Valve took another step forward this week in their apparent quest be in the vanguard of all things video game related with the release of their new movie “Free To Play”. This seventy-five minute documentary, available to all through the Steam client, covers the lives of three players during the first edition of The International gaming competition in 2011. I have to admit that I was predisposed to like this movie from the start and because I didn’t really get into DotA until 2013, the story was completely new and exciting to me. But this movie stands up well as both a primer for someone new to competitive gaming and as a retrospective for those who have been there from the beginning.
“Free to Play” follows the paths of three gamers as they lead up to and through the first gaming competition with a million dollar prize purse. Danil “Dendi” Ishutin, Benedict “HyHy” Lim, and Clinton “Fear” Loomis all come off as likable and compelling characters caught up in the pursuit of a dream that, at the point when the movie takes place, hadn’t even really been defined yet. That is what I think makes this such a compelling story.
At the time of the first International, the idea of a “professional” gamer was a laughable one in the eyes of most of the world. Indeed, many people even today don’t quite seem to understand the culture shift that they’re living through. We are swiftly moving from a world where gamers are “nerds” and shunned to a world where gamers are still “nerds” but treated like rock stars. The legitimacy that a million dollar (or in the case of last years International, $1.4 million) 1st place purse gives to competitive, professional gaming is hard to ignore. Those that would choose to disregard the millions of world-wide fans and billions of international dollars spent on the industry are more than likely to find themselves in the same historical company as those convinced of a “flat-earth” or those nay-sayers that told the Wright brothers to go back to their bicycle shop.
In each their own way, Dendi, HyHy, and Fear all had to face this kind of prejudice in their pursuit. While the movie’s producers may have plucked that particular note a little too loudly and often, there’s no denying that our “hero-gamers” had to overcome some adversity to be counted among the best and often this adversity came from their own friends and family. It’s not that their family and friends were bad or oppressive people, hell-bent on crushing their spirits. It’s just that it had never been done before. The nay-sayers in this movie were just trying to be practical, not evil.
In fact, (*possible spoiler alert here*) the only people that really come off as evil are the Chinese teams, most notably EHome. Take the students from the Cobra Kai studio in The Karate Kid and have The Emperor from Return of the Jedi as their gaming coach and you might just have a team that is as evil and pompous as EHome comes off. Again, as someone that didn’t get a chance to watch the first International it was really great seeing Dendi and the Na’Vi boys crane-kick EHome right in their smug little faces. (*end spoilers*)
All in all, if you like DotA, this is a great movie. If you don’t know what DotA is, this is great movie to start learning about it. If you know what DotA is and don’t like it, I doubt very much that any movie can fix what’s wrong with you, but you should try watching this anyways and see.