From the moment they first met in kindergarten, Blanco Vista Elementary students Owen Sirmons and Gunnar Franchione have been nearly inseparable.
Like most best friends their age, the duo, who sit next to each other in class, try to stay at the forefront when it comes to creating new handshakes and coming up with new dance moves.
Video games in recent years have been a way the two have been able to share a common bond that goes beyond physical differences. Sirmons has Escobar Syndrome, a condition that forces him to spend much of his time in a wheelchair.
Little did they know that their love of video games could turn into something much greater. On Thanksgiving, Franchione and Sirmons debuted as the stars of a new Microsoft Xbox commercial championing inclusiveness via a new adaptive controller.
Erica Sirmons, Owen’s mother, said she was thrilled and honored the two were able to be a part of a commercial with an inclusive message.
“I was happy to see both boys be a part of the message to a great campaign,” Erica Sirmons said. “If you want to be something, you want to be part of the right message.”
A friend’s gift
The path toward starring in the commercial began in May when Franchione received two Xbox consoles for his birthday. However, instead of trading the system in, Franchione opted to give the extra console to Owen, who at the time was having major surgery, said Rebecca Franchione, Gunnar’s mom.
Through the Xbox, specifically the game “Fortnite,” Gunnar and Owen were able to stay connected and play together. However, playing the game proved to be a challenge for Owen. His condition causes his hands and fingers to tighten, limiting his ability to use the joysticks and directional pad on the controller.
Even with the slight limitations, the two continued to play the game. In late October, Rebecca Franchione received an email from a friend in Los Angeles regarding a new Microsoft holiday commercial, for which she and Erica Sirmons submitted information.
The very next day, Owen and Gunnar began a series of interviews with the casting director via Skype. After an initial first and second interview, the two then went through a 30-plus minute session, where they were asked to act out several scenes.
Erica Sirmons said directors asked her about Owen playing video games and if an adaptive controller would be helpful, despite not knowing what the device was at the time.
“They asked a lot of questions and we gave a lot of honest answers about gameplay and what might help,” Erica Sirmons said.
Soon after the final interview, Microsoft informed Erica and Rebecca that their children were going to be in the commercial. Following an all-day trip to Houston to obtain a passport for Owen, the two boys and their moms were Vancouver bound.
Rebecca Franchione said she believed the boys’ friendship is what sold the directors. She said directors enjoyed the duo and picked them out of a competitive field of candidates.
“The thing that was repeated was they are so pure and what you want the world to be,” Rebecca Franchione said. “To see these two kids that have differences, that don’t see the differences, that love each other and are best friends, it’s tremendous.”
Filming the commercial
Once in Vancouver, both Owen and Gunnar got to experience a trip outside of the country, as well as trick-or-treating in a Vancouver neighborhood on Halloween.
Owen also had the chance to meet with Xbox experts for several hours and to play with the adaptive controller. While the controller wasn’t exactly for him, Owen knew it was beneficial.
“I thought this may not help me out, but it’s definitely going to help out at least one other person,” Owen Sirmons said.
On Nov. 1, the duo, along with several other children, participated in the shoot, which took approximately eight hours. The scene involved transporting ice via dump trucks to create the “snow effect” look. During filming, Gunnar said all of the actors around them were nice and had a sense of humor.
One of the highlights was when directors asked the group to do a happy dance, which led Gunnar to do the popular “floss.”
Erica Sirmons said they didn’t know exactly what the message was or whether Owen, who was the focal point of the commercial, was going to be called by his actual name. Erica and Rebecca were both pleased to realize the commercial involved inclusiveness, with the tagline of “When everyone plays, we all win.”
Owen also enjoyed filming a “behind-the-scenes” piece, which allowed him to tell his story.
Once the commercial debuted during the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade, Erica Sirmons said her phone “blew up” with texts and phone calls from friends. She also received inquiries via a Facebook group from parents of children with Escobar’s Syndrome asking about the controller.
For Rebecca, the entire experience seemed almost to fall “into place.” The personalities of Owen and Gunnar led them to be chosen for the commercial.
“They are ones that booked it because of their friendship,” Rebecca Franchione said.
For Owen, taking part in the venture was an engrossing and honorable experience.
“Not only does it feel amazing, but it feels like we just told everyone about the best thing that ever game gaming-wise in this world,” Owen Sirmons said.