The Ultimate New-School Survivor Player Rankings: Determining the Best Players from the Past Twenty (Plus Two) Seasons — The Primer

Twenty Two Seasons. Three Hundred and Fifty Seven Castaways. One Survivor? After spending a year going back through the “New School” era of Survivor (Spanning from the first season after Heroes vs Villains, Nicaragua, to Winners at War), and weekly following the two most recent seasons of “New Era” Survivor, it is about that time to bookend the saga with the one exercise all super fans love: power rankings. I’ve taken the herculean task of putting together a totally definitive and completely perfect list ranking every castaway to play the game of Survivor. Before we start going through the list, I wanted to make a primer article as a way to explain the thought process that went into placing castaways at position and determining who is the best of the best to play the game.

The Important Categories For Determining Rankings

What gameplay categories factored into the ranking decisions? I fell on five pillars of Survivor to based my player evaluations on:

  1. Strategic Prowess

Strategic Prowess

An obvious category to grade the castaways on. This specifically looks at the ability for players to make things happen in the votes. This can be looked at in the active sense, where a castaway is leading the plan for an alliance or voting block to send someone home. It can also be looked at in the reactive sense, by castaways who find ways to avoid going home on an episode where they faced a lot of pressure from opposition. I’m also including advantages in this criteria, be it procuring them, using them, or responding to another’s use of them (like a split vote in case of an idol play). In the new school era of Survivor where advantages are commonplace and the general “strategy” of winning Survivor has been figured out, the strategic ingenuity of a castaway has become more and more important to long term success in the game. The criteria that goes hand in hand with it is number two. I’ll reward players for an open and ever-working strategic mind, even if they weren’t the most successful over someone who plays a more “chalk” (simple, risk-averse) game.

Social Game

The other key category to a good Survivor player is their social game, and is the yang to strategy’s yin. This is mainly looking at a castaway’s ability to secure alliances and safety, appeal to the emotions and egos of tribemates to navigate through the game, and the perception management that swings a jury to your side in the very end. This differs from strategic prowess because I’m not considering the active plan making and scrambling that comes into a vote, but the understanding of dynamics of the tribe and the management of personalities that can keep you off the voting parchment.

The question now pops up: if you hold up a great social player against an equally great strategic player, which one will be ranked higher in my list? It’s probably the biggest factor to how the biases of a superfan can factor into the energy of the list that is made, either celebrating the players that run the game despite making enemies, versus the player who stays under the radar strategically but earns the respect of the jury through character and personality. Obviously both types of players (as well as players proficient in both of course) will rank near the top of the list, but in my opinion going far in the game as someone who is determining votes is tougher to do than avoiding the vote with a social game. So I’m valuing strong strategic play a little more than strong social play. Though obviously these things can be valued differently season to season.

Results Oriented

Having a great strategic mind or a charismatic social are great things for Survivor, but none of that matters if you don’t make it far in the game. Results are obviously going to matter in the rankings, which means that some players who go far without having that much of an impact in the flow of the season will be ranked higher than castaways who look strong early but burn out quickly. It means the top of the list will be populated by a lot of winners and the bottom of the list will be populated by a lot of first boots, which is to be expected. The obvious exceptions to this criteria are the goats, or players who make it far despite playing a bad game of Survivor so they can be sacrificed to the jury as a castaway with virtually no shot to win in the end.

Challenge/Survival Skills

This is the category that encompasses the more intangible parts of Survivor, primarily performance the immunity challenges. A player who is able to win multiple immunity challenges in their season will see their stock rise on the list regardless of if they are a strategic or social savant, because earning immunity from a vote consistently is indeed a big deal. This doesn’t necessarily mean the opposite either; if a player stinks at challenges but is still a key player in the social or strategic game, their ranking won’t really be impacted. Unless they are bad at challenges to an ungodly level.

There are also some players whose skills around camp are highlighted and as a result become a bit more important to keep around. This won’t really factor into my rankings except in extreme cases, and even then not that much. Survivor at this point has gone past the strategy of keeping people around as camp workers.

Entertainment Factor

In the case of players with fairly equal resumes (there are 354 Survivor players to rank, so there are a lot of equal resumes), then entertainment and importance to the season’s story will often be the tiebreaker. Survivor is first and foremost a TV show, so it makes sense to me to reward castaways who offer a lot to the television product over castaways who are forgettable in the long run. It lines up with my general philosophy that I rate players who try to make moves in the game a bit more than players who get by through sitting on the sidelines strategically.

Answering the FAQs Before They are Asked

How Did I Go Through the Process of Rating Every Single Player?

When I wrote up my notes for every season review (check them out on my Medium page if you haven’t read my reviews), I had put together a tier list for the castaways on every season based on what I thought of their games during my watch as well as individual notes on what players did during the season. This way I could go back easily and remember who I thought were the best players from each season, even if it was many months since I actually watched what happened. This built the skeleton for the rankings, breaking up the pool of castaways and ranking them in their tiers (A,B,C,D,F). Some players I had different opinions on once I started the large rankings so I moved them around as such, and returning players who had a larger body of work were ranked in the tier of their best season, and later moved to a middle ground if their multiple seasons saw vastly different results. The list saw three to four iterations and has even seen some last second movement as I near publishing my official list (Winners at War being a big reason for this).

Is Every Player on the List?

No, not every player is on the list. Of the 357 castaways to play Survivor in the past twenty two seasons, 354 make the list. One omitted player is Dan Spilo, the only Survivor castaway to be kicked out of the game in Island of the Idols. I decided you can’t be ranked if production kicked you out. The other two players omitted are Courtney from One World and Jackson from Survivor 42, both who were medically DQed before the first challenge completed. There is simply not enough tape to glean from their under one episode stint to properly rank them. Pat from David vs Goliath also medically DQed in the first episode, but I felt like he got highlighted enough in his short time to garner a ranking.

Other than that everyone else is ranked, regardless if they quit, medically DQed later in the game, had controversy on the show, or crimes post-show. I’m only looking at these people as television characters on Survivor for the purpose of this ranking, and my praise or insult to how they play the game is not a reflection of what I think of them as human beings.

Is The Ranking Purely Show Edit Based? Or Does It Take Into Account Post-Game Interviews/Anecdotal Gameplay?

A wordy question with a simple answer. I am only taking into account what is shown on the Survivor episodes, no post-game accounts or commentary. Maybe a bit more relevant for the most recent seasons, where cast members are likely to give information on the inner workings of votes in the island in interviews or through social media. The edit is king (and usually an accurate depiction for what is going on in the game) and I’ve determined placing based on how I interpreted what the episodes show.

How Did You Rate Players Who Played One Season Versus Players Who Played Multiple?

Probably the most complicated part of the rankings was trying to determine how players stack up when one castaways has one really good season, versus castaways with two to three inconsistent seasons. I often gave multi-season players the benefit of the doubt and their ranking is closest to where they would be if you gave me their one best season only, and then pushed a little higher or lower depending on how successful they were in other seasons. Some exceptions would occur if a castaway had a disastrous season (like Colton on Blood v Water) that irrevocably scars their player legacy.

What About the Old School Legends, Whose Best Seasons Were “Old School” Seasons

This was one of the more complicated parts of the rankings, because there are so many other variables to consider with their “New School” seasons. The best example of this would be Sandra, who while she didn’t make the merge in her two new school seasons is obviously really good at the game of Survivor as a two-time winner. Great Old School players often got a bit of a “Legacy” buff when ranking them, mainly because their reputation makes it really easy to target, and therefore make their game harder.

How Did You Make Such an Awful and Blatantly Wrong List?

Actually, this ranking is a perfect list and there is nothing wrong with it.

It’s all just my opinion. Feel free to tell me if you think someone is criminally underrated or overrated. Silly debate is fun, and it’s just a TV show.

I’m going to try to post these rankings articles at least one or twice a week. There’s like 10ish of these coming in the future, and each are the length of a average sized textbook. So I thank you for starting this journey with me!



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Reality TV connoisseur writing about the shows I like, especially Survivor. I also watch the Challenge, the Bachelor, Love is Blind, and more.