How About a Lil Poison?
Talking with Beth Earl, director of "Lil Poison," a new documentary about the world's youngest pro video gamer.
The first thing I need to know is, what do you call your film’s subject? Poison, Lil Poison? Little Vic?
I call him Little Victor. We used to call him Baby Victor, but now he’s 12 and it seems more appropriate to say Little Victor.
Okay, burning question answered. So, what gave you the idea of the film?
Close to four years ago, I first read about Victor in Wired magazine. I saw the picture of him and it jumped out more than the text. It was sort of a dark bedroom, and with some SpongeBob stuff, and Victor sitting there with his headset. This little kid that plays… I wondered where he goes for all those hours every day.
Judging by the trailer, below, it seems like you’ve got two things going on: There’s a glimpse into world of competitive gaming, but also the story of one kid’s family life. What was the first thing you wanted to learn about Poison’s world?
The first thing I wanted to learn was about gaming, and getting insight into that world. I didn’t realize it existed. And I guess just from the photo and the article I though wow, there’s a young generation of gamers out there and this is the first generation you can look at that’s been playing this long.
When I met him and started to hear more stories through him and his dad, and other kids, it became much more of a world. And I realized there are MLG tournaments with thousands of players-a lot of them are teenage boys- who compete all across the country.
It makes sense that most are boys…
Although girls are the fastest growing demographic of gamers. That’s interesting, too.
How did you approach the project conceptually?
I thought it would be more a “Spellbound”-type film, where we’d sort of follow him to the top. Then as I started filming, probably four or five months into it, his parents got divorced and a lot of family drama evolved. So, throughout everything, there was a kind of back and forth. Is this a gaming story? Is this a family story? In the end, we realized the family story really trumped the gaming.
You’ve obviously spent a lot of time with Little Vic and his family. Do you have any idea where his aptitude for gaming might have come from?
I think it’s from his dad, but I think he must’ve been born with some super hand-eye coordination as well. Apparently, Andre Agassi’s dad dangled a tennis ball above his crib. So you have to think that maybe part of it is nature, part of it is nuture. His father definitely played video games before he was born. And I think saw the talent at a young age and maybe he could capture that.
At the beginning of the film, we have footage from Little Victor’s birth. Five hours after his son’s come into the world, his father turns to the camera and says, “I can’t wait until he’s old enough to play Nintendo.”
It’s funny because we don’t think of skills like those being passed on. You can look at, I don’t know, Patrick Ewing’s son and say yeah, he’s tall because his dad was seven feet tall. What Little Victor does is a new sort of competiton that’s not even a generation old, so it’s probably harder to think about the sort of processing and awareness necessary to play games at a pro level as being a genetic skill.
So what kind of preconceptions did you have about video games and people who play them before you started filming? And how did they change over the course of filming?
I thought a lot of them would be sort of stereotypically nerdy gamers. And it turns out there’s a lot of difference subcultures. There’s definitely a range. The kids that play Xbox at the MLG tournaments, I would liken them more to like the skater culture than I would, say, the computer gaming culture. They have girlfriends who get dressed up in outfits and would sit in their laps for five hours while they game, and kind of had loads of gold chains and bracelets. It was you know, a very different look than I was expecting.
Right, not necessarily the kid in their mom’s basement and…
It’s not the type of kids you would expect to be video gaming all day on the inside.
It’s not like they don’t think they’re not cool anymore.
No, I mean it’s like it’s their main after-school activity. So
Were you able to appreciate video games differently after working on the film?
I don’t really like video games. I don’t mind them. I just I don’t play them. My attraction was more this little kid, and this generation. But it was very funny. In college I had a boyfriend that gamed all the time and I always wanted him to stop gaming and playing “FIFA” and “GTA.” And now, during this film, I would call them up and say, have you guys played the beta version of “Halo 3″? And they would say you are so much cooler than you were in college. So yeah, I don’t think my perspective has changed on them other than the fact of how omnipresent they are in the world now, so.
There’s been some conversation about Victor’s age and being a professional gamer with regard to content. He competes on some M-rated games. Do you feel like that affected him in any way? I’m not invoking the whole game violence argument, but do you think he was able to kind of…
I don’t think video games breed violence. People said when films came out that they bred violence. It’s just the next step in evolution of what kids are into. I don’t think it has changed that much. They may look realistic, but look at movies; they hit a lot closer to home, as does the news.
I think that they are making kids more socially withdrawn, especially if they’re playing for five hours a day. I don’t think that has to do with the type of games, whether they’re rated Mature. But you’re not having interaction with people. I think they same thing could be said about Second Life and those type of virtual worlds, too.
You know, because some would argue that it’s a different kind of socialization, but I guess what you’re saying is that the in-person element is missing…
Well, I think if the whole world operated like a video game or like “Second Life,” maybe you would be extremely social. But when you then are faced with going into a crowd without a headset on to shake somebody’s hand, or talk to them, it’s a whole different skill set in a way.
Little Victor is a kid who was able to turn his passions into something that became profitable for his family. Do you think that he was more or less able to cope than an average kid whose parents are going through a divorce? Did you see a personality change as his parents were breaking up?
Yes. I think he withdrew a lot more during that time and has now kind of come back and is more himself. It’s important for any kid going through that to have an outlet but for him, because it was video games, he became more socially withdrawn, I think. But you wonder if he had people to talk to? On the surface, it took his mind off of things but perhaps there would’ve been other ways.
And there’s still pressure and obligations associated with games…
There’s one scene in the film you’ll see, but there’s a moment after a fight where he’s in the basement alone playing the Wii. When you see him playing games that he doesn’t compete in, that’s a world that’s all his own. And so when he plays the Wii, or if he’s playing…he had like a virtual pet for a year and I think all he did was press space bar and he would do it for like an hour. It reminded you he was a kid.
If you’re in the New York City area, you can still catch “Lil Poison” today at 6pm, when it screens as part of the New York International Latino Film Festival.Tags: Beth Earl, Halo, Lil Poison, Massive Productions, MLG