When 14-year-old Michal Blicharz organized video gaming events at internet cafes in his native Kielce, Poland, he never imagined that his passion would turn into a global and cultural phenomenon.
Today, Blicharz is the director of the Electronic Sports League (ESL) and he’s the energetic and logistical wizard behind Intel Extreme Masters (IEM), the oldest and most prestigious eSports tournament.
Blicharz is responsible for pulling off IEM events in cities across the globe. And this is no small feat. At the IEM World Championships 2015 in Katowice, Poland earlier this year, 104,000 fans lined up to see the action.
Yes, more than a hundred-thousand fans came to watch other people play video games.
“I never imagined that we would have a stadium entirely full of people,” said Blicharz. “You go onto the stage, and as far as the eye can see, up to the rafters, on top of the nosebleeds and standing on the stairs there are people. There are people outside the stadium waiting to get in.”
The massive explosion in eSports popularity inspired director Patrick Creadon to make All Work All Play, a feature-length documentary that chronicles the lives of eSports personalities. For a year, Creadon and his team travelled the world, following Blicharz, various eSports personalities and several international teams as they mouse-clicked their ways across the globe.
“A lot of people may not know what eSports is, but I can tell you they’re about it to,” said Creadon who, along with his wife and business partner Christine O’Malley, produced the charming crossword puzzle documentary WordPlay, which launched to high acclaim at the 2006 Sundance Film Festival.
Creadon admits when he began the All Work All Play project he knew very little about eSports. “When this story came to us, we fell in love with it,” he said. They liked the idea of a competition and wanted to show the human side of an emerging phenomenon.
“The crazy thing about documentaries is that you don’t have a script and you only get one take,” he said. “You never really know where the story’s going to go when you start.”
It started with the film crew tagging along behind Blicharz, who Creadon says is a “human tornado.” Blicharz, a legendary gamer and respected gaming journalist, literally grew up with the video game industry.
“He loves the fact that this genuine love of his has become his life’s work,” said Creadon. “I think that’s one of my favourite things about the movie.”
In the late-1990s, Blicharz and his buddies/team mates travelled around Poland, carrying their headsets and joysticks to local Internet cafés and taking on anyone who would play.
He likens those times to the movie The Hustler, where Paul Newman plays a pool shark increasingly pushed up against better competition and higher stakes.
“I got really sucked into the local Internet café scene where people would go to play online games and network games with each other,” he said. “I didn’t used to have a PC back then and people didn’t have Internet at the time.”
Creadon’s decision to have Blicharz be the protagonist in the film was an easy one because of the Pole’s passion for gaming and his intimate knowledge of the industry.
Blicharz took over running IEM in 2009 and has steadily grown both its following and its extravagant production values, including filling giant sports stadiums and livestreaming events to millions of people.
“This is an extremely stressful occupation, with the amount of travelling, with the amount of moving elements that are involved with every single event,” said Blicharz, who is now 35 and living in Los Angeles with his wife and 2-year-old daughter.
“We’re developing IEM every single year, there’s something new happening where you have to adapt constantly, because everything around us changes,” he said.
Creadon said he intentionally made a movie that would appeal to both gamers and non-gamers, to shed light into a world that’s often misunderstood.
“We’ve made a story that’s going to be a defining portrait of eSports at this point in time,” he said. “What we really wanted to do was celebrate the passion that these young people have.”
He said that the video gaming world is much different than the oft-stereotyped idea of 17-year-olds squirrelling away junk food and playing in their parents’ basements.
“It’s very much a global story,” said Creadon. “It’s a very warm and human story. It’s a movie about people with a passion to be the best.”
Among the eSports players that they followed was Kai Lam, a Cloud 9 gamer from Michigan who lived with his four team mates in Santa Monica, California. Lam said he and his team mates would play 10 to 15 hours per week.
Lam said that IEM has helped legitimise eSports by creating big tournaments and making pro gaming more accessible to more people. The film, he said, does a good job of showing the excitement and passion of those big events.
“It shed a nice light into the world of professional gaming,” Lam explained. “It’s really cool for people to see what we do for a living, to show that we’re normal people that just want to be the best at what we do.”
Due to a chronic wrist injury (a common affliction for gamers), the 22 year-old Lam recently retired from pro eSports competition and is now Cloud 9’s new “Chief Gaming Officer” where he’ll scout new games and hot players.
For Creadon, who remembers being a 5 year-old kid when American chess prodigy Bobby Fischer beat the Russians in 1972, eSports is becoming a world-wide story with a local appeal. American eSports teams are coming to that tipping point of being viable opponents on a world stage, which is usually dominated by Koreans and Europeans.
He points out that eSports have been featured on the cover of the New York Times three times and that, like televised poker, it’s making its way into the mainstream.
“More people watched these kids play video games than watched NFL playoff games or MLB playoffs,” said Creadon, who grew up playing games like Pong and Donkey Kong. “It’s really fun to watch these kids play and follow in their passion.”