The National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS) launched its inaugural esports season, which it referred to as “season zero,” in October of 2018. The season began with the participation of five states: Connecticut, Georgia, Kentucky, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island. The season ran from October 30 to December 11, featured five-player teams playing League of Legends, and culminated with a single-elimination playoff bracket in January 2019 to determine the state champion.
With the start of the Spring 2019 season four additional states – Alabama, Arkansas, Mississippi, and Texas – joined the varsity program. This round also includes two new games in addition to League of Legends: Rocket League and SMITE.
“No team will meet face-to-face until the final weekend of the state championship, which will be played at potential esports venues in the respective states of our participants,” Mark Koski, NFHS director of marketing and CEO of the NFHS Network, was quoted in a press release.
Planning for this launch has been in the works for several months. Early in 2018, NFHS partnered with an esports startup based out of Santa Monica known as PlayVS. PlayVS was initially backed with venture capital from the startup incubator Science, which has funded several companies that went on to achieve success, such as Dollar Shave Club, Rover, and MeUndies. Since then, PlayVS’s list of investors has grown considerably and now includes Sean “Diddy” Combs, Adidas (the company’s first esports investment), Samsung NEXT, and Elysian Park Ventures, the investment arm of the L.A. Dodgers, to name a few.
The partnership between PlayVS and NFHS is a collaborative one. The NFHS is basically the NCAA for high school sports. The organization has experience managing activities (such as building out the districts and conferences, writing league rules, organizing state playoff tournaments, hiring and training referees, etc.) for more than 90 percent of U.S. schools. PlayVS, meanwhile, oversees the infrastructure, including league organization, scheduling, maintaining leaderboards, and more. The company has a website that updates with real-time stats from each high school’s match.
“We automate the heavy lifting so teachers can fully focus on the kids, ensuring that they stay safe, have fun, and have everything they need to be successful,” Delane Parnell, CEO and founder of PlayVS, said in the release.
“There are currently eight million kids who do not participate in any high school sports, largely because no sport is designed to be scalable. There are a limited number of teams and a limited number of spots on each roster. With esports, on the other hand, absolutely any eligible student can join a team, wear a jersey, and become part of something bigger than themselves. That’s hugely significant.”
Schools that are interested in forming a varsity esports program can fill out an application on the PlayVS site. The requirements are relatively minimal. A teacher is needed to serve as the program director. It is also helpful if the school has an information technology director to ensure that the school’s current equipment and network are capable of hosting games.
There is also a required $64 per student, per season participation fee, which can be paid by a parent, school, or team sponsor.
“High school sports have been around for a hundred years and are run by the NFHS and state associations, but we had to come at this with a different approach,” said Parnell. “It had to be a third-party, a company with the ability to write all of the software necessary and be the connective tissue between the game publishers and the state associations.”
In addition to the nine states with varsity esports programs, PlayVS and NFHS oversee esports clubs in six additional states: Florida, Hawaii, Illinois, New Mexico, Ohio, and Pennsylvania (Texas offers both varsity and club esports programs).
“Every state is unique in their own right and has had their own process for coming onboard,” said Parnell. “When we work with a state, we answer their questions, provide resources like presentation materials and videos, and often schedule information seminars where Laz (PlayVS Vice President Laz Alberto) visits the state association office in person.”
PlayVS also does the heavy lifting when it comes to the game publishers. One example is an agreement the company struck with League of Legends publisher Riot Games. Riot has agreed to supply all NFHS affiliated programs with “League Unlocked” for free, which gives all characters their maximum upgrades. This ensures that all teams are competing at the same level.
While League of Legends, Rocket League, and SMITE all rank among the most popular current esports, there are some notable games absent from the PlayVS list, including heavy hitters like Fortnite: Battle Royale, Counter-Strike: Global Offensive, and Overwatch. That is because PlayVS has made a very pointed decision regarding their particular video game genre.
“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. We’re sensitive to all of the issues around violence in schools, and we do not want to promote that for the foreseeable future,” Parnell said to ESPN.
“We are very much focused on multiplayer online battle arenas, fighting, and sports. We think those genres work, and there will be other genres we expand to as new genres grow within esports. Our entire system is designed to be plug-and-play, so as new games come out, we can plug that game in.”
Esports may be the one great equalizer in an educational sports setting. Unlike a football field, basketball court, or wrestling ring, anyone can compete against anyone else in esports: male, female, short, tall, etc. There are even adapted controllers for people with specialized needs.
“I think we have an opportunity to engage students in the life of the school with an activity that they might already be participating in on their own,” Dr. Karissa Niehoff, NFHS executive director, said in the release. “Now, we bring that interest and activity together to combine it with all of the elements of sport that are so special: teamwork, camaraderie, collaboration, storylines, excitement, and connection to a group.
“These are not students who we are taking off our basketball courts and football fields. Esports are a great way to retain students in a scholastic environment under the direction of a teacher/coach who will teach them not only how to be a great gamer, but to also be a lifelong positive citizen and valuable member of the school community.”
Schools can also incorporate an esports program into their STEM initiatives. STEM, which stands for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math, is a teaching philosophy that creates learning opportunities out of everyday situations.
“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,” said Parnell.
Interest in high school esports will continue to grow. It wouldn’t be surprising if the number of states involved at least doubles for the Fall 2019 season. For more of our thoughts on creating a high school esports program or for any other esports questions and issues, give EGENCY a call at 972-323-6354.