At the start of this decade the idea of school-sponsored esports was limited from intramural clubs on college campuses to nonexistent. But that is rapidly changing. In 2014, Robert Morris University announced it was creating a varsity esports program – a scene that is ballooning to over 50 college and university programs, overseen by a governing body known as the National Association of Collegiate Esports, and continuing to grow.
Now, sanctioned esports are coming to high schools across the country. The first infrastructure for district- and state-wide esports league play being created by a company called PlayVS, with tournaments planned throughout the school year that conclude with a state championship.
Photo Credit: Esports Insider
PlayVS is an esports startup based out of Santa Monica. The company is backed with venture capital from a startup incubator called Science, which has funded a number of successful startups including Dollar Shave Club, Rover, and MeUndies.
“PlayVS is creating the first esports league for high schools, which brings a new and exciting opportunity for schools to keep kids engaged and put them on the path to success,” Mike Jones, CEO of Science, said in a statement. “Often, kids who aren’t interested in traditional sports or arts don’t have a place they belong in school. PlayVS will completely change that experience, and its partnership with NFHS brings immediate scale to what they do. We’re thrilled to be working closely with their team and can’t wait for the league to launch this fall.”
Science isn’t the only partnership that PlayVS has formed. The company has also signed an exclusive contract with the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS), which writes the rules of competition for most high school sports in the United States. This is a major step in legitimizing PlayVS’s efforts.
As you can imagine, there is a lot of moving parts going on behind the scene of high school sports across the nation. The NFHS is essentially the NCAA of high school sports with experience managing these activities (such as writing league rules, hiring and training referees, building out the districts and conferences, organizing state playoff tournaments, etc.) for more than 90 percent of U.S. schools.
“PlayVS’s philosophy on high school-based sports and focus on participation perfectly aligns with the NFHS and its member state associations,” said Mark Koski, CEO of the NFHS Network. “We looked at many potential esports partners, and PlayVS was the clear choice thanks, in part, to its overall education-based concept, mission, and vision. As schools look to provide participation opportunities for high school students, esports is a great option on two fronts. First, esports may involve students who haven’t been involved in a sport or activity in the past. Second, the costs to implement esports are minimal compared to starting a traditional sport, which can be extensive with equipment and facilities.”
Photo Credit: Engadget
PlayVS was founded by Delane Parnell. Parnell, while growing up in Detroit’s Jeffries Projects, had no computer or internet in his home. His mother made sure that her sons had jobs by age 13 and participated in sports, in part to ensure they stayed out of their neighborhood until she got home from work.
Parnell started playing video games competitively when his science teacher put together an unofficial afterschool club. At a chance meeting with Peter Pham, cofounder of Science, Parnell expressed his vision for creating an esports company to help high school students. Parnell moved from Detroit to Santa Monica where he developed PlayVS.
“Esports is about more than just playing games – it can be used to help students grow their STEM interests and develop valuable life skills and since there are more high school gamers than athletes, it’s about time we foster this pastime in an educational setting,” Parnell said in a press release. “This partnership [with NFHS] combined with our technology and publisher relationships will help us create the first scalable competition for high school students.”
PlayVS built a website that handles league organization, scheduling, leaderboards, and more.
The platform will update with real-time stats from each high school match.
The school year will consist of two four-month seasons. The first will begin in October and run through January, the second February through May. These individual tournaments will feed into a playoff bracket that leads to a state championship.
Even though teams will go to the PlayVS website to see their schedule and log on for their game, there will be eight season matches played online on the publisher’s platform. Then the top teams will compete in a LAN tournament in front of a live audience also organized by PlayVS. In addition, fans will be able to view some matches on the NFHS’s live-streaming platform for high school sports, NFHS Network.
Photo Credit: GHSA
Koski has said that he expects 18 to 20 states to participate in the inaugural 2018-19 season, and as the program shows success, the goal is to have every state participating.
PlayVS will provide best practices, minimum recommended hardware specifications, training, vendor lists to procure hardware, and other forms of support to individual schools.
What is still unclear is which game publishers are taking part. Two things are known about the games. The first is that they will span three genres: multiplayer online battle arena, fighting, and sports games. The second is that the publishers are not being paid for their participation – at least not for the initial season.
“We seek out and secure exclusive relationships with publishers that make their game a high-level sport with no money involved,” Parnell said in an interview with Polygon. “We’ve been very fortunate to be able to work with publishers to date where they see bigger value beyond dollar amount. They’re understanding that we’re investing a bunch of resources, time, and money to create this infrastructure and this community around high school esports.
“In an ideal world, that sort of continues. But there could be a case where there are just some games where they’re a licensed product themselves, and we have to sort of figure out how to offer those games and be able to keep the same terms as our other publishing partners have given us. We try to be really fair in that regard, and so we don’t offer one publisher something that we don’t offer another.”
Parnell has been very clear that one genre of video game will not be part of the PlayVS platform: shooters.
“We’re doing no shooting games: no third-person, not first-person shooting, no battle royale, as much as that sucks, because the contents of the games are not friendly in a high school environment,” said Parnell. “We’re sensitive to all of the issues around violence in schools, and we do not want to promote that for the foreseeable future.”
PlayVS will charge a $16 monthly membership fee per student that the student or the school must pay in order to access the platform.
Photo Credit: Variety
Parnell understands that there will likely be some backlash from parents or administrators who don’t see esports as a “real” sport, or who believe that these sorts of programs are only providing free advertising to billion-dollar companies.
“I grew up in the Jeffries Projects in Detroit. Literally one of the worst sort of neighborhoods, possible, right? I know all too well about the benefit of just programs in general, especially sports programs, in keeping kids off the streets and out of bad situations, out of the neighborhoods,” said Parnell.
“If I had never been in programs like that, whether it be traditional sports or video game clubs, then I probably wouldn’t be here today. I mean, not only be in this situation, but be alive. Many of my friends that I grew up with were murdered or are in jail. Literally, probably three quarters of them. That’s just sort of what happens from being in certain environments.
“There’s just a lot more benefits to what we’re doing beyond building a business.”
As a young entity, the esports industry is still being molded and formed. This VC incubator took a chance on bringing esports to high schools. What’s your interest in esports? How do you think its evolution will impact the future, and how would you like to be involved? We’d love to hear it. Give eGency a call at 972-323-6354.