Why ‘Players’ is a crowd-pleaser for League of Legends fans and those outside esports

by Nick Geracie

Since the release of its final episode last month, “Players,” the esports mockumentary series on Paramount+ developed by the “American Vandal” creators in partnership with Riot Games, has received heaps of praise. The show, a comedy by definition, caught viewers by surprise with several poignant moments and has been praised for its authenticity by viewers regardless of their familiarity with esports and League of Legends.

Perhaps the greatest contributor to the authenticity of “Players” is its eclectic array of creatives working on the series. In working with League of Legends developer Riot Games, “American Vandal” creators Tony Yacenda and Dan Perrault assembled a plethora of producers from inside the company and paired them with a cast of actors outside the world of esports and esports personalities to create a realistic competitive gaming environment.

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Actors: Getting the relationships and team dynamics right

The majority of the on-screen cast of “Players” are actors who aren’t endemic to the esports scene they are portraying -- and in some cases, parodying. The story of “Players” centers around Fugitive Gaming, a League of Legends competitive team competing as the fictional 11th team in the League Championship Series, the premiere level of League of Legends esports competition in North America, which contains 10 franchises.

To say League of Legends is dense is a massive understatement. The game sports over 150 playable champions, which is already quite a lot to get into for an actor researching a role, and that’s before you get to items, terms, community slang and a decade of competitive history in the LCS that serves as the show’s basis. To assume the role of Kyle Braxton, retired professional player and head coach of Fugitive Gaming, Ely Henry did a lot more than just play League of Legends to prepare himself.

“One of the things that I did was go on YouTube and look at team YouTube pages,” Henry said. “I watched the old content, what they’re posting -- like house tours -- just to get the vibe of players. It’s a rich, crazy world with so much stuff going on.”

Ely Henry plays Fugitive Gaming coach Kyle Braxton. Photo credit: Nick Geracie

The world of “Players” jumps back and forth between the show’s “current” time frame of summer 2021 and multiple moments from years past to paint a more vivid picture of Fugitive Gaming’s history.

For Henry, that meant accurately portraying an evolution of Kyle Braxton from professional player and team leader during Fugitive’s early days to a head coach juggling strategy with pressure from ownership, players with strong personalities and midseason roster changes.

“My knowledge of sports stuff and those kind of things are from tropes in movies … For me, it was a lot of figuring out of bringing that to this,” Henry explained. “I think that’s about where I was watching, like old clips of players, and just kind of getting the vibe of like, you know, what's the type of person that's dedicating their life and doing this stuff?”

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This isn’t to say Henry, or any of the actors, needed encyclopedic knowledge of League of Legends to properly capture the essence of their respective characters. On the contrary, what makes “Players” great is that it shows an understanding of the relationships and dynamics of a competitive team rather than specific League of Legends knowledge. “Players” tells a story relatable to all while peppering in Easter eggs for League of Legends diehards that reward endemic viewers without alienating a nonendemic audience.

“That's the thing is it's so interesting about this world of League and the LCS and all that stuff -- you don't need to actually know a ton about League to be able to know what's important,” Henry said. “My parents, who are in their 70s, like the show, and they’re like, ‘Oh, we don’t know what’s going on, but we get the relationships and dynamics.’”

Gamers: Bringing authenticity to the show

In addition to a slew of talented actors, “Players” also cast many real-life figures from the League of Legends esports scene. Although most of these figures appear in minor roles playing themselves, often in traditional documentary cut-away scenes, three League of Legends personalities were cast in more prominent roles as fictional characters.

Jung "Youngbin" Young-bin, who competed at multiple levels of competition, most notably for UC Irvine and in brief stints for Team Liquid, plays the role of Fugitive Gaming jungler Nightfall. He isn’t just a star player on Fugitive. Throughout the show, the jungler serves as the voice of reason between a talented bot lane duo that struggles to get on the same page in any capacity.

“When I was in UCI, I was one of the guys who came from an LCS background, and I was pretty much the team captain,” Youngbin said. “So I had to really mediate the conflict between teammates, and also between the team and the staff members and all that.”

Youngbin is one of the actual League of Legends players who plays a role in the show. Photo credit: Nick Geracie

Even with his personal experience lending itself to the role of Nightfall, Youngbin didn’t expect to get the role. Before his audition for “Players,” he had never acted in his life.

“I didn’t even think I was going to make it, you know?” Youngbin recalled. “I just did it as a side gig for fun … but apparently, Tony and Dan really liked it, and they invited me for dinner at their place.”

“Players” very rarely stuck to its script aside from using it as a guideline. The majority of the show’s dialogue is improvised in an effort to better capture moments of all types, especially for those coming from an esports background instead of an acting background. Michael “Miko” Ahn, assistant coach for Maryville University, played Fugitive Gaming’s top laner BGOLBKTOFWTR (pronounced ‘Big old bucket of water’) for the first half of the series and attributed the authenticity of “Players” to the collaborative nature of how scenes would come to fruition when filming.

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“Youngbin has stories, I have stories, everyone has stories,” Miko explained. “That’s the best way to really do it because a lot of us have lived through those times and felt in similar moments. We just shared, and the actors knew what characters they were portraying.

“Everybody was trying to make sure that it was doing the scene justice, whether they like it or not, because oftentimes, the true face of esports is quite startling, and unsavory in some ways.”

Perrault and Yacenda felt that improv would be vital for the viability of “Players” as an authentic portrayal of competitive gaming through the lens of a mockumentary.

“There are things that will sound too scripted if you do it 100% to script,” Perrault said. “And you might not even know that until you go on set.”

Oftentimes, the process for shooting a “Players” scene was doing it competely to script to get a feel for the scene and then allowing actors to make it their own during actual takes.

“This is another reason having real pro players was crucial -- how do you improvise what, to many people, including myself, feels like a foreign language?” Perrault said. “Yes, we did a lot of research, but as Paul, I couldn’t riff with League terminology to accuracy, nor could anyone, without years of experience.

Bringing the big picture into focus

The creative approach to developing a show like “Players” comes from the top down, and for Yacenda and Perrault, the amount of research and preparation to create an authentic portrayal of the esports experience was unparalleled.

“Tony and I have always wanted to do something in the world of sports documentary … esports made a lot of sense because there are elements of esports that seem unorthodox or just like the complete opposite of what your idea of sports looks like until you actually get into it,” said Perrault, who also plays the role of Fugitive Gaming general manager BigNPaul.

Dan Perrault worked with Riot Games to bring the world of 'Players' to life in an authentic manner. Photo credit: Nick Geracie

Perrault heaped praise on many names from the Riot Games side of the development process for “Players,” including Elias Inaty, who, while technically a producer of the series, wore many hats throughout the process. Inaty was instrumental in bringing the vision of Perrault and Yacenda to fruition with the eclectic background of talent working on the show, especially those with esports backgrounds.

“For the League people to buy it, I think a lot of them just needed to know that this wasn’t punching down,” Inaty explained of the comedic approach of “Players.” Any hesitation or pushback that the process was met with from the esports side quickly melted away upon further understanding Yacenda and Perrault’s passion for telling a story within the competitive gaming space.

“Once the League fans realized, ‘Oh, these guys are just having fun, and they really do like this stuff’ -- I think after that it was a slam dunk,” Inaty said.

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At its core, “Players” is a no-holds barred portrayal of the good, the bad and the ugly of esports. Ultimately, it serves to celebrate the human moments for these professional players that are ever-present through competitive gaming and that are relatable to a greater audience while continuing to represent the soul of the competition.

“I think the biggest thing is that the pressure on these young guys’ shoulders is far bigger than people tend to realize,” Inaty said. “And they put so much of themselves emotionally on the line when they do these things.

“The type of learning these pros have to do in the biggest moments of their short lives so far changed them forever, in a way that, like, is so relatable, that I think more people can fall in love with esports than they realize they can.”

Lead photo credit: Riot Games

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