The act of being a critic often entails tempering your expectations, because there are a lot, and I mean a lot, of premises that sound absurdly good on the surface. Quickly, though, you learn that even the best concept, with the best actors, can be bungled beyond belief in the wrong hands, and so you adopt a loose kind of skepticism to safeguard against repeat disappointments.
Not with Players.
I’m sorry, but if your premise is “the guys from American Vandal make a mockumentary about a dysfunctional Esports team in a sort of comedic hybrid of Drive to Survive or The Last Dance,” there is only one possible response for someone like me, and that response is, “into my veins now, please.”
All of which is to say that at least for me, the usual defense mechanisms were down, the expectations were high, and absolutely nothing could convince me that this could be anything but spectacular.
Verdict: It’s spectacular. Of *$%&ing course it is. Sitting here, knowing that in the next few paragraphs I’m going to have to describe this show, my instinct is to just say, “you knew this was going to be stupidly good, and if you needed some dude writing on the internet to confirm it, well, here I am. Ten stars. A hundred stars. A galaxy full of stars. Go watch it, goodbye.”
I have no idea why Players is on Paramount+ instead of Netflix, the home for two seasons of American Vandal, but if it’s because Netflix simply got outbid and not because the creators Dan Perrault and Tony Yacenda were looking for a new home, they screwed up mightily. Insofar as people can actually watch this thing (I imagine to get Paramount+, you have to have a private screening account or literally scale a Himalaya), it’s going to be a hit, and Paramount+ have done the right thing, because this show alone is worth the five dollar monthly fee.
The action follows Team Fugitive, a League of Legends team competing for a title in the League Championship Series, the top level of domestic Esports (read: gaming) competition in the U.S. They’re led by Creamcheese, formerly “Nut Milk,” a star of the sport with a grating personality who helped build Team Fugitive up from the ground years ago, and who once guaranteed seven championships, but who has fallen short of the ultimate prize year after year. Creamcheese is played by Misha Brooks, and it’s impossible to overstate the magnitude of his performance. The one way this show could have blown it is by putting a heavy burden on the shoulders of one character and picking an actor who wasn’t up to the job, but while they did write a “too big to fail” character in Creamcheese, they picked the perfect actor. Brooks’ take on Creamcheese is indeed annoying, cocky, and clearly insecure, but it’s also a performance with a ton of pride and heart. It would have been easy to lean too heavily on the comedic side of a gamer who named himself after a dairy product, but Brooks manages to wring real sympathy from the viewer, and add a critical dimension of drama to the hilarity.
That’s the big takeaway from the entire show, actually. It’s funny as hell, which is no surprise, but somehow that all feels less important than the gripping narrative of the team. Creamcheese is the “old” pro, considered practically washed up at 27 and with perhaps one more shot at a title, but the team’s owner, Nathan Resnick (who in this version of reality also owns the Sacramento Kings, creating plenty of space for some drive-by one-liners against that franchise) is more concerned with ad dollars, and his big plan for the season is to bring on a teenage streamer named Organizm. Played by Da’Jour Jones, Organizm is the opposite of Creamcheese, at least on the surface. Black to his white, and quiet to his audacious, they clash immediately, particularly when Resnick insists on Organizm making the starting team immediately. The one thing the two players have in common is ego—Organizm, when asked to apologize to his teammates for going rogue in an early match, tells Creamcheese he’ll always be remembered for training the greatest of all time—and this makes the situation even more combustible. It’s a particularly tough situation for Kyle Braxton, the other founder of Team Fugitive who now serves as its coach. Played by Ely Henry, Braxton is the beating heart of the show, and a quietly critical component of its success for how he offsets the arrogance of the leads.
You get the picture; it’s a pretty classic sports formula, the veteran at the tail end of his career and the brash rookie he hates, and it works to perfection here. You could go character by character singing their praises, and I’ll single out Moses Storm, a perfect and side-splitting encapsulation of every garish Twitch streamer you’ve ever seen. The broader point, though, is that if you liked American Vandal (is there anyone who didn’t?) you can rest assured that Perrault and Yacenda bring the same talent for parodying a sports doc as they did for the true crime genre. From the cinema verite of the post-game meltdowns to the sit-down interviews with tertiary characters peppered with cliche phrases like “you have to remember that at the time…” and “here’s the thing…” they nail the familiar beats.
In the final evaluation, the story is every bit as good as the comedy, and the comedy is predictably great. I binged the first five episodes of the ten-episode season in one night, staying up until almost 3 a.m. to do so, and the only reason I stopped is because Episode 6 wasn’t yet available for some reason. This show is so good that I immediately emailed the marketing people to get the missing episode, even though this review was already written. (They are good people; they sent it over almost immediately without questioning my motives.) As I said before, “into my veins now, please.” Once you start, you’ll also be possessed by the insatiable desire for more, so stop reading what you already knew and go get it.
Players premieres Thursday, June 16th on Paramount+.
Shane Ryan is a writer and editor. You can find more of his writing and podcasting at Apocalypse Sports, and follow him on Twitter here .
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