Last week, the National Federation of State High Schools, the primary U.S. leadership organization for high school sports, announced that it would roll out esports nationwide. The move could add games such as League of Legends and Super Smash Bros. to the list of sanctioned high school sports such as football and water polo.
The NFHS won’t be negotiating with publishers directly to get their games included, nor will it be providing the online infrastructure needed to play games in high schools around the country. That task will fall to a private company, a startup called PlayVS, which won the right to create a turnkey solution for NFHS member organizations nationwide.
PlayVS has received investment from Science, a venture capital-backed startup incubator headquartered in Santa Monica, California. Its portfolio currently features more than two dozen companies, including ubiquitous podcast advertiser and underwear maker MeUndies. Science is perhaps best known for backing Dollar Shave Club, which sold to Unilever for $1 billion in 2016.
It makes sense that a VC incubator would be interested in esports, which has gotten so big so fast that even the Nielsen ratings agency, famous for its analysis of Americans’ television viewing habits, is taking note and passing that information on to advertisers. But why high schools? Where’s the money in that?
Polygon contacted PlayVS founder and CEO Delane Parnell to find out more.
Unlike traditional high school sports, esports is based on video games that are often brands owned by corporations. No one owns baseball; all you need is a bat, a ball and a glove, and you’re ready to go. The same can’t be said of modern MOBAs or fighting games. They rely on complex systems that have taken years to build out, built by skilled developers into software that h as required millions of dollars to produce.
More to the point, however, esports aren’t folk games; they’re businesses. So as PlayVS negotiates with developers and publishers for the first five titles to go live in the next school year, who’s paying who?
As it turns out, no money is actually changing hands. Yet.
“We seek out and secure exclusive relationships with publishers that make their game a high-level sport with no money involved,” Parnell told 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.”
With luck, that free-to-play model will keep working into the future.
“In an ideal world,” Parnell said, “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.”
When the system rolls out, students will be able to open up the PlayVS client alongside their competitive game of choice. The PlayVS infrastructure will then connect players from two or more competing schools online, run the tournament to its conclusion, and log the results securely. It will be up to individual NFHS state member organizations to arrange for things like the rules of play, in-game conduct and the framework for state championships. Parnell said that his company will also provide best practices, minimum recommended hardware specifications, training, vendor lists to procure hardware and other forms of support to individual schools.
Marketing is another big reason that companies get into esports. Competition builds community, and communities draw in more potential customers. I asked Parnell that while developers and publishers are happy giving away the license to play their games for free to high school students, isn’t PlayVS similarly giving multibillion-dollar companies access to a free labor force to go out and do their marketing for them?
“I’m not sure what I have to say, to be honest,” Parnell said, before taking a moment to consider the question.
“There’s 8 million kids today who don’t play high school sports,” Parnell said. “One thing they’d be interested in — at least a few million of these kids — would be participating in structured, organized esports. Working with publishers allows us to be able to do that. We think that in the future we’ll be able to send hundreds of thousands of kids each year to college on scholarships for participating in esports from a competition standpoint at high school.
“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. [...] 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.
“I think that I would argue with people who think that what we’re doing is allowing publishers to have free marketing, or that they’re only focused on the business side of the business that we’re in,” Parnell continued. “I would say that there’s just a greater impact than that. There’s just a lot more benefits to what we’re doing beyond building a business.”
PlayVS will work with the NFHS to stand up esports programs in 18-20 states by the beginning of the school year this fall. Play will be split across two seasons, running from October to January and February to May. Individual states will help determine which games are played during which season.
So what will be the first five games that roll out in October? Parnell said that his company is talking with some big names, but also with some smaller names. For now, at least, nothing’s ready to announce. But he did confirm, as the NFHS had said previously, that there would be only three competitive categories: fighting games, MOBAs and sports games.
No shooters of any kind will be supported on the PlayVS platform, or sanctioned by the NFHS.