.

Premiering on HBO after a Tribeca premiere, Quad Gods blends two genres that each tend to favor a single narrative path. Sports films progress toward unity and triumph — the solitary athlete realizes he needs coaching/love/whatever, the mismatched teammates come together, etc. Disability stories progress toward an accepted version of recovery — primarily an ableist version of “normal.”

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Quad Gods

The Bottom Line'Murderball' for esports.

Venue: Tribeca Film Festival (Documentary Competition)
Distributor: HBO
Director: Jess Jacklin
1 hour 27 minutes

Quad Gods is a disability story and a sports story, but it pushes back, and pushes back hard, against the traditional arcs of its respective genres. It’s a sports film without a championship game and a film about disabilities that rejects a one-size-fits-all restorative journey. It’s an anti-arc that occasionally makes Quad Gods a little unsatisfying in the moment and all the more powerful upon reflection.

The documentary’s heroes are part of the Quad Gods, a New York-based team competing in the world of adaptive esports, which brings accessibility to the already cutthroat world of connected electronic gaming — specifically the first all-quadriplegic esports team.

The primary subjects are Richard, Prentice and Blake, though other Quad Gods players are included, just not with the same depth. Over the course of the documentary, we learn about the circ*mstances behind their disabilities — a shooting, a bike accident and a football injury — but that’s not really what the film is about.

Of greater interest are the lives they’re living now. This includes their limitations — caused less frequently by their actually disabilities and more frequently by the myriad accessibility failures that plague New York City (and presumably every urban space) — their living strategies and their hopes for the future. Those elements intersect at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai’s Abilities Research Center, run by Dr. David Putrino, where ordinary activities and innovations that seem wildly futuristic — virtual reality rigs, complex exoskeletons — come together. Putrino explains, in reductive but still fascinating terms, the role video games can play in neuro-rehab.

Once he brings the men together and the idea of a gaming team is broached — “The Wheel Deal” and “Spinal Tap” are rejected team names — you think you know where Quad Gods is going. But you don’t. This isn’t a “facing adversity and learning to overcome it” film, and despite the centrality of adaptive esports to the documentary’s basic premise, it’s barely a documentary about adaptive esports. The truth, as we quickly discover, is that these men — the team’s one female participant, Nyree, is one of the secondary figures — aren’t a monolith and don’t have a single goal.

We’ve been trained as viewers to expect the familiar arc and its absence is jarring on a subconscious level — “Why aren’t they gaming more?” is a question I can easily imagine some viewers posing. At the same time, taking people whom outsiders probably conceive of as united by their disability, splitting them apart and making them come to life as individuals is more complicated and provocative, even if the sensation never left my mind that 87 minutes wasn’t enough time for the full project.

With his intense competitive drive and touching relationship with his daughter, Richard comes across as the most dimensional of the participants. Prentice and Blake are presented as contrasts — two former football players, one concentrating on the future and possibly walking again, the other finding peace and joy in the present.

Jacklin and cinematographers Alex Takats and David Waldron let the men steer the visual style of what is a very polished documentary. If you come into Quad Gods with the physical limitations of quadriplegics on your mind, what you’ll actually discover is a documentary defined by movement. Blake, who zips around the city delivering food, becomes the vehicle, so to speak, that allows the filmmakers to compile a kinetic language; we’re sometimes given a first-person perspective from Blake’s chair, we sometimes ride alongside Quad Gods, and we’re frequently given humorous framings in which the camera seems to be struggling to keep up with its subjects.

Opening things up further is the animation by Tim Fox, a solid version of what has become a documentary cliché in recent years, using video-game aesthetics to show the way the real and virtual worlds are blurring. It’s a device I’ve seen enough times that I’ve come to feel it works best in the absence of other available footage, or when available footage might otherwise give the impression of claustrophobia. The thing that’s so fantastic and inspiring about the Quad Gods, though, is the constant activity and energy in their lives, which make the extra flourishes feel gratuitous. There isn’t a single person who will watch Quad Gods and not come away feeling that these guys are badasses and warriors. I get why it’s fun to then visualize them as muscle-bound combat warriors and whatnot, but … they’re already there.

I still think Quad Gods is/could be/should be a pilot for a TV series, which means I want more — more characterization, more depth, more esports — and that’s praise in and of itself.

‘Quad Gods’ Review: HBO’s Esports Documentary Upends One-Size-Fits-All Disability Storytelling (2024)
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