Dan Perrault and Tony Yacenda discuss creating and filming a fictional esports team in 'Players.'
When true crime docuseries were all the rage, Dan Perrault and Tony Yacenda put a spin on the genre by creating the comedic American Vandal, which, over two seasons, followed a colorful cast of characters in a high school as they tried to get to the bottom of pranks. Shot mockumentary style, the series went onto win a Peabody Award and serve as a format that has become their calling card.
Five years after American Vandal premiered, true crime documentaries are still extremely popular, but more recently, there has been a rise in sports docuseries, as well, from The Last Dance to Formula 1: Drive to Survive. As fans of those projects, Perrault and Yacenda saw an opportunity to take the mockumentary format they perfected with American Vandal and apply it to a new area of entertainment: esports.
The duo created Players, a 10-episode mockumentary about a fictional League of Legends team, Fugitive Gaming, whose leader promised the team could "probably win seven championships" but has yet to win one (and who is considered the reason the team lost in the past).
The leader, Creamcheese (Misha Brooks), was once a fresh-faced high school kid building something with friends, but a decade in, he is a veteran who might have to consider retirement. On the flip side is Organizm (Da'Jour Jones), a hotshot rookie who gets recruited to the team and challenges Creamcheese because both his ego and his skills are big, and he has the backing of a lot of people on the corporate side of the business. The show charts their relationship as they have to work together toward a championship, while also flashing back through archival footage to feature the inception of Fugitive Gaming, as well as the evolution of the team as other players have come and gone, including that fateful event where Creamcheese cost the team the championship.
"We're telling the story of Fugitive Gaming the way we would tell the story of the Chicago Bulls," Yacenda tells Metacritic. "Even though this is comedy and we knew there were going to be a lot of jokes, the world itself and the stakes and the goal of Fugitive Gaming could never feel like a joke; that had to feel unflinchingly real. It is a satire of the premium sports docuseries that Dan and I love. We feel like those have great engines and really invite people who don't know anything about the sport into the world."
With a background in television comedy writing and producing, Perrault and Yacenda knew they needed to bring in experts from the gaming world to help ground their show in reality and flesh out the world. They ended up teaming up with Riot Games, the developer behind the real League of Legends, and hired writers from the world of esports as well as an additional consultant.
"It's a dense world. It's a complicated and intricate world. Nobody can just pick it up and speak with authority on it within a few months. We knew that, we knew what we didn't know, and we knew that the best way to make an authentic show was to bring on the people who could really, truly make it authentic, which is the people who live in this world," Perrault says.
"The way in which a player can explode so quickly — almost literally overnight — was fascinating to us. I'm a very different person than I was when I was 18. Imagine being 18 and thrust into this world of fame and fandom — you would imagine that there are some interesting stories that come from that, and we're very thankful that we had such great people from the League community to share those with us," he continues.
Adding to the authenticity of the show is the major set piece of the gaming arena. Riot's League Championship Series (LCS) has an arena in Santa Monica, Calif. that production used for the tournament scenes. While they normally have 10 teams competing, production made themselves the 11th team, Yacenda, who also directs the series, shares.
When it came to filming, Yacenda says their rule was to use broadcast cameras for the flashbacks, but for some of the 2021 timeline pieces, they also used "NFL-style doc cameras." The production crew of Players was able to meet with the team that shoots the LCS in order to learn about the visual approach and gear used to be as close to the real thing as possible. However, unlike live sports, Yacenda was not working with a technical director to call shots on a switchboard in the moment; he saw all of the camera feeds on monitors but then sat in an editing room after production to put it all together.
"Once you start trying to change things for narrative — 'What if we have this angle, it's better for this moment?' — then it starts feeling less and less like a documentary. And that's a philosophy that dates back to American Vandal. So we stuck to those rules," he explains.
When it came to crafting characters on both the gaming and streaming side of this world, they looked to the real League, as well as the documentary Breaking Point, for inspiration. But they chose to create amalgamations instead of basing any one character off any one real personality in the gaming world. At the center is Creamcheese and Organizm, ADC and support, which becomes a "classic sports story" but also "a love story," the writers and producers say.
Explains Perrault: "They both have egos, but they have more in common than they're initially willing to commit. To varying degrees their parents didn't get the world of esports, and so, eventually, later in the season, that's something they find that they can bond over. In some ways, Creamcheese wishes things worked out at a young age the way it worked out for Organizm. What we did draw up is the lines of conflict between the two and how they're catered to get on each other's nerves. And at the end of the day, it's essentially a love story between the ADC and support."
The pressure is certainly on both of these young men more than the others on the team because Organizm, who is still high-school-aged, was recently just playing at home by himself but suddenly thrust into the public eye and playing in front of thousands, with corporate sponsors to appease. Meanwhile, Creamcheese "may be one year away from not irrelevance but your world could crumble in that time," notes Perrault, and feels like he has to live up to the promise he made to bring home a win.
The pressure may be on Perrault and Yacenda, too, to follow up a critical hit (American Vandal has a Metascore of 76) and award-winner with something new that appeals to both television fans who don't know the gaming world well and gamers who have been critical of projects based on game properties in the past. But they are taking it in stride and already thinking about the future — of Fugitive Gaming and of Players.
Like American Vandal before it, Players puts its characters first, and therefore, in success, the show would continue to follow the members of Fugitive Gaming from Season 1 into new journeys, past and present, in a second season and beyond.
"One thing that's really exciting about League esports is it's global, so there are so many other tournaments with larger stakes and smaller stakes, there's other pro leagues throughout the world, there's so many other stories we can tell in different places and different settings," Perrault says.