A “third-person cyberpunk fighting MOBA”. A villainous esports team owner. A horde of teenagers Naruto-running through a convention centre. Even as a keen viewer of Leverage: Redemption, I was leery of the heist-o-rama tackling esports. And sure, its fake video game is baffling, but I was surprised by how many notes the esports episode hit right. With an Illumatrons team overworked to breaking point by an egotistical owner hawking dangerous supplements, it’ll take a con, a frame, fisticuffs, and powerful cheat software to save the day.
Leverage: Redemption (the post-cancellation continuation of Leverage) is a dramedy where a team of master criminals use their skills to help the hopeless. With a grifter, hacker, thief, fixer, and punchman, every episode is a con, or a heist, or a con concealing a heist, or a heist to double-cross a con heist heist con. Great fun. In the 2022 episode The Journament Job, the team help the sister of an esports player who’s mighty concerned about her brother Tam’s health and freedom ahead of a major tournament.
We must talk about the game. Former corporate lawyer Harry (Noah Wyle, aka Carter off ER) declares Illumatrons to be “my favourite third-person cyberpunk fighting MOBA” and, well, I guess I can see elements of that if I squint. Players use MOBA terms like “diving”, the UI has MOBA-y elements, and the whole game does have the look of some 2015 MOBA which would have shut down before even leaving early access, but that’s about all. In the short clips of mocked-up action, I’m not sure I see MOBA or fighting game.
Even following the Criminal Minds method of guessing how a fake game would work, the best I can do is: it’s a 5v5 fighting game based heavily on out-planning your enemy before even throwing a punch. Professionally it’s played 5v5 on PC with keyboard and mouse, though the Leverage gang also play 1v1 with gamepads. Each round is a single teamfight where players initially pair off in 1v1s, and ends when one team is wiped out. Fights seem to unfold in a short sequence of moves which lock characters into long animations. Perhaps there’s a rock-paper-scissors element of picking the right move. Or perhaps there’s a lot of invisible high-APM skill in either continuing or breaking out from attacks? It doesn’t really matter, because the tournament Typhoon 7 is coming and the team Samurai Midnight are under a lot of pressure to win.
Samurai Midnight are owned by Kyle Fury, a former pro American football player who was busted for drugs then played in lesser leagues until a knee injury took him out. After that, he ran various influencer and esports scams, launching his own vanishing cryptocurrency (Fury tokens), running “clickbait farms,” and now reinventing himself as “a clean living warrior” to hawk his own line of shakes and vitamins, the Fury Victory Program. Lad’s a wrong’un. Samurai Midnight are actually his second esports team, after the first collapsed with several psychotic breaks thanks to Kyle plying them with stimulants. I do not recommend the Fury Victory Program. Now he’s got Samurai Midnight functionally imprisoned: cut off from their families, threatened, bullied, and training non-stop under the supervision of a hulking ‘doctor’ who’s dosing them up. Even if Tam didn’t have a heart condition, it’s wildly unhealthy. But what are they to do? As grifter Sophie (Gina Bellman, aka Jane off Coupling) noted, “He promised them the career they’d always dreamed of, and he isolated them from everything they know.”
Kyle Fury is a delightfully loathsome composite of gaming-adjacent influencers, scammers, and pricks. He aches to become a wealthy and respected business personality (his idol is an NFL player-turned-esports investor) and to hell with everyone else. As he says, “The only winner that matters is me.” And if Samurai Midnight burn out, he’ll just get a new team and “pump them full of whatever I want”. The scenario is wildly exaggerated but it works because enough parts feel woefully familiar. Of course Kyle did crypto. Of course he’s using players’ dreams against them. Of course he’s a “clean living warrior”. Of course he sells his own supplements. Of course his mouth is full of influencer wank.
“Illumatrons, it’s not just a game,” Kyle explains at one point. “Samurai Midnight, it’s not just a team. It’s a lifestyle. It’s a philosophy that allows you to control your own destiny. That’s what I’m giving these kids. I’m creating winners.”
Prick. The whole episode succeeds this way: it’s silly yet rooted in enough familiar elements to work. It feels like it was written by people who know games, with one character even observing that “Illumatrons needs its own Evo Moment 37 in order to break out.” I thought about that reference a lot. You might not know the name, but you likely know the clip.
Evo Moment #37 was the point in Evo’s 2004 Street Fighter III: 3rd Strike tournament where, with only a sliver left in his health bar, Daigo Umehara’s Ken parried 15 consecutive kicks from the special move of Justin Wong’s Chun-Li. The crowd go wild, and grow wilder as the parries keep coming. Daigo then turns it around and tears through Justin in four seconds to take the round. The room explodes and the camera turns to face the screaming spectators now on their feet. That clip has spread far beyond fighting game fanatics. Even if you don’t know Street Fighter, don’t understand exactly what he was doing nor how precise the timing was, you know you’ve seen something special.
All esports face the problem of being indecipherable to outsiders, and I think MOBAs can be especially obtuse. A single teamfight can be an incomprehensible flurry of spells and special effects wrapping up decisively in seven seconds. And even if you know the MOBA, the event which most strongly influenced the outcome of that fight might have been a gank that happened 30 minutes ago. Let’s generously say that Illumatrons is a baffling game to us because how could we possibly hope to understand a fighting game/MOBA hybrid by watching five-second clips? Illumatrons really did need its own Evo Moment #37, for all our sakes.
Oh, and what happens with Kyle Fury and Samurai Midnight? I’ll not recap the episode, but the Leverage crew plan to take him down with Illumatrons entrapment. They infiltrate his inner circle and offer him a “predictive cheating AI” that can scale all the way from boosting your stats for a subtle advantage to outright taking control and playing for you. With the tournament’s games hosted in a server van out back, they plan to film him breaking in to install the cheat and then expose him. But does any con go off without hitches and twists?
You can watch the Leverage: Redemption episode The Tournament Job for free on Amazon’s Freevee, the ad-supported service previously known as IMDb TV.
Before we go, I must point out that master thief Parker is played by Beth Riesgraf, who previously played a gaming fanatic in an episode of NCIS. I’ll probably not cover that in depth because we barely see any game but I would very much like to relay the fact that her character there holds “the top score in almost every MMORPG”. Lovely. Very good. Well done.
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