Free to Play


A movie review? Really? This column is going to hell, and it’s only been active three months. But it’s okay, the movie is about video games. Video game Übermensch Valve Corporation, creator of extremely successful and award-winning games, gaming platforms, game engines, gaming innovation and research, the online purchasing and downloading system Steam, massive player workshops and in-game economies, has made a movie. It’s been made for some time, in fact, considering the entirety of the thing was shot in 2011, but only recently released.

The movie is a documentary following three professional players of the game Dota 2 during the first international tournament held for the game, known creatively as “The International.” The three players, pictured above, are, in order from top to bottom, Benedict “Hyhy” Lim, Danil “Dendi” Ishtun, and Clinton “Fear” Loomis, from Singapore, Ukraine, and the US, respectively. The tale is one of emotion and suspense; all three are desperately invested to win the tournament not just for the $1,000,000USD cash prize, but for their own personal desires to prove themselves and turn their lives around. Of course, a tournament is a tournament; only one can win, so watching the three of them list their sundry reasons why they need this victory can turn depressing right after two of them suddenly meet head to head in the tournament.

But the goal of the film is not just to focus on the tournament. It has aspirations of appealing to all viewers, and it does. To make sure, I brought in everyman representative Steven Schwartz, my father, who takes time out of his day to judge adjacent videogames either “silly” or “really silly.” The documentary can, at times, feel like a pitch for taking games seriously; for showing the complicated emotional angles that can intersect the technical expertise of a game, as if to say “this is a real passion.”

Sometimes it can come a little heavy with the message, with speeches from players and programmers on how time will inevitably vindicate their lifestyles, and comparisons and parallels between the massive eSports scene in Asia and the disdain for it in the West. One can’t forget, after all, that Valve, the makers of this film, are also the makers of Dota 2, and the one who put up the million dollar prize that is held up as the harbinger of gaming’s legitimacy.

Indeed, a true cynic might find the whole thing a little too neat, and claim it smells of a propaganda film from an interested party. And despite my innate desire, as a true cynic, to do so, I won’t let myself. The film has a bit of a message, but the fact is, the message is true. I say this not just as a gamer, but as a reasoning individual who has paid attention to the massive changes that have come in gaming and professional gaming in the past few years. If the film had come out in 2011, it might have been called a film with a heavy handed message, but in 2014, it’s a piece of history, putting a microscope on the shifting prestige and power of gaming.