Video Games

Rise of the Players finds heroes in the GameStop stock story

The new GameStop documentary Rise of the Players is a coda movie. You know the type — the kind of story that’s largely an oral history, with a feel-good climax that comes in a few lines of text, over a montage of smiles and laughter, right at the end of the film. It becomes clear that Rise of the Players is going in that direction about halfway through, after it has introduced nine ordinary people who aren’t just the good guys of this story, they’re the best kinds of subjects a documentarian could want.

These nine are the “OG Diamond Hands” who first invested in the beleaguered game retailer one year ago, then rode those holdings through a white-knuckle market anomaly that shot the share price damn near to Neptune. The obvious viewer question is “How did these folks make out once the GameStop story stopped being national news?”

The eventual coda that answers that question is well worth the 90 minutes director Jonah Tulis spends introducing and explaining Rise of the Players’ round-hearted stars. Among them is Justin Dopierala, a dairyland money manager who makes millionaires out of nurses and welders. Rigoberto Alcaraz, whose parents immigrated from Mexico to Batavia, Illinois, comes through with a Horatio Alger story for the ages. And Jenn Kruza’s indestructible smile is validated after she holds onto her GameStop shares long enough to make a huge profit, even while she’s navigating chemotherapy treatment with no health insurance.

The “heroes” of GameStop: Rise of the Players imagined in video game cutscenes, clockwise from top left: Rod Alzmann, Justin Dopierala, Dmitry Kozin, and Farris Husseini.
Photo: Super LTD

The documentary’s final lines unabashedly call these nine investors “heroes,” which is a bold label for a group whose struggle consists of making a whole lot of money. But the title fits. One year after the GameStop short squeeze, which involved Reddit bros, dank memes, hedge-fund billionaires, and congressional hearings, Tulis and producer Blake J. Harris (who made Console Wars for Paramount Plus in 2020) have finally reshaped the story in a way that gives us folks worth cheering for.

GameStop: Rise of the Players is like one of those sports movies that’s great because it isn’t about sports. In this case, Tulis and Harris aren’t out to tell the definitive story of how GameStop’s share price went from $3.25 in August 2020 to $325 the following January. They’re smart enough to not bog the audience down in the concepts of short-selling, and they don’t build their narration on horse-race coverage of the stock itself. Nor does the film dwell on criticisms of capitalism, manipulated markets, or any of the grudging conspiracy theories that bubbled up when online brokerages curbed trading.

The buildup is simple: Professional investors had a terrible opinion of GameStop, battering its stock price with confirmation bias more than analysis. The discussion of how GameStop was seen by the investment community feels much like the scene from Moneyball where a room full of baseball scouts can’t articulate why a certain player is any good, beyond “He looks like a good player.” GameStop was seen as a dinosaur awaiting a meteor strike, because someone slapped the brick-and-mortar business with the “Blockbuster 2.0” label, and it got repeated until it was taken as empirical fact.

The movie instead reveals that the smart money in all of this didn’t come from folks like Gabe Plotkin, the short seller whose hedge fund lost billions of dollars betting against GameStop and other stocks. Rod Alzmann made the smarter bet. The trucking-company strategist headed up the crowdsourced due-diligence effort that keeps the movie’s heroes at the casino table when the big scores start coming in. As GameStop starts its ascent, drawing eye-rolling dismissals from analysts and pundits, Alzmann and twentysomething maverick Joe Fonicello draft a report pegging GameStop’s true share price at $169. They find validation not in the money they make, but a year after the craze subsides, when a big-time analyst rates GameStop at $175.

Alzmann notes that he was among the first to post about GameStop in the notorious WallStreetBets subreddit, where the “diamond hands” mentality first took hold. Except Alzmann eventually had those posts removed, and was even banned from the subreddit for his advocacy. It’s an important distinction showing that Alzmann and his cohort — including software engineer Dmitriy Kozin and data visualization expert Farris Husseini — had the courage of their convictions well before Reddit’s bros started putting the screws to the hedge funds by refusing to sell their GameStop shares.

The back of a man’s head as he watches two computer monitors with stock prices in GameStop: Rise of the Players

Photo: Super LTD

A smaller emotional climax comes during the infamous Zoom hearing held by the House Financial Services committee on Feb. 17, 2021. Yes, it’s hilarious to see Keith Gill, the outrageous streaming personality known as Roaring Kitty (or DeepFuckingValue) sitting in his Game of Thrones gaming chair, or telling the august panel, “I am not a cat.” But it’s also a strikingly moral moment. While Plotkin, hedge fund titan Kenneth Griffin, and worst of all, Vladimir Tenev, the CEO of trading app Robinhood, dissemble in prepared statements and refuse to answer yes-or-no questions, Gill gives Rep. Maxine Waters direct answers. He plainly states a buy recommendation on GameStop, which sends the share price back up that day.

It would have been easy for GameStop: Rise of the Players to end up celebrating crypto-anarchists or tech-bro libertarians, or mouthy alpha types who shout on CNBC for a living. It avoids that trap. Tulis and Harris have done the legwork to find out who really was buying GameStop before buying GameStop was cool, and more importantly, investigating why they did it. Griffin, Tenev, and Plotkin did not participate (and Gill, sued by a GameStop investor back in February, has gone dark for other reasons), but their absence means Tulis can focus the attention on more worthwhile folks than the zillionaires who make their money poor-mouthing companies into bankruptcy.

It’s a little grandiose to call GameStop: Rise of the Players a feel-good hit. There isn’t much conflict, except for the personal challenges presented by a cancer diagnosis, unemployment, or student loan debt. It’s mainly a story of good luck, but at least it happens to deserving people. Any insta-doc could have found folks who profited from the short squeeze, and shown the material goods or comfortable lifestyle their profiteering bought. Rise of the Players instead puts viewers in the investors’ seat at the poker table, making real their tension, self-doubt, and anxiety over holding onto a stock the experienced players say is worthless.

Sure, the happy ending has a dollar figure attached, and it’s a nice one. But the real victory is the validation these nine found, not because they were proven right, but because they were willing to be wrong with all of their money. You can’t say the same about the big guys who lost billions of someone else’s.

GameStop: Rise of the Players debuts in North American theaters on Jan. 28.

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