Dota 2's first venture into mainstream entertainment was last month's Dota: Dragon's Blood anime, but Valve released their first cinematic feature 7 years ago.
Free to Play was a documentary released by Valve on 19 March 2014. The documentary follows three Dota 2 professional players, Danil "Dendi" Ishutin, Clinton "Fear" Lumis, and Benedict "hyhy" Lim in their journey at the very first iteration of The International in 2011.
The title is a reference to the fact Dota 2 is a free-to-play game that became the biggest esport in the world. The film is a documentary that follows the three players as each look to win TI1 and get their hands on the $1 million prize money.
For viewers to properly understand why this tournament meant so much to the three players, they must first understand what The International truly meant.
The Dota 2 International 2011
In 2011, esports was a pipe dream. Prize pools were a fraction of what they are today. CPL Summer 2003 Counter-Strike tournament with $200,000 was the largest prize pool ever. This was broken by CPL World Tour Finals 2005, a Painkiller tournament with $510,000 on the line.
The Painkiller tournament was considered an anomaly as the game slowly died out. Valve's Counter-Strike Source and 1.6 became the biggest esports in the world with prize pools averaging between $100,000 and $200,000.
All this changed when Valve, on August 10 2011, announced the prize pool for their first-ever Dota 2 tournament would be $1,000,000. Instantly, the internet went crazy over the prize pool and Dota 2 became the most popular game at Gamescom 2011, the event within which The International took place.
The International 1's success eventually led to future versions of the event breaking records every year.
Not only was The International the biggest esport tournament in the world, but it was also the one-shot esports had to legitimize itself. It was a make-or-break event for esports. Thus, it became a life changer for the three players.
The Film at a glance
The film is divided into two interwoven parts. The first part introduces us to the players and their hardships while the second part shows their journey at the International and shot at redemption.
The following parts will contain spoilers from the movie.
First, we meet Benedict "hyhy" Lim, a Singaporean. His story revolves around the break-up with his ex-girlfriend and his family not approving of his career. Hyhy aims to win the International to prove to his family that gaming can give him a career and to have a shot at getting back together with his ex-girlfriend.
Clinton "Fear" Lumis was raised by a single mother in Oregon, USA. He struggled financially to support his Dota 2 career. He practiced on an old CRT monitor that he kept on a tiny desk he found in the trash. Fear hopes to win TI to prove to himself that his life is going somewhere.
Finally, Danil "Dendi" Ishutin is a Ukrainian who tragically lost his father to cancer at a young age. Dendi threw himself into Dota 2 to get over the loss of his father. He and his father would take fishing trips together which was their father-son bonding time. Ever since his father's death, Dendi stopped taking those trips.
Fear played on Online Kingdom, an underdog team. They surprised everyone by finishing 1st in their group. In the playoffs, they got knocked down to the lower brackets by Invictus Gaming. They won their subsequent match against MUFC before being eliminated by Moscow 5.
Online Kingdom finished 7th-8th and took home $25,000. Back home, Fear's mother saw the local news tell the story of her son and Fear finally realizes that he can make a living off of Dota 2 and buys a new computer.
Hyhy's team, Scythe Gaming, was one of the strongest teams in the tournament. They finished 2nd in their group, only losing to Dendi's Navi. They continued their winning run all the way to the upper bracket finals where they lost to Navi again. Tournament favorites Ehome eliminated them in the lower bracket finals.
Scythe finished 3rd taking home $150,000. Having proved to his family that he can make a living off of Dota 2, Hyhy successfully reconciled with his ex-girlfriend.
Dendi's Natus Vincere was the strongest Dota 2 team in the Russian region. They proved that by going undefeated all the way to the grand finals. In the grand finals, Ehome handed Navi their first loss as the series stood tied at 1-1. On the back of Clement "Puppey" Ivanov's leadership and Dendi's skill, Navi closed out the series 3-1 to win the very first Dota 2 International.
Dendi finally comes to terms with his father's death after winning the tournament and becoming the best Dota 2 player on the planet. Soon, he went fishing for the first time since his father's passing.