Players might be the most surprising series of the year. Armed with only a vague knowledge that esports exist and having never played League of Legends, I started watching the Paramount+ series (which comes from American Vandal’s Dan Perrault and Tony Yacenda) after reading Shane Ryan’s effusive review. What I expected was a tongue-in-cheek mockumentary. What I got was a truly captivating and heartfelt sports story.
The show’s 10-episode season initially concluded where we expected it would, with Team Fugitive completing their run for the national championship after an early setback threatened to derail them. And that’s all I really asked of it, to finish out this story of Creamcheese learning to be support, not the hero, and for Organizm to embrace working with a team instead of seeking solo glory. Some of that came to pass, but what happened after was completely unexpected.
One of the things that surprised me from the start about Players was how genuinely earnest it was. Perrault and Yacenda weren’t making fun of this fandom or the extreme players who devote their lives to gaming. It was a loving exploration of a massively successful franchise that has spawned world events and legions of devotees. Even though I knew there was another level to the show that I wasn’t able to understand having never played League, Players was always accessible (and funny) in the way it drew these familiar sports doc personalities together and put them in a less familiar setting (for most of us): esports. It took me seven episodes to realize that “bot lane” meant “bottom lane,” and I still have absolutely no idea what a wombo combo is. But after the finale, I think Yuumi might also be one of my favorite cat stories.
The heart embedded in Players is what really made it stand apart and be so incredibly compelling. So much TV in this era of endless content just washes over you. But here I was reacting physically to the episodes. Nervous over the way Fugitive was playing. Reviled by Guru and NeverLost. Excited when Creamcheese and Organizm found their groove. Near tears when Creamcheese had his breakdown. Literally fist-pumping when he later made Foresite his bitch.
It would be easy to mine humor from these young, obnoxious personalities in gaming whose voices are augmented by even younger fans who mistakenly see them and their fame as a path to emulate. It’s much harder to find the pathos. But that’s what Players did. Nightfall, Bap, Braxton, Amy, and (the oft-forgot) Tyrant are all easy to like and root for. Creamcheese and Organizm are not. And yet, at each turn when either could have been painted as a villain or left to simply be a common douchebag, we saw something deeper, something true within them. It never absolved them or made excuses for how they acted, it just gave them wonderful, surprising dimension. And I wanted them to win.
I had predicted that, in the finale, it would be Organizm, finally embracing the team, who helped coax Cheese back on stage. It wasn’t, it was Braxton—which was also fitting. But the triumph of Fugitive’s LCS win and Creamcheese’s acceptance of his support role was short-lived. Not because they got routed at Worlds (which, I’ve learned, is not surprising), but because Organizm didn’t change. It would have been a cuddly ending to be sure, something expected of a sports doc that ends with the win after charting the struggle, showing how these disparate personalities came together to overcome their personal issues to succeed as a team.
It did that, but then there was a devastating coda that showed the cost.
In the end, Creamcheese and Organizm are two sides of the same coin. Both are obsessed with winning, and both only define themselves through that lens. They just go about it differently—Organizm is the ultimate solo player, Cheese is the ultimate team player. But solo players can only go so far, which is why Org joined Fugitive in the first place. Creamcheese learned over the course of the season to make room for Organizm in the team he created and led, which was hard-fought. But Org didn’t learn the lesson that he also needed to make room for his teammates, leaving them for (ugh) NeverLost. And in those final interviews, a difficult truth was laid bare for both young men. Cheese now sees himself as Yuumi the Magical Cat, forever searching for Org, his Norra (his hatred for Org turning to love/obsession is a truly satisfying trope, however unrequited at the moment); Organizm, meanwhile, is staying focused on being the best, with only the faintest shadow of regret passing over his face that he no longer had the camaraderie of a team behind him.
Who knows, with the arcane metrics of streaming series, whether or not we’ll see more of Players. I surely hope that we do. The documentary format might not work quite as well with a narrower window to follow in the present time, with Org grinding the solo queue and Cheese looking in vain for an ADC who has the skills of Organizm and the friendliness of Frugger (bless him). But 10 episodes didn’t feel like enough time spent in this world, especially after that hasty and emotional finale.
Or maybe after the laughs and the highs and the trips to Taco Bell Cantina, what Players wanted to leave us with is the bleak truth that, even for organizations built around teams and collaborative play—in traditional athletics or esports—when it comes to competing at the highest level and wanting to be the best, you have to sacrifice everything. And you are ultimately on your own.
That’s okay though, I still think you’re a good show.
Allison Keene is the TV Editor of Paste Magazine. For more television talk, pop culture chat and general japery, you can follow her @keeneTV
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