Players creators on how they brought their ‘esports love story’ to life

No relationship on a League of Legends team is more important or precarious than that between an ADC and their support. It’s a problem Players, the new Paramount Plus show from American Vandal creators Dan Perrault and Tony Yacenda, knows all too well.

Players follows Fugitive Gaming, a fictional North American League of Legends team aspiring to its first-ever championship. The story takes place primarily through the complicated dynamic between Creamcheese, the veteran support and co-founder of the team, and Organizm, a hot-shot teenager hailed as one of the top prospects ever. When Fugitive’s new NBA ownership demands Organizm gets a spot in the starting lineup from day one, Creamcheese is asked to put his ego aside and work with the burgeoning, quiet superstar. But when communication issues arise and personalities clash, can Fugitive actually play like a team again?

The result is a vibrant mockuseries that effectively communicates the drama and comedy inherent to esports to audiences of all familiarity levels with League of Legends, without ever dumbing down the language for the die-hards watching. The show’s cast is a mix of actors and real-life esports personalities, lending authenticity to the fictional series. As a former esports reporter who covered the LCS, I found it remarkable how accurately the show conveys that particular microscene, both in present-day sequences and in flashbacks.

Polygon sat down with Perrault and Yacenda for a delightful conversation about how they kept the subject matter fresh for experienced League players and new viewers alike, the casting process, and how sports shows made pitching Players a lot easier.

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Polygon: Where did this idea come from for you two? How and when did you two decide that this was what you wanted to pursue after American Vandal?

Dan Perrault: Well, first off, we love documentary, I think it’s fair to say that, like, not only do we love docs, but we love, love, love the sports doc subgenre. And so we’re always on the lookout for other trends in docs. In 2016, true crime had such a huge moment. And so it was fairly obvious to Tony and I, we have to try something in that vein.

Photo: Trae Patton/Paramount

Tony Yacenda: Not only did we like true crime — that wasn’t a trend [for us]. We were eating it up, like we genuinely loved Serial and Making a Murderer. And, like, The Last Dance was the absolute highlight of our pandemic.

Perrault: After Vandal, we knew we wanted to do another mockumentary, or at least that was a space we were really comfortable in and wanted to do more with. And yeah, I mean, just like a series of coincidences [brought us to esports].

I found myself at the League of Legends All-Star event in 2018. And at that point, we were both curious about the world of esports. We were not, you know, fully invested yet, certainly didn’t know what we were talking about yet. But I was amazed at the size and scale of it and the passion of the fan base and how specifically League esports resembles the size, structure, and almost the tone of traditional sports in many ways. The fact that there’s, you know, ESPN-like broadcasts of the games, that it’s a five-on-five matchup. In many ways that traditional sports fans can identify with, there was a lot there that made us think, Oh, not only would it be great to do a mockumentary in the esports world, but League specifically. And then to be honest, just the kindness and openness of the people from Riot and from the League community, who were just very happy to talk about their stories and answer any and all of our questions.

Misha Brooks as Creamcheese and Da’Jour Jones as Organizm in PLAYERS

Photo: Lara Solanki/Paramount

Yacenda: For me, I think Dan was a little bit more interested in esports, as he saw some comedy potential after going to so many of these LCS events. And he’s like, Tony, you got to, you got to come to Riot. Because I was a little bit more on the fence. Like, I see how it’s interesting that this is like an alternate dimension, where, like, gamers are gods. But I didn’t really get what the show was until we were talking to a couple of esports writers. And they were like telling stories of, you know, drama within a team dynamic, and specifically, the ADC and the support position, and how interconnected those positions have to be.

And that was where I was like, Oh, I get it. This is a traditional sports story. You don’t need to have any context or even appreciation of pro gaming to understand that these two positions need to work together. And that is something that I felt was universal and could be like an engine for a general audience to invest into this team. To us, we talked about it, this is a love story between an ADC and a support.

Absolutely. It would have been the much easier path out, and it’s something that we’ve seen a lot of other traditional media outlets do, to have the comedy be from the outside looking in, to be more focused on like, Hey, look at these nerds doing this stupid thing. But instead you play to the inherent drama and comedy of the situations, which are true in traditional sports, just like they are in esports. An example for me is like Creamcheese talking about how much he gets laid while wearing ill-fitting Gucci.

Perrault and Yacenda: [laughs]

That felt very real to me. And it’s very funny. But it’s also esports comedy from the inside looking out. Was there ever a concern? How did you negotiate the idea of like, we want to have fun with this funny thing, without making fun of the people that care about it.

Yacenda: To us, we always, always think that we love confident idiots, especially with mockumentaries.

I can tell!

Misha Brooks celebrates as Creamcheese, in PLAYERS

Photo: Lara Solanki/Paramount

Yacenda: Even if we were making a show about the NBA, we would want characters who weren’t quite as cool and smart and funny as they thought they were. There should be a little bit of a gap in self-awareness. That’s the kind of comedy we like to tell. Obviously we were pulling from stuff in the world, but the way we felt like we were never making fun of gamers is making sure that we had people, that we had these characters that were inspired by some real people, some real events, some dynamics that we know to be true, and that there was like, a diversity in personality within our world. And then once we have our toolkit of characters, it never felt like, OK, and then we’ll make fun of gamers here. And we were just able to play with our characters and not think about it that much.

Talking about the character development, I’m really curious how you two approached that, because the cast is a mix of actors and esports personalities. Even within the esports personalities, it’s a mix of people playing themselves and people playing characters. You also have the presence of characters like Frugger and Guru, two archetypes that are very present in the world of esports, but archetypes that I think a lot of people outside of that world don’t realize are there. So how did you approach designing these characters to feel such like real people? And at what point did you decide to cast real esports people as well?

Perrault: Well, we knew we wanted to populate this show with real people. What some of that is, is an actual just time concern. You get cast in a show like this, you get probably a month tops before we start shooting, probably way less than that. And [League of Legends] is so dense and complex that nobody on this planet could cram enough to really feel like a real pro. And so we knew it was essential. We also feel that improv and being able to riff and really just making a scene feel as real as possible is crucial to the documentary tone we’re trying to create. And that’s only possible if you have people who actually know what they’re talking about.

Moses Storm as Guru, in front of his Never Lost logo, in Players.

Photo: Trae Patton/Paramount

Yacenda: There are certain streamers out there that are frankly engaging to watch. On one level, Dave and I are kind of old men coming into this, where we’re like, Wow, it is crazy that you’re playing a video game but watching somebody else play a video game as you’re doing it. And [there are] some of these guys like Tyler1 where you’re like, Oh, I see the appeal of this, he’s funny, this is how some of these guys jumped to the top. We always knew Guru was going to have a part of that.

But then Guru, we also took him a little bit away. And we’re like, No, let’s make him kind of a smug sort of podcast archetype too, which we don’t think there’s a direct comparison to in the world of esports right now. There’s a lot of esports podcasts and there’s a lot of like, bro-ier streamers, but the sort of pseudo-intellectual podcaster like Guru […] the alchemy behind him is there’s no direct comparison. And then for Frugger, we had more of like an open casting process. [Matt Shively] was just a guy who really made us laugh. And he sort of brought that to the character, as opposed to us, like, on the page, seeking out that sort of body type.

Creamcheese consoles Frugger in Players.

Photo: Lara Solanki/Paramount

You talked about being old men and out of touch with the scene a bit — I’m surprised to hear that, because both in American Vandal and in this show, you two are really sharp in terms of how you depict digital culture and how young people use social media. Related to that, League of Legends and esports have their own language. You talked about this in terms of casting and getting people who can speak it naturally. How did you negotiate knowing that probably half of your audience is going to be fluent in that language and half won’t be?

Perrault: One important thing that you’re bringing up in different ways is we had to know what we didn’t know. There are many people who have pitched esports shows. And I know there are some that are well received. But there are a lot that are not, and I think it’s the ones that tend to come from a place — and you sort of referenced this yourself — of outside looking in with these “nerds.”

But even if you tried to make the more grounded, realistic version that we were trying to make, we’d be idiots to think we can craft that ourselves. And so, you know, to me, a huge part was our League expert writers and producers. [Riot Games employees and Players producers/writers] Kien Lam and Elias Inaty in particular were not only excellent translators of the League world to us, but they were also amazing creatively [and] could really add that authenticity.

And then just to speak more directly to your question about how do we create a compelling show for people who are not fluent. I think in any great sports show — Last Dance, Friday Night Lights included — you can get people to invest in the characters enough so that the actual literal details of what they’re doing will not matter as much as the emotional journey they go on. I’d like to think there were certain themes that if you know League you just enjoy the authenticity. If you don’t know League, it is an interesting world that you are first discovering, and in an alien language to you — but hopefully, the emotion reads true enough that you can follow the at least the emotional journey easily enough.

Creamcheese burns his jersey in Players.

Photo: Lara Solanki/Paramount

Yacenda: It was really important for us — I think a lot of writers rooms, when they do something like this, what is customary is you have the resident League of Legends expert in the writers room. And you ask them questions about what we have in the world. But then, I realized, it was always important that there were multiple people at every stage that had this background, so we weren’t just telling Elias’ point of view or Kien’s point of view of gaming, because that’s a mono point of view.

Casting real players on Fugitive Gaming next to our actors. That’s another reference point for like, No, we wouldn’t do this. We wouldn’t do that, and teaching the actors. At any given point on set, we had half a dozen people who really knew the scene, arguing about what is real and what isn’t real. And hearing actual discussions from them is way more valuable than just what they’re telling us because it’s not just mono, it’s not stereo point of view. It’s a full 7.1 surround sound. So that was super helpful.

We were also lucky when we were pitching the show. Obviously, a lot of people had that concern. Like, I watched League of Legends, I had no idea what the fuck is going on. And we were so fortunate The Queen’s Gambit had just come out. They don’t dumb down that language at all, and it feels like the chess is super accurate. But we had no idea! I still don’t know what a Queen’s Gambit is, or what a Sicilian Defense is. But it’s the fact that they didn’t dumb down the language that it felt like the real thing, even though I didn’t know what they were talking about. I, as an audience, could appreciate that attention to detail. And we’re hopeful that a general audience will feel the same way. Because every time we’re talking about something League-related, it’s backed by something emotional and personal for the characters that I think should be easy to follow.

Another thing that really stood out to me is the period-piece element of the show, specifically your flashback sequences from the early stages of League esports to the middle stages of League esports. The attention to detail there in terms of the costuming, the set design, the hairstyling, the logos that you’re using, the Gravity Gaming bomber jackets that were brought out. What does your note-taking process look like for that kind of recreation?

Yacenda: On top of all that, Riot helped us build the 2015 client. They were like, It’s impossible, but they talked to some engineers, and some of the flashbacks we were able to use were from the engineers who were able to make that. It was really cool.

The main thing was we wanted to show where Creamcheese had come from. This really smug arrogant guy really set up, Oh… he’s posturing. This is a guy who is deeply insecure. And what better way to do that than to show where he’s come from? So that was really that the root of all of this. And obviously, The Last Dance as a structural inspiration, the economy in exposition in a really efficient way, was one of the most exciting things about that documentary for us. And there’s something kind of funny about using that artful approach to a bunch of kids drinking hot sauce in their apartment.

The Fugitive Gaming lads chug hot sauce in Players.

Photo: Lara Solanki/Paramount

Creamcheese eats a chip while his teammates celebrate in Players.

Photo: Lara Solanki/Paramount

Perrault: The way in which [The Last Dance] told Dennis Rodman’s story, for example, where he’s an opponent with the Pistons, and then let’s bring it back to ’98 [when Rodman was Michael Jordan’s teammate on the Bulls]. Letting that past inform what we know in the present. The Defiant Ones is another example of letting your past storyline inform what we know about the present. We thought that was a really interesting device.

There’s been some version of this idea for three and a half, four years now. COVID delayed it a bit. The only sort of hidden blessing from it taking that long is The Last Dance, as Tony said, was an amazing reference, that thankfully came out within a few months of us pitching this. I think it certainly altered how we wanted to tell the story.

Yacenda: It was funny how the pitch went from, It’s this thing that has the scope and scale of a 30 for 30 series, but the voyeurism of Hard Knocks, and the personal/emotional stakes of Cheer. And then after The Last Dance, we could be like, Oh, it’s The Last Dance of esports players.

Things end in an interesting place in the finale. What’s next for Players?

Perrault: We definitely have more stories.

Yacenda: Yeah, we love this world so much.

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