despite all the technical and social leaps the e-sports community has made over the past few years, the widespread appeal that manages to draw in thousands, sometimes millions of viewers at a time still remains a mystery to much of the public. How could watching a bunch of kids sitting at computers be as compelling as the action of a well-played football game? What could a computer game do to match the excitement of a skilled three-pointer in basketball? The recently released documentary Free to Play, produced by popular PC gaming company Valve, may aims to answer these questions.
The very first thing viewers should know before watching Free to Play is that it isn’t a comprehensive look at the founding and evolution of e-sports, nor is it a showcase for the many different games that have helped e-sports grow into the cultural phenomenon it is today. Since it was produced by Valve (it can be watched either on YouTube or through Valve’s digital Steam PC application), Free to Play focuses instead on the company’s popular online game Dota 2. While the beginning of the documentary briefly touches on e-sports’ roots through the birth of LAN (Local Area Network) gaming, it quickly shifts focus to the 2013 Dota 2 International tournament which was held in Cologne, Germany.
While the 2013 Dota 2 International wasn’t the first major e-sports tournament to offer a cash prize to the winning teams, it attracted a great deal of attention thanks to the whopping $1.6 million grand prize. The documentary focuses on three different Dota 2 players, each of whom comes from a different country and background. These three players are Benedict “Hyhy” Lim from Singapore, Danil “Dendi” Ishutin from Sweden, and Clinton “Fear” Loomis from the United States. Free to Play does an excellent job showing the many struggles each of these three young men have had to overcome in order to validate their competitive gaming lifestyles both to their families and to the world at large.
Being from Singapore, Benedict Lim has grown up amidst a family that has put constant pressure on him to attain good grades and get into a decent college. When his grades start to slip due to his constant Dota 2 playing habits, his parents and relatives are naturally not too pleased, and he goes into detail about how much of an uphill battle it was trying to convince them that he can make a legitimate living playing computer games if he manages to win the International. The film also covers his recent breakup with his girlfriend, a fellow Dota 2 player, only which only adds to the pressure he is under.
Danil Ishutin, on the other hand, is an upbeat Swedish player who hides a tragic family past. He talks about how his early childhood interest in piano playing helped him develop the finger dexterity that often aids him on the Dota 2 battlefield, and how his gaming habits helped him to cope with the untimely death of his father from cancer.
Lastly, Clinton Loomis recounts how he was raised in a rural household and how the International is a chance for him to prove to his mother and siblings that he doesn’t need a standard career to support himself (he is portrayed as the film’s underdog, with teammates jokingly referring to him as the “Rocky of competitive gaming”).
Free to Play does an excellent job portraying the many thrilling battles, victories, and upsets that made up each of the three players’ journeys up the tournament’s ranks (including a few tense matches against the dominant EHOME team from China, which is portrayed as the pseudo-villain team of the film). Naturally there can only be one winning team, but the very end of the documentary checks in with Lim, Ishutin, and Loomis a few months after the International’s conclusion and shows that, despite the tournament results, all three of them are in a better place than they were before.
One minor criticism I had was that, despite its exhilarating story of triumph and personal growth, Free to Play didn’t do quite as good a job explaining the deeper nuances of either e-sports or Dota 2 — which means viewers who don’t have previous experience with them might be left scratching their heads when the action starts. The film does its best to cover the basic rules and progression of a typical Dota 2 match and explain more technical terms as they are used in the heat of battle, but if you’ve tried to play Dota 2 in the past and left with your head spinning, Free to Play likely won’t help to clarify whatever it was you were missing. As a chance to showcase the personal struggles of competitive Dota 2 players and the national appeal the game has garnered, Free to Play works wonderfully. As an opportunity to bridge the gap between e-sports fans and uninitiated critics, sadly Free to Play doesn’t quite make it all the way.
If you’re a fan of e-sports, Dota 2, or both, Valve’s Free to Play is a must-watch film. If you’re a sucker for a good underdog story or a well-executed glimpse into a world you’ve only heard mentioned in passing, I’d recommend Free to Play to you as well. It’s a compelling and emotional look into the ever-growing world of competitive e-sports.