We’ve talked more than once about The Shuffle in professional Dota 2 this year, and how the chaos inherent to process generates storylines for fans. With the help of a few snide tweets or offhand comments on streams that never get archived, players and teams are turned into characters through patterns in who gets picked up or dropped. The stories that survive longest are the ones that are easiest to repeat in r/dota2 comments, or on Twitch.
The first episode of Valve’s new documentary series True Sight goes deeper than memes, but covers so many topics that it has a hard time really fleshing any of them out. At the same time, it’s packed with information about Fnatic and Evil Geniuses that fans of those teams will be glad to have, and it knows which characters and moments are fun to watch.
It’s difficult not to compare True Sight to Valve’s last Dota 2 documentary, Free to Play. That 75-minute film was concerned with the details of the lives of three specific players, but True Sight is already taking a much wider look at the Dota 2 scene. Where EG is concerned, it covers Arteezy’s history of switching teams, Zai’s return to pro play, PPD and Fear retiring, all while letting Sumail be a bit of a comedian and showing how the team interacts as a whole. For Fnatic, the episode follows the arrival of Jimmy “Demon” Ho to Malaysia, the veterans worried about replacing three players, a vacation for “bonding purposes,” and a fight about whether they’re spending enough time practicing.
True Sight goes deeper than memes.
The result is that this hour is something like the first episode of the third or fourth season of an ensemble show. It wants to catch you up with all these characters and what they’re doing so that the next story can really dig deeper, but as far as I know, the next episode will cover a couple more teams, and so on until The Boston Major, where the “digging deeper” will come in the form of a single-elimination tournament.
When Free to Play came out in 2014, it was three years removed from the events it depicted. Na’Vi had placed second in TI2 and TI3, Fear had moved on from Online Kingdom to Evil Geniuses, and hyhy had stopped playing Dota 2 professionally. The documentary effectively encouraged viewers to follow up if they liked the stories it told. The first episode of True Sight starts on September 15th, barely a month before it was released. If it’s promising a dramatic climax at The Boston Major, it doesn’t even know what that is yet – the story threads it sets up could go anywhere.
There’s a difference between reportage and documentary, and True Sight is the first, framed as the second. For much of the episode, EG are bootcamping while Fnatic are partying. EG are sorting through Dotabuff printouts, Fnatic are having a cake fight on a yacht. At the end of the episode, they have a fight where Jimmy says “something’s clearly wrong with our team.” Meanwhile, EG win MDL and Zai says the team doesn’t feel that different even though they’ve lost Fear and PPD. Like Free to Play, True Sight doesn’t cite a director or a guiding creative hand other than Valve The Company™. Especially considering invites for The Boston Major haven’t been revealed yet, it’s sort of strange to have Valve, usually so quiet, tell Dota 2 fans exactly how badly they expect Fnatic to do this year. If one of the long term questions the episode sets up is “Will EG be able to take 1st place in December?” the other might be “Will Fnatic disband before the LAN?”
Most of the episode is driven by interviews, with players’ responses being played over video of them playing scrims, or of Arteezy walking around the team house in his underwear, or of players on both teams getting their hair dyed, Sumail’s green like Frank Ocean, Jimmy’s bright red like Sakuragi from Slam Dunk. The words are the players’, but the conclusions drawn are Valve’s. The music, bright or brooding, dictates before a scene starts how it’s going to make you feel. Early on there’s an exterior shot of the EG team house with the title, “4:00 AM: The last member of EG finally arrives,” followed by a shot of someone walking into the house and the title “Artour Babaev, Arteezy.” It’s a funny joke, but it’s told entirely in titles. Later, when the title shows up to describe Fnatic’s vacation, the phrase “…for bonding purposes” seems designed to be snatched up and turned into a meme in the event that Fnatic can’t pull out the victories they want.
True Sight is reportage, framed as a documentary.[/pullquote
On the other hand, because the production team is onsite, they are able to capture moments that wouldn’t come up in interviews. The episode opens with Artour being asked an interview question at MDL and trying to answer and re-answer it, “I’m trying to think of something to say that I haven’t said before about the last time I left,” he says. Later, curled up on a giant teddy bear in the team house, Zai asks him “Artour if you weren’t playing Dota 2, what would you do?” and he and Zai and Fear talk about their “golden years” and how much longer they have in the scene. Zai says he enjoyed his year of retirement and that “Sometimes this job feels like you’re just playing, and you don’t really contribute to anything.” Artour jumps in, “You’re bringing joy to many! By existing. By being yourself. That’s wonderful.”
During Fnatic’s vacation, the production team sits down with two of the new players, Nico “eyyou” Barcelon and Marc Polo Luis “Raven” Fausto, and they talk about Chai Yee “Mushi” Fung, whom they both admit to being scared of. When asked why, Raven pauses and says, “He’s a legendary player. He’s my idol,” and eyyou adds, “He’s known as a very strict captain and teammate. Having a vacation with him, it really changed the way I see him. As a person.”
There’s not a lot about True Sight that feels entirely new, but it is longer and more in depth than most examinations to date of team life. Esports players have long had a reputation for being terrible at interviews, but this first episode is best when it’s creating adequate space for them to tell their own stories.