Free to Play: E-Sports and the Gaming Revolution

free to play gaming e-sportsFree to Play is a sports documentary in a familiar form; it follows the lives of a number of hopeful competitors approaching a huge tournament. These sorts of documentaries are a common method of celebrating a sport; they present an event as a humanised piece of history and offer a view into the world of the competitors. For fans this offers a look into the lives of players they already respect, for others it offers a human narrative that they can use to make meaning of the game. Free to Play is focused on the first large Defense of the Ancients 2 (DotA 2) tournament, The International from 2011, which carries an exceptionally high prize ($1million) for the winning team. And while most people have never heard of it, DotA 2 is a massive game – up to 700,000 people are playing online at any given time. But despite the size of the competition and the following, there’s a popular ignorance about the game.

The game was developed by Valve, the tournament was established by Valve and the documentary is “a Valve film”. This is interesting because there are no further production credits – there is no director or crew listed anywhere in the credits, which instead consist of a list of the entire staff of Valve in alphabetical order. It’s clear that they are determined to make DotA 2 into a significant spectator sport.

This documentary marks the incipient position of e-sports as spectator events. South Korea have a popular Starcraft league and three TV channels devoted to Starcraft competitions and the documentary makes clear that DotA is in China what Starcraft is in South Korea. Further more, twitch.tv has established a large streaming network for players to record and broadcast their matches for sponsorship. These often receive tens of thousands of views at a time and it’s likely that many video games have produced more hours of recorded video than the first 150 years of Australian Rules Football. However, one thing that is emphasised in the documentary is how marginalised these players are in the west, in contrast, the film explains, “over in Asia they take gaming so much more seriously”.

Free to play e-sports gamingIt should be said that e-sports have some hurdles to leap in becoming a spectator sport. Firstly, most games are not established for spectators, first-person shooters show you the perspective of one player when the field is deliberately divided into separate spaces. There are endless versions of each game; sequels, modifications and different types of competitions mean that a uniform standard game is rarely established. The players are rarely present in the games, they typically compete from their own homes and so all their moments of victory and defeat are often obscured from viewers. These factors mean that a standardised audience is difficult to establish and much less any kind of stable league. While this struggle to become a recognised sport clearly informs the tournament and the documentary, we only see these factors play out through the lives of the competitors. 

DotA 2 is well positioned to become an established e-sport. This is primarily because the game has been designed for longevity. It seems Valve are trying to emulate the success they had on another free to play game, Team Fortress 2, which continues to be popular 7 years after its release. DotA (Defense of the Ancients) was a modification for the game, Warcraft III: Reign of Chaos. Valve software developed a sequel in collaboration with one of the original developers, Abdul “IceFrog” Ismail, the stand-alone game DotA 2. As the title of the film indicates, the game is free to play – you can download it for free and play on servers without charge. Valve makes money on the game by hosting the marketplace where people sell items, usually aesthetic modifications to the game. Users make these items, and players buy these items to personalise their game character and create their game identity. One content producer made $500,000 in a year by selling digital content in Team Fortress 2 such as digital hats for avatars to wear.

free to play gaming e-sportsFree to Play follows the struggles of three competitors from three separate DotA 2 teams as they approach The International. All three competitors are young men (21-23 years old) who have been playing for years in front of their disapproving parents, but now that The International is offering $1million, they can finally justify all the hours they’ve spent playing. Sports documentaries often feature the slow grinding dedication that professional sports involve (e.g. waking at 6am to go running, or struggling through pain), but rarely is the struggle so similar between different characters. They all deal with the fact that their competitive pursuit is so maligned and much of the story is oriented on how this impacts their respective lives. There are other struggles, Danylo “Dendi” Ishutin discusses the impact that his father’s death had on his life, Benedict “hyhy” Lim Han Yong uses the tournament to take perspective on his life as his family pressure him to take his studies more seriously, and Clinton “Fear” Loomis shows his exhaustion as he’s located in Medford, Oregon but plays in a European team on European time. His late night gaming eventually gets him kicked out of his family home.

The tournament and the documentary were created partly to overcome this rejection – obviously, if you make $1 million doing something you love, it cannot be considered a waste of time. Interviews with an established athlete and DotA enthusiast, NBA player Jeremy Lin, help to further establish the e-sport. Occasionally the use of money to build legitimacy and the desire to present a tense sports documentary causes problems – at one stage we feel the crushing defeat as one of the examined teams is eliminated moments before we learn “They leave with $150,000”, which presumably softens the blow.

Free to play gaming e-sportsFree to Play is most interesting in the way that it seems to unintentionally represent emerging global tensions as opposed to the older rivalries. While President Obama and Prime Minister Harper are betting on the outcome of the USA vs. Canada Olympic Ice Hockey match, Free to Play barely make a distinction between North America and Western Europe. The Chinese teams appear like a scary unknowable behemoth. The film explains that they play as a full-time occupation, honing their skills in houses dedicated to DotA training. The Chinese government are seen as forward thinking as the General Administration of Sport recognises and supports e-sports. In contrast to the well-equipped Ivan Drago-like Chinese teams, Fear (the American player) has a cheap PC and a desk made out of junk. In Singapore, hyhy’s father works long hours in a blue-collar job and there’s tremendous pressure on him to get an education so that he can ride the country’s expanding economy. Further emphasising the cosmopolitan nature of the event, hyhy’s team Scythe alternates between speaking to each other in English and Mandarin. Far from looking foreign, Dendi, a Ukrainian appears like a nice guy from a rough neighbourhood and his family seem like a reservoir of traditional family values.

Free to Play gaming e-sportsFree to Play is not the definitive e-sports documentary; it’s just the beginning. While the film gives a thorough back-story to these players, it doesn’t show the team dynamics or explore how their personality translates into the game. At one stage hyhy makes a risky decision against the wishes of his teammates, which seems to cost them the game, but the event goes relatively unexamined. It introduces sports personalities and provides a good platform for future films. With so much recorded video of these games and so many games to focus on, it seems likely that future documentaries will be produced from within the community. As mentioned earlier, DotA 2 makes money by allowing users to create new content and sell that content to other users. Valve founder and GM Gabe Newell has stated that what he’s found is that “[games] are productivity platforms for goods and services.” Part of what Free to Play demonstrates is that people can make a film about gamers and find a significant audience, so it seems likely that Valve will be establishing systems to assist their users to produce their own sports documentaries. Valve have produced free filmmaking and animation software, Source Filmmaker, which is an extension of the Source game engine which runs all of their games including DotA 2.

Free to play is incidentally free to watch. And with over 1 million views on YouTube (only one of three viewing platforms), it seems to have been a success. It’s likely that in a few short years these documentaries will be a regular fixture of gaming events and establish a large market.

Here it is, for your viewing pleasure:


About the Author

Michael Honig is a Melbourne based writer and academic. He recently completed his PhD in Visual Arts, writing his thesis on Asian ghost movies. A lover of all sorts of culture, he can often be found in a cafe, either frowning at a computer or furiously typing away on it.

7 thoughts on “Free to Play: E-Sports and the Gaming Revolution

  1. An astute topic for discussion, Dr Honig.

    I remember the big Street Fighter 2 tourneys people used to all gather and watch. Winners always picked Guile or Ryu – but I digress!

    I guess the next step is a game designed from the ground up for spectatorship. Perhaps one in which participants and spectators have an entirely different perspective on the play. It’s not like people watch football from cameras affixed to the players heads, and nor would they really want to.

  2. One interesting note about Valve:

    The reason there are no specific credits (except the actual names of the staff) is because Valve has no actual management structure to speak of. Their workers decide what they’re going to work on, independently, and they decide where they most effectively will contribute value to the company. As a whole, they’re vehemently against anyone serving a single role in the company.

    “Management is a skill, not a career path.” – Gabe Newell, Valve’s co-founder.

    I’d love to work there.

  3. This is a really interesting article, Michael–good work! I’ve seen this film advertised on Valve and was curious about it; the uniform way the staff is listed reminds me of the credits in The Devil and Daniel Webster, which had a socialistic quality. The curious thing about video games is that many have cinematic components nowadays, so you make some good points about the evolution of media.

  4. This is a generational thing. My college-aged son watches StarCraft tournaments with all his friends. I tell him he’s crazy, then watch the NCAA basketball tournament with my friends. I’m most curious about how this attempt will effect television. It doesn’t look like the traditional tv model is viable anymore, and live sports may be the only thing keeping it afloat. I have no idea what computer-based live “sports” will do to the way we watch, but it seems certain that 25 years down the road, things will be very different.

    • It’s definitely becoming bigger every day. My better half would love nothing better than to quit her Corporate job and train full time to compete in ‘Call of Duty’ tournaments 🙂

  5. Michael, I am afraid to say that I have no interest in gaming and little interest in sport. However, your article introduced me to this world, about which I knew nothing, and I did find it fascinating.
    Best wishes from England, Pete.

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