May 30, 2023
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Review: Gamers’ struggles fuel documentary

"Free to Play"

Valve Corporation

“One way to forget about pain is to do something that you will be in completely,” professional gamer Danil “Dendi” Ishutin said. His silhouette comes to light as the train emerges from the tunnel. “So, computer games, for me, it was everything.” Ishutin never turns to the camera as it cuts to the tournament’s spectator entrance.

“Free to Play” is a documentary by renowned game developer Valve Corporation that examines three professional e-sports athletes — Dendi, Benedict “Hyhy” Lim and Clinton “Fear” Loomis — as they prepare for and compete with their teams in The International, which in 2011 was the largest competitive gaming tournament in the world. The players are competing against others in the online battle game “Dota 2,” with $1 million awaiting the lucky team to reach the top. However, each player has much more on the line than money.

The film traces back to each player’s roots, delving into their motivations and challenges in pursuing professional gaming, which are especially evident when Dendi’s mother recounts the challenges of raising a large family in Lviv, Ukraine. In addition to this intimate commentary, numerous prominent members of the community surrounding “Dota 2” make appearances, either discussing the players, the tournament or the game, adding insight and depth of personality to further the audience’s immersion in the film.

As Valve Corporation was both the host of the tournament and creator of the featured game, viewers could assume the film to simply be a feature-length advertisement. However, the focus is always on the players. The game is merely the catalyst for the drama, only highlighted enough to explain the basic mechanics of “Dota 2” and to continue the film’s narrative, which explains each player’s relationship with gaming. It invites viewers to learn more about the systems without turning away those less familiar with, or interested in, the game.

“Dota 2” or not, the film is nothing short of gripping. It highlights the dedication and sacrifice each player made: love, education and family are all at stake. Coming from an impoverished family in Singapore, Hyhy’s family chastises him for skimping on his education in order to train for the competition. Faced with a painful decision, he skips exam week to travel to Cologne, Germany, for the tournament. It’s difficult to not cheer for all of the players as they progress through the tournament, knowing full well that only one can take the crown — a testament to the film’s artful endearment.

A deep irony to the movie’s title becomes increasingly apparent as the film progresses. Just as much as the film focuses on the players, all striving to prove themselves as the best in the world, it examines the emotional, physical and psychological toll of their shot at glory. This struggle for success is the meat of the film and what gives the tournament its sense of suspense. The film’s message reaches beyond “Dota 2” and beyond competitive games as a whole to the eternal desire to be the best.