Saturday, 22 March 2014

'Free To Play' and The Future of Competitive Gaming

Free To Play is a documentary released on the Steam store about a three, 20-something, pop tart-consuming, Dota 2 champions who are good enough at their game that they get to compete in an International tournament (innovatively and originally titled 'The International'). But this ain't any old tournament; where most competitive gaming tournaments had a small prize pool of some few thousand dollars (which is still a lot for playing a game), the prize pool for The International was $1,000,000. That's right, a million big ones for playing a game. Do you know how ridiculous that sounds to any non-gamer? Do you understand how ridiculous E-Sports seemed to me at first? Even gamers within their respective communities look down upon E-Sports as trivial and rather silly, much like how parents look down upon gaming as a whole as trivial and silly. E-Sports, however, isn't silly, it's just one of the ways in which gaming can break in to the mainstream entertainment industry.

See, gaming is still in its baby steps; we haven't had a Picasso or a Stanley Kubrick, and there are many pundits out there that have no shame in titling our medium as 'worse than heroin'. This is expected in the early days of a medium, like when the movie industry was feared in the 60s and 70s because of how film was so life-like in its violence that it could coerce a younger generation of children and teenagers into becoming violent, sociopathic serial rapists. Turns out that didn't happen, and 50 years on films are accepted as mainstream entertainment, where taking your kids to see the new Disney film is now a family day out. Will this happen for gaming? Will there be televised coverages of video game awards? Will game developers and voice actors be held in equally high-esteem to film directors and film actors? Or more relevant to the topic, will turning on a game of League of Legends be as common as turning on the Rugby match? 

If we get right down to it, sports aren't really about the sport. Running isn't about getting from A to B in the fastest time possible, because if it was, running would incorporate rocket-powered motorbikes instead. Running is about who can put one leg in front of the other the fastest. Football is about seeing who can kick a circular ball into a square net the best. Basketball is about seeing who can throw a spherical ball into a round hoop the best. Dota 2 is about clicking on an enemy until the enemy falls down. See how I've reduced these sports into pointless objectives? Does it make you want to stop watching or playing football or basketball? No, because sports aren't really about the sport, they're about the athletes, and their strive for success overcoming all odds, facing hardship, defeat or victory. Whether you're the spectator or the athlete, the sport requires a level of commitment, dedication, skill and practice to be the best at. In which regard, how is Dota 2 or League of Legends any different to football or basketball or running?

In Free To Play, we learn about three main E-sports champions; Benedict 'hyhy' Lim, Clinton 'Fear' Loomis, and Danil 'Dendi' Ishutin. Benedict is considered to be the best Dota 2 player in his country, Singapore. In pursuing his talents as a champion, he rejects school work and academia to the point where he misses his exam week in favour of the International. Under constant, intense pressure from his parents, the game is his escape from the pressures and the expectations of the outside world. Clinton Loomis takes his Dota teams so seriously that he stays up way into the early hours of the morning (and later) just to play with his European team, to the point where his mother kicked him out of the house due to the disturbance he caused. Danil Ishutin is a troubled guy, but channels his unhappiness through playing Dota. He lets out his anger, frustration and often chaos in-game, which is probably what makes him such an iconic player. All three of these gamers have one important thing in common: they pile hours upon hours on Dota to become the best at it because they don't have much else. Life doesn't offer them much in the way of opportunities, and Dota is a small way for them to become the best at something. They all have the chance to be the best in the world at something, and just because they're good at manipulating pixels on a screen doesn't invalidate their skill.

So what of the future? It's all good and well to be appreciated within your select community,  but how will competitive gaming reach mainstream audiences? Firstly, it needs to be easy to understand. A problem that many people had with Free To Play is that it was hard to comprehend key, important moments of the story without understanding the specifics of the game. We need to fix this, for how can professional gaming hope to transcend the gaming community if only a minor percentile understand it? Secondly, there are new games all the time, with updates to the meta rolling in constantly that it can drastically change the game, and that games become dated quickly these days. Chess is hundreds of years old, but it isn't 'dated', whereas Modern Warfare is some seven years old, any many a gamer are quick to call it an 'old game'. Lastly, there needs to be a way for people to easily access these competitive games. The feeling that it is within your power to become the best at the game with enough commitment and sacrifice is enough to keep you and many thousand a gamer playing, and that possibility needs to be easily accessible to everyone. Gaming needs an equivalent of picking up a football and kicking it. 

Free To Play is just the start of the mainstream acceptance of E-Sports, and it's a step in the right direction. It's free for you to watch on Steam and Youtube, and I highly recommend you do; it's not just a strong message about E-Sports, it's actually a really good 3-way character study and a damn good underdog sports documentary. While many will be ready to laugh Free To Play out of the room, it's bravely and seriously tackling a largely unrecognised facet of gaming culture. Non-gamers, prepare to be dragged kicking and screaming into the 21st century, because gaming is no longer a toy or a murder simulator, it's an expressive medium, a the worlds most profitable entertainment industry, and now it's a freakin' sport.