At the risk of incurring the wrath of countless folks I’ve never met, I have written my first feature that ranks the Survivor winners from 28 to 1.
We’re not going to agree. I get it. If you’re really a dedicated fan, you probably have your own list and will dismiss this as, um, poop.
Before getting into this ranking, though, I think presenting my thought process makes sense. This way, when you’re cursing this list, you can at least understand how my tiny brain arrived at it.
I’ve been watching Survivor from the beginning. As a 35-year-old guy, I’ve been an adult throughout the run of the series, and besides Africa and Marquesas (when I was busy getting drunk in grad school), I’ve watched every season when it originally aired. I’ve now seen all the seasons, most of them more than once.
The tough part of coming up with a methodology for ranking winners revolves around returning players. For example, I think Parvati in Fans vs. Favorites probably played the best winners’ game, but don’t I have to count Cook Islands against her, a season where she was basically a non-entity? Or, obviously, Sandra is a great player, so a list of best players may have her higher, but this exercise doesn’t exactly play to her strengths.
With that in mind, while reading this list, understand that a relatively subjective grading rubric went into it. Oh, sure, I’ll explain the ranking, but some of these simply came down to a gut feeling.
OK, I’m done with the boring stuff. Let’s go, from 28 to 1.
28 — Natalie (Samoa): I’ve heard all arguments about Natalie as the catalyst for Galu turning on each other. I don’t buy them. Galu experienced too much success and couldn’t wait to implode. Natalie didn’t do much throughout the entire season. The only thing she excelled at revolved around not upsetting Russell … and doing so little that Russell never felt threatened. And Russell felt threatened by everyone.
27 — Vecepia (Marquesas): I don’t know. Besides Natalie, I think you could put the other bottom five on this list in any order and you’d get no argument from me. Vecepia made some good moves when they were needed, but, overall, just flew under the radar and didn’t do much. When the proverbial radar finally caught up to her, it was too late and she won. I mean, Neleh played far worse, so this rivals the worst final two in the history of the show.
26 — Danni (Guatemala): Danni thrived in some challenges, so she avoids the absolute bottom of the list, but she just didn’t do much more. This is another forgettable season. No strategic or physical threats stood out. I mean, didn’t Rafe win multiple immunity challenges? Look, it’s got to be hard to win Survivor, but some winners have to rank low.
25 — Bob (Gabon): I’ve heard people say Bob should be on the bottom of this list. I’ve got a couple reasons for disagreeing. Yes, I know that a bunch of, um, bad players lasted really long in Gabon. And I know Bob acted completely clueless for the first 75% of the season, but near the end he started making some good moves, including the fake immunity idol, which is why he’s here.
24 — Fabio (Nicaragua): Keeping in mind that he’s ranked 24 here, I think Fabio is an underrated winner. In the whole holy trinity of Survivor traits — outplay, outlast, outwit — Fabio nailed two of them. He dominated in challenges and played a pretty decent social game. I mean, everyone liked him. I know he was a strategic zero, but he does deserve some credit for his good moves.
23 — Amber (All-Stars): Again, for a lower-tier winner, I think Amber gets a little underrated. I know Boston Rob dominated her season and did make the bulk of the decisions, but Amber played that season correctly. She flirted when she needed to, she helped talk Kathy and Lex into keeping her, and she knew Rob would take all the heat for their alliance.
22 — Jenna (Amazon): Jenna is really the top of what I consider the bottom tier of winners. She made some good moves, flirted her way into alliances, won when she needed to and, overall, I just feel like she was more engaged in the game throughout her season than the people below her on this list.
21 — Ethan (Africa): What can I say about Ethan? Admittedly, this was the only season I hadn’t actually watched until very recently. I watched just for this list. Eh. Ethan played the game and excelled physically and socially. He may not have been a strategic dynamo, but that’s why he’s placed here.
20 — Sophie (South Pacific): Ethan, in my mind, is really on his own tier of winners. He’s not at the bottom group, but he’s also not nearly as good as this tier, which starts with Sophie. She played a very good game, but I’m ranking her here because I think she rode Coach’s coattails. Coach should have won South Pacific. He did the hard work, especially with Brandon, but Sophie helped considerably with the strategizing, played a decent social game and did well in challenges.
19 — Chris (Vanuatu): I feel like Chris’ game became underrated and then people started talking about that and he became considerably overrated. He stunk at most of the challenges and then just watched as the women imploded. Chris played hard and made some good strategic decisions, especially at the beginning of the game, but I feel like his middle game lacked and he gets more credit than he deserves for the end game.
18 — Denise (Philippines): Denise played a hell of a game. Honestly, this next tier of winners is filled with winners who played incredibly well, but needed some big breaks and a partner. Denise doesn’t win without Malcolm, and Malcolm wins if he could pull out that immunity challenge (or commit to Denise). So Denise ends up here.
17 — Earl (Fiji): I feel horrible putting Earl here. Before starting this exercise, I would have said Earl is totally underrated. I mean, the dude dominated his season, having only one vote cast against him and becoming the first unanimous winner at final tribal. But he never won an immunity challenge and, really, played against a pretty substandard cast.
16 — Todd (China): The best final tribal performance ever and a master strategist, but he kind of stunk in the middle part of the game, partnered heavily with Amanda (who could have won with a decent final tribal) and was a physical nothing.
15 — Tina (The Australian Outback): I think Tina’s a totally underrated winner. She played a great all-around game and gambled on Colby … a gamble that paid off. I give everyone this season a little bit extra simply because they endured a longer game.
14 — Aras (Panama): Aras is another tough one to rank. Terry dominated the season physically and was an underrated strategist. Terry also might have got robbed with that crappy final challenge. However, Aras always seemed to make the right move when he needed to. He seemed to instinctually know when to flip or flop while maintaining good relationships…a tough one.
13 — Cochran (Caramoan): OK, so here’s the first winner who played twice to win. It’s tough. Cochran, first, needed Dawn to win. But he made some killer moves against a very good cast. And if this were his first season, I’d have him significantly higher. But I just can’t forget how bad he was on South Pacific.
12 — Tony (Cagayan): The most entertaining winner ever, for my money. I absolutely loved watching Tony and he deserves tons of credit for strategizing, using an idol in a very creative way (even if it was an unfair idol) and, especially, playing Woo at the end there. With that said, Tony didn’t get enough crap, in my mind, for being really bad in individual challenges and he made some strategic mess-ups that, admittedly, he always made up for in the end.
11 — Richard (Borneo): It’s impossible to rate Richard, at least for me. I put him here, just outside the top 10, because while he revolutionized and, in some ways, created the game, he played a very different Survivor, against very different types of players. But you can only play against who’s in front of you. I’d be OK if you put Richard No. 1 on a list like this, but I don’t think he can really be anywhere else.
10 — Sandra (Pearl Islands): Look, Sandra is easily in the top 5 players of all time because of her cumulative game, but if you take each season individually, it’s tough to rate her. She’s a very good strategist, but a physical non-entity who, if she makes it to the merge, becomes an invisible player of sorts. I put her Heroes v. Villains game higher, even if it was strikingly similar, because she beat great competition and adapted more.
9 — J.T. (Tocantins): J.T. played an almost perfect game, including an under-appreciated and underrated final tribal performance. He comes in at No. 9 simply because he partnered so closely with Stephen, who contributed heavily to strategy.
8 — Tyson (Blood vs. Water): Like J.T., Tyson dominated this season physically and strategically and had a great performance at final tribal. He would also be higher on this list if he didn’t have two pretty mediocre performances before this. I mean, he voted himself out …
7 — Sandra (Heroes vs. Villains): I’m going out a limb, maybe, and saying that Parvati’s performance on Heroes vs. Villains is the best Survivor showing ever. But she didn’t win. So we’re talking about Sandra, who somehow came into the game as a former winner, got stuck low on the totem pole and still maneuvered herself to a win…a great, underrated performance because of the big personalities on this season.
6 — Yul (Cook Islands): I listened to Rob’s podcast that announced the results of the big poll ranking survivors. I could not believe how low Yul came out. I understand recency bias (I deal with it too much in my regular job.), but Yul played an amazing game against perhaps the best cast in the history of the game (not including seasons with returning players). I mean, Parvati, Penner, Ozzy, Candice, Nate … the list could go on. Yul dominated in all three facets of the game and played that idol perfectly.
5 — Tom (Palau): Here’s someone else whom I thought RHAP fans placed way too low on the list of best survivors. Tom dominated his season. Heck, the entire season kind of stunk because by episode 3, we knew who was going to win. And his masterful play on Ian at the end cemented his top 5 status here. He was just a great player. If fans reading this came to Survivor too late to see this game, go buy it through Amazon. And then you’ll appreciate Tom.
4 — Parvati (Fans vs. Favorites): I could be convinced Parvati is the best player ever. I simply refuse to put her higher because of Cook Islands. She stunk that season. It’s actually kind of incredible she was asked back for Fans vs. Favorites. And the rest is history, though.
3 — Rob (Redemption Island): Horrible season, great performance. Rob controlled this game from beginning to end. I think Boston Rob plays a high variance game in that he could play hard and go out quickly, but he also plays to win every time. Parvati did not play to win in Cook Islands. That’s how I made the distinction here. Rob played amazingly in All-Stars, could have really gone far in Heroes vs. Villains if not for Tyson and totally dominated Redemption Island. Marquesas? Well, that’s the high variance thing.
2 — Brian (Thailand): This is another stellar performance on a crappy season from a while ago. I was not surprised that RHAP voters, in my mind, underrated Brian so much. But go back and rewatch this season and let me know if anyone dominated in all three facets of the game more completely. I mean, the dude told people they were going to come in fourth and those folks nodded and said thank you. Amazing. But was he the best ever?
1 — Kim (One World): The answer to that last question is no. And that’s simply because of Kim…best first game ever, in my humble opinion. I cannot wait to see her try again someday. She dominated in all areas from the beginning. The reason I think the top 3 on this list is its own tier is that these folks were never really in trouble. They completely controlled the game, none more so than Kim. She played against a pretty good cast (better than Brian or Rob) and totally led throughout. She’s the best.
And that’s all I’ve got. This thing is already too long. Let’s talk about it in the comments.
Pat Ferrucci is a professor and writer. Follow him @patferrucci.