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Movie Review: Free to Play

by Matt Helgeson on Mar 31, 2014 at 06:00 AM

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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 the competition.

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 "Fear" Loomis.

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.

The Ukrainian 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. games. For me, it was everything."

Clinton "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.

Our 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 stage.

Like most 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.

Without 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.