Three Lane Highway: Valve's Dota 2 documentary sets an example for the community

Three Lane Highway is Chris' sometimes earnest, sometimes silly column about Dota 2. Previously a Tumblr blog, it now runs every week on PC Gamer.

Being in the crowd during The International 2013 grand finals was more or less the highlight of my career. It was certainly one of the most powerful experiences I've had in connection with a videogame. When Alliance won and green confetti streamed from the ceiling and the Dota 2 theme started to play and the crowd were on their feet I understood something about sport that I'd never really understood before. It was one of those rare moments when you are aware that you are experiencing something important even as you experience it. The adrenaline didn't give out until deep into the early hours of the following morning.

The message of that moment was "this is legitimate". I had no doubt in my mind that the the contest meant everything to Alliance, Na'Vi, and all of the other competitors. I believed in the absolute goodwill of the audience, the enthusiasm of the commentary teams, and the excitement of the game's developers (something you don't get to see often enough).

I felt justified in the thousand-plus hours I've put into a single game. I forgot about every time I'd been sworn at, harassed or abused in team chat. I forgot about the scene's occasional indulgence in locker-room pettiness. I was able to ignore, for a moment, the more serious issues with racism, sexism and xenophobia that dog every competitive gaming community. It was a brilliant, singular statement of the positive power of competition and passion. I wish I could bottle that experience up and give it to somebody else.

Valve's Free To Play documentary is a product of the same feeling. Released yesterday, it covers the first International tournament back in 2011, the first time that Dota 2 and many of its biggest personalities were exposed to a large audience. It follows three players - Fear, hyhy, and Dendi - as their teams progress through the competition, interspersed with interviews with their families and friends. Each story is structured to provide an emotional context for the matches being played. Rather than go deep on the mechanics of Dota 2, it focuses on what winning and losing means to the people who play the game.

It is stridently positive about the game, the players, e-sports, all of it. It's this that has it flagged as an 'extended commercial' by the Washington Post . I think there's some truth to this argument, but it stems from a belief that videogames are a commercial product first and a hobby or sport second. This is a generational perspective, then, and therefore it's somewhat undercut by the movie's unrelenting endorsement of the passions of young people. Free To Play ends, after all, with a montage where Dota 2 personalities enthusiastically forecast the death of the old order. In so far as it is a commercial for that sentiment, I can get behind it.

There's something a little naive about Free To Play, though that's not necessarily a bad thing. The documentary elides any of the problems experienced by players that do not stem in some way from generational conflict. It uses fairly unsophisticated emotional cues to lend weight to particular matches. Fear is compared to Rocky Balboa at one point, and sports movies inform a great deal about the film's structure. It is both naive and powerful in the same way that the Rocky movies are naive and powerful. These are simple stories, but they mean something to a large number of people because there is truth in them.

I saw some of that truth at The International 2013, and in my excitement I became a little naive, too. I believe that Free To Play is an expression of Valve's desire to bottle up the best of what e-sports can be and deliver it to a bigger audience. There's nothing disingenuous about that goal, and a tremendous amount of work has gone into making it a reality.

I'm glad Valve decided to make a film, and not just because it presents a game I love in a way that my parents might understand. I'm pleased because Free To Play is an expression of the values of its filmmakers and therefore, more broadly, an expression of the values of Dota 2's developers. It presents e-sports as something to be taken seriously but emphasises in turn the seriousness, talent, and dedication of the players themselves. It encourages professionalism - something that e-sports has a hit-and-miss track record with - by not only presenting it as a virtue, but by implicitly stating that it's this quality that makes certain players worthy of the all-star treatment by Valve. This is coming from a company that is typically reluctant to tell anybody how to act, and although I respect the spirit of that philosophy I can't help but be relieved to see it fray at the edges.

If you follow the scene closely, Free To Play could not have been released at a better time. Early March has seen a run of e-sports dramas and a sudden injection of unbridled positivity is what we needed. It's been fun to watch the Dota 2 subreddit deal with the movie's sentimentality, something that the community would normally treat with acid suspicion. I hope that the film has an impact - and I hope that Valve keep making statements like it. A few weeks after TI3 I was back to being called an f-word, a c-word and an n-word by kids on the internet, and I don't doubt that given a week or two the community will be back to demanding the summary executions of this pro player or that caster.

The positive response to the film shows that this doesn't always need to be the case, and I hope that Valve understand the power they have to shape the tone of the discussion that surrounds the game. I wish that being a Dota 2 player felt like being at The International all of the time, but I don't think that player surveys and automated punishment systems are capable of making that a reality. Nor do I think that participating directly in the scene constitutes a breach of Valve's corporate philosophy. The message I'd like Valve to take away from Free To Play is this: that yesterday's stories are powerful, but the way Valve chooses to frame them has a tremendous influence over the types of stories we'll see tomorrow. Don't stop here.

If you'd like to read more about my experience at The International 2013, I wrote a feature about it which is now available online .

Chris Thursten

Joining in 2011, Chris made his start with PC Gamer turning beautiful trees into magazines, first as a writer and later as deputy editor. Once PCG's reluctant MMO champion , his discovery of Dota 2 in 2012 led him to much darker, stranger places. In 2015, Chris became the editor of PC Gamer Pro, overseeing our online coverage of competitive gaming and esports. He left in 2017, and can be now found making games and recording the Crate & Crowbar podcast.