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The Free Zone: Free to Play - My Personal Review

Column By Richard Aihoshi on March 25, 2014

To avoid any chance of confusion, today's topic isn't the business model. Rather, it's the documentary of the same name that Valve released last week. Available at no charge on Steam and elsewhere, it takes us back to August of 2011 and the first ever e-sports tournament with a top prize of $1 million. Called The International, it took place during Gamescon in Germany, with 16 invited DOTA 2 teams battling it out for a total of $1.6 million.

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About 75 minutes long including credits, Free to Play is produced by Valve, which says “the film documents the challenges and sacrifices required of players to compete at the highest level.” Three are featured. Danil “Dendi” Ishutin is the top player on his Ukrainian team, Natus Vincere (Na'Vi). Benedict “hyhy”Lim Han Yong is a member of Singapore-based Scythe, and Clinton “Fear” Loomis, who seems to be the only American in the event, plays on an international squad, Online Kingdom.

To its credit, the film does considerably more than just chronicle the tournament. It introduces us to each of the three not only as the highly skilled players they are, but also in terms of their backgrounds, how they got into professional gaming, what they hope to achieve, their parents' concerns about the path they chose, etc. The result of this is one of Free to Play's key strengths. It's not a geek-fest aimed only at hardcore DOTA 2 aficionados. Instead, I can and did appreciate it at the level of a fellow gamer, albeit not at even the lowest competitive level.

However, this focus is also a double-edged sword. If you want to see how the matches played out, what kinds of strategies the teams tried to use, etc., there's relatively little. Similarly, anyone hoping to pick up some helpful tips is sure to be disappointed. Personally, even though I'm not a serious or even regular MOBA player, I would have liked somewhat more information in such areas. For instance, we learn that Dendi prefers an attacking style, but not much at all about which heroes he favors, why, or how he likes the rest of his side to be composed.

I was also left with some questions about the world of e-sports. The film's description says “In recent years, e-sports has surged in popularity to become one of the most widely-practiced forms of competitive sport today. A million dollar tournament changed the landscape of the gaming world and for those elite players at the top of their craft, nothing would ever be the same again.” But there's only a relatively brief mention of e-sports' strong popularity in Korea and China, and basically nothing about how the landscape has changed in the two and a half years since the tournament. 

In the same general vein, nothing is said about how and why the 16 teams were selected, so I was left scratching my head when I saw none were from Korea. For what it's worth, there were four from China. Two came from Denmark. The rest included one each from Thailand, Malaysia, Philippines, Russia, France, Czech Republic and a second pan-European squad.

A broader concern I have is that Free to Play may not paint a realistic picture of professional gaming as a career. In this regard, I get the message it is. This may be true for the best of the best. Dendi, for example, has career winnings of more than $438,000 according to esportsearnings.com (note that I can't vouch for the accuracy of any figures there). On the other hand, the site shows $49,426 for hyhy and $19,631 for Fear. What's more, they're 24, 24 and 26 years old respectively. How many years are they likely to have left before their reflexes are no longer fast enough to continue competing? And what will they do then, especially if they haven't kept up their studies?

It may seem from what I've said above that I didn't like the film. This isn't so. I enjoyed it. I felt it was interesting (although not fascinating), nicely paced and generally well-produced. I mainly wish Valve had set its sights a little higher. I'd have been glad to watch an additional 15 minutes or so addressing the kinds of things I've commented on, even just a bit more. This does, of course, reflect my own hopes and expectations, which admittedly may have been somewhat elevated or optimistic. So, as long as yours aren't, I have no qualms saying that I think anyone who reads this site, even those who aren't into MOBAs, are likely to find Free to Play worth watching. 

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The Free Zone
Richard Aihoshi has been writing about MMOGs since the mid-1990s, always with a global perspective. As a result, he has observed the emergence and growth of the free to play business model from its early days in both hemispheres.

He is the former Editor of RPG Vault and his column, focusing on free to play MMOs, appears on MMORPG.com every Monday.
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