I’m an e-sports skeptic. I know, huge tournaments draw huge crowds and have huge prizes. But try to describe “jungling” or “ganking” to a typical American or try to convince them that a skinny 20-year-old is on the same level, professionally, as Peyton Manning or LeBron James, and you’ll be met with eye rolls at best or outright derision at worst. E-sports in the West just isn’t mainstream enough to generate widespread coverage or even respect.

But if more things like Free to Play are produced, that might happen sooner than you or I think.

Free to Play tracks three professional Dota 2 players as they compete in the International Tournament at Gamescom in August 2011. With $1.6 million in prize money, including $1 million to the winning team, the stakes are the highest they’ve ever been for an e-sporting event. In true documentary style, cuts to the three players’ home lives and snippets of how they achieved what they did are intermingled with the “current” coverage of the tournament.

I’ve seen my fair share of documentaries, and Free to Play fits right in. As you might expect from Valve, the production quality is top notch, and it’s easy to forget that you are, essentially, watching an hour-plus-long movie about video games. It’s a finely tuned production that raises the bar for video-game journalism and serves as a fine launchpad for introducing the masses to the world of e-sports.

Hero selection

The three primary characters are Clinton “Fear” Loomis (Oregon), Benedict “hyhy” Lim (Singapore), and Danil “Dendi” Ishutin (Ukraine). Interviews with family members and friends paint a similar picture, one that’s familiar to anyone who’s ever dreamed of being a pro gamer. The people around them cast aspersions on their prospects of making a living through video games, even openly mocking them at times. Lim had to leave his university during exams to travel to the tournament, which forced him to repeat the entire semester. You’d never hear that kind of story about college football players during Bowl season.

Even making it to a big-time tournament like the International is no guarantee of success. Of the 16 teams who qualify, only eight will leave with prize money, and winnings for the lower tiers of the top eight are “only” in the five-digit range. Divide that by five players, and figure in taxes, and it’s not a whole lot to show for thousands of hours of practice and far too many all-night gaming sessions – a factor that resulted in Loomis getting kicked out of his parents’ house and being forced to find his own place to live. So why do it, especially when, in one expert’s opinion, professional e-sport players are done by the age of 25 or 26? As Lim says, “the chance to be the best in the world at something… you don’t get it much in life.”

Unless you’re one of the Chinese teams, it would seem. The film touches upon the insanity that is the Asian e-sports scene, with players treated like rock stars and StarCraft teams being more popular than national soccer clubs. The New York Yankees-esque “villain” of the film is the powerhouse Chinese team EHOME, whose manager exemplifies their relentless pursuit of perfection when he says that “anything other than the champion trophy, we will… trash it at the airport.” Glimpses into the full-time training facilities of Asian teams serve as a stark contrast to the three main characters’ much simpler – and in Ishutin’s case, borderline poverty-stricken – lives.

For the hordes

Speaking of StarCraft, you might notice that it’s not Dota 2, and it’s the only mention I can recall in the movie of any other video game, though Counter Strike Global Offensive, another Valve title, appears to be briefly visible. One fear I had going into this viewing was that the movie would basically be an hour-long commercial. Obviously, Valve’s game is the primary focus, and it’s impossible not to make this movie without having it front and center, but I didn’t feel like any “Valve is great, Dota 2 is great” messaging was rammed down my throat. I thought of it like I think of the cash shop in a “nice” F2P game; it’s there, but the good ones don’t shove it in your face at every opportunity.

That, I think, would be one of the key factors in getting e-sports to achieve the kind of prominence in North America and Europe that it has in Asia. Not the promotion of a brand, but the promotion of an idea, that e-sports – whether Dota 2, StarCraft, League of Legends, or whatever – are about team play, hard work, camaraderie, and all the other hallmarks of “real” sports. It’s about the people and their stories, and not what pixels are on the screen or whose logo is in the corner. Free to Play can help all of e-sports, by presenting it as a human experience, at which it is shockingly effective. I’ve never played Dota 2, but I found myself on the edge of my seat watching the final round of the tournament, reacting with exuberance at the lead character’s successes and despair at his failures. That’s some effective filmmaking.

Pushing forward

Free to Play’s got some imperfections, but they’re relatively minor. Though the documentary does a fair job of explaining the game, and the focus is properly more on the people more than the game, I wonder how someone totally unfamiliar with MOBAs – the type of person who needs to be convinced of their viability in the mainstream – would grasp the game from watching. Perhaps a one-minute “basic concepts” primer, similar to how early poker broadcasts explained Texas hold ’em to a mass audience, would have been appropriate. Also, the insertion of CG “kill scenes”  that re-enact big moments in games where no doubt awesome for fans to watch, but seemed a little jarring and out of place for the uninformed and might again make people think that they’re a part of a typical game.

Even if you’re not a fan of Dota 2 or MOBAs in general, Free to Play is a solid watch. If you have aspirations of becoming a professional e-sports athlete yourself, it can be both uplifting and depressing. Free to Play gives us a fascinating glimpse at the peaks of exhilaration and the valleys of depression that e-athletes go through, making it akin to documentaries about any competitive activity, whether it’s enjoyed by millions or just a few thousand. There may come a day when e-sports hopefuls aren’t viewed as weird or throwing their lives away, but we’ve still got a ways to go before that happens. Productions like Free to Play might help us get there a little faster.

You can watch the full documentary now in the embed below:

By Jason Winter

9 Readers Commented

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  1. Todoran on March 25, 2014

    good subject, to bad is just a commercial for Dota 2….

    • inverlock on March 26, 2014

      “This documentary about pro tennis is just a commercial for tennis”

  2. Marto on March 22, 2014

    This documentary was very well done. Regardless of if you like Dota 2 or not, it is very well done.

  3. Mystika on March 21, 2014

    It’s really bizarre sometimes how people like to hate on a movie like this just because it features a game they hate or something was said that they took to heart in a literal manner (eg. 10 years ago, competitive gaming wasn’t even a thing). With documentaries like these, the focus should be on the concepts explored – while Dota 2 was the game they used primarily, it applies just as much to any other eSport; there’s very likely to be LoL pros, SC2 pros, CS pros, CoD pros and so on who may face personal hardships just as much as the three featured in this documentary and come out just as successful in their own ways.

    I swear, if the documentary was done by Riot or some other company, there would be just as many fanboys from those respective games defending it to the very end.

    • KyleMasc on March 21, 2014

      You speak a wise truth my friend.

    • Unshot on March 21, 2014

      This is an other reason esports don’t get big in EU/USA.

      First:The game I play is better than the game you play, and that game has all noobs and sucks that kind of behavior. I will take LoL and Dota2. 2 games of the same genre and both big on competitive scene,but instead of helping the other players cuz we are all gamers, they hate each other cuz they don’t like what they like,saying those who play the other game are noobs,and the same the other way around

      Second: many people can’t accept gaming as a sport. Chess is considered a sport by some,so why not gaming? So fotball and other sports aren’t still games at the core? If anyone says that they have countless hours of training as oposed to gamers from esports, i would dare them to pick up a competitive game they never played or gameplay videos/guides and beat the guys who play in tournaments. They have countless hours of training on computer,day and night,and love what they do,they don’t do it just for the money,so why can’t we admit the eforts they’ve put in getting where they are

      Third: mainstream media does not support it, the mainstream media is only going to show things that draw a lot of attention,and sadly esports do not qualify here. Why? Well because in the EU/America people are not open minded and wont accept something new,or they will accept it very hard.

      Fourth: maybe some elitism. I think there are a lot of people in EU/America that won’t watch esports and won’t accept the guys on esports are better then they are , and as a result the competitive scene in general has to suffer.

      Fifth: stereotype. Many people can’t get out of their heads the stereotype that gamers (not just esport guys,but gamers in general) are fat guys on computer who don’t care about social life and anything else,just stay at computer playing 24/7,living in their parents basements at 30. Yes ,there might be gamers like this,hell, i was as some point spending most of my time on games , but that was a couple of years ago, and it was not a cause,but a result, a result for having some childhood problems and no friends,which resulted in me having no social experience which resulted in me unable to make friends,but i tried and i changed this.

      Sixth: some people can’t get the stupid ideea that games are something for children. If someone says so,dare him to have a kid play outlast or amnesia and they may change their mind

      Seventh: many people think gaming is a waste of time and deserves no recognition. Well by that argument, the TV shows they watch aren’t worth it either. Or those books/magazines they read,are still waste of time,and so are sports,as they produce nothing but waste your time. Now many will say those are not true things,that they enjoy reading/watching TV and thus are not a waste of time, and people can live from sports ,so they aren’t waste of time either. Well, if someone says that and you enjoy gaming, who are they to say it’s a waste of time? And now people live off the game industry,and not just gamedevs

      If i wasn’t tired i could probably think of a couple more reasons, but its late.
      However,all the reasons above hurt esports ,because many won’t give it a chanse cuz they see gamers as fat nerds, or they see gaming as a waste of time,or they think it’s all easy and anyone can do it etc
      Goodnight and happy gaming,and btw, if i made mistakes i am sorry, its past 2 AM here ,I am tired and a little sick and english is not my first language.

  4. Zeke on March 20, 2014

    Playing both DOTA2/League very much, I can respect what Valve did to push forward ESPORTS in 2011. The movie is great, the first international was phenomenal to watch, and now other games are stepping up to offer large prizepools. It’s hard to say this would have happened as quickly if Valve didn’t throw this much at a game that wasn’t even out yet, to push forward the industry.

    It all starts somewhere.

  5. call it wat u want on March 20, 2014

    lol been there done that dota take your 2nd place

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