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‘Free to Play’ looks at professional players

A scene from “Free to Play,” a documentary about a video-game tournament, available on YouTube or game-maker Valve’s Steam game-distribution platform.

VALVE

A scene from “Free to Play,” a documentary about a video-game tournament, available on YouTube or game-maker Valve’s Steam game-distribution platform.

Once in a while, an image from the frenzied scene of a video-game tournament — usually involving the strategy game “StarCraft” or its sequel, and usually in or near South Korea — breaks through to US audiences, and the reaction is usually perplexity: People are being treated like rock stars, like professional athletes, for playing video games?

There is a growing number of professional video-game tournaments in the United States, but the scene is dwarfed by what’s going on elsewhere in the world. So for anyone trying to learn more about this growing form of employment — because that’s what it is for an increasing number of gamers — “Free to Play,” a new documentary released by the game company Valve and available for free online via YouTube or Valve’s Steam game-distribution platform, is worth a watch.

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The film follows several gamers from around the world before and during a huge “Defense of the Ancients 2” (“DotA 2”) tournament in Cologne in 2011, which carried a grand prize of $1 million for the winning team and another $600,000 for several runner-up teams (money unprecedented for this game at that time).

I must point out that this is a film about a game tournament produced by a company that publishes said game and organized said tournament, which would normally raise red flags. But it generally comes across more as a legitimate documentary than as an exercise in PR manipulation.

The game itself is a pretty complicated, tactically deep one. One commentator featured in “Free to Play” describes it as a combination of soccer and chess. NBA player Jeremy Lin, who makes an appearance because he himself is a “DotA” enthusiast, naturally compares it to basketball instead. “DotA 2” features more than a dozen “Heroes,” each with different strengths and weaknesses, fighting five-on-five battles in which the goal is to destroy the other team’s base. Each player controls one Hero.

The gamers featured in “Free to Play” have obsessively practiced the game for years, and each has a team of driven players. Clinton Loomis is an Oregonian whose gaming habit caused his family to ask him to leave the house (he has to be up at brutal hours to practice with his team, whose other members are based in Europe). Benedict Lim comes from a strict Singapore family deeply concerned about the impact his habit is having on his education. And Danil Ishutin, who in many ways emerges as the film’s star, is a handsome, skinny, endearing Ukrainian kid from a poor family.

What all three have in common is the seemingly irrational goal of making a career of doing something they love, often despite resistance from their families. Here’s where “Free to Play” does a good job making subject material resonate even among folks who know nothing about this world. These young men’s obsessions really aren’t all that different from other, more established and socially acceptable ones like music or chess. They put in the same amount of work, develop the same obsessive focus. I’m less than fully sympathetic to the idea that developing virtuosity in a video game is as useful (or generalizable) as developing other expertise, but the film softened my view. “The day I transformed into an adult was the day I started playing ‘DotA,’” Lim tells us early on, and the commitment and obsession of the game’s top players shines through.

Moreover, it tells a good, exciting story, using enough voice-overs from very excitable game announcers explaining the action to make things (mostly) understandable, even if there are moments here or there that are hard to follow. Like any good documentary, “Free to Play” does a good job on the immersion and empathy fronts: We feel for the players, understand the importance of national pride among the (often dominant) Chinese teams, and shake our heads at the fact that “StarCraft” is such a big deal in South Korea that members of the national team were brought in to address and inspire the national soccer team.

Just a little more explanation about some of the strategies and tactics within the game would have been nice. Surely there’s a way to explain some of the basics without delving too deep into the weeds (and these are some weedy weeds, as any trip to the verbose entries in a “DotA” Wiki will quickly reveal). The movie also isn’t quite critical enough in its assessment of the prospects for the expansion of professional gaming, especially in the United States. Those interviewed in “Free to Play” imply that this is a quickly growing field, but how true is this, exactly? Will the United States ever have a professional gaming circuit anything like China’s or South Korea’s? Such questions go unasked.

Now, this isn’t surprising given that it’s Valve, after all, that made this movie. But still: It would have been nice to hear more about the cultural reasons why professional gaming has caught on there but not here, as well as some of the economic challenges that might stymie its growth in the United States.

Overall, though, this is a quality documentary — recommended for gamers and nongamers alike.

Jesse Singal can be reached at jesse.r.singal@gmail.com.
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