Win big $$$ playing games: E-@thletes (2008)

Jonathon Boal and Artem Agafanov made the documentary E@thletes at a time when competitive team-gaming seemed ready to expand into a new world of professional competition. The film presented, at the time they released it, a cutting-edge view of two teams out on the road, just before both teams joined a new league. By the time I watched the movie, league play was already into its second season and the film had become, for me, a how-it-all-happened tale. By the time I began writing this review, the league was out of business and team gaming had returned to the state it occupied before Boal and Agafanov began their documentary. And now, much later than that, in the midst of an economic slump, I have no idea how electronic gaming, competitive or otherwise, is faring. Holy cow. Will anyone ever see the movie? Will anyone ever read this review? If I fall over in the woods, will anyone ever hear me go?

Whatever. Video-game revenue outstripped cinema ticket sales long ago, and then passed DVD rental sales. Companies spend millions developing new games, betting that one hit will pay for all their flops and make a profit for the company. Innovation is somewhat restricted these days by corporate rules, but it creeps in once and a while anyway. Amateur developers can now create new games using free tools, and deploy them to consoles and handhelds, not just desktops. Prize-winning opportunities for kids playing video games began to increase as gaming revenues increased. Even with the huge dip in revenue during the 08/09 recession, year-to-date totals at the end of July, ’09, stood at $8.16 billion. A huge, young demographic with plastic in its back pocket is whiling away the Generation Y hours in cyberspace, guns and other weapons in its paws.

e-@thletes highlights one consequence of the sloshing about of gaming dollars back in 2006 – the growth in pro gaming. The film follows two teams of young men paid to hit the road and compete at tournaments offering cash prizes to the winners. Ever been on one of those 5-day, 32-country tours? The movie includes a team tour of China with a film montage of, say, 10 cities in 100 seconds. (More than 100 Chinese cities have a population greater than one million, by the way. America has 9. The 100th largest city in the U.S. is Boise. Lot of folks living in China.) And speaking of seconds, the filmmakers shot something like 20 hours of film at a tournament and cut it down to less than 60 seconds for an opening clip in the movie. The filmmakers were in their early twenties when they made the movie; Boal began it as a final film-school project. Micro budget: some money from Intel for services rendered; travel and motel costs picked up by one of the teams; some money from dad. In seventy zippy yet professional minutes, the film interleaves interviews with the members of two Counter-Strike teams, their parents, scenes of team travel, competitive gaming action, and the obligatory talking heads – six of them.

Counter-Strike is a first-person shooter video game that pits a team of counter-terrorists against a team of terrorists in a series of rounds. Each round is won by either completing the mission objective or eliminating the opposing force. First-person shooter (FPS) games are a genre featuring weapons-based combat viewed as if seen through the eyes of the player.” That is, on one level, E-@thletes is a frag movie that features shooting, bombing, and killing. We don’t see enough of it to get excited, however.

e-Athlete: Someone who enjoys computer games (too much). Often possesses a grandiose sense of self. “I don’t get out much. I pwn noobs on the net because I’m an e-athlete.”

The two teams: Team 3D, the well-funded top-dogs, and CompLexity, a diverse bunch gamers brought together by a lawyer with a gaming vision and some personal money to invest in the future of the sport. A climatic match between the two teams awaits us at the end of the film. When the filmmakers chose these two teams to follow, they chose well. The movie has a nice arc, with a beginning, a middle, and an end. The Intel-sponsered Team 3D was the first professional Counter-Strike team outside of Europe and Asia. 3D’s motto: “Desire. Discipline. Dedication. Intel.” A 3D team manager keeps the boys in line as they squabble and mostly beat other teams. Squabbling teammates are always of interest in sports, but hard to get on tape in a documentary, including this one. At one point, a team captain is deposed and replaced, but nobody dishes for us onscreen. I was reminded of the 70s documentary An American Family, wherein we follow the Loud family for hours and hours and then, in a hard-to-hear couple of minutes in a restaurant near the end, the mom and dad suddenly agree to get divorced, and I’m like, What? Where did that come from? But no tape to rewind in those days.

You can find E-@thletes on Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and its own site but it isn’t mentioned in IMDB. Boal told me that when the movie was finally finished and ready for release (post-production took a year), he and Agafanov decided to focus their distribution efforts on the gamer community and its various websites. I’m guessing that, based on the google hits for the movie, as befits a gamer flick, most viewers downloaded it via one torrent or another. When Boal and Agafanov submitted it to IMDB, it wasn’t accepted because of its limited distribution, but the film added the Philadelphia Independent Film Festival to its resume after that and if the makers ever take the trouble to resubmit, it’ll probably get listed.

As I mentioned above, even though, at this point, the movie is way past being stop-the-presses current, it’s structured with a narrative that suggests we’re getting the current poop – perhaps an error in the director/editor’s emphasis when applied to such a a fast-evolving environment. To wit: the two teams are introduced as the best, the cream of the crop, the only two sponsered teams in a world of gamers. We are told that it’s becoming possible to earn a living playing video games. As the movie comes to an end in 2007, a gaming league is created and we watch a draft of gamers at the Playboy Mansion to populate it. The league, The Championship Gaming Series, was owned and operated by DirecTV. This was an international electronic-sports league based in the U.S. and then “expanded to every continent except Antarctica for Season Two.” The league expired suddenly after two seasons. compLexity went away, came back with different players, drama ensued, the founder retired, all ancient history now. At the end of the movie, the founder of compLexity is quoted as saying that if the league fails, there won’t be another to follow it. I’m no expert on gaming, but I think that various leagues did follow the failed CGS, but they’re all gone, too, now, I think, except for Major League Gaming. Gamers making six figures have come and gone… though by the time you read this, who knows? With gaming generating billions, somebody is still getting rich, I presume. My mom’s lifelong best friend was Nolan Bushnell’s mom (Nolan created Pong, the first video game, and Atari, and Chuck E. Cheese, and something else after that, and lives about two billion dollars up the hill from me here). As girls, his mom and my mom grew up on adjacent farms. Shouldn’t that be worth a few million to me, Nolan’s mom’s best friend’s kid? Even just a lousy million? But no. Nothing has rubbed off on me but a plate of potato salad that his mom insisted I eat the last time I saw her in Utah. Tasty!

Anyway, my only negative about this well-made film: the documentary is structured, on one level, as a genre sports film. The established corporate team of winners, touring the world, idolized, pulling down the $$$, is challenged by the upstart misfits, who come together and begun to win. As is traditional in this type of movie, the rivalry is hyped throughout and brought to a climax with a major showdown at the end of the film, just at the dawn of the new era of league sports. Then, unaccountably, as the two teams engage in their final struggle, instead of descriptions of the match with on-screen illustrations, the docu’s talking heads pipe up and tell us… well, I have no idea what they were telling us because I was trying to watch the frigging match! (I consider this not a spoiler, but a warning of impending disappointment), which was 1-0 and then, all of a sudden, 9-5 (a match can take hours) and then, oops, it’s over. This is a climax? But I took consolation in the fact that the extras disk had a feature on this final match. When I watched it, however, it consisted of shots of all the players sitting at their keyboards, no shots of the screen action, what they were seeing, what they were doing, how the match was progressing. No final-game narrative.

None of the detail and tension experienced while watching the Dynamo and Itkakuskaya National Chess teams battle it out over 20 boards in Oblasteskva Stadium.

Five talking heads appear rhythmically throughout the movie, explaining, as experts, that… well, I can’t remember what they explained. Something about kids and video games? Are video games still called video games? 137,000,000 Google hits. Electronic games = 74,500,000 hits. I wonder what single search term in all of English garners the greatest number of Google hits, and how many hits that is? What’s the hit limit, if any, for Google? More than one trillion pages are registered. Anyway, the talking heads comprise authors and the editor of GotFrag Magazine ( Don’t believe anything I say about gaming; read GotFrag instead), all the heads serious onscreen but none dour. Serious because they’ve got books for sale on the subject; not dour because, after all, the subject is video gaming. I have not read any of their books, though I did trouble myself to price them all on Amazon (“Smartbomb,” “Gameboys,” “Got Game,” “Everyting Bad is Good For You”), and could have had the lot, used, for a mere $16.76 plus shipping. I subscribe to “To The Point,” “Left, Right, and Center,” “Planet Money,” and sundry other talking-head podcasts, and listen to them daily. From this I infer that I like talking heads. So why can’t I remember word one of the offerings of this E-@thlete bunch (Aaron Ruby, Mike Kane, John Beck, Steven Johnson, and Heather Chaplin)? Hmm. I haven’t read any of the books written by the talking heads I listen to every day, either. Or remember in particular what they’ve said. In fact, I’m reminded of what happens when I am made to sit through a sermon in church. I understand the words that I’m hearing, assuming that the sermon is spoken in my native tongue. I understand the concepts. The meaning of the sermon as a whole, however, the import, usually eludes me; or perhaps I elude it. Sermons. They’re meaningless to me. I don’t forget what I’ve heard; in some sense or other I just don’t hear anything in the first place. A sermon is something that comes between the songs – often occuring annoyingly at the same time as a ballgame on TV. From this I gather that talking heads must be talking to or arguing with each other, as in the podcasts that I listen to, for me to hear and understand and remember what they are saying. I will listen to and ponder the pronouncements of conversing talking heads, but not to a lone talking head talking at me. I might also still be annoyed at Sun Dogs for using a legitimate people’s activist talking head in an infomercial designed to further enrich the rich at the expense of a couple of poor dogs.

I was in a documentary once, by the way. Up on the big screen. High on a rock wall, free climbing, facing death, sweat running off my back, muscles on the verge of failure, blue sky above and thin air below! I checked out the audience during a screening and spotted a few mouths hanging open. Wow! And then, wtf, the rock wall, with me on it, was suddenly replaced by my parents’ kitchen with my mom standing in front of a sink full of dishes, brow knit and her going on about how I was raised to be responsible and how much I meant to the family and what was I doing taking my life in my hands when I should have been out in the shantytowns going door-to-door proselytizing and converting the inhabitants of Burkina Vaso (formerly Upper Volta) instead of traumatizing her and my dad and my sister by climbing without a rope, without, well, without a net, after all that she and my dad had done for me. Then my dad, down in the rumpus room behind the bar, just shaking his head, doleful, pointing to my trophy from the debating-society championships, pointing to the family Bible signed by Billy Graham himself, dad taking a drink from his highball glass and clinking the cubes. So the parents that appear in E-@thletes? They support their kids; but conflict being the essence of drama, this means – no drama. One dad, a Canadian documentary maker himself, does intone “Some nights when Griffin didn’t come home at all, I’d go looking for him, usually ending up downtown in his favorite video game place. In these, the opium dens of the 21st century, an elctronic hook deep in the brain of harmless killing…” Spoken like a true parent! Let’s keep in mind that these young adults are sitting in front of a screen for, say, five hours a day, clicking a keyboard with their left hand and moving and clicking a mouse with their right in order to win a kill-or-be-killed video game. Where’s (where’re?) the sunlight and fresh air? Where’s the vitamin D and exercise? Where’s the organic Vegan cooking instead of pizza? The good news: the rooms aren’t smoke-filled. Steroids don’t enhance performance. Or, wait a minute, what about drugs? Are these young men (no sign of a female gamer from start to finish) all jacked on some pill I’ve never heard of? That kid who chewed a hole through the linoleum floor when he lost – was that drug-induced behavior? We don’t know.

If you enjoy shooter games and, watching these young competitors, feel a sudden urge to spend some time sharpening your skills with a view toward winning a little prize money, permit me to remind you that even if you don’t currently play tennis, for example, if you’re in reasonable shape you can go buy a racquet, take a few lessons and shortly become the best tennis player on your block. Dedicate your life to the game and you might, in time, become the best player in your town, if your town isn’t too large and you’re not already too old. But that’s about it. You can eat, sleep, live, dream, and pray about tennis 24×7, juice up, study with John McEnroe, bribe the line judges, and still, somewhere in your county, nevermind your state, you will encounter a 13-year-old of either sex who will clean your clock. That is in the nature of the human body, the psyche, and sporting competition. So is it also with e-gaming.

End note: The movie does not deal with cheating, a fact of gaming competition that could command a documentary of its own.