Anyone excited to hear about the realities of eSports? The the dreams both ruined and realized, the money, torn families, the highest of highs and the lowest of lows? Then it's probably best to pass on Valve's documentary Free to Play. If, however, everyone would like to hear about three Dota 2 players taking a risk and everything ultimately coming out just super then I've got a movie for you.
Valve released its eSports-focused movie Free to Play for free today, viewable on Youtube, iTunes or even downloadable on Steam. The documentary serves as a brief introduction to the growing eSports industry with specific focus on Dota 2 and 2011's The International tournament. Three players serve as narrative guides through the tournament, Danil Ishutin or "Dendi" of team Natus Vincere, Benedict Lim or "Hyhy" of team Scythe, and "Clinton Loomis" also known as Fear of team Online Kingdom.
Beautifully shot, Free to Play is filled to the brim with color and well-framed looks at players in the arena of their choice. My particular favorite shot is on the outside of The International's soundproof boothes, where the five players from each team can be seen staring intently at their monitors. Enviroment shots from each of the player's homes are also gorgeous, from Medford, Oregon to Dendi's Ukraine. As for the story that Free to Play is trying to tell, that's another matter entirely.
While Free to Play does serve to recognize each of the three players' backgrounds and aspirations, in many ways it fails to accurately portray them or the trials of being an eSports player in the modern day. Instead it focuses on small, almost scripted overly dramatic and esports-unrelated storylines like Dendi's father having passed and Hyhy's ex-girlfriend. These side-stories culminate in awkwardly happy endings that seems neither honest nor accurate in the overall portrayal of each player's eSports journey. Both Hyhy and Fear's International trips seemed shattering, but both players are portrayed as becoming happier, more fulfulled and better human beings as a result.
Then there's how Dota 2 itself is represented in the film. Very little direct feed gameplay if any is shown, instead using post-processed and recreated highlights from the game including Valve's move maker cinematic sequences of certain fights that distort the actual in-game events. That is to say, Valve goes out of its way to make Dota 2 look like a completely different and more visually compelling experience than it is. Either Valve didn't think the game could speak for itself, which is saying something in an eSports documentary, or they wanted their game to be glamorized for a non-gaming audience.
Add that the documentary treads a very tight rope to avoid painting eSports including Dota 2's eSports environment in any sort of negative light and, to be frank, the film seems like advertising at points -- perhaps even light propaganda for the eSports scene. When Valve decided to produce a documentary focused on one of their games, I'd hope they'd go to lengths to distance themselves from the content and not the other way around.
Free to Play does touch on some very specific and real situations that professional players often encounter. Fear being essentially kicked out his home is not an uncommon event, such as the case with Dyrus, a popular League of Legends player on Team SoloMid. The film also touches on Chinese gaming houses, though it paints this sort of situation as a refuge for professional gamers as opposed to a very controversial situation where players are often introduced into unhealthy environments. Finally, and perhaps the biggest issue of all, is that the film again only lightly touches on how many professional gamers make very little money, but all three players in the film are shown to be successful, even wealthy, which is absolutely not the case for a majority of professional players.
Even the Free to Play film itself admits that there are serious risks involved in being a professional eSports player. Yet the film not only glosses over these issues, but seems to actively avoid directly addressing them. There are many storylines in eSports that are inspiring and uplifting and hundreds of thousands of watchers tune in every week for live events to see them. They're a dime a dozen. Perhaps Valve would have been better served to show a more honest and bold side of eSports, a side where not all players' stories end in families reunited, love rekindled and million dollar prizes.
Edit: Added Youtube embed to the full Free to Play movie.