The time and place were well known to those who keep up with the competitive gaming scene. The International in Cologne, Germany in 2011. The prize? 1.6 million dollars total. The game? DOTA 2 (Defense of the Ancients). If you're unaware DOTA 2 is considered, by many, the King in the MOBA (Multiplayer Online Battle Arena) genre of video games. Defense of the Ancients, in particular, all spawned from a modified version of Warcraft III. An entirely new genre that mixes the idea of management of a single hero character and taking him/her into battle against other like-minded players. It has steadily clawed its way to the top of Steam's most played list with over half a million concurrent users (not including China, Korea and the like) at any given time. Valve acquired the rights and eventually produced a sequel, DOTA 2. Humble beginnings to helping define an entire subset of online competition in less than a decade. IMPRESSIVE.
I will admit that I came in with a lot of pre-existing knowledge of the eSports community as I've been an avid watcher of Starcraft, Street Fighter, Hearthstone tournaments. The choices in 2014 for a consumer of eSports are superior to what they were even in 2011. Five years ago? Ten years ago though? Not much aside from attending a live tournament or catching a video posted online. The idea of eSports has went from a fledgling "That's pretty sweet" idea to something that generates quite a bit of revenue for the major players in the market. Entire movements have sprung up around games like Barcraft. It is, much like a big group of friends getting together at a tavern to watch a football game, a truly social event. The difference is instead of watching professional football or maybe basketball it's the MLG Finals from Dallas for Starcraft 2. The enthusiasm is the same and the cheering is just as loud. Sure the content is different but that spirit of competition, the camaraderie that develops between those who support certain players or teams? The same as any other professional sport.
Valve and it's CEO, Gabe Newell, are considered messianic figures within the great gaming community due to things like Steam, Half-Life and, of course, DOTA 2. I did, however, read a lot of initial criticism for this little documentary because of, really, the first ten minutes or so? "It's just a long commercial for DOTA 2.." is something I read in a Washington Post review of the film. That is being rather unfair considering that this film isn't just made for those of us who know the score. Groundwork had to be laid down to establish just what the hell this game is about and what the setting is for the rest of the film. Once the actual storytelling began with the focus on three individuals going into the International tournament the flick takes off.
Three separate stories from across the globe all converge together in Cologne, Germany in 2011. One fellow, known online as Fear (Clinton Loomis), hails from Medford, OR. HyHy (Benedict Lim) comes from Singapore while Dendi (Danil Ishutin) is from L'Viv, Ukraine. The unifying thread among these three is passion for a game and for pursuing perfection in it. They train and take their craft very seriously much like any other athlete. Do they spend hours in the gym doing so? No but they certainly log hours at the mouse and keyboard honing their skills. Parents question their devotion and even their sanity as they doggedly pursue this dream of being the very best in the world.
Once the film opens up into telling these three stories and how they all interconnect in the framework of the tournament I found myself glued to my screen. The criticism that is self-serving for Valve could have some validity if not for the fact that such care was taken in showcasing these three individuals and limiting the amount of focus on the game itself. The game is merely a means to an end for the larger goal of the growth of eSports into a truly global phenomenon.
The jokes about Starcraft in Korea have all been heard numerous times before but when you look at the reality of it? Starcraft is a big damn deal overseas. There is a segment in the movie where the sheer adulation of Korea's populace for the best Starcraft players is shown. People swarmed for an autograph and the Korean national soccer team got to meet their favorite players in the locker room before a big qualifying match. Americans have looked at the idea and the notion of eSports, as a whole, as some sort of pleasant diversion instead of a serious competitive venue for future stars to strive for. Well, it was, anyway. That attitude is slowly changing with things like EVO (annual fighting game competition in Las Vegas), MLG (Starcraft, etc.) and other large-scale tournaments drawing huge numbers of fans and also legions of fans to watch online streams via Twitch.tv and other such services.
China gets it as well. Gatherings on the scale of massive soccer matches or mega-concerts occur for games like DOTA 2 (more popular in China than say Starcraft is in Korea). The Ministry of Sports has even deemed the game an official sport for China. So much eSports talent hails from the East but there are few teams that stand above the rest. The big bad villain, if you want to call them that, of the film could be seen as Chinese super team EHOME. It was funny that I couldn't help but think of Ivan Drago in Rocky IV. "Everybody knows when the King walks into the room.." the team manager proclaimed. The confidence of their manager and the team in general was an interesting contrast to, say, team Na'vi (Natus Vincere). Dendi, their Captain, likes to play fast and loose, experiment with different characters and push ruthlessly against their foes. A very "put your boot on their throat" approach whereas EHOME is far more responsive and more defensive in their play. The moment felt like a very David v. Goliath moment and it kept me enthralled.
The above quote says a lot not just about Dendi, the DOTA 2 Million Dollar Man, but about the core of the film's subject. These three people pushed themselves as hard as they could to be the best. They are athletes. They, much like anyone else, use their sport to deal with everything else around them. It is great to see a serious eye turned towards something like this. King of Kong did that with the story of Billy Mitchell and Steve Wiebe dueling for the world record. It was something you could show to someone who doesn't care at all about video games and get them to connect with the story. That humanity that can be found in it is what works. That is what makes a viewer connect even if they're completely foreign to the setting.
Valve gave us was a glimpse into the hectic, sometimes heartbreaking and exhilarating world of eSports. I can't wait to see how big this gets.
If you're also an avid fan of things like DOTA 2, Starcraft 2, Hearthstone, Street Fighter, MVC3 and the like let me know via comments, @ScrivenerJeff on Twitter or my Tumblr. If you've never dipped your toes in the water? Give it a shot. Check out the daily activity on Twitch.tv or just do a YouTube search. You'll find some amazing content from the eSports world.