At 8:30 a.m. on a Thursday in May, the air already thick and sticky, Mike "Brolylegs" Begum whirs up and down the sloping driveway of his family's house in Brownsville, Texas, in his custom electric wheelchair. Each time he reaches the road, he deftly executes a perfect three-point turn so he can survey both sides of the street. He hates waiting but knows this is just the first wait of many today, on his way to Dallas for a gaming tournament.
Why isn't the bus here yet? He'd called once last night to schedule it and then again after he awoke this morning to tell them he was ready, in case they felt like coming early. The operator didn't make any promises.
Brolylegs, 31, was born with arthrogryposis, a condition that restricts joint movement and inhibits muscle growth, as well as scoliosis, an irregular curving of the spine. "Basically, my brain didn't tell my muscles to grow," he explains, so he can't sit or use his arms and legs, which curl toward his body. His wheelchair isn't really a wheelchair. It's more like a mobile electric bed. He lies flat on his stomach, propping himself up by his elbows, and drives the chair with his head. Back tap on the headset means forward, right tap means right, and so on. His dad built him the first version of this chair two decades ago, and it gave him a freedom he'd never experienced.
He needs a lot of help every day. This morning his younger brother, Johnny, a tall 28-year-old with flowing black hair and a penchant for tank tops, brought him coffee, carried him to the bathroom, scrubbed him clean, got him dressed, made him breakfast, fed it to him and lifted him onto the wheelchair.
But competing in this tournament, taking on the best Street Fighter players in the world, winning -- Brolylegs can do all that on his own. He's been playing video games since he was 2, when he first made Donkey Kong jump using his cheek. He is a grand master in Street Fighter, a Chun-Li player to be feared, and if he could travel more easily, he'd probably turn pro.
"The freedom you have versus the freedom I have is incomparable," he says. "I'm locked away and have to rely on so many people. But I don't have to rely on anyone to play."
He works through all the scenarios that must go right today for him to reach Dallas; he's braced himself for a little pain and a lot of uncertainty. He hates putting Johnny through all of it. They've been going to tournaments since they were teenagers, makeshift events in the area that were really just gatherings of friends. But as Brolylegs got better, the competitions got bigger and the tournaments farther away. Brownsville, even Texas, wasn't enough.
Finally, he hears it. The blue city bus pulls over. The driver lowers the lift. Brolylegs wheels onto the platform and is strapped in.
JOSEFINA BEGUM DIDN'T know her son would have a disability until he was born. He was immediately moved to a children's hospital, where he underwent a series of surgeries to try to straighten his limbs. When he came home, Josefina couldn't believe he would never walk. "I remember being alone with him and trying to pick up his arms," she says from the Brownsville house where she lives with her two sons. "Maybe the doctors were wrong."
When Johnny first started walking, Brolylegs would roll over to him and try to push his younger brother down. "I was like, 'I want to walk. Why are you walking first?'" he remembers. Their parents separated when Brolylegs was 6. The boys stayed in Brownsville with their dad, while Josefina moved to Houston with the youngest child, Karin. Video games became a refuge for the brothers amid a protracted divorce, their father's remarriage and the births of four half siblings. They played every game they could, Brolylegs maneuvering the controller with his face, Johnny with his hands, and sometimes as a joke they'd dare each other to play the other's way. Their father moved the television to the floor so Brolylegs could game without craning his neck. He taught himself to do as much as he could with his face, biting down on a pen to write, holding a chopstick in his mouth to type, using his lips to hit each key on the touch screen of his phone to text.
It is extraordinary to watch Brolylegs play today. At first it looks like he's eating the Xbox 360 controller; he jokes sometimes that he's licking peanut butter off it. He squeezes the controller between his hand and cheek to hold it in place and puts his left cheek on the control stick to move his character. To access the right side of the controller, which executes the character's moves -- the punches, kicks and jumps -- he pushes his tongue against his lower lip to tap the buttons. All this while keeping his eyes on the screen. Street Fighter is a game of timing and combinations, so Brolylegs has to go from move to move, between cheek and chin, within seconds.
He can play a variety of characters, but in competition he mostly sticks to Chun-Li, the game's iconic female character known for her powerful legs. "A lot of people joke about her main ability being to attack with her legs and how with me, it's the opposite," he says. Brolylegs likes Chun-Li for a very practical reason too: She's the character who best fits his abilities. He can hit only four of the six buttons required in the game, but he can do all her moves. He got so good he became the No. 1 Chun-Li player on Xbox in Street Fighter IV, the 2008 version of the game, from 2013 to 2017.
"There's a certain threshold within fighting games where you become pro-player status, world-class, and Broly surpassed that a while ago -- he can compete with anybody at this point," says Jonathan "JB" Bautista, the No. 2-ranked Street Fighter player in North America on the Capcom Pro Tour, an elite international league for fighting games and Brolylegs' teammate in the Street Fighter League, in which they recently won $10,000 each.
Video games were always a way to bond with his father, Michael. "He's probably the reason why I got into [gaming]," Brolylegs says. "It wasn't the same as playing catch or teaching your kid how to ride a bicycle, but this was his way of teaching his son to play."
Michael, a welder and mechanic, was named for his adoptive father, Michael Begum Sr., a Holocaust survivor who built a chain of women's clothing stores after arriving in the U.S. from the Soviet Union in 1945. At its peak, the family's New Yorker chain boasted seven stores in the area. Michael Jr. dedicated what little spare time he had, after working for his father and supporting six kids, to inventing ways to make his eldest son more comfortable. He adapted the bathroom so Brolylegs could roll into the tub more easily. He built a motorized lift that could raise him off the ground, balancing the weight with sandbags. The summer before Brolylegs started middle school, Michael realized his son would be transitioning from sitting in the same classroom all day to moving to a different class each period. So Michael built Brolylegs an electric wheelchair.
"He spent a whole summer welding and designing," Brolylegs says. "It was the greatest thing he did."
"He gained his legs that day," Johnny says. "It's great to see someone finding that freedom. You get this big smile on your face when you see him zooming down the street."
Michael expressed his love for his son through these inventions. His boys remember him as strict and stern, a man who rarely displayed emotion but was forceful in his convictions. Today Brolylegs credits his father for pushing him through any self-pity. "He wanted me to be strong and smart and learn from the world," he says.
As the family grew in size and the clothing business suffered amid a shifting economic landscape -- the last store closed in 2006 -- Michael came under more pressure. In a self-published memoir, Brolylegs remembers heated arguments between his dad and stepmom over money. Michael's relationship with his first wife remained contentious too, and Brolylegs and Johnny saw their mom and sister less and less as the years went by. Michael, who suffered from back problems, took to retreating to his office at night when the kids were asleep to watch TV and drink. Sometimes he would sleep into the afternoon, leaving his wife and Johnny to care for Brolylegs and the four younger kids.
"It was definitely a struggle growing up," Johnny says. "As soon as I got home, I had to take care of this person, change this person, wash the dishes. It definitely took a toll, I'm not gonna lie."
As teenagers, the brothers started competing in local Super Smash Bros. tournaments. Brolylegs cherished the look on people's faces when they saw him playing for the first time. It kept him going through early losses. He and Johnny once got crushed so badly in a Melee tournament that Johnny wanted to quit on the spot. But Brolylegs dragged him out of bed the next day and forced him to practice. They played the same guys again at the end of the month in another tournament. This time they won.
One morning in January 2009, Brolylegs awoke to find his dad asleep on the living room couch after a night out. Michael stayed there through the afternoon while Brolylegs watched a football game on the floor next to him. He didn't think much of it at first; it wasn't the first time his dad had slept off a hard night of drinking. But by 7 p.m., with Michael unresponsive, Johnny called the paramedics. Johnny and his stepmother went to the hospital with Michael; Brolylegs stayed home and waited by the phone. When they told him Michael had gone into a coma from a brain aneurysm, he Googled "brain hemorrhages" and couldn't reconcile the strong man who had always fixed everything with what he found online. He couldn't bring himself to go to the hospital to see him.
Michael never woke up. Suddenly, the person who had taken care of Brolylegs, who had reimagined the world to better suit his needs, was gone. "It took me so long to get over it. He did everything for us, and now he wasn't there anymore," Brolylegs says. "There are times now where something breaks and it's like, 'If he were alive, he would be fixing this.'"
Michael's death split the family apart. Johnny, then 18, moved out after he got into an argument with his stepmother. Brolylegs left soon after. He and Johnny stayed with an aunt until their mom and sister moved back from Houston. It was a rough transition for everyone involved: The boys were wary of their mother after years of living with a father who vocally criticized her; they'd left the only home they'd ever known and half siblings they loved; they had to adjust to living with a 15-year-old sister they'd spent time with only on vacations and during holidays. The one constant they had was each other.
"One month you have your whole family. The next, everybody's being torn apart," Brolylegs says. "It was one of those moments where me and him had to stick together. We got to really feel closer because of it."
BY 9:40 A.M., Brolylegs and Johnny arrive at the sleepy Brownsville airport. Johnny explains their situation at the desk, checks them in, turns in their bag -- and panics. He can't find Brolylegs' ID. He usually carries it with him but had left it behind recently during a rare solo trip to LA to visit his girlfriend. He bolts home to look for it. The flight leaves in just over an hour. If Brolylegs is worried, he doesn't show it. In fact, he seems a little smug. "Johnny always tells me, 'Don't assume. Always check,'" he says. "So when he told me, 'I just assumed I had it,' I had to try really hard not to say, 'What do we say about assuming?'"
Brolylegs' cheery schadenfreude in the midst of crisis comes from years of weathering tough situations with Johnny. After the brothers moved in with their mom, she started bringing in government providers to help care for Brolylegs and give Johnny more independence. But no one stayed for long.
"He's been through provider after provider. But his situation is so different that it's not a two-to-three-hour job. It's a 24-hour job," says Johnny, who is perpetually armed with a box of wet wipes. "It's 3 a.m., something's hurting and he can't reach the door handle. It breaks my heart when I see people come in and quit after a week."
In 2015, the brothers went their separate ways: Brolylegs started living with a friend in Brownsville, who became his provider, while Johnny moved to Austin and bounced between service jobs. Away from his brother for the first time, Johnny cherished the freedom. "Throughout my life, I was always wondering, 'When am I gonna have a shot of doing my own thing?'" he says. "I had that in Austin, and it was great."
Over time, though, Johnny noticed that Brolylegs' care wasn't meeting his standards, so in late 2017, the two decided to move back in with their mom in Brownsville. "I do it because he's my brother," says Johnny, who is legally registered as Brolylegs' caretaker and receives a monthly wage from the government. "It's a job that needs to be done for him to have an enjoyable life. And I've decided that he's my life."
Johnny understands his brother better than anyone and calls him out when he refuses to ask for help. Brolylegs remembers that he once waited outside a classroom for an hour because he couldn't bring himself to ask someone to open the door for him. His mom, brother and sister take turns complaining about how stubborn he can be about speaking up, and Brolylegs admits that it affects his gameplay. He pushes through situations when he shouldn't because he never wants to make excuses for himself. Johnny deals with this as best as he can: "I'll put him in situations where he has to ask me, and then I'll be like, 'See, was that so hard?'"
The two go everywhere together, which more often than not means getting stuck somewhere together. They casually rattle off a litany of misadventures: spending days at a fly-ridden bus station in Amarillo, Texas, because none of the buses had working lifts; waiting all night for an Uber with a ramp in LA; driving through the darkness in a rickety van not knowing if they would make it home. Their wheelchair-accessible van broke down last year, and neither of them has good enough credit to buy another one because they don't work in the traditional sense. Until Brolylegs won $10,000 in late June in the Street Fighter League, they relied on public transportation and airplanes. Brolylegs has had to turn down many tournaments simply because he can't get there. "We can never say 100 percent we'll make it to an event," Johnny says.
Johnny races back to the airport in the nick of time, ID in hand. He found it under the cushion of Brolylegs' old wheelchair, which he'd been using temporarily after the newer one was damaged during a flight. "Every time I've gone on a flight, [the chair] comes back a little more broken than I left it," Brolylegs says. Even now, he's missing padding on the right side of the headset, an unwelcome souvenir from the last trip. Johnny has brought packing tape this time to try to secure the headset and avoid damage.
At the gate, a ground crew worker recognizes Brolylegs: "Same thing as last time, right?"
The brothers roll up the jet bridge to the mouth of the plane. There, Johnny unbuckles Brolylegs, Broly shuffles on his elbows to the front edge of the chair, and Johnny lifts him, all 160 pounds, into his arms. Johnny then carries him, headfirst, into the plane, taking extra care to round the corner and ensure that his head and feet don't bump into the walls. To Johnny's relief, their seats are near the front. Sometimes he has to carry Brolylegs all the way to the back of the plane.
The flight is full, so Johnny places Brolylegs in the window seat, in reverse. His chest presses against the seat back; his legs dangle off the edge. Johnny straps him in, the seat belt taut over his upper back, then goes back to the jet bridge to make sure the chair is properly wheeled down to the luggage hold. Johnny will have to hold on to his brother during takeoff and landing so he doesn't slide. Brolylegs' position is as uncomfortable as it looks, but it's less painful than sitting the other way. "I'm always like, 'Yeah, I can bear it,'" he says. "But when it's happening, I'm like, 'I just want to land. I just want this to be done.'"
Right before takeoff, the flight attendants realize a passenger hasn't appeared. It's Brolylegs' lucky day. Johnny unstraps him and lays him down on his chest, his head toward the window, feet fitting snugly beneath the aisle armrest. He's asleep within minutes.
WANDERING AROUND DOWNTOWN Dallas the night before the tournament, Brolylegs treats the streets like an obstacle course. He slaloms through a row of barriers 3 feet high in front of a government building; he drives fast over speed bumps to feel the bounce. By the grassy knoll near where JFK was shot, what looked like a ramp turns out to be stairs. "I always wanted to do a "Mission: Impossible!"" Brolylegs says, before finding a way around.
Outside a 7-Eleven, an elderly man in a conventional wheelchair says wistfully, "I wish I had a motherf---er like that."
They settle at a bar to watch the NBA Finals, where Johnny raises the wheelchair electronically so his brother is level with the table. Brolylegs breaks into song: You raise me uuuup so I can stand on mountains.
Nights like these make the pain and the wait and the broken wheelchair worth it. He's out in the world with his brother and an old friend, Dave "Juices" Najar, a Street Fighter player from Houston; in just one sleep he will compete among rivals and friends who are the best in the business. Without gaming, none of this would be possible. "Who wants to be cooped up in their home all their life? Not me. I want to be out there," he says.
At home, he spends most of his time on the floor of his bedroom, staring at his computer. His chair is too big to drive through the hallways, so he needs Johnny to carry him or drag him on a tarp if he wants to swap rooms. Sometimes he drives his wheelchair to the mall or the movie theater just over a mile away. On an average day, Brolylegs streams on Twitch, tutors other gamers and works as a moderator for online gaming tournaments. In a good month, he can make about $3,000 on top of the disability benefits he receives from the government, he says, which he hopes will be enough for him and Johnny to move into their own place in August.
On the windowsill of his room is a framed print of Broly, a Dragonball-Z character with rippling, superhuman muscles. A huge fan of the anime, Brolylegs named himself after the character as a teen because he identified with him. "He was this invincible guy, hulking and super strong," he explains. "That's how I felt inside when I was gaming."
Back at the bar, the staff closes up, but no one asks Brolylegs to leave. Eventually, he, Johnny and Juices decide to go back to the hotel to rest up for the big day. "I'm ready to crack some skulls," Brolylegs says.
"EXCUSE ME, ARE you Brolylegs?" asks a young man the next morning as Brolylegs drives around Dreamhack Dallas, a three-day gaming convention and tournament. Brolylegs nods, and the guy presses his palms together as if he were praying, bows solemnly and says, "Mad respect."
It's the first of several times he'll be recognized among the dark maze of booths, screens and stages. He fields the requests with grace, deftly casting the attention back onto the fans by asking them what games they play. Two sixth-graders from the suburbs ask him shyly for a selfie. "He's just really committed," explains one of the boys when asked what he likes about Brolylegs. "When I get really mad, I'll be like, 'He can do it and he's got an obstacle, so get better!'"
On the second day, Brolylegs rolls up as one of 126 competitors in the Street Fighter field. He tucks his controller in between his arm and his cheek, ready for battle. Johnny, in a teal tank top, stands behind him, eyes fixed on the screen. Here, among a ring of competitors, two to a screen, and a small crowd of spectators, Brolylegs is in his element, with the people who have always accepted him. "They've never treated me different because I'm disabled," he says. "The only thing that matters is can you play, and yeah, I can play."
He'll play six group-stage games today, three rounds per game, with double elimination. The top 16 advance to the knockout rounds. He wins the first game handily, which helps calm his jitters. His second is against an old friend from San Antonio, Rudy "SinisterX" Alaniz. They're evenly matched, and the crowd is tense as they go into the last round. In the last move, Brolylegs guesses that SinisterX will go left. As soon as he does, Brolylegs launches Chun-Li's trademark spinning bird move and takes the set. The crowd cheers. It's Brolylegs' favorite feeling.
"Some people go to [tournaments] to win money; some people go to see old friends," he says. "I do it for those moments where everyone's watching and on the edge of their seat."
He's outplayed in the third match against Kevin "Dual_Kevin" Barrios, the seventh-ranked North American player on the Capcom Pro Tour. Rattled, Brolylegs nearly loses his cool in the next game but pulls out a win. Afterward, he drives away from the crowd and runs through his strategies, evaluates his next opponent and tries to steady himself. "The best players know how to calm themselves. I still don't play like that 100 percent," he says. "You don't get to experience that when you're at home playing in your bathrobe. You don't feel any pressure. But when you're in front of a crowd, that's when the pressure hits."
He wins the fifth match, and with the knockout stage on the line, Brolylegs squares up against an old rival, Toi Bridges, ranked 70th globally on the tour. Near the end of one round, the gaming system slows down, and it doesn't execute the move Brolylegs plays. Toi asks if he wants to start again, but Brolylegs insists on pushing through. "I have this pride. That's one of my biggest weaknesses," he says. "I don't want to make excuses for myself."
The two play on, and Brolylegs loses. He finishes the day 4-2, tied for 17th place, just one shy of making it to the next stage. But he's proud. He's competing against some of the best players in the world, pros with sponsors and salaries who travel from tournament to tournament, beating down opponents, competing at the finals at the end of each season. He wishes he could travel consistently enough to play on the Capcom Pro Tour, to live the life of a full-time pro gamer. Someday, he dreams, he'll live independently in a house with lifts and ramps and voice-controlled doors and lights, and when he wants to go to a competition, all he'll have to do is roll onto the ramp of his van and drive off.
"That's the thing I want most for him," Johnny says. "That would be so awesome."
Life will get harder the older they get, the brothers know. Their mom already worries about Johnny's back because he lifts Brolylegs so many times each day. As his body ages, Brolylegs could develop more breathing issues and won't be able to rest on his elbows as much. Or technology might just outstrip him, the controllers becoming too modern for him to modify for his use. It's already happening with virtual reality, the latest push in gaming.
For now, the brothers wind their way through the crowded booths. Johnny stops to try out new betas from indie game developers, while Brolylegs watches, giving pointers and cheering him on, their roles reversed. When they get home, they'll start looking for an apartment and saving up to go to the world's biggest fighting games tournament, the Evolution Championship Series this August in Las Vegas. They don't know yet how they'll get there, or if they'll even make it. But they know they're going to try.