Originally ran on FilmThreat.com on 04/30/08
Forget the NFL, NBA, MLB or NHL! The future belongs to professional videogaming, and director Mike Pasley’s documentary “FRAG” is just the primer you need to know how to navigate these new cyber-sports. Mike took some time to answer a slew of questions from one of Film Threat’s videogaming aficionados, Mark Bell:
Why make “FRAG”? Why a documentary about professional video gamers?
“FRAG” was not my brain-child. Judd Saul, our executive producer is pretty into games and he wanted to make a doc about something he was passionate about. I was brought into the project about 6 months into production because things weren’t going well. Judd knew gaming was huge worldwide, but still underground enough to be something new to a mass audience. The idea originally was ‘games are cool, pro-gaming is interesting.’ Todd Fossey, co-producer of the documentary “Overnight” and producer of “FRAG” I started brainstorming about what could be in pro-gaming that everybody didn’t already know, that would make it engaging to a mass audience, an audience that didn’t give an f about pro gaming. Like every other sport, we found out about drug use, partying, the stress gamers have, fights with parents, corruption, etc. When you start approaching it from a perspective of not being about the games or the playing of games and talk about the players and the characters, it’s very engaging and compelling, regardless of your opinion of video games or pro-gaming. It becomes the universal story of struggle and overcoming obstacles.
Did your focus / initial motivation change as the footage came in?
Absolutely. Like I said, I got involved after about 100 hours of footage had been shot. Most of it was ‘surface’ because people weren’t being asked the right questions. We started digging deep, asking players about all sorts of stuff that we thought could be in gaming. A lot of it led to dead ends, but some it didn’t. We started to hear about players using uppers, leagues not paying prize money to players, we started hearing about a player named Rafik “LoSt-CaUzE” Bryant who was an underdog and had fought harder than almost anyone to make it in gaming. He became the protagonist personified, because we wanted the players to be the protagonist, but that’s too broad, so Rafik sort of represents the players. So as the focus changed, and we started to narrow in on the story, we saw what pro-gaming was really like, not at all like the early interviews.
Were you surprised by the film that you were creating as the footage came in?
Yes. The first thing to do was watch all the footage. That was about 9 weeks of watching tapes and taking detailed notes. Sorting through almost 200 hundred hours of footage, about half of which had little focus on the story we were trying to tell. I spent a few weeks alone with note cards, sticky notes, and the awesome dry erase wall (it’s about 10’ by 20’) just patching together a story, just a crazy collage of sound bytes, and ideas. That’s when the story really started coming together. I could see that pro-gaming, which is very broad and complex, could be boiled down to a universal story. It started to become exciting. It was like standing very close to a painting and not knowing what you’re looking at, and then stepping back a few feet so you can see all of it at once. Suddenly it just kind of becomes obvious. It was a matter of perspective. Suddenly pro-gaming wasn’t ultra complicated and only interesting to hardcore gamers.
Anything particularly surprising that really hit you as “never saw THAT coming”?
So much. We discovered a Polish pro-gaming journalist named ‘Carmac.’ He’s a brilliant reporter. We had the documentary at the rough cut stage, but something was missing. It felt jumbled and distant. Then one day we were watching an internet based show called Epileptic Gaming. Their guest that day was Angel Munoz, president of the CPL (a pro gaming league.) This polish guy is calling into the show asking Angel some really hard questions and you see Angel visibly nervous. I remember saying out loud, ‘we have to find this guy’. So we ended up having the chance to interview Carmac, who finally said everything that gamers wanted to, but felt they couldn’t. Some of the things he knew about were VERY surprising, a lot of which we couldn’t put in the documentary. He had a lot of specifics on under-handed business practices, corruption, etc. It was surprising because the gamers would always say “I’ve heard that…” or “I know a player who…” That always leaves you thinking maybe it’s not real, but then Carmac tells says, “This happened to so and so and this person is the one that did it and it happened on this date.” It really throws it in your face, in a good way.
Can you give me a breakdown of a timeline for making the movie, when you came up with the idea, production, post-production, completion, first screening?
Judd Saul started thinking about it in early 2006. The first interview was on April 24th, 2006, which Angel Munoz. I came into the project along with Todd Fossey at the end on November of that year. We traveled and shot interviews more, until about March of 2007. Then we had a huge amount of footage to watch, research, and technical barriers. We are a small group of film makers, and so about 5 people did the work of dozens, so everything took longer. Luckily we had Ashley Van Gelder, who is amazing, and Logan Summy who is arguably a genius also involved. I also edited “FRAG,” which seems like an absolute necessity in hindsight. Editing is everything. Anyway, I had an assembly cut in April, which was like 3+ hours long. We started cutting it down, repositioning, and focusing the story. Post-production was a big just. Like I said, we had just a few people. We did all the post in house at Cohesion Productions. We brought in couple of guys to do some digital animations, Ryan Wehner and Andrew Tomayko, who are both very talented. Also, Jared Rogness, who did these kick a*s illustrations that we then animated in a 3D space. All of this took months. The story was there, but the gloss, the frosting really made it look as good as it tasted. We more or less had a finished cut by mid December, but the holidays screwed things up, so we didn’t get a final cut until mid January of 2008. We just premiered at AFI Dallas on April 1st. Dallas was a great place to premiere because they have a lot of gaming roots and we shot a lot of footage in Dallas. Not to mention, AFI Dallas was a great festival.
How did you decide who to cover? Was it a matter of starting at the top with Fatal1ty and then working your way around based on suggestions?
That exactly how it went. Even my dad knows who Fatal1ty is. The guy was on 60 minutes, you know, so he’s as close to a house hold name (in the western hemisphere) as you can get for gaming. So you go to the people you know already. One good thing about John (Fatal1ty) is he knows all the other gamers, they’re all friends. So when Judd and the production team went to his house the first time, there were 4 other world class gamers at his house. So, then you talk to all those guys too, then you go to a tournament and they introduce you to these other people and so on. Ironically, Rafik was at John’s house during the first interview, which worked out well, because no one really knew him then, he was still just coming up through the ranks, so he was literally homeless at that time, living at John and Jarod’s house. It’s a nice story arc.
What misconceptions do you think the mainstream has about professional video gaming, and do you think your film dispelled any myths or, perhaps, strengthened some?
Everyone knows the stereotypes of hard core gamers. Lazy, pale, live in their parent’s basement, no social skills, etc. Then you tack on the word professional and people just role their eyes. It’s like saying you’re a beer taster to some people. I hope we dispel the myths, because we tried to show the truth and the truth is that pro-gamers are nothing like that. The top players work out, run, eat right. They take it very seriously. I also felt strongly that we need to show the post-tournament partying that gamers have. They’re really just like anyone else their age. It was important to humanize gamers, so non-gamers could identify with them. So far, all the gamers that have seen “FRAG” have loved it and feel that it’s very accurate.
What is some advice you would give parents who have children who are thinking about becoming professional video gamers?
Watch “FRAG.” (Shameless plug.) Be involved. It’s a big industry and players don’t have anybody watching out for them most of the time. It’s easy to get taken advantage of. Young kids need parents who are on their side. It’s VERY hard to be a success in gaming, but it’s also hard to become a pro football player, but most parents don’t discourage their kids from playing football. The best advice I guess is give them the chance to try it out if they’re serious. Enter a tournament and give it a shot, if they win, maybe they should try it. Not all pro players drop out of school. Paul “CZM” Nelson is a Princeton graduate. He stayed in school the whole time and still has done great in gaming. It doesn’t have to be all or nothing.
What is the future of professional gaming? Are we looking at players’ unions, one master league a la an MLB or NHL?
A lot of people point to South Korea as a compass for the future of gaming. South Korea officially embraces gaming at the government level, and their leaders play the games. They have multiple channels on TV for gaming only, and their top players are bigger than their movie stars. I think that gaming needs a players’ union of some sort, but it’s still such a young industry. It’s very unrefined. There are a lot of companies trying to stake out territory. I like to explain it like everyone wants to be the first in line, but nobody wants to walk through the door. DirecTV launched a league that is the closest to an MLB type organization. They have franchised teams and salaried players.
At what point, when there’s so much money being made, sometimes at the exploitation of children, does the government step in and say “ok, you want to be a professional league, here’re the rules for conducting yourself as such”?
I don’t think I’m qualified to answer that. I guess I would say it’s not that bad in gaming yet. I mean, we still let companies that use sweat shops in foreign countries sell products and make way more money. That’s so much worse. I think what pro gaming needs to end the exploitation and mistreating of players is the players saying, “no, screw you” to the leagues and teams and companies that are the problem, there are enough good teams and leagues to be involved in that players don’t need to be on a team that doesn’t pay them.
Do you have any projects coming up, or is it just time to focus on this film?
Right now, we’re looking at distribution options for “FRAG” and trying to find the right outlet. Traditional distribution isn’t the only option, because gaming is so international and the niche market already interested in huge and tech savvy, so we’re trying to think outside the box, but we also want “FRAG” to find the mass audience that I think it deserves. It’s not catered to hard core gamers, in fact quite the opposite.
I am in pre production for a dark comedy called The Stevie Wondershow that I also wrote. It’s a satire about reality TV and celebrity worship. Stevie, an introverted middle manager makes a TV show about himself, doing childlike skits, singing, dancing, etc. He keeps his show a secret, but a co-worker, King, discovers it and tries to use it to make himself famous, it backfires and Stevie becomes a reality TV superstar. I’m making it with some good friends on a tiny tiny budget, but we have a great cast and it’s going to be really great. As indie as it gets. We start shooting in May. To find out more, check out www.steviewondershow.com