As we’ve discussed previously on this blog, one of the biggest challenges facing esports players, teams, sponsors, and IP owners is predictability. In order to use their practice time effectively, aspiring pro players need to have a good idea of how that practice will help them down the path to potentially getting signed by a pro team. This infrastructure already exists for traditional sports — football (or basketball or baseball or soccer, etc.) players have their potential path clearly laid out first through high school sports programs, and then through collegiate sports programs. Recognizing that esports are sorely lacking this talent development infrastructure, several entrepreneurs are looking to build it at both the high school and collegiate levels. The highest profile of them is a company called PlayVS.
Founded in 2017, PlayVS positions itself as “the official league for high school esports.” At its core, PlayVS offers a set of tools that allow high schools to set up esports teams and then compete against other high school teams, culminating in statewide finals. It’s in beta now, but Season 1 will be officially launching in February, 2019 with support for League of Legends, Rocket League, and Smite (with more games to be added for Season 2, which will launch in October of 2019). The significance of PlayVS’ mission is highlighted by the 2 rounds of investment – totalling $46 million – that it closed this year. It’s most recent round, which it closed last month, was for $30.5 million and led by Elysian Park Ventures (the private investment arm of the Los Angeles Dodgers).
So why is this particular company’s funding a significant moment in the world of esports? There are a few reasons. First and foremost, this is a potentially sea changing moment for amateur players. If becoming a pro esports player is the goal, the road (or roads) that players have to navigate to get there have traditionally been self made. In the absence of any kind of organizing body, players have largely been on their own as they attempt to do the right things in order to land a contract. “PlayVS’ entrance into the scene will help take a lot of the guesswork out of the process for aspiring players,” explains Marcos Suarez, eGency Global’s Esports Strategist. “An important aspect of PlayVS’ value proposition is its partnership with the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS), the same organization that helps organize traditional high school sports. That means that PlayVS players will all be playing according to the same rules and on the same schedules; this adds predictability for players that will allow them to optimize their practice times. It also provides a true ‘apples to apples’ competitive environment that collegiate and pro organizations can look to as they seek to expand their rosters.”
PlayVS’ growth also represents a pivotal moment in esports for teams and – by extension – sponsors. Here’s why: when teams are looking to add players, they’re looking for people whose performance can be described as “predictable.” While teams do have some visibility into this predictability today, the methods of getting that data can be laborious. Part of PlayVS’ offering is a stats tracking suite that aggregates player data in one place. This allows coaches to review performance and optimize player output, but it also puts this info into player’s hands. “PlayVS’ stats tracking is going to be a boon for players, in my opinion,” says Suarez. “The ability for players to not only show wins and losses, but also tactical performance – regardless of the game – in a clean format will make applying for team membership a lot more efficient for both players and teams. In addition, this aggregated data can demonstrate players’ commitments to their teams and to the game/practice schedules that are required to compete. These are the same types of commitments that universities and pro teams value in potential students and teammates.”
The organizing influence that PlayVS represents is also good news for esports sponsors because it introduces an element of de-risking. As Suarez explains “PlayVS’ offering places a lot of value in enabling ‘officially sanctioned’ statewide esports events. This official sanctioning implies that game rules will include rules for player behavior, the same way they are for traditional sports. That’s good news for sponsors because a lot of hesitation in the space is caused by the ‘unpredictable behavior of young gamers.’ If teams are recruiting from players who successfully competed in PlayVS’ officially sanctioned events, then the team – and its sponsors – have an added layer of assurance that the player knows how to comport themselves in a way that doesn’t risk the sponsor’s brand,” Suarez concludes.
While esports are clearly becoming a major force in popular culture, there’s still some work to do in order for people outside of the core demographic to consider them integral parts of their lives (as with the NBA, NFL, MLB, etc.). There are many ways of helping that process along: mainstream media coverage, strategic brand partnerships, and persistent local events are just a few of these ways. Another time-tested way to get lots of eyeballs on what you’re doing is celebrity endorsement. So, importantly, PlayVS’ two funding rounds have included participation by some of the best known names in sports and entertainment. Individual investors include Sean “Diddy” Combs, Nas, and NBA All-Star Baron Davis. When partnered with investments from big brands like the Los Angeles Dodgers, Adidas, and Samsung, PlayVS has the kind of PR potential that most startups – regardless of industry – would kill to have. While it’s yet to be seen HOW these high profile investment relationships will manifest in terms of publicity for the company, it’s a safe bet that there will be some partner activations that further catapult them – and esports – further into the mainstream consciousness.
Without question, the amount raised by PlayVS and the funding participants are good news for the company AND for esports in general. But there’s still a lot of work to be done. Right now, the company is supporting sanctioned leagues in 8 states (Alabama, Connecticut, Georgia, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Mississippi, Rhode Island, and Texas Charter) and “Club” leagues in 6 states (Florida, Illinois, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Arkansas, and Texas). That leaves a lot of room for growth. But the bigger story here is what PlayVS’ mission and funding means for the broader world of esports. They introduce an organizing factor into a space that’s been – until now – a bit chaotic for both players and teams. The ripple effect of that organizing factor for both teams and sponsors is all upside, ensuring that teams can recruit the right players for their organizations and adding a layer of security to investments from brands and sponsors.