The lights are on
As the competitive gaming scene continues to grow in prestige
and popularity, Valve's Free to Play
documentary seeks to give a wider audience a look into the phenomenon of
eSports (as Indie Game: The Movie did
for the indie game movement) by offering a look into the human stories behind
From the outset, it's important to temper your expectations of
Free to Play. This is not a
comprehensive documentary about the history of eSports. While the humble
beginnings of the sport as a series of small-stakes LAN tournaments are touched
on, it's glossed over in a few minutes, speeding forward to the 2011 Dota 2
International which gave teams around the world a chance to compete for a
then-unheard-of first prize of $1 million. Also, as a Valve production, it's
centered on the company's Dota franchise - other popular eSports games like
StarCraft and League of Legends are mentioned in passing or not at all.
This approach has advantages and drawbacks. On one hand, a
casual viewer with little knowledge of eSports won't come away with any greater
perspective of the scene as a whole, other than the fact that it's very popular
and growing quickly. On the other hand, by narrowing its focus, Free to Play is able to deliver three
very compelling personal narratives centered on three very different
professional players: Benedict "Hyhy" Lim, Danil "Dendi" Ishutin, and Clinton
The trio is
disparate, in terms of both their playstyles and personal backgrounds. Lim, a
native of Singapore, is shy and pensive. During the course of the film, we see
the strain that the pressures of competition have placed on the young man. His
family, observing his falling grades, pressures him to give up his dream of
professional gaming in favor of concentrating on his schoolwork. He's also
haunted by a break-up with his ex-girlfriend, another fervent Dota player. As
the 2011 International approaches, he imagines calling his ex, triumphant in
victory. "Finally I will have something I'm proud about," he muses.
Ishutin is the polar opposite of Lim. With his boy-band bowl cut and
loose-limbed exuberance, his energy and enthusiasm jumps off the screen.
Appropriately, his freewheeling style of play matches his personality.
Interviews with other professional players and commentators recount some of his
daring in-game maneuvers - and the risky stunts that have often cost him a
match. However, behind his public persona lies a private sadness. Some of the
film's most affecting scenes feature Ishutin's mother and siblings recounting
the events of his father's untimely death from cancer, a loss Ishutin still
mourns. In a quiet moment, Ishutin contemplates the role this tragedy played in
his gaming career: "One way to forget about pain is to do something that you
will be in completely. So...computer games. For me, it was everything."
"Fear" Loomis is portrayed as the film's underdog, the "Rocky" of competitive
gaming. Only 23, Loomis is already considered an old man by the standards of
the scene, and is becoming weighted down with the demands of adult life. Raised
by a single mother, Loomis practices his Dota craft on an outdated PC rig,
complete with bulky CRT monitor and a broken desk gifted to him by a friend's
father. For him, the International represents a chance to prove to his mother
and himself that the sacrifices he's made for professional gaming haven't been
in vain. He wonders aloud how long he can keep going before he's forced to give
up his dream and pursue a career.
protagonists, along with thousands of fans and competitors, journey to Cologne,
Germany for the 2011 Dota 2 International, led on by dreams of virtual glory
and the $1 million first prize. If you've been unaware of how large eSports has
become, the packed arenas and rock-concert style production values will be eye
opening. As the crowds gather to watch the best Dota teams in the world
compete, we see Lim, Ishutin, and Loomis in tense preparation for the
tournament, equally thrilled to be there and scared of failing on such a big
documentaries, the filmmakers frame the events of the International with
narrative flair, casting the trio of hopefuls against the feared and dominant
Chinese team EHOME. Backed with significant cash and driven on by an
overbearing coach, EHOME is the favorite to win, and approaches Dota 2 with a
finely honed, strategic team playstyle.
The scenes of
competition are exhilarating, showing the players' steely nerves and extreme
emotions. Free to Play does as good a
job of showing the thrill and agony of competition as well as any traditional
sports documentary. However, unless you're intimately familiar with Dota, you
won't come away with a much greater understanding of the game itself. For all
its popularity, it's still a challenge to portray a fast-paced game like Dota
with much clarity onscreen. For the uninitiated, the game footage will seem
like little more than a Tolkien-esque mosh pit.
spoiling the events of the movie, I'll say that all three of the players the
filmmakers chose to focus on will play a significant role in the tournament.
Hopes are raised and dashed, victory is snatched from the jaw of defeat, and
critical errors result in crushing losses.
In the end,
Lim, Loomis, and Ishutin's lives are changed by what transpires during the few
days of the International 2011. Free to
Play is a documentary, so there's not a Hollywood ending for all of them.
Still, when the filmmakers catch up with the three afterwards, they all seem to
have found a greater sense of peace, whether through triumph or the hard-earned
wisdom of defeat.