Free to Play – Bringing DOTA into the Mainstream

In Play, Watch

Free to Play is a feature length documentary released by Valve Corporation (of Half-Life 2 fame and Half-Life 3 tardiness), chronicling the travails of three professional gamers on their route to the finals of ‘The International 2011′, a DOTA 2 tournament with a $1m prize at stake.

DOTA (or Defence of the Ancients) falls into the genre of ‘Multiplayer Online Battle Arena’, and is described in the documentary as a ‘cross between football and chess’, where two teams of five players battle constantly for momentum. The parallels with professional sports are clear, and made repeatedly.

The mechanics of the game can take some time to explain, which is why the documentary largely dispenses with this – showing a little bit of  game footage and keeping it fairly simple for the audience, effectively saying: ‘Each team has a building that the other team is trying to destroy’.

And that’s fair enough – I’ve no idea how I’d explain the game to my family and friends anyway – but the result is that the documentary focuses on the human drama rather than the game itself. There isn’t enough explanation of how the game actually works so a casual audience can understand it, nor is there enough coverage of the actual matches for a gaming audience to appreciate the talent on show. For a documentary which surely held aspirations of being a ‘breakout’ film for DOTA – and perhaps the wider gaming community – this feels like something of a missed opportunity.


Documentaries like this are a good thing, in a world which continues to equate gaming as something akin to masturbation, and the challenge posed to the film’s protagonists by their parents is something which will strike a chord with many gamers. Anything that continues to establish the notion that gaming is a valid cultural medium worth of respect has to be a good thing. The bottom line is that – unless you watch Let’s Plays in between rounds of Counter-Strike –watching other people play games isn’t generally considered to be a legitimate leisure activity. That will change, but in the immortal words of Djimon Hounsou: Not yet. Not yet.

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