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Good Game: A Year in the Life of Team Evil Geniuses Starcraft 2 Team

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Posted by: Dustin Steiner

While covering MLG Orlando for GameZone, I happened across one Mary Ratliff of Nine Hour Films, director of the upcoming documentary Good Game, a film about a year in the life of Evil Geniuses, a competitive Starcraft 2 team. Intrigued as she told me of her project, I decided that the world had to know more about this film, so here I am. Mary graciously agreed to an interview with me - check out this description of the film from Mary herself:

"Good Game is a feature length documentary about a group of men who exhibit the competitive drive of an athlete, the tactical skill of a general, and the creative talent of an artist. They bring all of these things to successful careers in competitive gaming as members of Team Evil Geniuses' Starcraft 2 division.

Nearly every American plays video games in one way or another. They range from casual gamers on Facebook to hardcore gamers on Xbox Live. Hospitals and nursing homes have Nintendo Wii consoles in their common rooms, schools are finding ways to incorporate gaming into learning, and over twelve million people worldwide have characters in World of Warcraft. Gaming is one of the largest industries in the U.S., and it's only natural that the best of the best have found a way to compete.

Competitive gaming isn't an easy road, and it's not a feasible career for many. But these seven men have made their dream into a reality, playing professionally in tournaments throughout the country and the world. Good Game follows these men as they compete throughout 2011, and explores the world behind the curtain, talking with the EG staff and their management team.

The film is currently in production, and will be filming throughout 2011 at various events and locations including MLG tournaments and the NASL Finals."

Dustin Steiner: Mary, thanks for taking the time out of production to give this interview. First off, what has been your favorite moment working with Evil Geniuses?

Mary Ratliff: It’s difficult for me to single it down to one moment, partially because right now everything is a bit of a blur after the marathon that was IPL3 and MLG Orlando.  I think being able to ask them what they think of the trailers and videos we’ve released and hearing their feedback is really up there.  It’s meant a lot to me for them (and the entire e-sports community) to understand what I’m trying to do here.  It’s very gratifying when it seems to be working, and my point does come across. There have been a number of really great moments though.  There are things that I will look back on fondly for the rest of my life.

DS: Go through a day in the life of a Starcraft 2 Pro for me. What sort of training do they do, and for how long?

Mary: Well, I can only go from what the guys have said in interviews we’ve done and each person trains differently of course.  But the most important thing to remember, and what I really want to make sure the audience understands through the film, is that a pro treats Starcraft as their job.  They’re probably more devoted to it than I’ve been to any job (outside filmmaking) that I’ve ever had.

They practice for at least eight hours a day, though most of them seem to practice in chunks of time rather than all at one go.  For the most part, if they want to be at the top of the game they’ll increase that time, sometimes up to 10-12 hours.  That practice can take a lot of forms, like playing random opponents and laddering.  They could also have a teammate or a practice partner that they use to work out specific strategies or prepare for specific build orders they might face.  

They also spend a fair amount of time just talking about the game, which is where the team aspect comes in.  Even though Starcraft 2 is an individual sport, having a team helps them perform better because they have that group to bounce ideas off of, discuss their recent matches with, and generally figure out where their strengths and weaknesses lie.

I’ve seen some gaming films that talk about pros and how often they practice in a derogatory manner. If you just say “he plays video games for eight hours a day” that does sound pretty bad.  But you have to put that into the perspective that these are professionals in a competitive field.  The average person is at work for at least eight hours every day, plus their lunch.  Add in your commute and you probably do spend ten hours a day dealing with your job in one way or another. They’re no different.

DS: Do you have any advice for amateur filmmakers looking to get their start in the industry?

Mary: I think the most important thing you can do when approaching any creative endeavor is to actually learn how to judge the advice and notes that you’ll get.  Everybody is going to have something to say about what you’re doing.  People you meet in the industry, your family and friends…suddenly the whole world has something to say about everything you do.

Not all of it will be bad, some people will be encouraging but their advice still might be bad because it’s wrong (or wrong for you).  Some of what people have to say will be really harsh and very hard to hear. Sometimes those people are fully of it, but sometimes they’re right and you’ve done something that isn’t as good as it could be.

There’s no one path to this dream, and there’s no one-sized fits all advice.  There’s no path to Hollywood that you can just follow step by step, everybody gets where they’re going in a different way.  No one book on “how to make a movie” is going to have all the answers or even the ones that will work for you. Think about who is giving you the advice, think about where they’ve been and what they’ve done, and if what they’re saying applies to you.  I’ve been lucky enough to have a few great mentors whose advice I trust almost without a doubt.  But I’ve also had a few people (including film school professors) where I don’t listen to a word they say.

The only thing that’s always true is that it’s difficult, sometimes in ways you haven’t imagined.  Filmmaking is not glamorous.  It’s very hard work if you’re doing it right.  You have to be able to use that difficulty to fuel your determination.  If you can’t do that you should go for something easier to break into with much higher job security.

DS: How about Pro Gamers, as an objective outsider?

Mary: I actually see a ton of parallels between professional gaming and filmmaking.  Geoff “iNcontroL” Robinson made a great point in our first interview that you don’t sign up to be a pro-gamer.  It’s like any sort of professional athlete, if you put in the time and the effort then the most talented and skilled will rise to the top and catch the attention of teams and sponsors.

From the outside looking in, it seems to me that getting to that point is a long and difficult road sometimes, and you can’t stop with just being the best at the game.  You have to be a top player, but you also have to keep an eye out on how to make this a career.  You can’t just sit around and play and be good at it, you should start looking at how to get sponsored, how to build a fan base.  Look at other revenue streams that are still tied to gaming, like streaming or coaching (if you’re well known enough).

Like filmmaking, it seems like you have to make a conscious decision to make gaming the focus of your life and your top priority.   But I don’t think people should do that blindly, they should learn as much as they can about everything involved before they make that commitment.  

DS: eSports has seen an explosive growth over the past few years. What do you think are the biggest contributing factors to this phenomenon?

Mary: I think it’s a lot of little factors that have gone right, slowly but surely.  First of all, it’s partially because e-sports has a very long history of very devoted fans and event organizers who have put in place an infrastructure that can finally start to hold this in place.  E-sports is what it is now because years ago people believed it could be this and started blazing that trail.

There’s also been a huge shift in the way our society consumes their media content.  As more and more people turn towards online streaming and on demand media, we’re creating the perfect haven for e-sports, which would have trouble finding a real home on traditional broadcast television.

The games that have come out recently aren’t hurting either.  Starcraft 2 really seems like the right game at the right time.  It’s certainly not the only one, but it has hit in a way that I’ve not seen before myself.

DS: Do you have a favorite member of EG to work with? Why or why not?

Mary: I definitely don’t have a favorite, largely because they are such a great group of guys.  They all have made me laugh during interviews (something I consider of the utmost importance) and they all have a long list of great qualities.  Not just the players either, everybody involved with the team has been great.

I honestly could go through each person and tell you why I enjoy working with them, but that would probably get rather boring for most people.  I will say that sometimes it’s really nice to see Anna (EG's Operations Manager) because every once in a while I just want to talk to another girl in the gaming community.

DS: Your film is specifically about EG’s Starcraft 2 division – do you have any contact with EG’s other teams, such as in the Fighting Game Community? How do their other teams differ from the Starcraft 2 teams in structure?

Mary: I don’t really have any contact with them (so far) but I’m very aware of them.  I narrowed my film down to Starcraft 2 mostly because I play it myself, and being familiar with the game has made it easier for me to understand some of the new concepts that have come my way.  I don’t play fighting games that much really, but I’ve been paying attention to their players this year.  It’s a different type of community, so I like to talk to people about how different it is and why.  I do plan to talk about it in the film, in some fashion.

EG's Justin Wong - member of EG's fighting game team


The thing that interests me is that some of their teams are actual teams and some have individual players.  I think that’s going to be my biggest challenge in the film, because there aren’t really direct correlations to be made to traditional sports.  I could explain how the SC2 team works, but then you have to explain that EG isn’t just an SC2 team, and not all of their divisions are structured the same way.  I can’t say, “EG is like a baseball team” because they’re not.  You can’t even say “it’s like one company owning a baseball and a basketball team” because there are both team and individual sports involved.

DS: Team Evil Geniuses seems to have a ton of financial backing in comparison to other US eSports teams – how does their model work? What do they do right that other teams don’t seem to get?

Mary: Well, that is the big question that it’s probably going to take the whole film to really unpack and explore.  But I think that part of it is that EG has people at the helm that are good at following that particular business model.  The community can debate if they agree that it’s the right business model for a team or not, but they can’t deny that they’re achieving what they are trying to achieve.  If they have more money from sponsorships, they can pay their players better.  Those players can then make SC2 their top priority, they don’t get distracted by school or another job, and they get better results at tournaments.

Again, it’s a bit like filmmaking.  At the root of it, hopefully everybody truly loves what they do and that’s why they do it.  But the people who actually have any longevity in the industry are the ones who get that it’s a job and a business and you have to find a way to balance both.  Teams that love gaming and want to succeed in e-sports because they have a passion for it are great, but without knowing how to keep the money flowing the right way, they just won’t be able to last.

Again, that’s only scratching the surface.  I’m still actively pursuing the answer to this, and it’s something that has come up frequently with my interviews.

DS: In the past year working with Evil Geniuses, what do you think their most noteworthy accomplishment has been?

HuK accepting his MLG Orlando trophy

Mary: Well, obviously the run at MLG Orlando was nothing short of amazing, including IdrA’s accomplishments and HuK’s win.  The last few weeks have just been chocked full of good news and tournament wins for EG’s teams.  Of course, the recent announcement about their partnership with SlayerS is a very big deal.  I honestly cannot wait to start really talking about that with people.

DS: Evil Geniuses has been called by some the “New York Yankees of eSports” referring to the way they seem to be signing stars from all other major eSports teams. Do you think this is a fitting name? Why?

Mary: It’s a little sad, but I actually had to message a friend of mine that is a Yankees fan and ask her to explain the comparison to me because I don’t follow baseball at all.  So I don’t know if I’m the best qualified judge to say if it really fits them or not.  

EG's poster promoting their signing of Chris "HuK" Loranger

I can say that this has come up in nearly every interview I’ve done with members of the community.  The responses have ranged all over the map but I don’t think anybody can really deny that EG is well funded and that they do look for top talent to fill out their roster.  The question really becomes if it’s a good or a bad thing, and while I know my personal opinion on that, that doesn’t really factor into the film at all.  The film is about if the community believes that is good or bad, and if that actually helps their business or not.  I’m still figuring that out.

DS: Greg “IdrA” Fields is seen as a “bad boy” of eSports. Is he really so bad, or is it all an act?

Mary: I think the answer is really “neither.”  Saying it’s all an act would be implying that he’s being disingenuous and acting angry just to get fans and attention.  It is true that when you meet him in the hallway at an event, he’s usually very nice.  I think it’s just that he’s a human being like everybody else, and so he’s not so simply put into a box or made into a caricature.  He signs autographs, he smiles in photos, and he’s a nice guy.  But he also gets mad when he loses, and like a lot of famous American athletes, he gets into some trash talk on occasion.

I don’t think either one thing cancels out the other.  It’s all just aspects to a complete person.  

DS: Geoff “InControL” Robinson has been in a bit of a slump lately – do you think this is mostly due to nerves? Is he doing something different with his training now to hopefully break the slump?

Mary: I haven’t really asked Geoff about this directly, so I hesitate to try to speak for him or anything like that.  But I don’t doubt for a second that he is driven and that he wants to succeed.  Obviously his training regime has changed over the course of the year from moving into the EG Lair, and early on in the film he was casting NASL which took up a lot of his time.  I don’t know of any recent specifics.

I think there are a lot of things at play for all of the guys whenever they compete, and it’s only the specific combination of all of those factors that lead to anything.  There are probably some nerves for some of them, but the game itself changes on a regular basis.  The tournament structure can get flipped on its head (like MLG’s partnership with the GSL and the Korean invites).  There’s an element of luck to it all, between map choices and group placements.  You have to add all that in to the amount of practice and the skills involved in that particular match-up (both the player’s skills and if it’s a PvZ, etc).  That’s what makes so many tournaments so unpredictable.

Whatever the underlying cause is with Geoff, I do think that he’ll keep at it until he figures it out and gets past it.  I’ve rarely known people who are that driven and are so truly in love with what they do.  Everybody, everywhere, has good times and bad times.  The trick is who is willing to fight through the bad and come out on top again, and I really believe he will do just that.

DS: Chris "HuK" Loranger is EG's newest member - in your experience, how was the chemistry been between HuK and the older members of EG? Is there any resentment there, or are they just happy to have him aboard?

Mary: With HuK, I think that he's fit right in and everybody has welcomed him. The interesting thing about SC2 is that most of the players do know each other really well, even if they are "rivals." So he wasn't a stranger coming into their group, he was already a friend. They knew him, and he can contribute a lot to the team and they're all good enough to recognize and appreciate that.

DS: Starcraft 2 forums can be a harsh place, particularly in the Reddit or Team Liquid community. What has feedback been like from these communities? Is it difficult living up to such high expectations?

Mary: I've been lurking on Team Liquid and Reddit a lot, since probably the day I started work on the film. So I had seen both the best and worst of the communities before I started posting about the film. I admit I was worried, especially because we had the worst timing in the world when our Kickstarter campaign was scheduled to start only days after a big backlash started against fundraising campaigns (and for good reason).

But overall the response has been fantastic, people have mostly been very excited about the project, and very supportive. They've had a lot of good things to say, and most of the criticism we got was of the constructive variety. There were a few comments that were just negative for the sake of being negative, but that wasn't the norm at all. I was really pleased, and I'm happy that we've been able to take the constructive criticism and apply changes to fix those problems.

DS: What can people do if they want to help support Good Game? What do they get in return, other than supporting a great eSports documentary?

Mary: Well, for the next five days at least (until midnight on Halloween) they can go to our Kickstarter campaign and support the movie there: http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/ninehourfilms/good-game-an-film-about-evil-geniuses  The perks are pretty amazing, not just copies of the DVD or posters for the film but donors can get Evil Geniuses related products as well.  There are signed Steel Series mousepads, cases of Monster Energy, and all kinds of perks like that.

After the Kickstarter closes, then we'll still be taking donations through our website but the perks will be changing, most of the EG swag is Kickstarter only.  We have really fun wristbands and lanyards for donors, and of course DVDs will still be part of the package.  I also will have some promo items at events if people come up to me to ask about the film.   If people want to know when all that goes live they just need to follow me on twitter (@ninehourfilms) and I'll post when it's done. 

We also could just really use people's help in getting the word out about the film.  Like us on Facebook, tweet about it using the hashtag #ggmovie, all of that good stuff.  If you know somebody who you think would like the trailer, send them the link.  The more we can show people really want to see this documentary, the easier the whole process becomes for us.

The added bonus is that people who use Facebook or Twitter can communicate directly with me about the process of making the film.  They can ask questions, make suggestions, anything they want.  I love the way that fans get to really participate in and influence e-sports, and I want to bring that kind of culture over into the film.

DS: Mary, I'd like to thank you on behalf of GameZone and eSports fans everywhere for your work on Good Game. Do you have any closing words for your fans and supporters?

Mary: I think the only words that can really be said are thank you.  Of course that's not enough to convey how much people's support has really meant to me.  Seeing us reach our goal on Kickstarter was an amazing moment for me, and it proved that all the personal and financial stress I'd gone through in the first half of filming was really worth it.  Knowing that people want to see my movie, that they like what they've seen so far, that's been the best part of the entire process.  It's absolutely wonderful, and there's just no way for me to say "thanks" enough times.  I'm putting all my energy into making an amazing movie for you guys, because you deserve it.

Mary Ratliff - Director

Dustin Steiner is GameZone's eSports Correspondent!

 

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