Are you ready for Gamers Gone Wild? The opening minutes of Frag play like a scandal-mongering TV news program, featuring surveillance-cam footage of angry public arguments and wet bikini girls cavorting in a hot tub, complete with a stern-voiced narrator asking probing questions. Is this a cautionary morality tale?
No. After that attention-grabbing preamble, the documentary quickly settles down into a more serious groove, delving deeply into a subject that has been mostly ignored by the mainstream media -- but not by filmmakers. Seth Gordon found a deeply emotional human interest story among devoted video gamers in last year's superb The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters. Lincoln Ruchti focused on a group of 80s gamers in Chasing Ghosts: Beyond the Archive, also from last year. Juan Carlos Pineiro Escoriaza chose to reinforce many of the worst stereotypes about gamers in his zippy, colorful doc Second Skin, which premiered at South by Southwest last month.
At the control of debut doc director Mike Pasley, Frag explores a wider spectrum of issues, digging into racism, corporate sponsorship, jealousy, competition and ambition. The investigative aspects are balanced by a healthy appreciation and respect for the people involved. There's no sense that the film is looking down its nose at an incomprehensible phenomenon, nor is there an excessive amount of hero worship, even though the best known gamers have their own devoted following.
It's the personalities that drive the doc forward, but before they can emerge, attention is paid to the first wave of video game obsessives. Walter Day of Twin Galaxies began recording the high scores he found at video game arcades across the country in 1981, and subsequently became known as the official scorekeeper. That made it possible for the top scorers to be brought together to play against one another, and a few contestants were able to make good money -- most notably Billy Mitchell. Arcade fever died down as the 1980s passed, and the first era of professional gaming passed away as well.
The 1990s saw home video game consoles becoming much more common, and the explosion of personal computers expanded the market still further. Doom became a landmark title in 1993, both for its immersive gameplay and the controversy it generated because of its graphic violence. Doom's popularity encouraged multiplayer contests, and in 1997 the first pro-gaming league was formed.
Angel Munoz sounds extremely proud as he recounts the development of the Dallas-based Cyberathlete Professional League (CPL), which he founded and ran. He talks about the opportunities that he's provided, the livelihoods he's made possible, and the sponsors. He talks about the tournaments, the worldwide affiliates, and the hundreds of players involved. He sounds sincere as he recounts the millions of dollars in prize money that the CPL awarded. It's only near the very end of the doc that we hear the flip side: rumors and allegations that award payments were delayed for months or possibly never made, that the CPL took advantage of young gamers by charging exorbitant entrance fees, and similar charges.
The accusations are made on the record by various gamers while earlier interview footage of Munoz is played back. Did Munoz refuse requests for an on-camera interview to address the charges? The documentary doesn't say, leaving an unpleasant aftertaste. The CPL shut down last month, leaving, no doubt, many questions unanswered.
There is no question, however, that Johnathan "Fatal1ty" Wendel is a pro gaming superstar. He has been profiled on television (I saw him on 60 Minutes) and in print, and with good reason. He has won multiple world championships in a variety of games and seems to be an eternal optimist, always looking on the positive side, and always ready to promote his sport and the sponsors he represents. He has endured a degree of backlash, perhaps because of the large amount of money he has won, perhaps because he is such a persistent, good-natured huckster (he couldn't resist plugging one of his products during the post-screening Q&A).
As the doc shows, his optimism is hard won. His mother vainly tried to limit his game playing time, and after the child of divorce moved in with his father, he discovered that Dad wasn't too enthusiastic about his future, either. Only after Fatal1ty started making money at the sport did he start to earn begrudging respect from family members.
The theme of parental disapproval ripples throughout the gaming community, with a plethora of interviewees testifying about the hard time their parents have given them, none more so than Rafik "Lost-Cauze" Bryant (pictured). He left home to pursue his dream of pro gaming and spent a fair amount of time homeless as he practiced endlessly to hone his skills. His dedication and hard work have finally paid off, but his experience gets at the heart of a nagging question that runs throughout the documentary.
Right now, only a small number of gamers are earning enough money to make a living at the sport. Yet the number of youngsters who dream of becoming pro gamers grows exponentially. And tales of exploited young "professionals" who are thrilled to sign contracts that pay them barely enough to scrape by are rampant. Shouldn't alarm bells be ringing?
The film expresses concern, not that kids dream of playing video games for a living, but that adults (and corporations) are exploiting those dreams to increase their profits. It points out the racism that Rafik Bryant must deal with as one of the few African-Americans in the sport, as well as the sanguine, even-tempered way he deals with it.
In sum, Frag addresses the issues while also celebrating the players. And it does so in a brisk, entertaining way. It played extremely well in front of an enthusiastic, late-evening, mid-week crowd at AFI Dallas, but should find a wide audience beyond game-playing devotees.