‘Players’ Review: The ‘American Vandal’ Team Delivers an Instant Classic Fictional Sports Doc

·6 min read
IWCriticsPick
IWCriticsPick

“Create a satisfying and involving emotional arc for a character named Creamcheese” feels like something out of a dare. Whether it’s on the back of a jersey, listed on screen, or spoken by any number of characters within a sprawling fictional Esports saga, seeing or hearing that collection of vowels should be a dealbreaker.

And yet, the central figure of the new Paramount+ series “Players” is boisterous enough, vulnerable enough, and pathologically fixated on his own image that Creamcheese feels right at home in the echelon of athletes compelling enough for their own documentary series (even if he doesn’t actually exist).

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“Players” is the latest offering from creators Tony Yacenda and Dan Perrault, a duo that made two equally earnest and absurd seasons of “American Vandal.” Taking the true crime boom to the halls of a high school, it was a show that used over-the-top premises as a Trojan horse for looking at everything from fraught high school experiences to the nature of fame, all while slipping in keen observations about the genre itself.

This time around, the focus is on the elaborate, high-stakes world of League of Legends Esports, as seen through the eyes of the members of the made-for-the-show squad Fugitive Gaming. Alongside the handiwork of Creamcheese (Misha Brooks), the controversial elder statesman of the five-person squad, “Players” also charts the evolution of Organizm (Da’Jour Jones), an incoming teenage prodigy with the exact opposite demeanor. From there, “Players” uses the established rhythms and expectations of recent popular sports doc series to dig deeper into a thorny web of friendships and rivalries.

In the setup of the ten-episode season, “Players” somehow revels in those sports doc details while efficiently setting up what matters most to many of the people who appear on camera. There is the “Last Dance”-style hopping between parallel storylines, the surveillance camera-like angles borrowed from office conversations in “Hard Knocks,” the glossy slo-mo Steadicam entrances and crowd shots reminiscent of “Cheer” and “Last Chance U.”

“Players” - Credit: Lara Solanki/Paramount+
“Players” - Credit: Lara Solanki/Paramount+

Lara Solanki/Paramount+

The magic of this creative team is that the nods and the tributes and the punchlines are all meticulously crafted misdirects. With the backstory shortcuts that come baked into the first episode of any long-spanning doc series, Creamcheese, Fugitive overall strategy team Kyle (Ely Henry) and April Braxton (Holly Chou), teammate-turned-rival Foresite (Peter Thurnwald), and corporate owner Nathan Resnick (Stephen Schneider) all slot into place. It uses all the same “keep-it-simple” techniques that can easily turn a “Drive to Survive” watcher into an assumed Formula 1 expert in a matter of minutes. (Of course, to that point, it wouldn’t be “Players” without its fair share of side-angle peeks at honeycomb-gridded lighting rigs in its own player/staff sitdown interviews.)

“Players” arrives with a distinct set of challenges, particularly when compared with its spiritual predecessor. Gone are the pair of amateur detectives that functioned as easy, efficient audience surrogates in “Vandal.” And if true-crime series’ greatest narrative advantage is an air of mystery, sports docs are often built on inevitability. Yet, even in a shift to a more unseen hand guiding this window into the Fugitive saga, “Players” still holds on to an emotional core that it can enrich (and subvert) at various points along a half-decade timeline.

With Yacenda directing, Perrault playing a member of the greater Fugitive staff, and both of them leading up a writing staff able to dig into the finer Esports touches and the specifics of characters’ individual journeys, “Players” doesn’t just mimic the layout of a sports doc. There’s also the benefit of tapping into a well-established fandom and ecosystem, with some real commentators and teams borrowed from the upper reaches of League play in North America. That in turn gives this talented cast a chance to be honest in their performances, even if what they’re saying about their chosen profession also happens to be peppered with jokes about hot sauce and body wash that would seem like gibberish out of context.

Even if Creamcheese didn’t have to be a main reason to care about Fugitive, all while having an ego that often stands in the way of team success, Brooks would have one of the tallest tasks here. Creamcheese’s matter-of-fact confidence in his own abilities and his pin-drop mood swings all feel true to other athletes under the elaborate doc microscope. That ability to break through the blowhard facade and through to something genuine, only to backtrack seconds later, is a delicate dance that Brooks handles with impressive precision. It’s a nice bit of synergy between writing and performance that the season-long seesaw between team harmony and team discord flows from a recognizable place and lines up with Fugitive’s fortunes.

“Players” - Credit: Lara Solanki/Paramount+
“Players” - Credit: Lara Solanki/Paramount+

Lara Solanki/Paramount+

There’s a particular kind of balance that “Players” finds in going back and forth between its talking-head sections and its observational moments. Even seeing the slight changes in composure between characters who offer up confident soundbites in a one-on-one sitdown setting and take on a slightly different air in the more unpredictable behind-the-scenes looks is another example of how “Players” uses the form to pick apart what drives each of these people. There’s no need to choose between someone telling a good story and someone living that story in real time when the show finds illuminating ways to capitalize on both.

In a position to give themselves incredible access, Yacenda and Perrault keep an internal logic to every moment that the show is there to “capture.” Without straying too far from its goal, the show also fills in some of the gaps that docs can only glancingly address. Some series sprinkle in some looks at a coach’s family life. But with Kyle and April, there’s the feeling that these cameras are around to show who they are as friends and guides and members of a family of their own, not just an easy contrast to who they are come tournament time. It comes hand-in-hand with a joke about another professional sports franchise, but Resnick’s involvement helps “Players” touch on the idea that teams don’t exist in a vacuum, that there’s always a strain of sports shot-callers who see group success through dollar-sign eyes. And there aren’t many docs that feature someone with Organizm’s mild-mannered approach to stardom and can take advantage of what Jones is bringing here against the backdrop of flashier teammates.

That’s why “Players” succeeds in its goal, because it can build a show around the sometimes-unhinged exploits of a crew with championship potential and still deliver surprises on its own terms. With a lengthier season, the show can take a more roundabout path and spread the spotlight in the process. And sometimes that lane heads to a point where someone close to Creamcheese addresses him as Trevor, his given name. It’s moments like that, when the silliness and the sincerity collide, that solidify this as a team worth celebrating.

Grade: A-

The first four episodes of “Players” premiere Thursday, June 16 on Paramount+.

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