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Squid Game: The Challenge - successfully spinning new content from existing IP

Cover image for Squid Game: The Challenge - successfully spinning new content from existing IP

Photo: Netflix

Photo of Tim Mulligan
by Tim Mulligan

Tomorrow sees the release of the final episode of season one of Squid Game: The Challenge, the reality game show spin-off of the 2021 dystopian global hit episodic drama Squid Game. The original drama was an early example of TV internationalisation 2.0 content – a show commissioned based on a local story with global appeal. The show’s original plot revolves around 455 desperate players that willing enter an elaborate series of tasks based on children’s games, with the losers paying for their failure with their lives. Each death results in an increase in the total cash prize available to the final solitary winning player. In its first month of release in September 2021, it became Netflix's most-watched series and the most-watched program in 94 countries, attracting more than 142-million member households and 1.65 billion viewing hours in its first four weeks. 

Squid Game: The Challenge is a ten-episode reality TV spin-off of the original concept where 455 members of the general public (and, inevitably, Squid Game super fans) compete on the same sets in the same games (and some new ones with a reality twist) to become the sole winner of the $4.56 million cash prize. Fortunately for the competitors, instead of dying as a result of either their failures or the ruthless decision-making of their fellow competitors,  they are instead despatched with an exploding red dye and collapse in their presumably pre-rehearsed death pose. The reality TV series is as ruthless as the original in culling the competitor numbers (over half the contestants are killed in the opening game) and tomorrow’s finale will see the three surviving competitors battling it out for the multi-million dollar cash prize.

Similar story, similar stakes

The cultural focus of Squid Game: The Challenge has been intentionally shifted from South Korea to the US. This is despite being made by a UK production company and featuring an international group of competitors. Contestants are introduced by which US state they are from, with the pep talks and inter-player banter full of American-centric cultural clichés and reference points. However, what remains constant and true to the original content is the desperation intertwined with furtive hope among the contestants. Stories of financial difficulty interspersed with personal pain are common among the pre-contest monologues recorded by the players and strategically punctuated in between the challenges confronting the increasingly strained competitors. Friendships form and fade as the challenges come thick and fast and the odds of winning the ultimate final prize increase.

Even though the competitor eliminations are inevitable play acting, the negative consequences for the desperate participants thrust back into their real-world challenges remain real to the viewer. Equally faithful to the original are the ethical challenges confronting the players, with competitors torn between taking the ethically acceptable choice and doing what needs to be done to win the game. Ultimately, Squid Game: The Challenge successfully replicates many of the key emotional drivers of Squid Game, right down to the original story values of financial security versus peace of mind.

Spin offs work when they stay true to the original shows’ values

With Squid Game: The Challenge, Netflix has successfully created a derivative piece of content that is both authentically different, yet remains true to the values of the original content. They have tapped into the global interest in a hit which appealed across its international subscriber base despite its location-specific cultural focus. By shifting the focus from Korean culture to the US, they have maintained a homogeneous cultural reference point around which all the human drama can then unfold. This then allows the underlying universal values to play out for the viewer and create compelling TV. 

With Squid Game season two under way and planned for release in the second half of 2024, Squid Game: The Challenge will bridge the content gap to maintain and fuel Squid Game fandom between season one and season two of the scripted drama releases. The inevitable success of this new reality format will undoubtedly lead to subsequent seasons at a time when Netflix is keen to reduce the cost of content and drive diversification of its offerings to its subscriber base. To quote another thriving dystopian reality competition franchise... let the games begin.

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