To the modern-day gamer, the 2005-edition Logitech G15 Gaming Keyboard — with its unwieldy size, LCD screen, and membrane keys — feels like a relic from a bygone era. It’s gaudy and embellished in all the wrong ways, a product of a time when PC gaming as an industry was rapidly evolving and everyone was still trying to find their footing in this new and strange landscape.
Inexplicably, the G15 has found new life in 2022 with a starring role in players, a new mockumentary from American Vandal co-creators Dan Perrault and Tony Yacenda about a fictional League of Legends esports team called Fugitive Gaming. Though it’s a satire of sports docuseries like The Last Dance and Formula 1: Drive to Survive, Players works hard to capture what makes esports special, and it mostly succeeds. The specifics of League of Legends may seem daunting for those who’ve never encountered the game before, but at the core of all that is an affecting sports drama that knows exactly what it wants to be — a funny, loving, sometimes gross homage to the everythingness of professional gaming.
The first season primarily follows Fugitive’s 27-year-old veteran player Creamcheese (Misha Brooks). At the time of the show, which takes place in 2021, Creamcheese has been playing professionally for six years and has become one of the most well-known personalities in the pro scene. Still, he’s continually failed to capture the one thing that every pro player dreams of: a championship.
He’s hopeful that 2021 will finally be Fugitive’s year, but interference from team president Nathan Resnick (Stephen Schneider) sees popular Twitch streamer and teenage phenom Organizm (Da’Jour Jones, quietly compelling) being added to the starting roster on short notice in the interest of ad dollars. Organizm’s risky play style and unwillingness to communicate quickly create friction with Creamcheese, who refuses to see his dream of victory jeopardized.
League of Legends esports has been growing and changing constantly over the past decade. Teams and players have come and gone, and the grassroots nature of the scene has all but vanished in the face of its growing commercialization. The feeling of disorientation and loss that comes with that is one of Players‘ central narrative threads. In the first episode, Creamcheese gives an interview about his “lucky keyboard,” a G15 that he’s used in nearly every game of League of Legends he has ever played. Viewers are treated to intimate close-ups of said keyboard in all its stained, smudged, grimy glory.
Unpleasant as it is to imagine how many years of takeout crumbs are nestled between those keys, the G15 is an apt metaphor for Creamcheese as a character when we first meet him. He, too, is a product of a different time. When he started out, it was just him and his friends playing on folding tables in someone’s kitchen. Even though Fugitive’s players now live in a mansion backed by sponsors from Red Bull to Buffalo Wild Wings, it’s clear that Creamcheese is still dwelling on the old days — his past glories, and his past mistakes.
This is the main source of his frustration with 17-year-old Organizm, who thinks of Creamcheese as a member of the old guard and resents having to simply follow his direction without question. Unfortunately, due to their in-game roles, the team’s success is essentially completely dependent on whether Creamcheese and Organizm can work together. The subsequent push-and-pull between them and the way their relationship develops is the show’s beating heart.
American Vandal satirized the true crime documentary by using the typically self-serious genre to tell stories about spray-painted dicks and poop crimes. Similarly, Players‘ humor works best if you buy into the inherent comedy of professional gaming being covered with the same type of gravitas that befits the 1990s Chicago Bulls. On the surface, this approach could be construed as an insult to the legitimacy of the esports industry. But just as Vandal was able to cut to the poignant humanity at the heart of its juvenile crimes, so too does Players understand that esports is wonderful not in spite of its absurdity, but because of it.
As someone who’s been embedded in the esports space for several years, I often think about what a strange little subculture it is that we’ve created. It is funny that millions will tune in to watch people play video games, and it’s funny that pro gamers are treated like rock stars. And yet, just because something is absurd doesn’t make it less meaningful. A thing is important as long as it’s important to someone, and to some people — like Creamcheese, and like Organizm — esports is the most important thing in the world.
There will be plenty of viewers who have zero knowledge of League of Legendsand Players makes sure to explain concepts specific to gaming through talking heads. Organizm’s clueless but supportive brother Rudy Jr. (Luke Tennie) is especially helpful in this regard as an audience surrogate. This, along with general exposition, does mean the show can get bogged down in over-explanation, particularly in the first three episodes.
To alleviate that, earlier episodes include plenty of jokes about how nonsensical League of Legends and gaming culture can be, though they don’t always land as it isn’t always clear who the jokes are supposed to be for. For example, in the opening of the first episode, real-life analyst Joshua “Jatt” Leesman laughs about how “back when Creamcheese started playing, you could still one-shot people with AP DFG Tristana.” Lines like these end up sounding a little too specific, to the point where those who aren’t in the know might wonder if they’re missing the joke, even though not being in on the joke is sort of the point.
Luckily, jokes come and go quickly, and where one doesn’t quite work, one that does comes along shortly after. And despite the fact that the season takes a while to really ramp up, its second half takes a more serious, character-driven approach that makes for genuinely riveting storytelling. Players invites viewers to understand the world of esports in all its silliness, then shows exactly why people commit their lives to it.
Thought Players authentically represents the League of Legends esports scene in many aspects, showcasing real-life brands and LA influencer parties, it does fall short in one regard. It doesn’t push the envelope nearly enough when it comes to confronting the truly ugly side of gaming. The show isn’t afraid to joke about how gross it is when a group of young men with no life experience live together, but it skirts around topics of prejudice in gaming spaces. Xenophobia against East Asian players is only touched upon briefly with regard to Korean player Nightfall (Youngbin Chung) in a relatively short and inoffensive segment. Though the show is focused on establishing its characters and has no obligation to confront these issues, it feels wrong for such a major blight on the esports industry to be shunted to the side.
Still, much like in American Vandal, Players‘cast is populated with people who are wholly believable as inhabitants of the show’s world. The standout is Brooks as Creamcheese, who anchors the series with a performance that’s both hysterically funny and genuinely sympathetic. Creamcheese is brash, arrogant, and obnoxious — the kind of guy you’d never want to be stuck talking to at a party — but you still want to root for him because you can tell there’s an insecurity lurking under the surface that he doesn’ you don’t quite know how to access. Scenes where he allows himself to be vulnerable, even if just for a few seconds, are among Players‘ most impactful moments.
Many of the show’s side characters will also feel familiar to esports fans. It helps that Fugitive players Nightfall and Bap (Noh “Arrow” Dong-hyeon) are played by former League of Legends pros. Internet personality Guru (Moses Storm) is like an amalgamation of big streamers like tyler1, xQc, and Ninja, while Fugitive president Nathan Resnick is eerily reminiscent of real-world business tycoons who invest in esports organizations simply because esports is touted as the new big industry, not because they understand the space at all.
Esports is temporal. Things are always changing; people are always leaving. Sometimes the player you loved watching the most five years ago is still going strong. Sometimes they just disappear. It’s not about hoping things will be the same forever. It’s about how you feel in the moment, whether you’re a player on stage or just a spectator in an arena. The sensation of living and breathing and caring in a space filled with other people who all feel the same way as you is the one thing that stays.
Thought Players is satirical, it’s not mean-spirited. At the heart of its (considerable) humor is sincerity, and an understanding of why the spectacle of esports draws us in and keeps us coming back for more. It’s easy to become invested in Fugitive’s story, even if you don’t know a thing about League of Legends. New viewers may never learn what a Baron steal actually is, but the way Fugitive’s players throw themselves into each other’s arms in elation or slump over in devastated defeat — that’s a language that anyone can understand.
The first three episodes of Players season 1 are now streaming on Paramount Plus. New episodes drop every Thursday.