free to play poster

Free to Play: The Movie is Self-Aggrandizing and Fascinating

Valve’s recently released documentary, Free to Play, could really be called Dota 2: The International: The Movie as the entire focus of the film is on 2011’s first major Dota 2 tournament. The International sports over one million dollars in prize money and was a major draw for burgeoning professional gamers for the then still-in-beta MOBA (the 2011 tournament also served as Dota 2’s first public viewing). While Free to Play contains lots of Valve’s unabashed self-aggrandizing for their successful MOBA, it successfully paints a fun narrative surrounding The International and serves as a fascinating look at esports for both fans and outsiders.

Like any good documentary, Free to Play focuses on the human element. Specifically, three players from some of the more famous teams that competed in The International: Benedict “Hyhy” Lim from Singapore team Scythe, American Clinton “Fear” Loomis from European team Online Kingdom, and Danil “Dendi” Ishutin from Ukraine team Na’Vi.


Meet the Players

Free to Play dendi

Lim’s story is rife with drama, and a compelling centerpiece of the film. His story is heart-achingly relatable – his parents and family don’t understand his gaming obsession and chastise him for not paying closer attention to his studies. In a dramatic twist of fate The International falls on the same days as his exams, and he has to end up repeating a semester due to his sacrifices for his team. In a further bit of delicious drama, Lim remains love-sick and opines for his ex-girlfriend, whom he met as a fellow competitive Dota player. Though Lim’s team ultimately fails to reach the grand prize, they still come away with over $100,000 in prize money; more importantly Lim succeeds at winning back the girl after he (and we the viewer) realize that’s what he cares about most.

Loomis’ backstory is 50% shots of horses and small town Oregon life. “Fear” is the elder statesman of his team, Online Kingdom, but because they’re a European team his schedule has him keeping all kinds of bizarre hours in order to continue to train with them. He’s the team captain of Online Kingdom, and quick interviews with his teammates reveal his dedication, compassion, and self-less nature – everything you’d want in a successful leader. Online Kingdom ultimately fail to make the finals, and the result motivates “Fear” to move in with his teammates to better practice their craft.

Our final player focuses on “Dendi,” the mop-haired, fun-loving kid that melts quickly into seriousness when competing with his team Na’Vi. Danil Ishutin comes from a large, loving family, and that mindset is quickly reflected in his childish but fun personality. Of course his life isn’t completely drama free – his motivation for losing himself in gaming stems from the loss of his beloved father whom he used to go fishing with. When he lost his father to cancer he hung up the fishing pole and picked up the mouse and keyboard, escaping into games like so many have done before him. Of course gaming can quickly become a wonderful source of social fun, and our hero found himself on the winning team of The International, bringing home over a million dollars. Na’Vi (short for Natus Vincere) has continued to reach success in Dota 2 while failing to regain the top – they’ve placed second in 2012 and 2013’s competitions.

Universal concepts like parental approval and loss, young love, and competition requiring dedication and sacrifice are great ways to inundate the average gamer or interested party into the world of electronic sports. While Dota 2 and last year’s The International competition are the focus of the documentary, Free to Play does capture many important facets of esports and the current scene of competitive gaming.


China Against the World

dota 2 the international

In China gaming is much more widely accepted, and esports are a nationally recognized sport. Dota 2 has taken China by storm, comparing the game’s widespread popularity to Starcraft in Korea. Chinese players are considered the best in the world, and China’s premiere team is EHOME. EHOME are the closest thing we have to a villain in our narrative world of The International (at least in 2011) – they’re the team to beat and edited with a reminiscent style of feared teams in classic sports films. Quick interviews, imposing shots, and lots of random talking heads hype them up as the primary fear of every other team, and the favorites to win. For EHOME it’s championship or failure, and serves as a wonderful storyline when it comes down to them and Na’Vi battling in the Grand Finals.

China is briefly touched upon as an example of a culture that’s much more accepting of gaming and esports. Pro-gamers are treated as rockstars and Dota 2 remains their most popular game. In the succeeding years about half the teams that place in the top eight positions of The International are from China, including 2012’s winning team Invictus Gaming.

Whether the rest of the world will pick up competitive gaming (and gaming in general) beyond its relative niche remains to be seen, but it’s fascinating to see a culture which celebrates games and gamers as much as Americans celebrate movie stars and NFL players, and I do wish the documentary had delved a little deeper into it.

Free to play group huddle

While Free to Play creates a fun storyline out of the first major Dota 2 tournament, it’s a shame it took so long to release. The documentary covers the events in 2011, a long time in competitive sports and an eternity in the fast-paced world of pro-gaming. As someone that doesn’t particularly like Dota 2 nor keep up with the tournaments, Free to Play does package together a richly entertaining experience for an entire tournament. By showing off clips of the in-game action seamlessly interspersed with impressive CG recreations of the battles the viewer is drawn in to the ebb and flow of each battle, and the exciting individual heroics that can turn the tide of an entire match.

It’s easy to see the appeal of following the stories of these players and cheering them on, and I consider Free to Play less of an insidious marketing film for Dota 2 and more of a joyful celebration of esports, gaming, and more importantly the people that play them. I’ll admit I even got a bit misty-eyed when Danil “Dendi” Ishutin returns home a grand prize winner to sit by the fishing pond he used to share with his father as his family wistfully states that his father would be proud. Like the film as a whole it’s sappy and an obvious tug at the heart-strings, but ultimately an effective story to be told.