It’s hard to believe today, but in 2014 the landscape of esports looked so different it may as well have been some alien plain. League of Legends and CSGO had been around for three years at most, and the games looked nothing like they do today, both in terms of the player experience and the tournament power balance.
In League, the highest earner of the year was PawN, making a shade under $225k. For CSGO GeT-RiGhT was king, taking home the princely sum of $57k for being the most dominant player the game has ever known. When you consider there are Polish guys getting nearly $50k every two months to do nothing in the server in 2018, the contrast is striking, but Valve were about the drop a tournament into the calendar that sat in the esports space as delicately as a cannonball on top of a trifle.
Valve announced the event on August 1, 2011, with 16 teams invited to compete in a tournament which would also be the first public viewing of Dota 2. Funded by the publishers and sponsored by Nvidia, it took place at Gamescom in Cologne from August 17 to 21, and was broadcast in English, Chinese, German, and Russian.
The International was big news at the time, and it’s impossible to imagine what esports would look like in 2018 without the event. However, the success of TI was far from guaranteed, and as with many new games, the onus was on the owners to make the title and competition live and sing in the minds of their potential audience. And so, Free To Play - was born.
Three wise men
The documentary details the first tournament, held in Cologne, and the journey three young men were making there. Singapore’s Benedict "hyhy" Lim, Clinton "Fear" Loomis from the United States and the Ukrainian now-legend Danil "Dendi" Ishutin, who would go on to lift the trophy at the end of the event. They were the wise men who followed a star to Germany, and like other wise men from mythology they were rewarded for their faith with a place in the history books.
Equally alien to folk new to the scene will be the impact the $1 million prize pool had on the general esports landscape. Today, even Battle Royale titles purely designed to flog skins to kids can raise $100m of investment for exhibition matches, but just seven years ago the idea of a $1m prize pool for playing video games was as outlandish as the thought Donald Trump would be president one day.
Outside of the three teams featured, the Chinese org EHOME are also a big part of the film, mainly due to their success at the event, giving the viewer a look at the way four sets of players develop in four vastly different parts of the world. The poverty-affected Ukraine compared to the bright lights of Singapore demonstrates wonderfully how Dota touches people from all walks of life, and the deep dive Valve takes into the lives of the three they follow only enhances the human aspect.
The film also broke new ground not just for being a documentary about a new game in a relatively new area, but also for reaching new heights in terms of the quality of production. Valve made a documentary that to this day stands equal to anything else that has been produced in the esports space, and gave a human face to the players of the game that has come to define esports to the wider mainstream audience. The details were new, sure, but equally new was the way the players were treated, with respect, reverence, as if they were ‘real’ athletes.
Bravest of all the cast
The families of Dendi and Fear in particular play a prominent role in the film, and those parents who supported their children into esports in 2011 are perhaps the bravest of all the cast. Singapore’s hyhy is a more typical story, a talented young man trying to convince his family gaming is worth pursuing, and his struggle contrasted against the support Dendi and Fear get makes for a fascinating look at a story that is still being written thousands of times a year in 2018, the battle between esports and parental expectation.
With Valve an American corporation, there still has to be a happily ever after, and sure enough the film ends with all three of the main men getting their white whale in one way or another, but the sense of insecurity that comes with their choice is never far from the surface. Mark Adler’s soundtrack blends well with the alternate backgrounds and lives he is scoring, and the cinematography of Phil Co, Nick Maggiore and Jeff Unay belies the fact they made the entire film for $150k.
You can still see Free To Play for free, on YouTube, as only seems appropriate for such a seminal piece of esports history, and while it contains an interesting perspective on the way things were, it holds up today when compared to any other film in the genre. With The International on the way, there is also no better time to revisit the film, remind yourself of how things used to be, and marvel at what can only be described as an esports masterpiece.