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Two weeks ago, Valve released its first documentary, Free to Play. The developer allowed viewers to preload and download the full film via its digital-distribution service Steam or watch it on YouTube. Fade in to an introduction about Dota 2, and I’m questioning whether this is a documentary or a promotional spot for Valve’s multiplayer online battle arena game (MOBA).
Admittedly, I was hard-pressed to separate Valve’s intentions as a video game producer and a film producer. I feared Free to Play would turn into a feature-length ad. After the first 15 minutes, however, the film dismissed my concerns. Valve doesn’t push the promotion of Dota 2. The passion of the fans and players do the work for it. Watching players scream, fans cheer, and everyone treating a video game as a professional sport builds integrity for the e-sports scene. Free to Play is a beautifully filmed documentary, and for Valve’s first, it entertains and educates viewers about professional gaming.
The film follows top professional players of Dota 2, who are gathering to compete in The International, a tournament touting a grand prize of $1 million. Tensions are high among players as this is the largest prize money in any e-sports tournament.
For many gamer professionals, money isn’t the only thing at stake. Players are often subject to family disapproval. Danil “Dendi” Ishutin, Benedict “Hyhy” Lim Han Yong, and Clinton “Fear” Loomis are the three players profiled in the film. Although they come from different countries (Ukraine, Singapore, and the U.S., respectively), they each struggle with family issues because of their pursuit to play Dota 2 professionally.
Ishutin’s family was adamant at first to support his professional goals, Lim Han Yong endures the sarcastic remarks from his aunt and family while suffering academically, and Loomis’s mother kicked him out of her house because of his gaming habits. Even though these players come from different cultures, it’s clear that professional gaming still isn’t seen as a legitimate career — with the exception of many Asian countries and the avid fan base surrounding pro gamers.
There’s room for improvement if Valve were to produce another documentary. I would have liked to see more of a historical look at Dota 2, the tournament scene surrounding the game, and how video game players in general earn money. But what Free to Play did was make me more curious about Dota 2 even though the focus was on the players.
I have faint memories of the original Defense of the Ancients (Dota) when I played Warcraft III, but the mod was still in its early stages then. Matches required hour-long sessions, and it was too aggravating as a beginner to get my ass handed to me. Plus, I was working on my WOW addiction at the time, so I set Dota aside for the time being. After watching Free to Play, I’ve downloaded Dota 2, cruised through the training courses, and played several bot matches extending into half-hour and hour-long sessions. (The film has scared me away from jumping straight into match-made games.)
So, am I honing my skills to become the next The International tournament winner? Not likely. I still get caught reading item tooltips while an enemy tower blasts into my hero. I’m content to rekindle my Dota memories in the prettier package of Dota 2 even if I’m mumbling words of frustration at the screen. Intentionally promotional or not, Free to Play influenced me to download Dota 2 and sold me on Valve’s potential as documentary producer.