Cinematic Mode: The Best Shows and Short Films about Esports

A collection of some of the best shows and short films to grace the big and small screens.

As I emptied the contents of my french press into my mug, I rifled through my esports multireddit. A few things caught my eye: rumors of Hiko not remaining with OpTic’s CS:GO roster, another amazing stream highlight from RTZ, and some very unsettling Overwatch fan art. I dived into the /r/esports subreddit for something good, and I came across an interesting post in the Discussion tab: a presentation from PodCamp: Toronto titled “why esports needs more storytellers.” In the video, Drekken Pownz (yes that’s his real name) of ESChamp discussed the importance of storytelling when it comes to the development and promotion of esports.

I couldn’t help but agree with what he was saying: I think narrative more than anything including production quality or star power drives people to tune into major tournaments and big events. In many examples of film, esports content has been brought to screens both big and small through a combination of all three, with some instances shining brighter than others.

Free to Play: A Documentary

The Valve-produced documentary highlights the first iteration of the Dota 2 International Championships, a tournament that was a landmark for esports events in terms of event scale and prize pool size. The film follows three professional players as they prepare for the upcoming tournament: Dendi, Fear, and Hyhy.

The central theme of Free to Play is development, both professionally and personally. But it doesn’t just show how Dota itself has evolved from a Warcraft mod to a stand-alone game backed by an massive developer, or how the tournament scene developed from basements and classrooms to convention halls and then finally to arenas. It focuses on the development of its protagonists: the three pro players, and their growth as players and people. We watch our heroes, and the not the ones we pick from the champion pool, overcome doubts and obstacles en route towards finding success at the International.

What this accomplishes as a film is the ability to show that esports players are more than just a username with a lot of skill associated with it. Their strengths and weaknesses are not solely tied to their ability to play Dota, but how they use Dota to improve the parts of their lives that don’t involve sitting in front of a keyboard. On top of that, Free to Play demonstrates the strides esports in general had made around this time that it was beginning to surge, serving as a great example of industry growth. While the film may not be the best way to learn about how Dota 2 is played, it’s one of the best ways to show how players live through playing.

TSM: Legends

It was tough to narrow down a top choice out of the multiple self-produced documentary series that esports organizations have been churning out like butter over the past couple years, but I went with TSM: Legends because of my familiarity with it and how deep the show runs.

TSM: Legends brings us inside the huddle and the house of Team SoloMid, an organization that has helped define the North American LCS landscape. Legends allowed the viewers to have an inside look at life inside a gaming house, an idea that has now become a staple of most organizations for a handful of esports scenes. We got to watch the boys in black & white travel from regular season games to LCS championships, from Korean BBQ down the road to Korean bootcamps across the globe.

But the success and intrigue of Legends lies with how the series highlights the members of TSM as human beings first, and players second. Legends gave us a glimpse into the dynamics of the team, focusing on how new players and coaches react to their environment, and how Regi himself interacts with each group. The focus is not so much on how the players interact when they’re playing together, but how they form friendships off the stage and how that companionship creates a better environment. The series follows the members of the team from the house to the practice room to the main stage, and is shot excellently with a high production value. The series is currently in its third season, and just like TSM’s dominance in the standings, there’s no end in sight.

The King's Avatar (in production)

While not expected to release until later this year, the expectations for The King’s Avatar, or Master of Skill, are so great that it earns a spot on this list. The King’s Avatar is based off a manga of the same name, written by Chinese writer Butterfly Blue. The series follows Ye Xiu, a 10-year veteran of the popular MOBA Glory, with its own thriving competitive series similar to League of Legends. After Xiu is forcibly removed from the captain’s position and starting lineup spot of the roster Excellent Era, he asks that his contract be terminated rather than stay on as a substitute. He finds work at an internet cafe as a night-shift network manager, but vows to return to the scene to reclaim his spot as the best player.

The anime will be produced by Chinese mega media corporation Tencent, and it doesn’t take a lot of research to see why they’re set on doing so. Tencent also owns Riot Games, the developer of League of Legends, and it’s safe to say that the explosive growth of the LoL competitive scene is an indicator that The King’s Avatar will be received well. Based on the story and animation trailers that have come out so far, the series will be split between animating the interactions between characters, as well as highly-choreographed fight scenes that will represent Glory gameplay.

With eight volumes and hundreds of chapters of literature and story, the show will certainly not lack in source material, and the production value looks sky high. With the success of sports-themed anime such as Yuri!!! On ICE and Kuroko no Basket, an esports themed show was due, and if The King’s Avatar can deliver like these other shows have in terms of interesting characters and moving narratives, than its inaugural season will surely be the first of many.

Image credits: TSM, Tencent, Valve


Scott has been writing about video games for over four years, specializing in news and features regarding esports for the past two and a half. He's written for organizations such as Ninjas in Pyjamas, PGL, E-Frag, and Splyce. He joined Dvsion to help create a service and community that rewards fair play and helps the players grow in more ways than just their in-game play.

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