A few days ago I watched Valve’s eSports documentary, Free to Play. You read that right, a documentary created by the studio best known for games like Portal and Half-Life 2, not to mention Steam, the digital distribution service that’s revolutionized PC gaming.
I didn’t know much going into Free to Play, just that it was a documentary about eSports. This piqued my interest because, for a solid 2 years, I was really into watching competitive StarCraft II.
I mean really into it: I would watch multiple matches every day, I followed every major tournament, and I could list off a team’s roster from memory. Hell, I even joined Twitter, all those years ago, just so I could keep track of my favorite StarCraft II pro gamers and shoutcasters (it didn’t matter that most of the tweets were in Korean).
I myself was never any good at StarCraft II (forever Bronze league), but over time I developed an almost encyclopedic knowledge of the game’s units and their hard counters. I became well-versed in the most popular strategies and build orders for the 3 races, and could get into lengthy discussions about how the latest patch might alter the metagame.
Phrases that would baffle an outside observer, like “6 Pool all-in vs. a Gateway into Forge Expand,” made perfect sense to me. So, when I started Free to Play, I was worried I’d be similarly perplexed. You see, I’ve never played Dota 2, and here I was about to watch a Dota 2 documentary.
It’s 2011, and the three (along with their teams) are attending GamesCom in Cologne, Germany. There they will compete in “The International,” a tournament with one of the largest cash prizes in eSports history: 1.6 million dollars.
So was I, a Dota 2-naive viewer, lost? Yes and no. I’m sure I didn’t understand all of the nuances during the scenes shot at the tournament itself. For instance, I have no clue why drafting a particular hero might be a risky strategy. But I was happy to learn that Dota 2 players also use “gg” (“good game”) at the end of a match, a convention I thought specific to StarCraft.
But I don’t think these little details about Dota 2 or eSports in general are what really matter. They’re certainly not what make Free to Play such an emotionally engaging and successful film. Rather, it’s the film’s intimate portrayal of universal human experiences, like love and loss, that facilitate this.
Sure, it’s set set against the backdrop of competitive gaming, but Free to Play is more than that. It’s a look into the very different lives and backgrounds of these three young men, who nevertheless face similar obstacles. The most significant, it seems, is convincing their families that professional gaming is a legitimate career.
Which, unfortunately, for some it’s not. Like other sports, not everyone is going to make it to the big leagues. And for those few who do, it’s a constant battle to stay on top.
After all, only one team can win the million dollar prize. Of the three progamers the film follows, two go home disappointed. The viewer becomes attached to the three young men, which makes it all the more heart-wrenching when two of them inevitably have their hopes crushed.
That said, Free to Play is not a complete downer. While all three face challenges and make sacrifices in order to pursue their dream, each grows from the experience. But maybe you should just see for yourself!
You can watch Free to Play, which is about an hour and fifteen minutes long, on YouTube. Or, if you prefer, you can download it directly from Steam. Both options are, thankfully, free. I say “thankfully” because I think Free to Play is mandatory viewing for gamers, whether you’re a fan of Dota 2 or not.