Valve’s new film, ‘Free to Play,’ is a bid to legitimize professional gamers

(Valve)
(From "Free to Play" courtesy Valve)

If online gaming were a person, it would be old enough to vote. A whole generation of people have now grown up with online games, and thousands regularly compete in giant tournaments for a living. One of the games they play competitively is called Defense of the Ancients, or DotA. It's offered on Steam by the Seattle-based company Valve, which on Wednesday will release a short film about one of these gaming competitions. The Switch obtained an early copy. Here's our take on the documentary.

Brian Fung: All right -- so last night, you and I watched "Free to Play," Valve's documentary about a gaming competition. If you had to describe it in a few words, what would you say?

Andrea Peterson: Extended commercial. An effective extended commercial, but definitely an extended commercial.

I personally really enjoyed it, but in the back of my mind I was constantly thinking about how the structure of the release and the content were all really aimed at promoting the DotA brand (and thus the Valve brand) and the viability of the professional gaming, which, as a major platform for online multiplayer, Valve has a long-term interest in succeeding.

Brian: That's more than a few words, but okay.

Andrea: Well, the few words were "extended commercial." Then I got carried away.

Brian: Valve's motives were pretty clear. I don't blame them for focusing on DotA so heavily, but it caused me to spend most of the documentary thinking about the movie's other themes instead — ones that didn't seem so plainly self-interested.

Andrea: Like the motivations of the three featured gamers?

Brian: Yeah. I'd also say the film grappled with some pretty complex social, racial and cultural stereotypes — and it deserves a lot of credit for doing it fairly.

But let's start with its take on professional gaming, more generally.

As you point out, I definitely think the film has the potential to raise the profile of e-sports — though it's not clear to me that many people who aren't already familiar with Valve will be in a position to appreciate the film.

Andrea: Sure, professional gaming is a thing. There are people who make their living competitively playing video games just like people play professional basketball -- although with lower payouts. There have even been U.S. visas handed out to professional video game players.

And Valve has had a pretty significant hand in the market with DotA -- and the sponsoring of the International Tournament, which this film covered. In 2011, the tournament came with a $1 million grand prize -- admittedly, that's split among five players on a team -- but it's still by no means chump change. By making, producing and distributing the documentary, they've invested even further.

Brian: And let's not forget industry endorsements of pro gamers — striking deals that can add up to hundreds of thousands of dollars a year.

Andrea: Absolutely.

Brian: What I find so interesting is why pro gaming (or e-sports, as they sometimes call it) is so big in Asia when in the United States, it's virtually unheard of. My theory is that broadband access in the United States is simply a lot more restricted than it is in places like South Korea and Singapore. They're smaller countries, certainly, but they have also made deliberate investments in broadband infrastructure. Given that it's so hard for many Americans to get adequate Internet to do their homework, let alone play games, it's no surprise that e-sports are marginalized.

Andrea: That sounds plausible. Although, when it came to discussing the mainland Chinese teams I thought the film sometimes veered almost into Rocky Balboa versus Ivan Drago narratives.

Brian: Yeah, Valve seemed to want to tell an underdog story from the start, focusing on sympathetic characters who all have complicated home lives. The Chinese teams were portrayed as a kind of monolith that confirmed all of the West's fears of the country as a collective of geniuses.

Andrea: It would be interesting to me to be a fly on the wall as they chose which players to follow -- I'm sure there were already established relationship in place that informed their choices, but they clearly chose well.

Brian: The film never focused on the Chinese players as individual characters. It was always "When the Chinese walk into the room, they create instant fear."

Andrea: Yes. Lots of collectivist narrative. I wonder if they tried to get behind the scenes with any Chinese teams but couldn't get permission?

Brian: Their discipline, their organization, it was always to be admired. Yeah, maybe.

Andrea: And always to be talked about as a unit.

Brian: At the same time, the Chinese teams were a little sympathetic in that they put so much pressure on themselves, saying that if they received anything less than first place, they'd toss their trophy in the trash at the airport. Given how popular e-sports is in China, having that many people watching you play in real time — I mean, I can understand how the players think that every time they participate in a match, they're representing their country. Hence the feeling of "China against the world" — a sentiment that a lot of the international teams, with players from more diverse backgrounds, weren't able to latch onto as a source of power.

Andrea: Yeah. And we did see that some of the international teams had some issues communicating during the tournament. Plus, some had added difficulties during normal training, like the American player Fear's insane sleeping schedule to keep up with his European team mates.

Brian: Oh, man. I kept thinking that Fear was going to fall asleep in the middle of all his interviews.

Andrea: His eyes were so red. And he was so calm. Mellow, if you will. But his commitment to doing gaming as a career was incredibly intense. I mean, he essentially got kicked out of his mother's house for continuing to pursue it.

Brian: Not essentially, literally!

Andrea: Yes, the dog would stay up with him while he practiced and wake up his mom, so he had to go. The family dynamics at play throughout the documentary were fascinating but leaned pretty heavily on various tropes.

Brian: The guy's motive for joining the tournament, I think, captures it pretty well: Boy meets game, game eats life, parents worry for life, boy tries to win a huge prize to show his parents it all meant something bigger. The same was true for the Singaporean player Valve followed, Hyhy.

Andrea: Yeah, and Hyhy's motivations were fairly similar with some added tiger family stereotypes and a "win back the girl" subplot.

Brian: I really think the tiger family elements were under-investigated.

Andrea: Sidebar: I think Hyhy's girlfriend was the only female player featured in the documentary. There was another female team manager, but not another player.

Brian: Okay, yeah, you had mentioned the gender imbalance as we were watching, and I initially agreed. But then I thought about the overall dynamics of the gaming universe. I'd bet males are generally over-represented in hardcore gaming. Of that sort.

Andrea: Oh, I agree. I'm commenting on the gender diversity of the sport, as it were, not Valve' portrayal of it.

Brian: Oh, gotcha. I want to come back to Hyhy's family because I think that's one of the few places in the documentary where I feel like the work was approaching journalism.

Andrea: Like when they discussed the repercussions of him missing his college exams to attend the tournament. (Having to repeat a semester.)

Brian: Precisely. Instead of just showing how great the pro gaming life is, it dealt honestly with the consequences (and choices) that Hyhy had to take responsibility for. It seems like he could've tried to take his exams early or find another arrangement with the school, but instead he blew it off. And I think the film implicitly judges him for that.

And at the same time, it gave ample screentime to Hyhy's parents, who kept urging him to focus on school. The way Valve portrayed it made it look like his parents were being unreasonable — that they only cared about his grades rather than his passion. But in doing so, I actually think Valve accidentally revealed a really important side of many Asian teens' experience. In Chinese culture, particularly, it's customary to tear down your children, even if other people compliment them on their ability.

Andrea: And overall it was moments and insights like that that made the documentary really compelling to me. I became invested in these players and their domestic dramas — so much so that I rooted for them to win.

Brian: Right.

Andrea: Even with the transparency of Valve's interests in the doc, and the savviness of their distribution and the marketing of tie-ins, they really did create an interesting piece of art about their community.

Brian: You certainly get the sense that these are not just nerds in a basement. These are people who care about their relationships, who enjoy sports and exercise, who play to support their families, and so on.

Andrea: Exactly. Even if some of the narrative falls victim to some familiar tropes, it still manages to give a nuanced insight into a scene that could be really easy to paint with broad strokes.

Andrea Peterson covers technology policy for The Washington Post, with an emphasis on cybersecurity, consumer privacy, transparency, surveillance and open government.
Brian Fung covers technology for The Washington Post.
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