Something I learned today was that in order to motivate the Korean soccer team to play better during the world cup their coach brought in Starcraft Brood War professional gamers to their locker room before they went out on the pitch in order that they might be directly inspired by their heroes.

This a fascinating fact came from a fascinating film. ‘Free To Play’ documents the first computer game tournament to have a top prize in excess of $1,000,000. It follows the lives of a handful of the individuals playing in the tournament, pitching them as the committed hopefuls they truly are. Their backgrounds each revealing varying degrees of support, exclusion and personal hardship that they had to confront and overcome (and in some cases use computer gaming to distract themselves from) in order to get a chance at the top prize.

The dream of professional gaming is pitched as a worthy one. As one participant remarks, “Getting the chance to be the best at something in life is a rare opportunity.” There is a palpable sense in that moment where one can feel every avid gamer across the land, stung with the prospect of success, sinks their imagination deep into a 6 figure bank account and prays to whatever Gods are capable of indulging them with the dexterity of mind and fingers that will lead them to the ultimate victory.

It is not that I am against dreaming. I still believe that I have what it takes to continue making a living as a creative filmmaker, the difference is that as delusional as I may or may not be I am not being sold the prospect by camera manufacturers.

‘Free to Play’ has been produced by Valve Corporation, a developer of digital games and a distributor – coincidentally they are the developers and distributors of DOTA2, the game around which the tournament in the film is played.

So the cynic in me has to ask the question, to what degree is this corporation marketing gaming as a sport and to what degree will it’s revenue streams increase in the next 10 years as a result? Or are they just identifying a trend and wanting to share the idea with us because, well because they are beneficent and who doesn’t want to hear a story of the individual surmounting the vicissitudes of life against the odds, especially when there is a over half a million quid waiting for you at the end of it. Just for playing computer games?

In defence of the filmmakers they are clear to say that we are not their yet. If you want to get paid you need to win, and keep winning, and their ain’t much going for you past 26, so don’t give up your day job just yet. There is no second league. But the whole thing feels like a long term pitch when one of the coaches mentions that when the gamers of today have children they will be far more inclined to encourage them to pursue a gaming career.

It still begs the question, how many jobs can a professional gaming industry support? Ticket prices for the DOTA2 international ranged between $99 and $499 dollars, and we are talking and arena with capacity for 17,000 people, plus merchandising, hot dogs and cleaners, well, you can do the math, but that is not what I mean. Sure the organises get rich and the staff will get a basic wage, but what I am curious about is the players. How many professional players can this industry support?

Clearly Valve will continue to make a decent living. More gamers playing more of their games on their distribution platform leads to more gamers playing games on their distribution platform.

Sadly I see this industry functioning like so many of the creative and sports industries, well, actually like any industry that isn’t based in a cottage. It is the committed that provide the resources and the energy that then gets harnessed by a few savvy producers and distributors. Like publishers with authors, financiers with filmmakers, record companies with musicians, invariably the same story persists. A handful of creatives make it rich and get held up as the bench mark of what can be achieved “Look at JK, woman’s a billionaire! Book about child wizards! Easy! What are you waiting for?” So while a few persist in attempting to second guess the next zeitgeist in fiction the rest subsist on the vapours that remain of their initial dreams to strive towards the pinnacle of their own creative expression until the harsh realities of life force them to ‘get a proper job.’

What is most telling for me is how stories such as these expose a notion of how society validates play in commercial terms: ‘Players of computer games can now earn $1,000,000. Therefore computer games are a valid use of time.’ And yes, money needs to be earned – or rather, more specifically, we need to convert labour into the material that will facilitate our survival. But are we here just to survive? Once we have learned to survive we naturally improve on the function of our survival and it’s meaning. We attempt to improve. This is the nature and foundation of prosperity, and play is an integral part of prosperity because with perpetual survival comes a sense of safety and security. Play facilitates exploration, and invention. When we loose it, or abandon it, or sacrifice it to survival we have lost an integral part of our capacity as a person: we become diminished. And collectively we have all the means necessary to survive and to prosper. What stops us is the imposed economic measures of governments, the interest rates of banks, the profiteering of megalithic corporations and, to a lesser degree, the lack of our own imaginations. But I digress.

This film does not validate gaming as a devise of play, of exploration, it validates gaming as a commercial enterprise. It validates commercialisation as a means of validation.

But it doesn’t just do that, regardless of how divisive it may or may not be, it does tell an interesting story. As ever, I’ll leave you to make up your own mind.

Definitely worth a watch.


Yours effusively,

Mr X

© all material 2014