American Vandal's creators return with a deadpan video game mockumentary that turns into a ridiculously compelling rise-and-fall-and-rise sports saga.
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There are comedies that aren't funny, dramas that aren't dramatic, ensembles with no good characters, and big-budget shows limping through long seasons with barely enough story to fill an hour. And then there's Players, a hysterical and moving character study that's also a snapshot of an entire culture, filmed with the death-or-glory excitement of a one-last-shot sports movie. The Paramount + series debuted this summer, and the entire spectacular 10-episode first season is now streaming. I missed it when it was airing, and I'm not alone. Do yourself a favor and catch up.

The subject matter could be foreboding. Players tracks the curious fall and attempted comeback of Fugitive Gaming, an esports team on the League of Legends circuit. "How is this a sport?" asks Nathan Resnick (Stephen Schneider), Fugitive's very corporate boss. "I mean, watching people play video games professionally?" That confused side-eye prepares you for a cheap-gag mockumentary, and Players effectively imitates 30 for 30's moody grandeur. But creators Dan Perrault and Tony Yacenda were behind American Vandal, which subverted the true-crime vogue while crafting a legit awesome mystery. So it's no surprise when Players edges from gamer goofing into a textured exploration of the esports grind, full of obsessive personalities and carnivorous big money. 

Players
Arrow Dong-Hyeon, Michael Miko Ahn, Misha Brooks, Da'Jour Jones, and Youngbin Chung, on 'Players'
| Credit: Scott McDermott/Paramount+

The players have names, but the show prefers their tags. So we meet Creamcheese (Misha Brooks), a brash egomaniac who is the controversial and punchable face of the Fugitive brand. At 27 years old, Cream's the right age to embody two eras of negative nerd stereotypes: A shut-in social misfit transformed by success into a domineering dick. He's also ancient for his sport. Back in 2016, he was a young sensation shot-calling a legendary run: "We'll probably win seven championships!" That Tom Brady prophecy got Dan Marino results. With zero titles under their belt, the whole Fugitive operation is in dire straits.

Possible redemption arrives with Organizm (Da'Jour Jones), a teen virtuoso signed to a record-breaking contract. If Creamcheese comes off like a comment-board bully, Organizm represents a new generation of extremely-online introversion. He made a big name for himself giant-killing in online League play, working through crummy internet on a built-from-scratch computer. A big Twitch profile makes him a valuable advertising commodity. Creamcheese initially welcomes the teen to his team — and then realizes Organizm's presence might be a coup. The younger player barely talks, but he leaves Cream a voice message, announcing cosmic ambitions with a tinge of All About Eve. "People are gonna remember you as the guy who trained Organizm," the teen explains, "Because I'm gonna be the greatest player of all time."

The veteran-rookie struggle is a sacred athlete narrative. Players adds in history, and some external threats to match the internal rivalry. Cream's fellow Fugitive co-founder Braxton (Ely Henry) is now the team's coach and a fully-invested family man, whose wife April (Holly Chou) has worked with the brand since day one. Fugitive started in their apartment, in fact, back when Creamcheese was still just Trevor, the high school friend crashing on their couch. Cuts back to Fugitive's transformative first season shade in other key characters. Foresite (Peter Thurnwald) was the star who left the upstart crew for an established team — and had the championship run Creamcheese yearns for. Then there's Guru (Moses Storm), another OG Fugitive player, who retired from professional play to become a media monster with a heavily-tattooed global brand and a dirtbag podcast.

I have no idea if Players is an authentic rendering of the esports world, because literally everything I know about esports I learned from Players. But the show offers a multilayered portrait of the League Championship Series, full of local lingo and LCS talking heads playing themselves. League company Riot Games is one producer of Players, which could explain why more sordid elements of gamer culture are entirely absent. Fan toxicity is addressed, but you sense some tap dancing around broader issues of sexism (not least at Riot Games itself.) Still, I'm not sure Players is more of a commercial than, like, ESPN's Jordan-stroking The Last Dance. Creamcheese and Organizm both seem somewhat broken by their League commitment, and Fugitive itself is a kind of fallen utopia, with happy prankster videos of the original crew shading into corporate machinations. (It's notable that things go south for Creamcheese and Fugitive in 2016, the year most everything went south.)

Players
Credit: Erin Simkin/Paramount+

Yacenda (who directs every episode) and Perrault deploy the documentary structure in compelling ways, and the mostly unknown cast is across-the-board sensational, especially considering how many of them need to age from a mid-2010s golden age into a troubled present-day timeline. Jones makes Organizm's cyborg greatness a bit sad (it's lonely at the top) and a tad scary (how can anyone be this good?) with minimal dialogue. Whereas Brooks has to come off like a loudmouth jerk and then sketch in years of self-inflicted emotional wounds. Henry and Chou are both wonderful adults in the room, juggling bureaucratic necessities and narcissistic personalities. If, like me, you remain respectfully baffled by League gameplay, you'll certainly appreciate Luke Tennie as Rudy, Organizm's cheerful yet parasitic brother-manager, who mostly shakes his head at the general inscrutability. Players plays a clever trick on that front. An outsider can giggle over breathlessly serious descriptions of "wombo combos" or "the bot lane," but that embedded quality gets you into the characters' hermetic headspace.

Is that specificity why Players didn't make much noise this summer? The subject matter seems like a play for the League of Legends fanbase, but I wonder if those die-hards even want to watch fictional people play their game. Honestly, I wonder how small the Venn diagram is between League-lovers and Paramount+ subscribers. (You'll also love The Good Fight and EvilLeague-lovers!) And people who don't care about esports really don't care about esports. The show hasn't been renewed for a second season, and I hope it gets discovered. The final episodes are outright stunning, full of unexpected twists as involving as the best sports documentaries. A funny-thrilling saga about fallen dreams, new beginnings, the cultural gulf between millennials and Gen Z, predatory globo-capitalism, and old-fashioned teamwork, all of it unfolding with believable idiosyncratic details that enrich universal themes? Now that is a wombo combo. (I looked it up.) Grade: A

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American Vandal
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