I do not know what a wombo combo is. I do not know what a bot lane is. I have heard of League of Legends but could not begin to explain how it works. I know just barely enough about esports as a competitive arena to understand that it’s a situation in which players carry their own keyboards to tournaments in the same way that an elite runner carefully chooses her own shoes. Nevertheless, I started watching Players, the new Paramount+ esports mockumentary from the team behind American Vandal. And then, somewhat to my own surprise, I kept watching. And kept watching.
As a spoof, Players is a mess. To its credit, it does not stoop to create an easy on-ramp for people who don’t know anything about esports, but that also undermines it: For anyone who doesn’t understand the mechanics of a League of Legends game, a joke about screwing up those mechanics will have no meaning. The joke of its premise is that it’s ridiculous to do a hyperserious sports documentary about an esports tournament, and that’s a joke that simply does not land; it seems not only plausible but highly probable that a decade from now we’re all going to be watching a show about how, after climate change made it impossible to go above ground, esports became the dominant forum of global currency. Most important, the power dynamics are screwed up. American Vandal engaged with the inherent silliness of taking a form designed for something grim (true-crime murder documentaries) and using that same form for something frivolous (a bunch of spray-painted dicks). It’s less obviously goofy to take a documentary form designed to tell stories about a wildly popular and financially lucrative sport (basketball) and use it to tell a story about a different wildly popular and lucrative sport (League of Legends, apparently).
So I was unable to watch Players as a parody, and if it operates as one on any level, it’s happening so far above my head I could not engage with it. Maybe for viewers who recognize all the actual esports commentators and the very real LCS teams who show up, there will be lots of pointed, funny send-ups of esports culture that absolutely crush. I got none of it. What I did get is a show I really wanted to keep watching about a world I know nothing about. If it happened to use a fake-documentary structure … eh, whatever! Because even though Players is a foreign setting to me, it is also a fun and poignant portrait of some specific types of guys.
The primary dynamic is between an older player who goes by Creamcheese (Misha Brooks) and a phenomenal new rookie whose handle is Organizm (Da’Jour Jones). There’s jealousy and defensiveness and tribalism, plus one of them pees in jars and the other can’t stop yelling about his Porsche. It’s all very dumb, but Players is so good at tugging Creamcheese back and forth between loathsome, wounded, nightmarish, and sympathetic. By episode six, I found myself actually excited about the prospect of Creamcheese and Organizm finally working together. By episode ten, I was … slightly devastated? In a good way!
The point of Organizm as a type of guy is that he’s enigmatic, which means he never really coalesces into a fully rounded, true-to-life portrait. But Creamcheese and the team’s coach, Kyle Braxton (Ely Henry), and several of the ancillary characters are such immediately obvious, hilarious, and often somewhat tragic types. Braxton is the lone adult in the room, and he absolutely does not care that his glasses make him look as if he’s staring into the wrong end of a telescope. Foresite (Peter Thurnwald) is the guy who quietly thinks he’s cooler than you. Guru, played almost alarmingly well by Moses Storm, is the guy who’s happier talking shit from a comfortable remove.
Creamcheese, the show’s moral and cultural center, is the guy who responds to social alienation with arrogance, and even though he’s trapped in an adolescent worldview, there are moments when you can almost see he’s decent. He does shots of hot sauce as a stunt. He is easily threatened. He communicates through grand gestures. Early in the show, Players explains that his gamer handle is Creamcheese but used to be Nutmilk, and he was forced to change it when he went pro. This is the moment when I bought into Players.
Does this show make any sense if you’re not at least a little curious about esports? Maybe not. I also don’t know how Players works if you’re a person who already knows what a bot lane is. All I know is by the time I got to the finale, I cared very much about the outcome of a wombo combo, even though I still do not have the foggiest idea what that means.
The first four episodes of Players are now streaming on Paramount+ with the remaining six episodes premiering weekly on Thursdays.