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High school sports association will sanction esports, but shooters are excluded

Sports, MOBA and fighting games will be allowed but no specific titles have been named so far

Counter-Strike: Global Offensive screenshot 1536
Counter-Strike: Global Offensive
Charlie Hall is Polygon’s tabletop editor. In 10-plus years as a journalist & photographer, he has covered simulation, strategy, and spacefaring games, as well as public policy.

The National Federation of State High Schools, the United States’ primary leadership organization for high school sports like football and water polo, is getting into esports.

The NFHS, which literally writes the rules for 17 sports played by 7.9 million students in more than 19,500 American high schools, will soon add video games — MOBA, sports and fighting games — to that list. No specific titles have been named, but Polygon has learned that the shooter category, including popular titles like Counter-Strike: Global Offensive and Fortnite, has been specifically excluded from the program.

“First-person shooter games we believe do not fit within the education mindset that we are hoping to bring to this activity,” said Mark Koski, CEO of NFHS Network, a joint venture between the NFHS and PlayOn! Sports to broadcast high school sporting events online.

“We’ve continued to track esports over the past 18 months and believe that the timing is perfect for us,” Koski said. “We know esports isn’t just up and coming. It’s here. We believe if we can have a partner with an esports focused company to help us facilitate this, it is much better for students to be behind the education walls between the hours of 2:30 to 5:30 versus being at their home or a friend’s home.”

The NFHS partnered with a startup called PlayVS to build the digital infrastructure needed to support high school esports. Later this year, that will enable students to compete in official state championship competitions and be recognized by their state athletic associations. That exposure could ultimately lead to recruitment efforts by colleges and universities, some of which are actively seeking out esports talent.

“Some 72 percent of high school students consider themselves gamers,” Koski said. “So we need to make sure that, as a national governing body, we work with the students’ interests and be a part of what the students are liking and what they’re doing.”

PlayVS will be tasked with forming partnerships with game developers, Koski said, to create a slate of 10 formally sanctioned games. Every state will be able to choose which games are available to its students.

“If a state association says, ‘Hey, we do not want a fighting game!’ or ‘We’re going to stick with a MOBA game or a sports game!’ then that’s up to them. So every state will be slightly different.”

But, Koski said, the NFHS will under no circumstances provide governance for FPS games.

If an individual state wants to organize competitive FPS play on their own, however, the NFHS will not stand in their way. Just as it does not stand in the way of Minnesota schools, which gives firearms training to high school students for target shooting with live ammunition.

“If Minnesota believes that that’s what’s best for their membership,” Koski said, “then they can have the ability to do that at the local level. We do not write rules for clay target shooting. It doesn’t mean that we don’t support Minnesota’s efforts because they are obviously helping students after school in putting them in a positive setting. So that is their choice. But first-person shooter games do not fit within the NFHS philosophy whatsoever.”

Koski went on the specify that even though the NFHS does promote real shooting sports on its website, it will never offer the same level of promotion to FPS games.

State tournaments will begin next year in between 18 and 20 states, Koski said. Games will be spread out over two four-month seasons, running from October to January and February to May. Individual states will help determine which games are played during which season.

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