'League of Legends' doc chronicles America's eSports underdogs

Patrick Creadon wants to tell you about what he thinks is competitive gaming's Miracle on Ice moment. And to do so, he's employing the tool he knows best: a movie camera. Whereas before, the film director has focused on the national debt with I.O.U.S.A. or the (sometimes famous) people who love crossword puzzles in Wordplay, his latest project, All Work All Play, tackles the world of eSports. Specifically, League of Legends and two American dark horse teams quite literally going up against the rest of the world in front of tens of thousands of screaming fans packed into, ironically enough, hockey arenas.

"eSports teams don't have the respect that they so badly crave," he says. "These North American teams are not unlike the 1980 United States hockey team going up against Russia [in the Olympics]. Our movie really captures a similar story."

All Work All Play follows the Intel Extreme Masters tournament's 2014/2015 season, chronicling the event's various stops around the globe and culminating at this past March's $300,000 championship in Poland. Creadon and his wife, producer Christine O'Malley, chose to focus on LoL because, unlike StarCraft 2, it's a team-based game rather than a solo affair.

'All Work All Play' Premiere Trailer

Creadon says that because of the team-based structure, the game offers a ton of interesting components and complexity that make for interesting storytelling. Chiefly, it's an underdog story; Korea dominates not only LoL tournaments, but also eSports in general. While teams Cloud 9 and Team SoloMid have some clout domestically, they haven't exactly been taken seriously on the world's stage. Hence the "Miracle on Ice" analogy.

The inherent challenge is making the subject matter approachable for a worldwide theatrical audience this July. It's something that Valve didn't have to worry about with its DotA 2 documentary Free to Play, which debuted on its PC-based Steam platform, iTunes and YouTube last year. Creadon doesn't see the theatrical release as a hindrance, though. For him, it's an advantage in a few different ways. Aside from giving him a broader audience, he sees sitting down in a theater to watch the film as a parallel to attending an eSports event.

"You're not watching the game or playing a game on a PC; you're going to an arena!" he says excitedly. "That's more than half the fun: seeing it with other people who are like you that love this thing that you also love."

A movie about video games is one thing, but eSports are a niche within a niche.

A movie about video games is one thing, but eSports are a niche within a niche. Another point of comparison is soccer: wildly popular around the globe, but still considered outside the mainstream domestically. Think about the recent backlash regarding ESPN radio host Colin Cowherd blowing his stack over the "worldwide leader in sports" (his employer) airing a college Heroes of the Storm tournament last week. It's this sort of reaction that it seems Creadon is trying to dispel. "We're not casting judgment; we're trying to paint a portrait of these people," he says.

He likens his job to that of a tour guide at a museum. Given how long he's spent with the material and has been embedded into the scene, he thinks he knows what's interesting and what can make the game and the story of this tournament appeal to people. Instead of just pointing his camera at the back of someone's head as they sit at a computer playing, he worked to get inside the minds of the competitors, interviewing them off camera and recording only voice to discover what drives them and who they are as people.

Goście Intel Extreme Masters

A scene from 2013's Intel Extreme Masters tournament in Poland.

And it seems to have been a success. The film showed at the recent Tribeca Film Festival and as Creadon describes it, general audience members were sort of slack-jawed. He tells of a conversation he had with a female member of the audience after the screening. She has a younger brother who plays a lot of video games, but who she doesn't have much in common with. After watching the movie, she called him and they had a half-hour-long talk about LoL and why he loves it. Now, she has a better understanding of the game and why it means so much to him. "She said the movie really made her feel closer to her brother," Creadon says. "At the end of the day, eSports is really just about people and [the movie] is really a human story."

That's the way he sees making eSports approachable to a mass audience. Giving them something familiar to grab hold of in a foreign world is the key for him. While he understands it might not have the same impact as his past work, how those who've seen the film have reacted encourages him. For the game's fans, he says it's like catnip -- they can't get enough of it. But for everyone else? "It's like Tron; it's like going into a world that you've never been in before."

[Image credits: Patrick Creadon (lead image), Piotr Drabik/Flickr (2013 event)]