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TBS's TI7 documentary is worthwhile for fans and casual viewers alike

Dota 2 followers will find familiarity in the tight-knit, competitive atmospheres; newcomers will fall in love with it.

Dota 2 fans can never get enough content about players’ lives, and the world lately is curiously peeking into esports, wondering how a bunch of adults playing video games can make money. Fortunately, ELeague, the Turner-produced esports television brand, is stepping in to serve both of these audiences with Road To The International Dota 2 Championships. The four-part documentary, airing on TBS each Friday of August, is a look into two teams’ battles and boot camps before the aforementioned championships.

Focusing on European squad OG, with their boot camp in Toronto, and America’s CompLexity in Florida, the documentary focuses on the teams’ training, bonding and journey before The International. It’s an interesting look into their homes and lives, to say the very least, but most importantly, it does so in a way that doesn’t scare away curious channel-flipping onlookers nor veterans.

Esports has always been in a bit of a conundrum about how to present itself on mainstream media, but ELeague has been one of the more successful productions to dip its toes in the water. After its success with Counter-Strike: Global Offensive and Street Fight V, it’s finally dived into one of the more dramatic scenes, Dota 2, with this documentary.

Road To’s pilot more closely follows CoL in their Florida boot camp leading up to The International 7’s North American qualifiers, which took place back in June. While it briefly introduces OG, its team house and its players to prepare viewers for future episodes, CoL’s dynamics and antics are the standouts in this episode.

The episode is sprinkled with MTV-esque personal quotes, close-ups, backstories and even—wait for it—sponsored segments. But don’t let it turn you off from checking it out: a lot of what hardcore gamers will find cheesy and “extra” is what makes it so entertaining.

A documentary that aims to strike the middle such as Road To or Valve’s Free To Play, instead of the dedicated Dota 2 audience like Valve’s True Sight attempts, has a lot of inherent perks. When we watch True Sight, we’re often entering with some of the assumptions that come with being a follower of the players. In those situations, we want to learn the unseen movements of players under the cloak—we know who they are, we just want a better idea of where they are and how they’re moving forward. Hence, True Sight.

Road To assumes none of that knowledge going in, and this fact gives a refreshing vibe relative to endemic esports content. We get a lively, if cliche, take on esports and the players that both fans and TBS’s traditional viewers can stomach. More importantly, it avoids applying gamer tropes—quiet bromances, awkward silences, dozens of inexplicable layers of memes—that are more comfortable to Twitch fanboys than their parents browsing cable boxes at their attempted bedtime.

What Road To fortunately has in common with other Dota 2 documentaries is that it focuses on telling the stories of the players and teams, and not the game Dota 2 itself. The gritty details and mechanics of players’ gaming abilities aren’t the plot, because Road To knows esports are mostly about the players. The docuseries takes time to highlight the quirks that make each of these players so endearing or interesting, which long-time Dota 2 fans will appreciate. It also knows that even (and especially) newer viewers are likely more concerned about these e-athletes’ climb to the top. Each player is humanized beyond their status as a gamer, and they take us along for their ride.

With that in mind, Road To’s pilot specifically capitalizes on the concept of dream-chasing, hard work and the interpersonal tensions that these goals bring. And, those tensions are certainly going to rise, as the end of the pilot leaves viewers waiting to see how things shake out for CoL in the NA Main Qualifiers—and anyone following The International real-time knows how it goes.

If any esport is going to have a reality show with fundamentals of mainstream reality entertainment—the achievements, the disagreements, the stranger-than-fiction vibe and, most of all, the genuine passion—it’s Dota 2. In a game in which every event means life and death for a roster, tensions rise and fall, and players’ ambitions shine in both beautiful and ugly ways. ELeague has thankfully captured this in an efficient and accessible way.

The high-risk/high-reward life of esports has never been so easily and frankly presented. It’s not a Sundance winner by any means; it’s genuine but especially cheesy, and the sponsored segments are strange but not impossible to stomach. Still, if you want to support esports’s ascent into mainstream television, a bridge for traditional viewers into new-age entertainment, it’s worth the half hour of time tonight.

ELEAGUE: Road To The International Dota 2 Championships airs Fridays at 10PM ET in August: the 4th, 11th, 18th and 25th on TBS.