A feature-length documentary coming to theaters worldwide in July looks at the exciting and human sides of professional video gaming.
When 20-year-old Michal Blicharz organized video gaming events at internet cafes in his native Kielce, Poland, he never imagined that his passion would turn into a global and cultural phenomenon.
He is responsible for pulling off IEM events in cities across the globe. And this is no small feat. At the World Championships in Katowice, Poland earlier this year, 104,000 fans lined up to see the action.
Yes, more than a hundred-thousand fans came to watch other people play video games.
“I never imagined that we would have a stadium entirely full of people,” said Blicharz. “You go onto the stage, and as far as the eye can see, up to the rafters, on top of the nosebleeds and standing on the stairs there is people. There’s people outside of the stadium waiting to get in.”
The massive explosion in eSports popularity inspired director Patrick Creadon to make All Work All Play, a feature-length documentary that chronicles the lives of eSports personalities. For a year, Creadon and his team traveled the world, following Blicharz, eSports personalities and several international teams as they mouse-clicked their ways across the globe.
Creadon admits when he began the project he knew very little about eSports. “But when this story came to us, we fell in love with it,” he said. Creadon, along with his wife and business partner Christine O’Malley, liked the idea of a competition and wanted to show the human side of an emerging phenomenon.
The couple also produced the documentary WordPlay, which launched to high acclaim at the 2006 Sundance Film Festival.
Creadon said that because documentaries are generally script-free and improvisational, the story reveals itself as the filming takes place.
“You never really know where the story’s going to go when you start,” he said.
So it started with the film crew tagging along behind Blicharz, who Creadon says is a “human tornado.” Blicharz, an accomplished gamer and respected gaming-industry journalist, literally grew up with the video game industry.
“He loves the fact that this genuine love of his (video gaming) has become his life’s work,” said Creadon. “I think that’s one of my favorite things about the movie.”
In the early 2000s, Blicharz and his buddies-cum-teammates traveled around Poland, carrying their headsets and mice to local internet cafes and taking on anyone who would play.
He likens those times to the movie The Hustler, where Paul Newman plays a pool shark increasingly pushed up against competition and high stakes.
“I got really sucked into the local internet café scene where people would go to an internet café to play online games, network games with each other,” Blicharz said. “I didn’t used to have a PC back then and people didn’t have internet at the time.”
Creadon’s decision to have Blicharz be the protagonist in the film was an easy one because of the Pole’s passion for gaming and his intimate knowledge of the industry.
Blicharz took over running IEM in 2009 and has steadily grown both its following and extravagant production, including filling giant sports stadiums and live-streaming to millions of people.
“This is an extremely stressful occupation, with the amount of traveling, with the amount of moving elements that are involved with every single event,” said Blicharz, now 35 and living in Los Angeles with his wife and 2-year-old daughter.
“We’re developing IEM every single year, there’s something new happening where you have to adapt constantly, because everything around us changes,” he said.
All Work All Play is a fast-moving, exciting, and complex story. To capture that energy, Creadon’s team did the sound mixing at George Lucas’s Skywalker Ranch, a world-class recording facility in remote Marin County California.
“We needed a world class audio team to help us mix the story with power and elegance, and we found that at Skywalker Ranch,” said Creadon. “It was a beautiful collaboration between our team and theirs.”
The director said he intentionally made a movie that would appeal to both gamers and non-gamers alike, to help peer with authenticity into a world that’s often misunderstood.
“We’ve made a story that’s going to be a defining portrait of eSports at this point in time,” he said. “What we really wanted to do was celebrate the passion that these young people have.”
He said the video gaming world is much different than the oft-stereotyped idea of 17-year-olds squirreling away junk food and playing in their parents’ basements.
“It’s very much a global story,” said Creadon. “It’s a very warm and human story. It’s a movie about people with a passion to be the best.”
Among those players was Hai Lam, a Cloud 9 player from Michigan who lived with his four teammates in Santa Monica, California. Lam said he and his teammates would play 10 to 15 hours per day.
Lam said that IEM has helped legitimize eSports by creating big tournaments and making pro gaming more accessible to more people. The film, he said, does a good job of showing the excitement and passion of those big events.
“It shed a nice light into the world of professional gaming,” Lam said. “It’s really cool for people to see what we do for a living, to show that we’re normal people that just want to be the best at what we do.”
Lam, 22, thanks to a chronic wrist injury (a common affliction for gamers) recently retired from pro eSports and is now Cloud 9’s new “Chief Gaming Officer” where he’ll scout new games and hot players.
For Creadon, who remembers being a 5-year-old kid when American chess prodigy Bobby Fischer beat the Russians in 1972, eSports is becoming a world-wide story with local appeal. He said American eSports teams are coming to that tipping point of being viable opponents on a world stage typically dominated by Koreans and Europeans.
He points out that recently eSports have been featured on the cover of the New York Times three times and that, like televised poker, it’s making its way into the mainstream.
“More people watched these kids play video games than watched NFL playoff games or MLB playoffs,” said Creadon, who grew up playing games like Pong and Donkey Kong. “It’s really fun to watch these kids play and follow in their passion.”
Editor’s note: All Work All Play comes to theaters in the U.S. on July 21st and worldwide on July 28th. Skywalker Ranch interview with Patrick Creadon filmed on location by Bradley Whalen.