Mild spoilers through episode 4 of Players ahead:
I didn’t expect it, but I really fell into Players, Paramount Plus’ mockumentary series about a floundering League of Legends esports team. I’m not a League player, I’ve never been particularly interested in esports (beyond speedrunning, if that counts!) and mockumentaries have a pretty high bar to clear for me. Aside from being very charmed by the first shot of the first episode, I found some of the early humor cloying and too on the nose, and the core character, Cream Cheese, is, to quote Jean Ralphio, the worst. That’s very much on purpose, but it’s still a barrier.
Despite that, I watched the first three and a half episodes in one sitting, thanks to the core decency and genuinely inspired performance of Ely Henry as coach Braxton, a seemingly hapless dork who is actually a great coach, making the best of a terrible situation.
In the show, the core dilemma comes from the fact that Team Fugitive — once an an upstart LOL team that rose from a kitchen table organization into a professional franchise — was bought by a slick asshole, Nathan Resnick (Steven Schneider), also an NBA team owner, who clearly doesn’t give a shit about esports or his team. Resnick sees a marketing opportunity with a young up-and-coming star, Organizm (Da’Jour Jones). He steps in and starts demanding that the new player be put in the starting lineup instead of developing in the junior league for a while, playing havok with the team dynamic and leading to plenty of losses and drama.
Braxton seems like a mild-mannered, ineffectual nerd at first. He tries to cajole his star player into playing nice in the early scenes, and gives standup interviews trying to contextualize the situation between management and the team. Early on, it gives the impression of a dude in over his head trying his best.
But as the series goes on, we get a sense of him as a player (with an earlier iteration of the team), as a decent human being, and then, truly, as a good coach. In episode 3, we see Braxton approaching each player with his own strategy and communication style, and while a lot of it is pretty corny — he makes a lot of dorky references, and most of it is pretty heavy-handed — I would be lying if I said I didn’t gain a genuine appreciation for this guy and what his efforts actually meant for the team. I’d even go so far to say I saw some of my own management style in there, though, lord, I hope my references are better.
For one player, he gives direct feedback, requiring him to take notes (and then thanking him for taking notes, which the player reminds him, he made him do). For another, he jumps in the pool where he is lounging, and makes references to his favorite drama, saying that he sees the player as a particular character. It’s nerdy and on the nose, but hey, it actually kind of works. The players in question give standup interviews to the effect that the coach is kind of a weird guy, but they have a lot of affection and respect for him.
In one of the funnier sequences in all of Players, coach Braxton almost convinces Organizm to go to the junior leagues to develop his skills, using an extended Doritos 3D metaphor. Is it cheesy? Absolutely! Does it work? It really does, given the committed performance of Henry and the hard-nosed “sports documentary” format. This doesn’t feel like a stupid, cheap joke at esports (as much of the first episode falls into), rather a funny bit that comes more organically from the characters and their situation.
That’s where Players succeeds: when it cares about these people, rather than uses them as punching bags. The hardest I laughed at the entire show — and it’s one of the corniest and most heartfelt sequences as well — is one of the most direct offshoots of the pure sports documentary, the “birth of a coach” sequence. Through stand-ups and “archival” footage of a pivotal 2015 series, Braxton and the team members take a hard loss, and return to the backstage area. Braxton starts asking questions about the core game: how many turrets does the team have, how many does the opposition, etc., and he turns it into a rousing speech that rallies the team members and propels them to a momentous victory and on to the final round of competition. Beaming with pride, Henry gives Braxton the best line of the whole show, noting that it was just the speech from Hoosiers, but with League of Legends terminology instead of basketball. It’s fantastic, and again, just solid commitment to a great bit.
In Players, coach Braxton is a dork. He is in over his head, and he is in an impossible situation. My guy even has bad boundaries (in an earlier joke, he insinuates that coaching is “easy” if you just put all your players needs above your own). But damn it, he tries, and he actually has fantastic leadership instincts, as corny and dorky as his references are. He genuinely tries to meet each player where they are, he goes into difficult conversations strategically, and he truly, truly cares. He’s less an ineffectual leader than a gifted one who just isn’t given many tools from his boss, and still, he manages a modicum of success, even under fire. I’ll go so far as to call that performance and that celebration of character mildly inspiring, and, from my standpoint, the best part of the show.
There are several unreleased episodes to go (at least, according to IMDB), but from what’s out there now, and where I’m standing, I feel comfortable calling this. Braxton, you are a real one.