Re: Free to Play

Valve, the company behind Steam and many extremely popular game franchises like Portal, Left 4 Dead, and Half-Life, created a documentary about the biggest esports tournament that had ever taken place before 2011. They both sponsored the tournament and created the game that was played: Defense of the Ancients 2 (or Dota 2).

The film was originally planned to be a simple documentary about the first tournament of its scale for the game, which was still in development at the time. After delving into three particular players’ backstories, however, the documentary makers and Valve decided to create a feature-length film that was released in March of 2014 and captured the essence of the growing space of esports.

It’s a wonderful production that I’m so happy exists. The film shows all aspects of the tournament and entertains every type of viewer. The more you know about the game, the better you can follow and be excited by the clips of gameplay highlights that defined the wins and losses of the tournament. Without that knowledge, however, viewers can enjoy the very human story of the players and teams travelling to Germany to participate and have a chance at a $1,000,000 prize.

So many professionals featured come from some form of adversity. Central to just about every player’s story are parents who don’t quite understand their passion, at least at first. Seen in the film are a range of acceptance, from enthusiasm to reluctant approval to ongoing concern. Nearly everyone interviewed shared the struggle of expressing the importance and legitimacy of being a professional gamer to parents providing for them.

The film treats this subject with respect and fairness, I find. It includes the legitimate concern that there is no history in esports to look back on to understand the chances of success. It’s mentioned and discussed that many of these pro players will walk away from the tournament with nothing, unlike even losing major league sports players who are paid regardless.

The more a player shares who they are and why they want to win, the more difficult it is to watch all but one ultimately take the top prize. Dendi, Fear, and HyHy, as they are referred to in the game and the documentary, have equally compelling motivations that make it impossible to choose between or side with.

I was viewing this movie with two mindsets, though. One was a happiness to see the intimate stories and large scope of a video game tournament on display. The existence of the documentary helps to confirm and further the idea that gaming is a legitimate hobby or even career in some forms. It shows it is growing in popularity, that my favorite passtime is becoming more and more accepted, even if I don’t play Dota 2 in particular anymore.

The other mindset, however, is one that simply won’t leave me in the wake of #GamerGate and the ongoing divide between those in gaming interested in inclusion versus those who are not. To the point: nearly every single player interviewed in this documentary is male. At least one female pro player is interviewed, but she is not visibly in the tournament. Many family members, especially mothers, are featured and offer very important perspectives, but when it comes to the game itself, it is a male-dominated esport tournament as shown in the film. This includes the audience, as well.

This isn’t to say that the documentary makers should have fixated on any rogue women in the various teams (though I looked, and it doesn’t appear there were any in this tournament). This isn’t to say that teams for any reason other than skill should have been included in the tournament. This is only an observation of a lengthy sampling of data from the Dota 2 community that is disappointing to me.

I don’t even imagine that all sports, esports, hobbies, or anything will necessarily have parity among sex or gender, because correlative differences between them may naturally lead people to or away from certain activities. But near-complete maleness (as in this tournament) is a clear outlier, especially considering that the physical skill, dexterity, intelligence, and teamwork required to master Dota 2 doesn’t fall under any of the stereotypical gendered differences I think of.

So this disparity serves as a constant reminder as I’m watching, a haunting knowledge that for all the triumph and despair and ultimate joy of seeing the video game community grow to be respected, professional, and worth paying attention to, it is still sorely lagging and lacking in this important area of inclusivity.

That’s the challenge when you love something. Long term, you have to be able to recognize its flaws and work to improve them if possible. Short term, you have to turn off or learn to ignore the mental notices when problems show themselves so you can enjoy yourself. But I find this an important responsibility in order to be a respectable member of a group or fan. No rug-sweeping, just calling spades what they are.

I loved the documentary, and I highly recommend it if you have an interest in video gaming or how close to “regular” sports the esports world is becoming. The intensely personal stories by themselves will keep you engaged.

Also, if you download and watch this documentary on Steam, you can earn achievements. (That’s a thing that matters to gamers.)

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