Returning Player seasons offer the opportunity to former contestants to play the game of Survivor again.
The idea of former players returning originally occurred in Survivor: All-Stars. Executive Producer Mark Burnett wanted to showcase "The best of the best" after the ratings increase of Survivor: Pearl Islands. During pre-production for All-Stars, Burnett wrote down the series' most likable, villainous, and memorable players on a legal pad and shortlisted eighteen names within minutes.
"All-Stars" seasons feature casts comprised entirely of returning players. The eponymous season, All-Stars, saw 18 returnees divided into three competing tribes.
The All-Stars twist was revived for the ten-year anniversary season, Survivor: Heroes vs. Villains. This season divided the returnees based on their heroic or villainous reputations.
Survivor: Cambodia featured a "Second Chance" theme, consisting of contestants who played only once and lost; and its cast was entirely chosen by viewers through an online poll.
Survivor: Game Changers featured former contestants who contributed to the evolution of Survivor strategy and gameplay.
Fans vs. Favorites
Although initially intending to produce a second all-stars season, Burnett pushed for Survivor to experiment with different twists in their 16th season. The result was the "Fans vs. Favorites" twist that saw a tribe of ten returning players pitted against a tribe of ten "superfans". Survivor: Micronesia and Survivor: Caramoan both utilized this format.
One Returnee per Tribe
This format features two to three former castaways, each being assigned to a tribe of new players. Survivor: Guatemala, Survivor: Redemption Island, Survivor: South Pacific, and Survivor: Philippines followed this format.
Survivor: Edge of Extinction expanded on this format, bringing back four former castaways and assigning two to each tribe of new players.
Blood vs. Water
Another type of "Returnees vs. New Players" format is the couples format, where returnees would compete against people they personally know. It was first used in Survivor: Blood vs. Water, where ten returning castaways would compete against their loved ones, similarly to the "Fans vs. Favorites" format. However, each castaway would compete individually, so a castaway would still be in the game even after their partner was voted out. The twist would play its part when a castaway could opt to replace their partner on Redemption Island before a duel took place, thus allowing their partner to take their place on their tribe. While the Blood vs. Water twist would return in Survivor: San Juan del Sur, it was done with all new players and no Redemption Island.
Returning Players by Season
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- Of the 103 returnees: 73 have competed twice, 23 have competed three times, 6 have competed four times, and 1 has competed five times.
- Jenna Morasca, Michael Skupin, and Colton Cumbie are the only returning players to never be voted out.
- On every season featuring an all-returnee cast, the eventual Sole Survivor was playing for the second time.
- Amber Mariano and Ethan Zohn currently hold the record for the longest period between appearances on Survivor, with 32 seasons.
- In addition, Amber holds the record for the longest period between their original and most recent appearance, with 38 seasons.
Seasons and Twists
- Survivor: Heroes vs. Villains currently has the most castaways return in future seasons, with ten.
- Survivor: The Australian Outback has the most first-time castaways return in future seasons, with eight.
- The Australian Outback has also introduced the highest number of eventual three-time players, with five.
- Contestants from The Australian Outback and contestants from Heroes vs. Villains have returned a combined thirteen times for subsequent seasons, the most among contestants from other seasons.
- Three seasons have their final four return in future seasons: Survivor: Borneo, Survivor: Panama, and Survivor: Cagayan.
- All four returning players from Survivor: Tocantins (J.T., Stephen, Coach, and Tyson) have reached the Final Tribal Council on one of their Survivor appearances.
- Throughout his Survivor career, Ozzy Lusth is the only person to compete in all four different types of seasons: an all-new players season, a season consisting of half new players and half returnees, a one or two returnee per tribe season, and an all-returnees season. Ozzy has also been to both Exile Island and Redemption Island.
- Stephenie LaGrossa is the only female contestant to be a returnee in a season with one returnee per tribe.
- Every season prior to Survivor: Edge of Extinction has produced at least one returning player.
- Prior to Survivor: Philippines, no contestant to place worse than 10th on their first season had been invited to returned. Philippines broke this pattern by having Michael Skupin (11th) from The Australian Outback and Russell Swan (14th) from Samoa compete again.
- In all three seasons that had a tribe of returning players against a tribe of new players:
- In every all-returnee season with at least one previous winner, a winner was the fifth person eliminated: Richard Hatch in Survivor: All-Stars, Tom Westman in Survivor: Heroes vs. Villains, and J.T. in Survivor: Game Changers.
- Among the eight seasons that featured a mix of new and returning players, Survivor: Edge of Extinction is the first and only season where all the returning players were voted out before the Final Tribal Council.
- Due to the Edge of Extinction twist that allowed players to stay in the game after being voted out, all eight seasons have featured at least one returning player still in contention in the season's finale episode.
- Andrea Boehlke has received more votes over her Survivor career than any other returning player, with 36 total votes.
- Cirie Fields and Aubry Bracco are the only contestants to make it to the finale episode of a season on three separate occasions. It should be noted, though, that on Survivor: Panama the finale episode started with Cirie losing a fire-making challenge, and being eliminated from the game; while on the finale episode of Survivor: Edge of Extinction, Aubry was on the Edge of Extinction, and, having lost the re-entry duel, failed to return to the game.
- The three all-returnee seasons that had Tribe Switches (Survivor: All-Stars, Survivor: Cambodia, and Survivor: Game Changers) have all featured one tribe that did not have at least one player stay on it from the beginning of the game until the merge, with all the original members switching to another tribe at some point. The tribes in question are Mogo Mogo, Ta Keo, and Nuku.