Documentary GameChangers Will Change How You Look at E-Sports

Producer Peter Billingsley on high-stakes professional videogaming

Forget the whole "gamers yelling in headsets in the basements" myth. E-sports – playing games like StarCraft II competitively, for big-money prizes – is a billion-dollar industry. So why is sports journalism, which loves big-money stories, so bad at covering it?

Peter Billingsley, producer of GameChangers: Dreams of Blizzcon, has a very simple theory. "They just don't understand it." Gamers have been tarred with the misfit, outsider brand, "and we've grown up with this notion of, 'Stop playing video games, video games are bad, there's no future in it.' Obviously that's been proven to be deadly wrong, because there's an incredibly profitable future for them."

At the same time, after so many years of being shunned, e-sports has developed its own ecosystem. Can't convince ESPN to carry your tournament? Who needs them when you have Twitch. Billingsley said, "They don't feel a need to cross over into the corporate vortex. I think there's still something rebellious about the group, but you can't deny how real and how powerful it is."

“Look at Spellbound or Somm or Hoop Dreams. They’re not for fans of spelling bees, or for fans of wine or basketball. They’re human interest stories centered in an interesting world. You get to see people pursue their games, and pursue their goals, and that’s really a universal truth.”
If Billingsley's name sounds familiar, it's because he's immortalized in celluloid as Ralphie, the young protagonist of the beloved seasonal institution A Christmas Story. However, these days he's a film producer, most notably working with Jon Favreau on Zathura: A Space Adventure and Iron Man. More pertinent here may be the episode of ESPN's 30 for 30 he executive produced with Vince Vaughn, "The '85 Bears."

Billingsley admitted he's not an e-sports fan himself, but when director John Keating and producer/cinematographer Zac Henderson approached him about this project six years ago, "I loved the opportunity to make a mainstream movie about e-sports, by following the same arcs that a lot of other interesting subcultures have done. Look at Spellbound or Somm or Hoop Dreams, they're not for fans of spelling bees, or for fans of wine or basketball. They're human interest stories centered in an interesting world. You get to see people pursue their games, and pursue their goals, and that's really a universal truth."

His new documentary, which screened earlier this month at DreamHack Austin, explores the complicated and underexamined world of e-sports by treating it as a sport, with teams, sponsors, and players with a limited window to make money. It also explains how South Korea has become the dominating global force – a unique combination of economics, technology, and culture – through the experiences of two of the best in the world. Rising talent Jang Min Chul (aka MC), and Mun Song Wan (MMA) who, at 26, already fears he is aging out of competitive gaming. Both are trying to get to the biggest, most lucrative stage around: the finals of the StarCraft II leagues at BlizzCon, gaming studio Blizzard Entertainment's annual convention in Anaheim, Calif.

Billingsley said, "These e-sports professional gamers were very committed to their craft, and took their sport very seriously." What intrigued him was how much like more traditional sports this all was – teams, sponsors, practice, training camps, even pre-match stretching. While there have been other documentaries, "[They] had been looking at it in an ironic way, or as an odd world, and it to me it's anything but. It's very legitimate world of people trying to make a living, and making sacrifices – personal sacrifices, professional sacrifices."

New sports, new stars: Starcraft II champion MMA

Austin Chronicle: You knew little about e-sports when Zac and John came to you. What was their elevator pitch?

Peter Billingsley: It had a component that I always look for in a documentary. They said, 'We wanna follow the journey of BlizzCon,' and I said, 'OK, what's that?' They said, 'Well, you have ti to qualify, and if you go, you have to win.' I immediately went, oh, we have an ending. That's good, because documentaries about something can just meander, and the great ones have a destination, or a goal for the protagonist. They may not make it, that may be the tragedy – Roger & Me, trying to get the meeting, Hoop Dreams, trying to go professional – but you have a target that you're trying to hit.

AC: Plus you hedge your bets a little bit by following two players.

PB: You hope, and you're loosely tracking others, so obviously not everything makes the cut.

AC: How many players were you keeping track of at the height?

PB: Probably five to six that you're following or tracking, but then a lot of them fall out during the qualifying. They don't even get to go to Burbank, or down to Anaheim. So you're sort of guessing, and had they not [made it], that would have made the movie different. Not necessarily worse, but you would have had to spin your narrative before then.

AC: What made MMA and MC your central figures?

PB: You really invest in the characters. You can relate to the thing that they go through. One of them has a circumstance with his father that I think a lot of us have felt, the pressures of your parents to be something that they want you to be, and then your own dreams to be something different to that, it's a very relatable theme. Then also the pressure for some people to earn at a very early age, because the family situation is tough.

AC: Why just those two?

PB: The decision was driven by, if you have a third or a fourth, you're diluting the time spent with the people. The more time you can spend, the more invested you are, and because their stories are complex and dynamic, they warranted the time spent. The more fuel you put in the tank, the more powerful the outcome.

You really get to see, in MC's case, a guy who is at the top in these unbelievable circumstances, but has lost his luster. You don't just want to say, 'Oh, he lost his luster.' You want to see it play out. That's what's enjoyable for audiences is to be able to experience along with the people what they're going through.

It's been interesting to talk with him about watching the movie, and he looks back with a little bit of regret how he handled the situations. He didn't know it at the time, but he can see now that his results were completely tied to the efforts that he put in.

GameChangers: Dreams of Blizzcon is available on iTunes, Google Play, and FandagoNow.

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