Free To Play: first impressions of Valve's Dota 2 documentary
I visited Valve early last month, and while I was there I was treated to a world-first, last-minute screening of the first part of ‘Free To Play’, the Dota 2 documentary that the devs have been working on since prior to the first International tournament.
The version I saw was so raw it was being shown directly from the editing software, and there were a lot of first-pass effects that undoubtedly be finished by the time the film comes out. That said, I’m in a position to provide a sense of where Valve are going with it, as well as a few of my concerns over things it might be missing. I’m going to run through my first impressions below, but bear in mind that I will talk about a few specifics of what the movie covers - if you’d like to go in completely spoiler-free, consider this your warning.
They’re using lots of inventive ways to explain Dota 2, but could take this further
The film opens with a montage of people explaining Dota: its history, its popularity, and what you actually do in the game. It’s compared to basketball and chess, and at one point a speaker describing the game as branching network of decisions is accompanied by a diagram illustrating the kinds of choices players make over time. Interviewees range from pro players, community members like TobiWan, developers, and fans outside the games industry.
To illustrate the game, they’re using a mix of in-game footage, new Source Filmmaker animation work, off-screen footage from the International and other tournaments, and even parts of the Gamescom trailer from 2011. At the time I told Valve that I thought this approach was a little scattershot: if the film was your first introduction to the genre, it might be difficult to tell exactly which footage was from Dota 2 and which wasn’t. That said, it’s exciting and emphasises Dota’s legitimacy as a sport, which is important.
Their access to players and their families is really impressive
The bulk of what I saw was concerned with establishing the stakes leading up to the first International. In part this is handled as you’d expect: the history of competitive DotA is covered in order to set up the reveal of the tournament’s astonishing $1m prize pool, and there’s even a montage of shocked YouTube comments from the day the figure was announced.
The heart of the film, however, are Valve’s interviews with players and the people around them. They didn’t just sit down players in front of a greenscreen and get a few soundbites: they followed players as far apart as North America, the Ukraine and Singapore, seemingly for weeks if not months. To give one example, the film covers not only Dendi’s homelife but his childhood and relationship with his parents and siblings. There’s also close attention paid to the attitude of different players’ families to their chosen sport and what success means to each of them. It’s affecting and, crucially, it’s very human - exactly what e-sport coverage needs to achieve to find a wider audience.
There’s also footage of Dendi dancing around during a school play. So you’ve got that to look forward to. The guy, unsurprisingly, can dance.
They could do more to explain what makes each player talented as an individual
My only reservation about the documentary’s depiction of pro players is that it tells the viewer that they’re very talented without really showing why that’s the case. I understand that not everybody is going to be able to look at a bit of Dota footage and figure out what makes someone skilled, but this is where a slower, more explanatory approach could be useful.
One of the things that makes the Daigo Third Strike comeback so legendary in the Street Fighter community is that even if you know nothing about SF it’s possible to watch that video and get that not only is this guy skilled, but that he’s skilled because he’s calm, accurate, and has masterful timing. Hopefully this is something that Valve will also factor in for Free To Play: don’t just describe Dendi as talented, describe him as creative.
It’s kind of heartbreaking when you know how it ends
There’s something strange about watching a sports movie when the tournament itself happened almost two years ago: particularly when you’re watching players talking about how important winning is to them when you know they’re going to lose. This isn’t a criticism of the documentary, and it won’t be relevant for every viewer, but Dota die-hards should expect a degree of cognitive dissonance.
Valve are taking this seriously
Valve do very little by halves, and their filmmaking crew treat Free To Play as their full-time job. They’ve got a dedicated editing suite set up, and I would be surprised if Valve don’t continue to produce movies after this. It’s definitely in-keeping with Valve’s general shift from developer to wide-ranging media company.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the film treats Dota 2 - and games in general - as if they’re worthy of coverage by default. No “it’s only a game, but...” or “look at this novelty sport.” The only doubt about gaming’s legitimacy on the competitive stage is expressed by parents, and it’s heavily contextualised. This is great for e-sports in general: it doesn’t ignore the fact that they’re still a relatively niche pursuit, but it never questions Dota’s right to be taken seriously or the enthusiasm of its fans. For that reason alone, I’m really excited to see how Valve’s first foray into filmmaking turns out.