Filmmakers Partrick Creadon and Christine O’Malley were eSports virgins when they were invited to shoot a League of Legends championship tournament in Germany 18 months ago.
Then they did a little research. What they found was a $1 billion global business drawing millions of fans that was rapidly taking root Stateside. “It was not only a great story, but about to blossom in America,” says Creadon. “But it was kind of like going to the Superbowl without having seen the regular season. We said, `Why don’t we tell the story of the 12 months leading up to the next tournament?’ ”
The result is All Work All Play, which first screened at the Tribeca Film Festival in April before premiering in theaters this week.
“Right from the beginning, we decided we were going to make a movie for two people: a 15-year-old gamer and his mom or dad,” says Creadon. “We wanted to make a movie that gamers could celebrate and understand, and point to it and say, `That’s why we love video games.’ At the same time, parents could look at it and say, `Now I get it.’ The trick was finding the right amount of complexity.”
All Work All Play follows some of the leading teams playing League of Legends (LOL), a multiplayer online battle arena (MOBA) game involving fighting and strategy and the most popular of the competitive games, drawing 67 million players a month. A tiny ratio of that worldwide (just 50 in the U.S.) play League at the competitive level in five-member teams, practicing 12 hours a day, and traveling to thousands of smaller tournaments throughout the year in hopes of landing a slot in the annual Intel Extreme Masters (IEM) championship, which pits teams against each other onstage in a stadium, with millions of others watching online. (The largest LOL competition is the World Championship, which last year took place in Seoul and drew 27 million online and broadcast viewers.)
The documentary covers the year leading up to the 2015 IEM tournament that took place in San Jose in March. ESL, the world’s largest eSports tournament organizer, runs the IEM and funded the film for an undisclosed budget. ESL premiered the film—alongside a StarCraft II demonstration match and post-film Q&A—last Tuesday at its Burbank, CA offices to an audience of gamers and colleagues that also live-streamed to 700 theaters in America and Canada. (StarCraft features a bit in the film as well.) Next week it rolls out to another 800 theaters in Europe and Asia. People can find out where the film is showing at esportsincinema.com.
“The film tells the story of a new digital frontier and the ripple effects of what broadband has brought us,” says ESL producer and host Joshua Gray, who appears in the film. “It’s a new sport that’s global, multicultural, and really engrained in the millennial generation playing video games. It captures a small part of what the scene is like today. League is a very popular game, but one game of many.”
ESports began in 1999 in South Korea, which had invested heavily in broadband infrastructure, and was looking for ways to further utilize and monetize it. After moving throughout Asia, it spread to Europe, with the natural turbulence and attrition rate of a burgeoning business trying to find sustainable models.
“ESports, in the beginning, was filled with enthusiastic passionate people who had no idea abut business or businessmen who had no idea about gaming and burnt through money making wrong decisions, hoping it would pan out rather than building something sustainable,” says Michael Blicharz, ESL’s managing director of pro gaming.
After getting its act together, the business has exploded in the last five years, with a ramp-up in America and player earnings rising to a level where top players could make a career out of it. Pro players can earn six figures, with superstars topping $1 million. Considering mostly late teens to early twenty-somethings comprise teams, some universities have even begun to establish and offer scholarships for their own gaming teams.
“The irony is that almost all of these games are created in Southern California, yet the eSports culture built around these games was popular overseas,” says Creadon. “Today, it’s come full circle, gaining popularity in America even more than 12 months ago. This turned out to be a really good time to tell this story about this community.”
ESports is redefining the nerdy, socially awkward image long associated with gaming. To press the point, Jack Etienne, founder and CEO of Cloud9, which manages teams of eight different games, shows iPhone photos of his Counter-Strike team, which look more like a boy band than gamers.
Female players, while still a considerable minority, are also on the rise in what has long been a boy’s club. “There’s no physical limitations for gaming,” says Etienne. “It’s numbers game—only 10% of players are women. There needs to be a safe environment for girls to play, because the guys are a bit rough. We should embrace girl’s teams and leagues while transitioning to the point where they just play with boys.”
“ESports is a really big and rapidly expanding galaxy,” says Creadon. “At tournaments, three or four games are featured and every game is its own planet—with different teams, rules, levels of complexity. The more we thought about how much the audience could absorb in 90 minutes, especially those not familiar with eSports, the more we realized we should focus on one game. We thought, ‘Let’s tell the story of this one planet—this one tournament—in that galaxy, and the guys and gals who put on the tournament and compete in it.’
“When you’re making a documentary, regardless of the subject, you can either take out a wide-angle lens and shoot the entire landscape, or take out a microscope and study one little part,” he adds. “Those are the kinds of movies I like, where you get to know a handful of characters and what makes them tick. We were lucky to find some really good characters and tell a story we’re really proud of.”