Free to Play: Review

Perhaps the biggest new innovation to come out of video games in the last generation was competitive gaming.  It was facilitated by the widespread adoption of broadband internet, a new set of consoles that brought multiplayer to the masses and games that suited this new opportunity as well.  Competitive gaming, or eSports, is perhaps one of the fastest growing sports out there at the moment – although it has still not broken through to the mainstream because of the stigma surrounding playing games and being paid for it.

Free to Play is a thoroughly interesting documentary from Valve (developers of Portal, Left 4 Dead, Half Life and the Steam platform) that follows the journey of three professional gamers on their journey to and through an eSports tournament called “The International”, held in 2011.  This tournament was for DOTA 2 (Defence of the Ancients) on PC, and was particularly notable for its’ massive prize of $1 million for the winning 5-player team – a prize, as the documentary notes, that is larger than many other major sporting events’ pay-outs.

The documentary takes a good overview of the life of a pro gamer; showing the amount of practice that goes in and the level of personal sacrifice that players need to make to pursue their dreams.  It followed three players from three different teams and countries more closely: Fear, from Oregon, USA; Hyhy, from Singapore and Dindi from Ukraine.  These were three team captains at the top of their game – but all have suffered significant personal losses that moulded their careers as gamers.  Fear’s father left home while he was still young and he feels he spent more time gaming to compensate for the loss.  Dindi’s father died of cancer before his teenage years and this, he believes, caused him to sink more time into DOTA.  Hyhy broke up with his girlfriend 2 years before “The International” and has struggled to come to terms with it.  All three have received pressure to step away from games to further their education or get “a real job” from family and friends.  Playing games for money may sound like a dream job, but the documentary shows well that the stresses and strains of any other lifestyle still apply.

Although I was already somewhat familiar with the eSports genre, I wasn’t too aware of the DOTA 2 scene.  The story of how the players get on in the tournament is definitely interesting on its own and doesn’t require any real knowledge of DOTA or eSports to understand and enjoy.  Free to Play does a great job of teaching you just enough about DOTA to maintain an interest in the tournament it showcases.  Games can last for around half an hour normally but only the key battles from games are shown in the documentary, embellished with cinematic interpretations of players attacking each other.  Although I’m no expert on the game, I was able to understand what was going on – which helped keep my focus in the documentary.  ESports is just as exciting as regular sports in the thrill of competition and the uncertainty of which side will emerge victorious and I think that Free to Play demonstrates this similarity well.  One of the main barriers I believe eSports has is its’ detachment from mainstream sports and this documentary does a good job of helping to bridge the gap in a sense.

The documentary’s production and style are all very good.  There are interviews with key figures in the DOTA eSports community and interviews with people in the players’ lives about their somewhat unusual way-of-life.  At seventy-five minutes long, the documentary never feels long in the tooth but isn’t a skim over the subject matter either.  If you thought a documentary entirely about games wouldn’t have cinematic value you would be wrong.

I enjoyed watching Free To Play as it showed a more human side of eSports that is often forgotten about when watching tournaments or considering it as a concept.  These players are among the best in the world at what they do, taking part in games that demand a lot of skill but still they can’t necessarily commit the time and energy they want to it because it’s not considered a “real” job and because the money to be made from it is so heavily dependent on success.  For someone that has spent time following eSports it was eye-opening and I can imagine it would be even more fascinating for those that haven’t had much exposure to it.

If you are interested in gaming on any level, I’d highly recommend giving Free to Play a watch to see what the fuss around eSports is all about.  You can find it on YouTube or download it to watch via Steam for free.

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