How Killer Instinct player Wheels is overcoming disability to be a pro

Dayton 'Wheels' Jones, pro Killer Instinct player
Dayton ‘Wheels’ Jones, pro Killer Instinct player (Michael Martin)

Dayton “Wheels” Jones has qualified for two Killer Instinct World Cups (a 32-player finale to the Killer Instinct Ultra Tour similar to Capcom Cup and the Capcom Pro Tour) and has finished in numerous top 8s at major tournaments, including a dramatic second place finish at Combo Breaker 2017. It hasn’t been easy, but his confidence and determination have served him well thus far. He has a bright competitive fighting game career ahead of him.

A 22-year-old from Milwaukee, Wisconsin Wheels found his calling in competitive fighting games. Wheels loves sports, but with a condition that prevents him from competing in physical activities, he couldn’t throw a football, dunk a basketball, or hit a home run like other kids.

Instead, he learned to throw fireballs and Dragon Punches. And that became his competitive outlet.

Growing up with SMA Type 2

Wheels was born with a genetic disease called Spinal Muscular Atrophy Type 2 (SMA.) SMA affects the “part of the nervous system that controls voluntary muscle movement,” according to the Muscular Dystrophy Association. Muscles don’t receive signals from the nerve cells, which are located in the spine. As a result, the muscles atrophy due to inactivity.

The severity of SMA Type 2 has left Wheels bound to a wheelchair; hence the nickname. His arms and legs aren’t as developed as the average adult his age. His hands aren’t strong enough to hold his Xbox One controller. He has to play with it on a hard surface sitting on his lap.

“My muscles are very weak. I’ll be honest, I’m pretty well off considering how bad people usually get. I could be a lot worse right now. I need a lot of physical assistance when it comes to moving around,” Wheels told Yahoo Esports.

Wheels said he’s always been confident and maintained a positive attitude, despite his severe physical disabilities. He’s never felt out of place asking to play games, whether it was with the neighborhood kids when he was younger or with other players in PandaXGaming’s 24 hour Street Fighter IV lobbies.

“I never felt like I had to be accepted in my life. I just kind of did things. Either you want to hang out with me or you don’t. I never felt like people avoided me or thought about things like that. We’re going to play or we’re not going to play,” Wheels said.

Killer Instinct competitive spark

His introduction to competition came back in 2010 when he saw Evolution Championship Series on the now defunct G4TV. Wheels admits he dabbled in competitive Street Fighter IV but wasn’t very good at it. But Killer Instinct’s reveal at Evo 2013 planted the seed for Wheels to become a serious competitive player.

“I knew about Killer Instinct because my stepfather loved it. I followed tournaments for it because I planned on picking the game up,” Wheels said.

“I had more fun with Killer Instinct. It was a breath of fresh air to play something different. KI still has one of the best netcodes. Playing and practicing wasn’t easy in Street Fighter IV and it’s not easy in Street Fighter V either. A good netcode is a determining factor if I’m going to put time in a game or not.”

Wheels’ first major tournament ever was Ultimate Fighting Game Tournament 10 in 2014, its final year. Coincidentally, UFGT was the tournament organized by Adam “Keits” Heart before he moved on to work as a designer at Iron Galaxy on Killer Instinct. Since then, Wheels has been to various Midwest tournaments, including Combo Breaker (which is the spiritual successor to UFGT) and Frosty Faustings.

As he’s competed in more tournaments, Wheels has risen up the ranks in Killer Instinct. He qualified for Killer Instinct World Cup, which took place in January 2016. It was the first world championship for the game organized by Ultra Arcade owner Brandon “Xbox Viking” Alexander, who also helps sponsor players like Wheels and top Killer Instinct player Ken “Bass” Armas to events. Unfortunately, Wheels couldn’t travel to the event in San Antonio and he had to forfeit his spot in the tournament.

“I was bummed out that year. A month before it, I got really sick so I wasn’t able to go,” Wheels said.

“I had to redeem myself from last year. I thought I would’ve done really well. At the time, I felt I was better than a lot of players and I was really upset I couldn’t make it. I felt like it was a waste and I had to sit at home and watch.”

Wheels was determined not to let that happen again. He finished in second place at KI World Cup qualifier Frosty Faustings behind Nicky Iovene, who had already qualified for the 2017 KI World Cup. Wheels ended up in fifth place on the KIWC Leaderboard, punching another ticket to the championship event in San Antonio.

Wheels’ first world title shot

Going to San Antonio was a completely new experience for Wheels. He had never been on a plane before. It took four flights total to get from Milwaukee to San Antonio and back. He went with help from his stepfather Ty Dyess. On top of SMA Type 2, Wheels has asthma and discomfort can aggravate it. But everything went smoothly and Wheels got to play in the biggest tournament of his young career.

“I had never been in a tournament of that caliber before. This was my first world title tournament. I was nervous but it wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be,” Wheels said.

“I got knocked into losers and when I was one spot away from top 8, that’s when I got really nervous. My body was shaking. I could barely feel my hands. But my mind was clear and calm. ‘Just play your game. If you lose, whatever. You made it this far. All you have to do is win this game and you’ll be in top 8.’ Then my nerves went away.”

Over the course of the event, Wheels played Orchid, Sabrewulf, Tusk, and Gargos. He was sent to the losers bracket in top 16 but clutched out two more wins to get into top 8. Unfortunately for Wheels, he ran into Calvin “Storm179” Phelps, a Hisako player who turned a lot of heads with his second place performance. Wheels finished in a very respectable fifth place.

“Storm was the best player of the weekend. He blew everyone’s mind. We’ve known about Storm but we’ve never seen him do that well before. I thought he was the MVP of that weekend. I’m glad I lost to Storm,” Wheels said.

At minimum, Wheels hoped to make top 8 at KI World Cup. He was happy to accomplish that feat but the grind never stops for a competitor. His next major tournament appearance was Combo Breaker 2017 in St. Charles, Illinois.

Clutch at Combo Breaker

Wheels’ father Tim Jones drove with Wheels to Combo Breaker. Tim had the best seat in the house as he watched Wheels go from pools to top 16 to top 8 on the main stage. He was there to offer moral support and to literally carry him on and off the main stage when he needed it. Since top 8 was a roller coaster ride for Wheels, he needed any and all the support he could get.

Down 0-2 to Nicky, Wheels needed to win three games to stay alive in the tournament. It wasn’t impossible, but highly improbable. Wheels kept game three close by staying patient and utilizing Gargos’ annoying minions. By game four, it seemed Nicky was pressing and Wheels won decisively. Game five looked like a wash for Nicky as he had nearly a full health bar lead going into the second round. Wheels played more aggressive and pressured Nicky more and with a little help of Gargos’ minion, he completed the comeback to move to top 8.

As if that weren’t enough excitement (and stress) for one tournament, Wheels pulled off one of the greatest single game comebacks of all time in the grand finals. After winning the first set 3-0 against Cinder player Robert “Valoraxe” Doherty to reset the bracket, Wheels fell behind 0-2. At this stage of the tournament, mental and physical fatigue had set in.

“I went into auto-pilot mode. I didn’t play correctly. I dropped a lot of stuff and it was getting to me. I should’ve stayed with Gargos because I have to chase Cinder with other characters. I didn’t want to do that. My biggest regret is getting away from my gameplan. For the most part, I stuck with my gut until the very end,” Wheels said.

Wheels went with Sabrewulf in game three of the final set. It didn’t look good from the start. Valoraxe kept Wheels at bay with Cinder’s firebombs and when he wasn’t on the other side of the screen, he mixed Wheels up with bombs and throws. Wheels admirably hung in the game. Valoraxe hit Wheels with a combo that looked like it might kill. Wheels had no health left and was stuck in the corner. A chip kill attempt failed so Valoraxe backed off by jumping backwards.

With six seconds left on the clock and bombs stuck to Wheels’ Sabrewulf, he did the only thing he could do in that situation. He dashed in hoping Valoraxe would jump backwards instead of detonating the bombs. Wheels guessed right. He caught Valoraxe in the air and went immediately into an Ultra Combo. Everyone in the venue watching grand finals went berserk.

Valoraxe was stunned. Wheels seemingly had him where he wanted him.

“I saw he kept jumping back. I thought he was going to jump back and detonate so I was going to dash up a lot and pray he either detonates or I catch him. I went straight into Ultra but I didn’t think it would hit,” Wheels said.

Unfortunately, the end result of the whole set was as anticlimactic as the comeback win was a miracle. Wheels couldn’t close out the set, losing game four and the tournament to Valoraxe.

“I was really upset. I knew the tournament was mine. It was mine. I didn’t close out like I should have. It killed me. I saw he was mentally defeated and thought, ‘Okay, he’s done. Maybe I can relax a little bit.’ I shouldn’t have done that. I was two games away, had so many comebacks, came all the way back from losers. That was the worst second place finish I’ve ever gotten. I was really upset coming home.”

If you were at the venue, you could see the disappointment on the big screen as Wheels leaned back and exhaled. He was closer than he’d ever been to winning a major Killer Instinct tournament and it slipped away. But it was the biggest accomplishment of Wheels’ competitive career and he should be as proud of it as his family and friends were.

“[My father] kept telling me, ‘Play your game. I’m proud of you. Just do what you do.’ He said it through loser’s [top 8] too. My mom and stepdad were home watching, going through all the emotions. They shared on Facebook with their friends. Some friends from my local church who moved to Illinois recently came down on Saturday and Sunday to watch me play. I thought, ‘Wow, all this support is crazy,’” Wheels said.

Tim Jones (far right) watches his son Dayton 'Wheels' Jones play in Killer Instinct pools at Combo Breaker
Tim Jones (far right) watches his son Dayton ‘Wheels’ Jones play in Killer Instinct pools at Combo Breaker (Michael Martin)

Hopes for a new Killer Instinct

Combo Breaker didn’t end the way Wheels would have wanted but he still has a very good chance of qualifying for the 2018 KI World Cup. He plans to travel to one more event this year: East Coast Throwdown. He believes this year might be the last hurrah for Killer Instinct as a major tournament title.

“I want a new Killer Instinct. [Iron Galaxy] should complete the Ultimates, focus on stages for new characters. I don’t think KI needs much more content-wise, maybe balancing or bug fixes. It’s in a good state right now. But I want this KI to be done and and [Iron Galaxy] to make a new Killer Instinct,” Wheels said.

It remains to be seen what will happen beyond Killer Instinct: Season 3 but rest assured, Wheels will do his best to return to KI World Cup and win the big one. In the meantime, he’s looking to the future with games like Injustice 2 and Marvel vs. Capcom: Infinite. We’re in a wonderful age of fighting games where players like Wheels can compete and excel at the highest level.

Michael Martin covers the FGC. Follow him on Twitter @Bizarro_Mike.