There was an episode of Community forever ago where the dean wailed that “TV is crazy good right now!” That was years ago, and if anything, television has gotten even better. Between the streaming service wars, tons of original content, and social media buzzing about the big show du jour, it’s kind of impossible to keep up.
And so it was that I found myself checking out a show I had never heard of before recommended by a friend who recently turned me onto the now-cancelled Lodge 49. (As an aside, that show as incredible and if you get a chance, add that to your list, too.)
In a nutshell, The King’s Avatar is a sports drama. In this case, it’s esports, specifically a fictional MMORPG called Glory that opens in the midst of the 10th championship tournament. Think World of Warcraft or League of Legends. Our hero, Ye Qui, is the captain of the winning team and a legend of the game. But the management of his guild wants more excitement–flashier personalities, all sizzle and no steak. So he finds himself retiring rather than give over his team to last year’s rookie star, an arrogant but talented newcomer named Sun Xiang. Stepping across the street to the Happy Internet Cafe, Ye Qui, hiding his true identity, begins a path of rebirth to recapture the spirit and joy the game has given him.
Also, it’s 40 episodes long. Subtitled. And maybe half of it takes place in the game world.
There are so many reasons this show shouldn’t work for me. I used to play World of Warcraft, but that was a long time ago. And I don’t have any understanding of esports. There are certain things in the show, from pacing to tone shifts, that I suspect are more typical of Chinese serialized drama. But hell if I know because I don’t watch any of those, either.
But I do love a good underdog story. A good sports story. And a good story about someone fighting back against incredible odds to do the thing they love to do. And The King’s Avatar has that by the truckload. I was pretty soundly hooked after the first few episodes as I started to see the overarching plot develop. I’m only 17 episodes in now and I can’t get enough of it.
The characters are adorable, from Cafe manager and super fan Guo Guo to her perfection-obsessed best friend Little Tang and the rich cast that of players and rivals that builds around them. The action sequences develop around real stakes and real emotional consequences. And at the core, it has multiple intersecting story arcs about a life in professional sports–knowing you can’t do it forever, leaving ego aside to train the next generation, petty rivalries as well as the respect between long-time competitors, and the relationship of a sports star to his fans.
An unexpected up-side of the show, for me at least, is that you have to engage with it.
I have a horrible habit of being on my phone when watching something at home. Even if it’s something I want to watch. I’m trying to break myself of it, but it isn’t easy. With the state of the world as it is, I feel a need to scroll through the hell-site that is Twitter with alarming regularity just to keep my finger on the pulse.
It’s not good.
I can’t do that when I’m watching The King’s Avatar. I risk missing something if I turn away for too long. I can’t rely on audio cues to keep up since it’s entirely subtitled. So even when they go down a path of Ye Qui and Guo Guo sparring with each other verbally, which is cute and all but not exactly what I came for, I keep my eyes on the screen so I don’t miss any important emotional turning points for the show.
In that way, yeah, it can be a tiny bit like a soap opera. But the overall arcs for all the characters are so compelling as Ye Qui builds his little family and team of misfits around him that I don’t mind.
Anyway, with all the talk of big event television, Henry Cavil’s meaty thighs and his boy-toy bard, the masked merc with the puppet baby, or more recently the oddly sweaty vampire, it’s easy for a show like this to fall under the radar. Netflix isn’t doing anything to promote it. If not for word of mouth, I never would have seen it, which is a shame because it’s so, so good! I would posit that it is the best show streaming on Netflix that you’re not currently watching.
Put an episode or two in your eye holes if you don’t believe me. If you’re a fan of sports movies, video games, or adorable Chinese actors, I promise you there is a lot to love here.