Free To Play Film Review
Follow the lives of competitive DOTA2 players as they pursue their dreams of stardom.
I wasn’t quite sure what to make of this when it popped up on my Steam Update News feed. Valve, one of the gaming industry’s biggest hitters, has made a film. Not another cleverly produced trailer or a promo video, but a feature length documentary. As the it’s title suggests, Free to Play is just that. With nothing to lose but an hour and fifteen minutes of my evening, I relaxed from my mouse and keyboard, sat back and took a look at Valve’s latest venture.
With no box office or direct download revenue heading in Valve’s direction, the pay off has had to materialise in another form. In this case, it’s promoting their free-to-play title DOTA2. At the 2011 GamesCom in Cologne, Germany, Valve set a new precedent in the world of competitive gaming (or “eSports”) by hosting The International, a DOTA2 tournament where 16 invited teams would play for the chance to walk away with $1 million. It was a watershed moment for gamers, who cited it as a validation of professional gaming and a cultural revolution. The battle was no longer just for world bragging rights. This was a competition that if you won, it could set you up financially for life.
This was a competition that if you won, it could set you up financially for life.
The story follows three team captains from different parts of the world; Danylo “Dendi” Ishutin from Ukraine, Benedict “hyhy” Lim from Singapore and Clinton “Fear” Loomis from the United States. Each have overcome the hurdles of adversity in order to make it to The International, whether it’s staying up all hours of the night in order to train with European teammates, growing up without a prominent male role model or simply trying to justify their career as professional eSport gamers to their parents.
While the circumstances of each of these DOTA players seem real enough, there are times when the drama feels a bit produced. Lim’s heartbreak story of how he lost his one true love and has to win The International before embarking on the quest to get his girl back, feels laboured and adds an unnecessary layer of cheesiness. The living room scenes with Lim’s family talking about how his top level grades have slipped significantly since his obsession with DOTA feel a lot more genuine. The interview where he explains why he took up smoking again – while puffing on a cigarette – manages to be incredibly poignant without the prompt of sentimental background music.
Loomis, referred to as “Fear” by the players who know him well from the eSport tournament scene, is the unbridled underdog of Free to Play. North America stakes little value in competitive gaming compared to Asia or even Europe, so despite getting kicked out of his mom’s house due to his commitment to DOTA and his US teammates “quitting the game” and moving on with their lives, Fear remains determined to make a living as a professional gamer. Some of the expert strategies (or “strats”) you see him execute during the International give you the hope that he can indeed be the best in the world.
By far the most exciting scenes in Free to Play are of in-game footage of the tournament battles. By jumping between the gameplay and the shots of the softly illuminated LAN chamber and crowds of thousands, the amazing comeback plays have teams screaming, fist-pumping, and otherwise claiming their victories like professional sports players on the court and on the field. Surprises are in store at every corner, and if you don’t follow the competitive DOTA2 scene and haven’t yet learned how the 2011 International turned out, you’re in for a treat.
The domination of Chinese teams in DOTA will be an eye opener for many western viewers, with footage of training houses full of Chinese youth practising daily to be the word’s best. Tournament favourite EHOME are the only team with a manager overseeing every match, who steps in to give advice during the all-important drafting segment (when teams select which heroes to use and which ones to strike from the opposing team’s selection). The arrogance of EHOME Manager Tang Wenyi in his interviews helps makes the final rounds of The International all the more climactic.
“This is a story. It’s a custom. Which is when everyone sees EHOME, they naturally think the king is entering.” – Tang Wenyi, EHOME team manager
After 2007’s King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters I thought that competitive gaming documentaries would always take a jab at the gamers themselves, making the viewer feel sorry for them after seeing the amount of time the players spent on these relic arcade cabinets. Free to Play doesn’t just capture the culture behind games like DOTA, it celebrates the fact these players are at the nascent of eSport becoming a mainstream spectator sport. The comparison NBA star and DOTA enthusiast Jeremy Lin makes of his hobby past time to his basketball career helps cement the fact that video games are becoming just as much part of the world’s competitive arena as physical sports.
The best thing about Free to Play is that by the end you feel proud to be a gamer. I’ll never stand shoulder to shoulder against the world’s best, but I may just try this playing this DOTA2 game. After all, it’s free to play.