Players is an act of love.
The new Paramount+ series from Dan Perrault and Tony Yacenda, creators of the Netflix hit American Vandal, is a reality-meets-fantasy esports story built in the mold of Hulu’s multi-hour Michael Jordan docuseries, The Last Dance. Functionally, Players is a mockumentary. But there’s nothing mocking about its portrayal of gaming culture and the professional players who build a career in that space.
The story follows a League of Legends esports team called Fugitive Gaming. The five kid pros — emphasis on the youthfulness, as these teens and twentysomethings get up to all kinds of juvenile antics — are led by Creamcheese (Misha Brooks), an infamously arrogant and loudmouthed pro who has never actually managed to deliver on his biggest boasts about winning a championship. The team’s world is thrown into disarray when the business guy owner of Fugitive forces a roster change to accommodate the arrival of Organizm (Da’Jour Jones), a young and raw phenom.
The ultimate result is a wholesome and frequently moving account of one esports team’s struggles to band together as a group in the midst of roster meddling and a yawning personality rift between its top two players. The show only works because its focus on Fugitive sticks to the very basic but fundamentally important mission of delivering an authentic portrayal of games, gaming, and gamers. Rather than simply trot out tired stereotypes, Players interrogates them directly and bakes in layers of humanity.
Gaming with care
Credit: Trae Patton / Paramount+
“Our show would fail if you felt as an audience that esports was a joke, [because] then you feel the stakes don’t matter. And if you feel the stakes don’t matter, our engine is broken, and there is no way you’re getting past episode 2,” Yacenda told Mashable during a recent interview with Players‘ two creators.
“We felt that, at its core, this show would always be a love letter, no matter how many [Taco Bell] Cantina or Axe Body Spray jokes we make.”
Yacenda’s nod to brands in that comment is a direct reference to a pair of running gags from the show that riff on gamer stereotypes. But Players‘ heartfelt and people-centered portrayal of Fugitive Gaming’s pros effectively defangs the humor’s more biting edge by mapping out exactly why those brands matter to Creamcheese in starkly personal terms.
“When people ask [if] it was tempting to punch down, the answer is no. I think that there’s not much more you have to do to make the [gaming and esports] world seem a little bizarre to outsiders,” Perrault explained.
Both creators acknowledge the surface-level absurdity of giving serious consideration to a world where characters with silly names like Creamcheese are key figures and seemingly nonsensical terms like “wombo combo” have actual meaning. But crucially, cutting past the silliness to expose its understandable and even relatable foundation is fundamental to why they found this subject matter so appealing.
“I think that there’s not much more you have to do to make the gaming and esports world seem a little bizarre to outsiders.”
“The trick we hope to pull is that these terms kind of wash over you and are no longer absurd by the time you are unironically pulling for this team mid-season,” Perrault said, adding that it’s not just the words people say that matter.
“Punching down…can also take place in the form of performance,” he said. “You could easily cast a version of this show or direct a version of this show where the characters are just loud and ridiculous, without any sort of raw emotion and humanity to them.”
Filling out the main cast with performers who radiated “authenticity, honesty, [and] the ability to be raw” was a big focus. Things like gaming cred and League know-how were total non-factors. What mattered, Perrault explained, was finding “people that felt real.”
He pointed immediately to the example of Jones’ “impressive” audition for the show, which played out on Zoom because of the pandemic. “I think he was in Delaware when we did that,” Perrault explained. Jones was paired with Brooks, who had already been cast as Creamcheese and whose relationship with Jones’ character is the show’s emotional heart, to run through a scene together.
“So he’s doing the scene over Zoom with Creamcheese. And it gets emotional, and it gets intense. He had us,” Perrault said. “Even though it was just this little box in the corner of the screen! The fact that he was able to move us and make us lean in during a Zoom callback [told us] he was a special talent.”
Treating esports like sports
Credit: Erin Simkin / Paramount+
Making Players work as an emotionally plugged-in sports story was the North Star that guided the show’s two creators. They understand the genre as fans, and they know it’s not the act of play that makes those stories sing, it’s the people doing the playing.
“Tony and I, to varying degrees, grew up with gaming, but…the bigger passion here is our love of sports and our desire to tell what is ultimately a fairly traditional sports story,” Perrault said. The show is never really about the video game being played. It’s about the people who play it and the relationships they build together as a team.
“It’s really like a love story, but between [two esports teammates], and that’s regardless of your background as it pertains to gaming,” Yacenda said. “Rooting for two teammates to learn to trust each other is a universal story. You don’t need to be into gaming to really latch on to [that].”
Players didn’t even start as an esports-specific idea. The show’s creators knew they wanted to do something like The Last Dance, but with “a non-traditional sport” as its focus. The two landed on esports mainly because, as they engaged with it, they spotted similarities between the world of pro gaming and the sports world they already knew.
“The broadcasts have a sort of ESPN-like vibe to them, the structure of the game itself as a five-versus-five with each player playing a very different role — there was stuff that I thought a traditional sports fan could latch onto,” Perrault said. There’s a reason the Players blurb on Paramount+ references The Last Dance by name: It was one of several key sources of inspiration for their own show’s structure, including its frequent trips into the past.
“Rooting for two teammates to learn to trust each other is a universal story. You don’t need to be into gaming to really latch onto that.”
All throughout Players‘ first season, intriguing little nuggets of information get dropped for viewers to puzzle over. When we first learn that Creamcheese used to go by the gamer handle “Nutmilk,” the lack of supporting context coupled with the stereotype of gamers engaging in juvenile behavior makes his choice seem like a crass joke about semen.
The eventual revelation about where the name comes from shows up a few episodes later, and the truth effectively torpedoes our assumptions. The “Nutmilk” reveal, like other big moments on the show, takes us to new depths of understanding about the character. This approach, Perrault said, was heavily influenced by Hulu’s episodic Michael Jordan documentary.
“There’s something rewarding about the…non-linear structure of going back and forth, and learning things in the past in a way that informs the present timeline, and vice versa,” he said. Perrault is quick to hand the credit to his creative partner for being so “bullish” about embracing that kind of approach.
“I think part of the fun is that it feels…more like a real world, where everything is super interconnected and has a causal relationship to each other,” Yacenda said.
“When you’re tackling a really big subject [for a documentary], it’s often not as engaging to tell it in a super linear manner. The job of a documentarian is [figuring out] how we ration information to the audience in the most compelling way possible. For us, for [Players] to feel like a premium documentary, it should feel like the storytelling sleight-of-hand is not coming from the writer’s room.”
Players invests, so you invest
Credit: Erin Simkin / Paramount+
In the end, Players works as well as it does because it treats its subject matter with love. The show invests just as much energy and focus in the emotional journeys of key characters as it does in the inherent comedy of kids who made too much money at too young an age, and far more than it does in the in-the-weeds specifics of League itself.
That human element really matters. It’s not just why I came away a fan of the show; it’s also why I’ve found myself glancing at League esports news and streams in the weeks since I finished watching. I’ve never followed esports, never really played League of Legends. But by investing you in the individual journeys of each of its stars, Players organically nurtures an interest in the culture surrounding these stories. That’s how it went for the two creators, as well.
“One of the things we’re very proud of is when and how often we ask the audience to really invest in the game. Like there will be a gameplay moment in episode 1 and a moment in episode 2 where you see how they’re reacting and you’re starting to build a vocabulary,” Yacenda said. It’s a slow burn, but by the time you reach the most League-centric climax moments in the back half of the season, you’re armed with the info you need to engage with the tension and release of the story’s big esports moments.
It’s the same kind of vibe that makes a movie like Rudy so watchable, even for non-football fans. “It’s like any other sport,” Yacenda said, adding, “except it’s with these mystical champions on Summoner’s Rift.”