Free to Play Review: Right in the Feels

Free to Play Review

You’d expect Valve’s documentary about Dota 2, also made by Valve and released right in line with The International IV, would be a film that showcases the game in a sort of hype-building, marketing kind of way. Look at how cool this game is! you’d might anticipate the message would be. Flashy lights and so many features!

But this is not the case.

What comes out of the 90-minute documentary is a wonderful collage of the good, bad, and ugly of professional gaming. While revolving specifically around Dota 2, it is the players’ lives that share the spotlight — Dota 2 gameplay takes a backseat to the hopes and dreams of those who play it professionally.

I must admit, I now know more about Hy’s lovelife that I do of his playstyle. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing. It’s good to remember that these players are not primarily digital avatars fueled by an irrelevant, energy-drink-consumed meatbag secondarily. Dendi’s story is beautiful to anyone — whether you like Dota 2 or even gaming in general. It’s also interesting and telling to see how Dannil’s sister calls him Dendi just like we do, instead of his given name.

In many ways the documentary is a celebration of those who have love for gaming. The passion and idealism exuding from the professional players echo why we ourselves play games, and it’s great to see them close-up affirming our own thoughts. Not that it’s all good. The film deliberately focuses on its chosen players while shunning others: Ehome is practically the “villain” of the documentary while Dendi’s teammates LoH and AA are practically nonexistent, probably due to their future departure from the Na’vi line-up. The film does bring up the issues of parenting and gaming, so it’s both humiliating to hear about the gaming obsession of the players, while at the same time uplifting to see them thrive in spite of little to no familial support (or more often, players thriving in spite of their family trying to stop them).

Spoiler: Na’vi won the International in 2011. Many of the people watching Free to Play probably know that already. So it’s especially crushing to see the players talk dreamily of winning The International, but we already know they crash and burn along the way. Still, through the presence of hindsight we know those players get back up and dust themselves off — as far as I know all the main players are very much active today. It’s also interesting to see “cameos” of future Dota 2 influencers, like Maelk and James Harding (sadly, no Bruno in the making of this video). While not directly promoting TI4, the documentary does set the bar high for an anticipated event this year.

Free to Play shows that growing up and gaming are not necessarily mutually exclusive. That’s a lofty goal set by Valve, but they did it by showing us first-hand the struggles through life of the professional players. If I were a movie critic, I’d give it two thumbs up. But I’m not, so here’s a sincere Well Played!



Greg (oZZie) is a game connoisseur and frequent scribbler at heart, making writing about games a particularly satisfying dream. Also known as the fulfillment of a "double dream." In his free time he likes to coin terms, write metaphysical fiction that only makes sense in his head, and harbor sweet nostalgia for the games of old. He is currently playing Dota 2, The Walking Dead, and graduate school.

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