Free to Play Review: A Long Way to the Top
It’s only fitting that a free-to-play game gets a free documentary to go with it. Valve’s popular free MOBA, Dota 2, now has a quasi-companion documentary called, appropriately, Free to Play. However, it’s not really a Dota documentary and you don’t even need to like video games to like the movie.
While the title Free to Play implies that it’s a documentary about Dota 2 and its development, popularity and the impact its had on gaming, Free to Play is actually about eSports. The documentary follows three competitive Dota players, each with a different background, as they pursue the $1 million grand prize for Dota 2’s The International championship.
The documentary gives the briefest of overviews of the game so that viewers have context for the action. Dota 2 sees two teams of five players attempt to push across a map to destroy the main structure in the enemy’s base. That’s all the background that is required to watch this documentary.
At its heart, Free to Play is about the personal stories of Dendi (AKA Danil Ishutin of Na’Vi), Fear (AKA Clinton Loomis, then of Online Kingdom) and Hyhy (AKA Benedict Lim, then of Scythe). The documentary juxtaposes their pursuit of the pinnacle of competitive Dota 2 with struggles in their personal lives. This is mixed with a look at the growth of eSports, Dota 2 in particular, around the world with The International garnering a lot of attention due to its massive prize pool
The documentary spends the least time with Fear but that’s not a detriment. His story is that he had a falling out with his mother while he was trying to make a go of gaming for a career. There’s a briefly touched upon subplot of Fear being a top American player while eSports and Dota 2 doesn’t share the same popularity as it does in Europe and Asia but was never really developed which is a shame because Fear’s story is his desire to make a living as a pro gamer rather than the more personal and emotional subplots of the other two stars.
The stars of Free to Play are Dendi and Hyhy. If you’re a Dota 2 fan, you can understand why Dandi would be a focus of the documentary. He is one of the sport’s biggest stars. Hyhy, however, might have the most relatable story in the movie.
Hyhy’s path to The International is probably one that most people can relate to. He’s devoted so much time to playing Dota and Dota 2 that his school grades are beginning to suffer. His family disapproves of him putting Dota ahead of his studies and it’s causing stress in the household. He wants them to accept his passion for gaming. By choosing to go to The International (not always presented as a certainty in the movie), he missed his final exams and would have to repeat his final year of schooling.
He’s also dealing with a recent bad breakup with his girlfriend, also a competitive Dota player and the only one that he feels accepted him as a gamer. His goals for The International are two-fold: Prove to his family that he’s not wasting his time by playing video games and win his girlfriend back. We’ve all been there. We’ve all had to stick up for our hobbies and we’ve all had ugly breakups or exes we struggled to get over. Hyhy’s story presents him as the least stereotypical gamer and the most like a real person.
Dendi’s part of the story also focuses on his home life. Dendi’s story is a much more emotional arc. Like Fear, he lives in a single-parent home. However, it’s because his father died when he was young. Right before the grand finals, the movie looks at Dendi’s close relationship with his father and how he sunk more and more time into Dota as a coping mechanism.
Whether Valve decided to focus on Dendi (or any of these players) before or after The International, his arc was always going to be the most powerful. His success on the biggest stage in eSports makes his journey all the more powerful and is a great piece of storytelling.
Surprisingly, though, Free to Play doesn’t really look at Dendi’s popularity before The International. He was already a popular Dota player prior to The International having been voted 2nd place in GosuGamers’ 2010 People Choice Award voting for Dota players. They make it seem like he was the breakout star of the tournament. Sure, he was a bigger star after having won The International but they don’t really mention that he wasn’t just an anonymous upstart before then.
In going through everyone’s story and talking about Dota 2, Free to Play uses the usual tricks of interviews with the featured players, prominent figures in the game and the players’ family members. There is no overarching narrator stringing the pieces together but the on-screen text, interviews and testimonials do a good enough job that there was no need for one.
In addition to all the original footage and home video and photos, there is also game footage from Dota 2. Valve wasn’t just content with straight replays and broadcast footage from The International. They also animated key moments from the games at a cutscene level of graphics and detail. The game footage looks really good even if it doesn’t necessarily represent what you’d see in an actual Dota 2 match. It was enough to make me think Dota 2 was really cool looking and consider getting into playing Dota 2.
If you come into Free to Play expecting a movie about Dota 2 or even about eSports or competitive gaming, you’re going to be disappointed. That being said, it’s still a very good documentary and you don’t have to be a gamer to enjoy it. It’s about the human drama of sport. Unlike most documentary, the backdrop of the drama is what was then the world’s biggest eSports competition.
Free to Play may not tell a story as well as an Oscar-winning documentary and doesn’t share the same competitive drama that most sports documentaries but it’s worth the 70 minutes of your life to watch it.