“Athletes shouldn’t be role models,” says Greg “Idra” Fields in the opening scene of Good Game, an indie StarCraft 2 documentary. “Neither should we. We’re here because we’re really good at games. That doesn’t say anything about your personality or ethics or morals. I’m in esports because of the competition. I like beating people.”
There are few things more difficult in filmmaking than translating the impact and emotion of Internet forum posts to the big screen, but when Good Game transcribes the post to fans that ultimately got Fields fired—“You’re all a bunch of fucks, it just so happens I get paid to treat you like it”—the producers couldn’t have asked for a better set up from the man himself.
When the trailer for Good Game was released in late December 2013, fans were ecstatic to see Fields, one of the most compelling stars esports has ever produced, front and center.
However, the actual movie is different. In the final product, which will have its world premiere on March 11 in Austin, Texas, to coincide with the South By Southwest festival, Fields does not take the lead role as much as he probably should have. Instead, that role is split up almost evenly between every member of the company, player or not, as the movie gives us a snapshot of what it was like to run the world’s best team at the time. It’s an interesting overview but lacks the depth and drive that would have made the movie great.
Even still, Good Game is one of the best StarCraft 2 documentaries ever made.
That’s not a particularly high bar to reach but does speak to how well director Mary Ratliff navigated the new territory. Fans of StarCraft—and in particular, hundreds of thousands of Evil Geniuses fans—will walk away from the movie smiling and warm with nostalgia. People outside of the notoriously self-obsessed esports bubble, on the other hand, might have a more middling reaction.
The independently produced and Kickstarter-funded movie will premiere at a free screening in the pop up Seekret Theater (location unknown) at 7pm on March 11. Details about digital distribution will be announced in the near future—and the plans are pretty big. It will also be showing at conventions in Washington, D.C. soon.
The film follows the Evil Geniuses StarCraft 2 squad from June 2011 to March 2012. Despite the fact that it’s only been two years since the cameras stopped rolling, it’ll feel like a different era for the audience. This is back when StarCraft 2 was the most popular competitive esport around and Evil Geniuses was seen as the best-run team in all of gaming. The team was packed with celebrities in their own sizeable niche, making it extremely fertile ground for documentary filmmaking.
Anyone who was a fan back then will remember the palpable sense of potential for esports that one felt around jampacked Major League Gaming events that crossed the United States in 2011 and 2012. The audience feels that all over again in Good Game.
A lot has changed now, of course, but it was the perfect time to capture on film.
Good Game’s story is a long and winding one. Unlike the contemporary documentary Sons of StarCraft that rarely communicated with its crowdfunders, went way overbudget, and was poorly received, Good Game director Mary Ratliff has done well stretching a much smaller budget to greater lengths.
From the get go, Evil Geniuses has been made up first and foremost of celebrities whose stories and brands far outreach their actual game. The fact that the players’ fame always outshined their in-game success has left fans both frustrated and fixated for years.
Here, that fact leads to mixed results. All the players are well spoken and interesting. They’ve all undergone public relations training, which makes for perfectly serviceable interviews. But serviceable is not the same as compelling. The players are rarely shown competing. Perhaps that’s because it seems daunting to show real StarCraft 2 gameplay or events in a film clearly intended, at least in part, for a non-StarCraft 2 audience.
But the results speak for themselves. It takes 56 minutes—80 percent of the movie—before we’re dropped, virtually without context, into a grand finals to see an Evil Geniuses player actually compete and win at anything. It’s immediately one of the most exciting moments the movie produces.
It takes a few more minutes before we finally hit the best moment of the film. Fields, once a champion and then slumping in the spotlight, is playing Lim "BoxeR" Yo Hwan, the most famous StarCraft player of all time, in front of a crowd of thousands.
Fields loses three games in a row and looks visibly dejected. The team’s owner, Alex Garfield, enters the booth to give him a rousing speech—as rousing as the soft-spoken Garfield can be, anyway—and provoke a dramatic comeback. Fields, obviously annoyed, tells Garfield the talk isn’t helping before going on to win four straight games, take the series, and soak up the crowd’s applause with more emotion than any other moment in his entire career.
Instead of a unified narrative about a single great story that might excite a real variety of viewers, the movie is closer to a series of separate profiles on the team’s players. It would have been a hard choice to pick one or two stories to follow more closely and leave other storylines on the cutting room floor, but hard choices would have served the film better than following dozens of stories from a distance. (Disclosure: I'm featured in the film for several minutes, discussing the history of esports.)
Ideally, the film would have dedicated more time to Fields at a time when he was both one of the best players in the world and the most interesting. Virtually all of the film’s best moments involve him.
Even Chris “Huk” Loranger, Fields’s biggest rival who eventually becomes his best teammate at the top of the StarCraft world, gets only a little more screen time than Jacob “LzGamer” Winstead’s mom talking about how proud she is of her son.
The filmmakers also had Alex Garfield, the George Steinbrenner of esports, at their fingertips, but gave barely any screentime to him or his criminally underreported story. Even a movie dedicated to the struggles of the team’s less successful players could have piqued my interest: What’s it like to have an esports career in the shadows of such legendary celebrity players?
Instead, for the first half of the film, we have a disparate work that seems dedicated to giving each player equal time on the camera but struggles to solidify into a cohesive picture.
This is a characteristic the film shares with Liquid Rising, the shruggingly received 2012 documentary about Team Liquid, Evil Genius's biggest rivals and one of the most popular esports teams. That film lacks cohesion and drive but still managed to make the producers over $55,000. Good Game is a much, much better film—its subjects are much more interesting, after all, and the film is simply better made—but it suffers from a few similar ailments.
I want to know more about what made Idra so smart and so self-destructive. Why was Huk so high maintenance? Evil Geniuses’ player manager says some players are hard to get along with but never hear who it is. The unspoken answer is Huk, whose turbulent relationship with his managers has long inspired whispers all around the esports industry, but it feels as though the film missed at least one golden opportunity to explore an interesting player-manager relationship.
Good Game does talk about Idra and Garfield’s relationship but only briefly, in such a way that left me wanting much more on that and less shots of Geoff “Incontrol” Robinson lifting weights at the gym—unless the movie was truly dedicated to Robinson, which could possibly have been great too, because he’s obviously an interesting figure in his own right. As it is, Robinson is a peripheral figure taking up space.
Any direction might have done better than every direction.
There are great moments throughout Good Game but the sum of the parts doesn’t add up as highly as I wished it did. Each time I became interested in a subject—Fields’ unsupportive family versus Winstead’s vocally supportive one, Lee "PuMa" Ho Joon’s tumultuous move from a Korean team to an American one, Anna Prosser’s unlikely transition from beauty queen to esports host—bam, we’re on to the next subject.
Good Game tries valiantly but proves you can’t have it all. And yet, for all its problems, it must be stressed that Good Game still measures up as probably the best StarCraft 2 documentary and one of the best esports movies ever made.
Making movies about esports is a lot harder than movies about sports. Guys playing video games on 22-inch screens is rarely as visually compelling as athletes dunking on 10-foot basketball rims. Understanding largely virtual communities on big screen is much tougher than showing packed soccer stadiums. Every filmmaker who ventures into esports is doing so knowing that they are in unknown, risky country.
Appealing to both the hardcore esports fanbase and the mainstream audience is a highwire act. Good Game performs admirably in that tricky task and is well worth watching for any esports fans who love the players. Just don’t expect it to win many new converts to the scene.
Screengrab via Good Game