‘Players,’ a Paramount+ esports comedy, comes from a Philly guy and stars one, too

It’s been a whirlwind few weeks for Da’Jour Jones. First, it was his senior prom. Then, he graduated from Cab Calloway School of the Arts. And, finally, last week, he attended the premiere for a TV show in which he has a lead role.

Now, that series, Playersis making its streaming debut on Paramount+.

“Everything’s just been leading up to one bigger event,” says Jones, 19, who was born in North Philadelphia and raised in Delaware. And he’s not the show’s only local connection.

A comedic mockumentary focused on the world of esports, Players comes to us via Exton native Tony Yacenda and his writing partner Dan Perrault — the same duo behind the Peabody Award-winning Netflix streamer American Vandal. In PlayersJones plays Percy “Organizm” Elmore, a 17-year-old Philly kid who is on a quest to become the greatest professional player in the history of online battle arena game League of Legends.

Something of a cross between Rocky and Silicon Valley, the show follows Jones’ character from his native Overbrook Park to the big leagues and back as he joins professional gaming team Fugitive. The team is on a journey to win Its first League Championship Series title — but tension between Jones’ stoic rookie Organizm and veteran team leader Creamcheese (played by Misha Brooks) threatens to derail the effort.

Nerdy? Maybe a little. But you don’t need to know anything about video games — let alone the vast, fanatical culture of esports fandom — to get the show. You know, just like you don’t need to know basketball to like Hustle.

While it mostly wasn’t filmed in Philly — there are some exterior shots around Overbrook Park, and outside the Liacouras Center and City Hall — Players very much feels like a Philly story. That authenticity, Yacenda says, is by design — including the casting of Jones as a series lead.

“It’s not a coincidence that I wanted Organizm, this prodigy playing in his parents’ house, to be a 17-year-old kid from Philadelphia,” Yacenda says. “And for me, I really wanted to find the genuine article, not some kid who had just gone to Juilliard and is 24 playing a 17-year-old.”

Jones fits the bill well. He started acting around 5, took up standup comedy at 12, and has taken classes at area institutions like the Philadelphia Acting Studio and Walking Fish Theater in Kensington in addition to his schooling at Cab Calloway in Wilmington. And while he has appeared in bigger projects like That Damn Michael Che on HBO Max and the forthcoming Rosanna Arquette-starrer Signs of LovePlayers is his biggest role to date — much like Organizm’s trek into pro gaming with Fugitive is the character’s big break.

“I felt like each day, every step Organizm was taking, I was also taking those steps with him,” says Jones. But, he adds, he and his character are nothing alike, outside of their obsessions with wanting to be the greatest at acting and League of Legends, respectively. But playing Organizm, he hopes, will be inspirational, considering that in real life, esports often lack diversity.

“This isn’t the average, typical part for a young African-American kid such as myself,” says Jones. “I felt like it could be inspiring to see a young, African-American kid coming up and dominating in a league that is predominantly European and Asian.”

Meanwhile, Yacenda, a self-described Sixers fan, was jazzed to get a little help in the writers room from Daryl Morey, president of basketball operations for the team. A major esports supporter, Morey, he says, was able to give insight on the real-life dynamic of pro gaming teams sharing ownership groups with NBA teams, which is a major plot point in Players.

What’s more, working on the show helped Yacenda empathize with one of the most controversial Sixers figures in recent history: Ben Simmons. The writing staff, Yacenda says, was working on a pivotal, tragic (by pro gaming standards, anyway) moment in the show the same night Simmons infamously passed up a dunk against Atlanta Hawks point guard Trae Young last June. And while Yacenda says he still doesn’t like Simmons, Players gave him a way to look at what competing at a high level means from the athlete perspective.

“I just remember being so angry at this 24-year-old Australian kid like he did it just to hurt my feelings, and not because he was dealing with his own mental mental [stuff],” says Yacenda. But writing the show, he adds, helped him to “remember that all of these people we are watching are humans” and that he’s “just a fan watching this for entertainment.”

But does he forgive Simmons for that flub? Not exactly.

“[I’m] working towards forgiveness,” says Yacenda. “But it definitely helped to understand.”

And, unlike Simmons, Jones doesn’t plan on going anywhere anytime soon. In fact, he vows, Players won’t be the last you see of him — or, as his mom, Kimberly Hall-Jones, puts it, “move over, Will Smith.”

“I’m on my way,” says Jones. “Make Room, Will. Make room.”

Players is available to stream now via Paramount+.

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