The 456 contestants line up before the first game in green jumpsuits and white shirts.


Squid Game: The Challenge brings real contestants into the drama of the original series.

Photography by Pete Dadds
Additional reporting by Liz Lee
8 May 20248 min read

That’s the guiding principle behind Squid Game: The Challenge, an ambitious reality show based on the premise of Hwang Dong-hyuk’s dystopian drama series Squid Game. In it, 456 people from around the world come head-to-head in a series of challenges for a chance at winning 4.56 million dollars, one of the largest cash prizes in TV history. For each player that is eliminated, $10,000 gets added to the pot — or in this case, to the plexiglass piggy bank hanging high above the dormitory where the players eat, sleep, strategize, and form alliances.

In the fictional Squid Game, players who lose are killed. The notion of a reality show based on a life-or-death competition was far-fetched, but production companies Studio Lambert and The Garden rose to the challenge. They kept the stakes high; for these 456 contestants, the prize money would be nothing short of life-changing. Jada (#097), who had donated a kidney to her brother, hoped to give some of the funds to kidney donor programs, while Trey (#301) wanted to help his parents pay off their home. “With our tone, especially with the games, we’ve tried to give the sense that this is all or nothing for these people,” says executive producer Stephen Yemoh.

Through its sequence of childhood games, Squid Game becomes an exploration of human nature — and by using the drama as a blueprint, Squid Game: The Challenge brings up similar questions, exploring the tension between selflessness, sympathy, and self-preservation. Producers added tests that take place in the dorm between games, giving players some agency. At one point, two are tasked with giving one of their peers an advantage or giving them the boot; at another, answering a phone call in the dorm means sealing someone else’s fate. “That’s one of the holy grails of unscripted television: finding a game that in some way reveals people’s morality and character,” says executive producer John Hay.


How do you create a high-stakes reality show with 456 players? With the goal of making the games global, casting directors Erika Dobrin and Robyn Kass found contestants through three major casting hubs: one on the East Coast, one on the West Coast, and one in London. Their team parsed 81,000 applications and reviewed nearly 1,000 casting tapes before landing on a selection of 456 people whose stories they would be excited to tell. But they couldn’t get too attached — some of the most compelling players could be (and were) eliminated in the first game. “With a cast of 456, you’ve just got to let them go,” Yemoh says. “Competition is the winner.” 

The cast ranges in age, with one player, Rick (#232), celebrating his 69th birthday in the dorm — “best birthday ever,” he says, high-fiving those around him. And they come from a variety of backgrounds: There’s a professional athlete, a math teacher, a nanny, even a former New York Times editor, who signed up to play as a duo with her son. Two contestants are best friends. And inside the games, new friendships are formed.

Once selected, all 456 players traveled to London for the first game, Red Light, Green Light, which had to be shot in Cardington Studios, the largest indoor soundstage in Europe. With 100,000 square feet at their disposal, the team created a space in which 456 players could compete fairly and believably, and all at once, within the world of Squid Game. Every competitor wore a tracking device for the first game, while some players wore individual microphones. Atmos mics and cameras were placed around the room to capture additional footage.

But perhaps the greatest challenge with a cast this large is how to get viewers invested in the people onscreen. “It’s a challenge that goes hand-in-hand with the second biggest problem, which was how to make the eliminations have anything like the drama of the scripted series,” says executive producer Stephen Lambert. It comes down to the bonds created in the process; people who might never have met in other circumstances go through this experience together — and they are immediately put to the test.


The production design team’s creative challenge was twofold: how to approach the show’s unprecedented scale and how to remain true to the instantly iconic visual world of Squid Game. In theory, working off of an existing world was “strangely liberating,” says production designer Mathieu Weekes. The tricky part was making it look as much like the drama as possible in a smaller footprint — and without the sweeping visual effects of the original. It’s one thing to add C.G.I. touches (like blue skies) to the game sets for the sake of viewer experience and another to ensure that the practical environment feels as immersive as possible to contestants.

With the exception of Red Light, Green Light, the cast and crew spent 16 days shooting in six interconnected sound stages in London. Once players entered, they didn’t leave unless they were eliminated. Like in Squid Game, they spent their free time in the dormitory and passed through disorienting stairwells to all-white rooms that would introduce them to every challenge. Then there were games that had to be rendered safe. Tug-of-war was swapped for a full-scale simulation of Warship (similar to the classic board game Battleship), and the glass bridge game used trap doors to make falls dramatic but plausible.

Setting up the dorm was a feat in and of itself. There’s no rule book for how to build bunk beds five tiers high, and matching 60,000 bathroom tiles to the colors used on the show is meticulous work. Add to that the unpredictable nature of a reality show; the whole space has to be perfect. “It’s their world, it’s their home for that time, and it’s quite hard to guess how people react to stuff and how they’re going to behave in that space,” Weekes says. “Where are they going to dwell? What spaces are they going to find to form those bonds or create those friendships or those allegiances?”

Once sets were constructed, the production design team operated in two different modes. On game days, they made sure shooting ran smoothly and simultaneously reconfigured beds as players got knocked out in real time. On other days, they focused on chores, like sourcing potato peelers or dirtying dishes for contestants to clean while in the dorms. With the sheer scale of the show, simple tasks became time-consuming. “Suddenly, it’s almost someone’s full-time job to look after toothpaste and toothbrushes,” Weekes says.


When there are 456 players at the starting line, it’s impossible to track each one of them with the same level of focus. Whose story do you tell? Whose victories do you celebrate? Editing becomes the most effective way to help viewers track certain players and become invested in their fates. As the show progresses, we learn more about the remaining competitors’ stories. Ones that seem like villains turn out to have soft edges; ones that appear sympathetic are willing to eliminate others to save themselves. 

With a game like Dalgona, in which players must cut shapes out of a brittle candy using nothing but a needle, cameras could only capture so many moments in real time. If they missed the second a cookie cracked, that’s one more story they were unable to tell onscreen. It’s why the production team used roughly 30 cameras to record games and 150 cameras in the dorms. 

The work of editors, aside from choosing which moments to show and which ones to conceal, is to ratchet up the tension by watching players react to game results, tests, or eliminations. And some of the most harrowing scenes involve black ink, which denotes elimination, exploding across contestants’ bodies as they slowly fall to the ground.

Despite all the intense preparation, global scouting, carpentry, candy-making, camerawork, adjudicating, and editing, the beauty of reality television is that there is only so much one can control. “We’ve always said we can’t be too precious on this show,” Yemoh says. “We’ve just got to let it unfold. It’s too much money for anyone to think that we might have meddled with
it. So we’ve just got to let it play out. You do get brilliant stories from it.”