Free to Play Poster

9.3 on IMDB? Are you kidding me? This is certainly a good film, but it’s not that good.

Free to Play is a documentary made by Valve Software which follows three professional DOTA2 players and their journeys to The International tournament. The three players that the film focuses on are Danil “Dendi” Ishutin (from the Ukraine), Benedict “Hyhy” Lim Han Yong (from Singapore), and Clinton “Fear” Loomis (from the United States). The film explores the personal lives of these three professional players and the trials they had to overcome in order to get to The International.

The Good

  • Excellent production values
  • Great editing
  • Interesting stories behind each player
  • Each of the three stories get about the same amount of focus
  • It’s free!

The OK

  • Tends to glorify the reality of e-sports a bit more than I’m comfortable with
  • Gives a barebones crash course into the history of competitive gaming
  • Very little focus on the game itself
  • Portrayal of the Chinese teams contrasts quite radically with how the other players are portrayed

The Bad

  • Absolutely nothing

Movie Opinion

E-Sports (or sports for geeks) will be the next big thing. Valve know this, and together with many other companies, are making a huge push to help legitimize e-sports as a professional activity. Free to Play is also part of that push. As a pretty hardcore gamer, I can’t really argue with what they’re trying to do, but I do feel that the way they’re doing it isn’t exactly great. But before I get into that, let me mention a few of the things that make this a good documentary.

Free to Play tells three stories that are very down to earth, particularly in regards to the personal problems that the three professional players have to face. Obviously this helps people connect and engage with the story, which can be a problem if a documentary choose to take too much of an objective approach. The editing also makes Free to Play a very compelling watching, particularly with the way the three stories are woven together and connect at The International tournament. It’s also very well shot, but considering it’s obviously got a reasonable budget, I would expect nothing less.

Unfortunately I do have a problem with the film, and this is from someone who is very submerged in the gaming subculture. Free to Play does downplay (or not even mention) a lot of the issues that comes with the e-sports (and sports) territory in order to help gain support for the whole e-sports phenomenon. For years there has been issues in regards to team management, in particular managers exploiting players to make money. There was recently a scandal involving a Korean League of Legends player called Promise who tried to commit suicide after he revealed that their manager had been forcing them to throw games. Thankfully he survived his suicide attempt but it’s just one example of the “darker” side of the industry.

There’s also the intense competitiveness around it which can be clearly seen in countries like Korea where e-sports has been going for longer. I watched a documentary a few years ago that was created by a group that no connections with any gaming companies . I can’t remember the name of it, but it looked at the Korean e-sports industry and how harsh it could be. The film makers spent time with various teams and you got to see the kind of life these aspiring professional players live. It’s basically 12-16 hours a day gaming, with breaks for meals, and if you’re with the better sponsored teams, maybe you’ll also have time for gym. It’s no joke how serious it is.

Overall, Free to Play is an extremely well put together and entertaining documentary, and I have to take my hat off to Valve for not only putting together this film, but for releasing it for free. I never imagined that I would be around for the birth of e-sports (if only I was 10 years younger I wouldn’t be on the sidelines watching).

However, I can’t help but feel that this documentary ignores the “darker” side of the e-sports industry, which is something all aspiring pro players (particularly considering the age of most of them) should be aware of. If it had looked into this it would have been an amazing documentary, and while it’s still good, it doesn’t help that it occasionally feels like a piece of advertising.

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