I'm one of those people who spends their Friday nights scouring Netflix and Hulu with my wife for the most bizarre and interesting documentaries available. You know the ones I'm talking about -- where you sit there with your jaw hanging open, wondering, "How on Earth is this reality?"
From the vampire who ran for governor of Minnesota in Impaler to the time a Christian dating site led to murder and exposed utterly insane abuse and fraud in Mommy Dead and Dearest to the European man who convinced a family he was a missing 13-year-old boy in The Imposter to the jaw-dropping insanity of the Steven Fishman depositions, there's a whole lot of stranger-than-fiction docs out there ready and waiting to be viewed.
For gamers, the pickings tend to be more slim, however. The documentaries available are usually either low-budget or cover subjects that will only appeal to a small subset of players.
A few films solidly break out of that trend and are well worth watching, absolutely guaranteed to make you laugh, cry, or scratch your head and question just what in the heck is wrong with our species. In particular, these video game documentaries are all worth your time:
- The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters
- The Smash Brothers
- Thank You for Playing
- Free to Play
- Indie Game: The Movie
- GTFO: The Movie
- Second Skin
- I Am Street Fighter
Because movies rotate in and out of services like Netflix so often, in the upcoming slides we list where you can rent these movies, or in some cases, watch them for free on YouTube.
The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters
- Rent it at: Amazon
You wouldn't think a film about people playing Donkey Kong would be all that entertaining, but The King of Kong is the sort of flick you just can't take your eyes off of for even a second.
The characters and story line feel like they were made for a summer blockbuster dramedy and couldn't possibly be real, as rivalry unfolds on an unbelievable level for nerds playing retro arcade games.
Billy Mitchell is the ultimate oddball documentary character who just attracts news stories, from his hot sauce empire to standoffish interviews in recent years where he insists he hasn't seen the film ... but can quote things that were said in it.
The King of Kong is in desperate need of a sequel due to developments since its release. Twin Galaxies, the arcade that plays such a prominent role in the film, originally released a statement condemning some of how Billy Mitchell was portrayed, citing selective editing and a bias towards the underdog for the sake of movie drama.
Recently, however, Twin Galaxies actually stripped Mitchell of his title and banned him from competition after an investigation revealed he hadn't played an original arcade cabinet but allegedly used emulation software, issuing this statement:
"With this ruling, Twin Galaxies can no longer recognize Billy Mitchell as the first million point ‘Donkey Kong’ record holder. According to our findings, Steve Wiebe would be the official 1st million point record holder.”
The Smash Brothers
- Watch the full series at: YouTube
While Starcraft II, the various MOBA titles out there, and CS:GO might dominate in the world of eSports, there's something to be said for how much Super Smash Bros. Melee brought competitive gaming to the forefront of the industry.
Weirdly enough, it was meant to be a fun party game, but somehow it got people to take competition to a whole new level, both in small-time local events as well as huge national tournaments with money on the line.
For a really interesting look at the history of the game -- and the levels people will go to in order to be the best -- check out this multi-part series that's available for free on YouTube.
Thank You for Playing
- Rent it at: Amazon
If you didn't make it to the end of Dear Zachary without bawling, then you should absolutely get your box of tissues out before hitting play here.
Thank You for Playing chronicles the creation of non-traditional game That Dragon, Cancer, a title based around the programmer dealing with his son's terminal cancer diagnosis -- that was coincidentally released the same week that cancer also took David Bowie and Alan Rickman.
It's a beautiful documentary, but don't expect to have dry eyes at the end!
Free to Play
- Watch the full movie at: YouTube
If you dig big-budget, high production value-documentaries, then Free to Play is easily the take on eSports you want to watch first. The notion of getting paid to game started as a joke, but now it's an industry that rivals football or basketball in terms of both money and rabid fanbases.
None other than Valve put together this full-length movie following several Dota 2 players (and their families, who aren't always super excited about the situation) as they deal with the obsession of making it to the top and winning those huge tournaments to not just prove themselves, but to make a living.
- Rent it at: Amazon (free to watch with Prime)
While this isn't always true, and there is definite overlap, in the overall hierarchy of the gaming community, the console and PC crowd tend to think of the tabletop gamers as nerds, while the tabletop gamers respond with, "Well, at least we aren't LARPers!"
Live-action roleplaying takes the D&D concept to an entirely different place as players literally take on the role of their characters, stitching together outfits, crafting weapons, and coming up with intricate rules for adventuring out in the woods.
Darkon takes a close look at the groups who take part in LARPing, and specifically at the relationships and social statuses that develop in an insular community that banded together because they don't tend to fit in elsewhere.
As with any group, though, factions break out, leaders rise, and schisms occur. Darkon bizarrely becomes a study in national politics on a micro scale with a bunch of fantasy gamers.
Indie Game: The Movie
- Rent it at: Amazon (free to watch with Prime, and sometimes found on Netflix as well)
The film is endlessly entertaining both for gamers and non-gamers alike, showcasing the level of work and dedication required to get a game to launch.
Indie Game: The Movie also accidentally showcases the mentality of many gamers and programmers, holding a mirror up to the community with telling lines like:
"I desperately want to communicate with people, but I don't want the messy interaction of making friends and talking to people, because I probably won't like them."
Word bro, I know exactly what you mean!
GTFO: The Movie
- Rent it at: Amazon
Acknowledged or not, gaming of all stripes -- from tabletop D&D to the casual mobile crowd to competitive PC gaming -- continues to have a misogyny problem.
GTFO documents harassment female gamers and streamers have received, and while it may be a tough watch, it's a necessary one for our community to become more inclusive.
The fact that comments had to be disabled on the trailer for this particular film should should tell you how much further we still need to go in eradicating this ongoing issue.
Although quite dated at this point, Second Skin was one of the first truly interesting films to look at how real-world relationships develop, and in some cases take major hits, from playing fictional online games.
Focused around World of Warcraft, which was one of the only games next to Grand Theft Auto that the average non-gamer could name due to its media attention, Second Skin is by turns engrossing and sad while seeing people find love and even commit suicide after spending way too much time playing MMORPGs.
I Am Street Fighter
- Watch the full series at: YouTube
If you grew up on the SNES or love the classic arcade fighting series Street Fighter, this is simply a must-watch video documentary series. While opinion is quite divided on the latest entries in the series, early entries like Street Fighter II remain a global phenomenon that are instantly recognizable.
Featuring interviews with developers who have worked on the games, this web series looks at uber fans who have followed the franchise for decades, showing what a huge impact Ken, Ryu, and the rest of the crew have had over the last 30 years.
From the titanic battle between Steve Weibe and Billy Mitchell to games as therapy following a traumatic event, these are the nine best gaming documentaries we've seen so far!
What other interesting or wildly entertaining video game documentaries deserve a spot on this list? Let us know your favorite picks in the comments below.