Like their previous show, American Vandal, Tony Yacenda and Dan Perrault’s new mockumentary Players casts a satirical eye on the documentary industry. Instead of applying true crime techniques and tropes to fictionalized high school vandalism, though, Players turns toward esports to mock the style of The Last Dance, the ESPN-produced docuseries about Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls basketball team. Players was also produced in conjunction with Riot Games, the deeply troubled developer and publisher of the world’s most popular PC esport, League of Legends. In turn, Players has the dual objectives of promoting League of Legends while satirizing the sports docuseries style. Because of its form, it feels a lot more like a real documentary than the Office successors of the world, like the brilliant Abbott Elementary. That also means it has the selective aim of a real docuseries, leaving some interesting subject matter hanging in the background, with unresolved storylines and under-explored characters and relationships.
Players follows fictional esports organization Fugitive Gaming through a full season of the North American League Championship Series, focusing each episode on a certain character and event while hopping back in time to show their path to that point of the season, the same sort of incongruent chronology utilized by The Last Dance. The series focuses on the relationships between Creamcheese (Misha Brooks)—a renowned League player with a reputation among other players and fans as “annoying” who never won a North American championship—and his current and former teammates, especially Organizm (Da’Jour Jones), an up-and-coming star from Philadelphia.
Players succeeds at humor that is both smart and crass, but also skirts some issues that would have been interesting to explore. For instance, Organizm’s family not understanding esports until his success makes a lot of sense. The interactions with his family feel like an authentic depiction of a kid from Philly becoming an esports star, though a real sports documentary would likely fixate on his Blackness, for genuine or cynical reasons, as he enters into a sport and roster of non-Black players. It might be unfair to say Players fails at addressing race when it allows that to feel like the background rather than the fore. However, considering the real-life harassment that some streamers face just for being minorities, it could have been naturally addressed. But that’s the sort of thing Riot would probably want to avoid shining a light on. Here, toxicity in online gaming boils down to the abrasive, obsessive, and conceited.
Players isn’t afraid to give most characters the rough edges of real humans rather than making them perfect representations of idealized protagonists. Offering these characters not as caricatures or archetypes, but as flawed individuals without editorial commentary, is how and where the mockumentary comes across as most accurately satirizing and channeling The Last Dance. The athletes are given enough rope to hang themselves. And, unlike in that show, there’s no dead general manager to uncritically blame for breaking apart a team he built. Rather, we have the antagonisms of one central, infamously annoying star player interacting with the young hot shot he’s afraid to lose his shine to, as well as his historic antagonisms with former teammates that figure largely in the fictionalized esports and League of Legends online communities.
The only people that never do anything that feels curt or underhanded are player-turned-coach Kyle Baxton (Ely Henry), his wife and business partner April (Holly Chou), and Organizm’s supportive friend, a streamer named Emma (Alexa Mansour) that we don’t get to know quite as well as some of the other characters, and who could have used some fleshing-out. Luke Tennie plays Organizm’s brother Rudy, a former college athlete and Organizm’s manager; he’s one of the most endearing characters on the show, and in some ways is the audience-insert character for those unfamiliar with esports.
To the show’s benefit, it contrasts the playing and training habits of esports professionals in the North American circuit with those of China and Korea. It’s illuminating to see those cultural differences play out on screen, as is the general focus on talking about how different players find paths into the sport. Esports aren’t entirely glamorous, and contrasting players and teams trying to find their financial big break or chase gaming greatness with investors more interested in sponsor profits than the sport is fascinating from the perspective of Riot’s marketing. Does their sponsorship of this project position them as stewards of an important sport with other people interloping to corrupt it? Even when they own the game and the leagues that these other corporations come into?
There are individual characters (like actor Stephen Schneider’s portrayal as the team president) representing the moneyed interests that don’t care about the sport but are willing to profit from the labor of game enthusiasts. It might seem strange to call it work, but if you’re dedicating your life to playing a videogame so that other people can make millions of dollars, you’re laboring. This is far beyond a pastime—it’s an obsession and a way of life.
The Last Dance explored how obsessive and single-minded Michael Jordan was about competition. Players understands that it wasn’t simply Jordan’s pursuit of excellence that made that series so fascinating, but how that unnatural drive and determination impacted Jordan’s relationships with others. You see that in how Creamcheese and Organizm deal with their teammates, family members, and each other—hilariously, but still grounded in recognizable truth. Don’t let the intentionally complicated jargon and off-putting complexity of esports put you off from the early episodes of Players; like American Vandal, it’s as interested in its characters as the world it creates or the formal aspects of its satire.
Could it have gone harder on its subject if it wasn’t co-produced by Riot? Almost definitely. Still, Players mostly succeeds, even if, like so many projects, it’s constrained by the economic circumstances of its existence. It also got me thinking about buying a jersey for Edward Gaming, the underdogs who won the League of Legends World Championship in November, so if one of the goals is to move some merch, Players pulls it off.
Kevin Fox, Jr. is a freelance writer, editor, and critic. He is a former Paste intern with an MA in history, who loves videogames, film, TV, and sports, and dreams of liberation. He can be found on Twitter @kevinfoxjr.