Interview: Players Co-Creators Talk About Making an Esports Mockumentary Without Punching Down

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American Vandal co-creators Tony Yacenda and Dan Perrault are back with another mockumentary show. The duo’s new series is called Players and explores a League of Legends team trying to take home a championship title, all while being led by the arrogant, but talented Creamcheese. Yacenda and Perrault recently sat down with Senior Gaming Editor Michael Leri to speak about the Paramount+ show, touching on topics that ranged from developing a cringeworthy comedy without punching down, staying authentic to the culture and sports documentaries, American Vandal‘s cancelation, and how one simple joke ended up being incredibly (and unexpectedly) expensive.

Michael Leri: Players is a mockumentary like your last show, American Vandal. How did the process of making a true crime mockumentary carry over to making a sports one?

Tony Yacenda: We had the same philosophy. We didn’t go into American Vandal fully being like, “Let’s make fun of true crime documentaries.” It was generally one of our favorite subgenres. We love a mystery and we knew that, even though we were gonna have jokes, it would need to function like an actual true crime documentary. And that was the same thing with Players, too.

Dan and I were roommates for a long time. We would watch 30 for 30. We’d watch sports docs all the time. And even though we felt like this is a funny bizarro universe where we could get fine comedic potential, it was mostly about producing the same engine and getting the audience to really invest in the stakes of our sport.

Interview: Players Co-Creators

There was some skepticism around the show about it possibly looking down upon esports and people who play video games, as shows or movies often do. You two have also spoken about loving to make “confident idiots.” With all of that in mind, how did you try to avoid making the series a condescending look at the industry? 

Dan Perrault: Well, by confident idiot, we don’t mean truly mean dumb people. Almost everybody in our show is a true expert in what they do. And then literally in some cases. We used real pro players and real casters in the actual show itself. The “confident” element of that phrase is probably the more important part where Creamcheese with an overinflated ego and an enlarged sense of his own importance was a really funny element. There was no need to punch down. The wording, the terminology, and certain innate parts of the world are already sort of funny to begin with, or at least to an outsider they are. Like Wombo Combo is already silly sounding enough.

There’s not a whole lot else you have to do to make the subject matter seem at least different to someone who hasn’t experienced it before. So at no point did we ever think this was gonna be a punching down.

Yacenda: It’s also inherent in a mockumentary from This Is Spinal Tap to The Office. There’s a presence of the camera that is there and there’s something comedic about our characters, not only fulfilling their dramatic objectives, but also serving the objective of trying to impress the documentary cameras. That’s what you find in Spinal Tap or Michael Scott or David Brent. If we are making a documentary about an NBA team, where the lack of self-awareness comes in is this character thinking they’re coming across really well in a documentary when clearly they’re not. That’s the comedic core that they found in those early Christopher Guest things. And we’re continuing that tradition.

Interview: Players Co-Creators

Creamcheese does convey that overconfidence and cringe well.

Perrault: It’s so funny. We’ve been very happy with the response, but every once in a while you’ll get a comment like, “This show is so cringe. Everything these guys say so cringe.” It’s like, “Yeah, that’s the point.”

Yacenda: But this one is a little different than a lot of the Christopher Guest movies, or even like David Brent in The Office where David Brent thinks he’s the best boss in the world, because these guys are actually some of the best players in the world. That’s what makes this show so interesting to us is we can invite those laughs, but then hopefully at some point it switches for even a general audience who never thought they would care about gaming and they’re like actually pulling for Fugitive Gaming to win an LCS [League of Legends Championship Series] title.

You have talked about working with writers from Riot Games [League of Legends developer] to make sure it’s like still authentic. However, League of Legends has a lot of jargon that could lose viewers, but that jargon is important since it conveys authenticity. How did you balance the need to have complicated gameplay aspects that would go over some people while still making it understandable?

Yacenda: These were discussions that happened ever since we were pitching. And we were really fortunate that that Queen’s Gambit came out while we were pitching the show because it was such a good proof of concept of not explaining anything. They never tell you what a Queen’s Gambit is or what a Sicilian Defense is, but you could tell that the chess just feels accurate even if you don’t know anything about it. They didn’t dumb it down for you, but you could tell when she does something good or does something bad and the complexity and the texture makes it more entertaining for someone who knows nothing beyond what what chess pieces do. So that was always philosophically our approach.

And then emotionally what we were doing was telling a story about two teammates that need to learn to trust each other. A traditional classic sports story. And we needed to make sure we were constantly hitting those emotional beats and that whatever gameplay beats we had were also serving the story between Organizm and Creamcheese and success of Fugitive Gaming.

Perrault: Luckily the producers who had worked at Riot prior to working on Players are great storytellers, as well as knowing the ins and outs of the game. So they were excellent at both.

One person whose approval really meant a lot to me for the show is my dad, because he is an enormous sports fan, but only traditional sports like basketball, football, and baseball. I grew up playing video games, not PC very much, but the point is my dad certainly didn’t. And at one point thought this was a Mortal Kombat show. That seems to say that this wasn’t his world, but if we could get him to emotionally invest in this in the same way he would in The Last Dance or any other sort of traditional sports doc, then we knew we’d be doing our job right.

And thankfully he’s been able to connect and there are obviously context clues, whether it be the emotion of the players or just sort of reading their faces. Thankfully we have very expressive actors and characters who make it very clear what they think about Creamcheese or Organizm at all times.

Interview: Players Co-Creators

Misha Brooks is such an excellent Creamcheese since he’s so arrogant and plays the role so well. American Vandal was similarly well cast with talented, believable actors, which is important for a mockumentary since viewers need to believe what they’re seeing is based in a grounded version of reality. What is your casting process like for getting such fitting actors for these roles?

Perrault: We are over the moon with Misha. I think he’s excellent. The casting process with all our lead roles is that we do several scenes and because we’re in a pandemic, those take place over Zoom, including callbacks. But also we ask questions and conduct an interview as if this is a real talking head interview between a documentarian and a subject.

And he jokes, and I think this is true, that we gave him questions ahead of time that he could study up on that he could plan answers to and that we asked completely different questions. My side of the story is that it was a mix. We did ask some of the prepared questions. So I don’t know what the heck he’s talking about, but I did throw in a few totally improvised ones. And not only was he funny in his responses, he was very honest and very real, which is far more important to us than being overtly funny.

Yacenda: I also think a big part of our casting philosophy is casting a wide net and opening up the parameters a good deal. We weren’t necessarily looking for somebody that was Creamcheese’s physical type. We had the archetype of the the veteran who’s coming the terms with approaching the end of his career and having to pass the throne to this young hotshot ADC [Attack Damage Carry, the person who is the main damage dealer for a team] and struggling with that. We knew those were the beats that whoever we cast would have to hit, but we were open to tons of different types. And then when you see somebody who really brings specificity and authenticity to a role, then we can go back and do a pass where we’re like, “OK, let’s do a little pass on Creamcheese where we rewrite to Misha’s voice.”

And that sort of like back and forth has proven to us to be a much better method than having all of your parameters and finding just the peg that goes in the hole that we developed in the writer’s room.

Perrault: Wendy O’Brien, our casting director, and Laura Aughton have done absolutely tremendous work. And, as Tony said, casting a wide net and then finding honest, real people [worked for us]. We do not seek out named talent, especially for shows like American Vandal and Players. It’s not necessarily a major negative if someone is recognizable, but it’s certainly not something that, with the tone of this sort of more grounded documentary, that we seek out. And so thankfully this show does have a lot of discoveries and Misha and Da’Jour [Jones, who plays Organizm] who had also both done things before this. We were just thrilled with them.

Interview: Players Co-Creators

Do you think the grounded nature of a documentary makes you want to go outside of the big names that people would know?

Yacenda: I think there’s truth to that.

Perrault: Could it be distracting that you cast people with pro League of Legends experience who feel real because they really are real, but then they’re acting off of opposite of an A-list actor? I think it could pull you out. Not like any of the A-list actors are lining up to do Players.

Yacenda: Sean Penn was really trying to play in our show and we were like, “Sean, it’s just not our style.” We had to let him down. [laughs]

Interview: Players Co-Creators

You guys talked about how the iPhone footage in American Vandal was authentic because you wanted that to bring in a sense of realism. The analogous thing here is the actual gameplay. How did that work and how did you capture such specific plays?

Perrault: Riot was able to either recreate or provide some version of an old client.

Yacenda: Which was a crazy technological hurdle for them to go back and create this new client. So we’re super grateful for that.

Perrault: And then also the solo queue ladder that you see in the first episode. We were able to get the 2015 version of that. And then in later episodes, you see flashes of playoff games that would’ve taken place at a larger venue, but even then we wanted to show how the league and esports in general have grown over the course of just those six years. So the big stage moments you see in our flashback timeline still feel smaller in scale than the 2021 larger arena playoff footage. And so we wanted to create a sense of older texture in the flashback timeline and create this sense of the people, the game, and esports in general have evolved in just that short period of time.

So what about capturing the gameplay?

Yacenda: I think it was the UCLA League of Legends team that played as as our players and the opposing players. And one of the writers in our room was directing those scenes, getting a couple highlight reel shots of Organizm plays on a few champs. And they just had these like long capture days that were fun to sit in on.

Misha also had a cast on in some of the unfinished scenes. Did he injure himself on the set?

Yacenda: Yeah, in that shot in the second episode where he punches the wall [as seen at the timestamp in the above trailer]. That was the first take of that scene and he broke his hand and we used it. It’s in the trailer. But for the last two weeks of the shoot, he had a cast. So it was a combination of putting him in sweatshirts, some VFX, and then a couple of reshoots way down the line.

Perrault: It was an expensive joke. It was our most expensive joke.

Yacenda: Yeah, seriously.

So you guys wrote in that he would punch a wall?

Perrault: We did and there was padding there.

Yacenda: It was very little padding, as he will attest to.

Players Creators Reflect on American Vandal's Cancelation

American Vandal was beloved and Netflix still canceled it so suddenly after only two seasons. How do you both look back on the show and its cancelation?

Yacenda: I think it’s a bummer to have something you love canceled, but we also are so grateful for the opportunity. If you describe the premise of that show to anyone, it’s crazy that somebody let us make that show in the first place. So I think there were a lot of external market forces that made it possible for that show to be made in 2016. And by 2018, the streaming market was very much changing. But I don’t think we could complain about the latter without being very grateful for the former.

Perrault: I agree. Tony and I had worked for years before Vandal, but that, in a way, really felt like another step for us in learning how best to work with each other. And I think a lot of the toolkit we used on Players comes directly from our experience with Vandal. We’re super grateful to Netflix and everyone who gave us that opportunity.

And I echo what Tony said that I think we were very lucky to have sold that and to have been able to do that when we did. The show also kicked my ass because it was hard. Both of these mockumentaries are not the easiest to make between the gameplay and different elements of Players and then also creating these complex social media worlds of these fictional characters. But I couldn’t be more grateful that we got the opportunity. And I think one thing that I’m grateful for in addition to that is that each season is self-contained, so it’s not in the nature of American Vandal to ever end on a cliffhanger, but thank God we didn’t.

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