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High school esports startup receives a massive investment ahead of first season

San Francisco 49ers, rap stars and the co-founder of Twitch show up to put their money down

PlayVS CEO and founder Delane Parnell.
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.

PlayVS, a start-up building the infrastructure to support high school esports, has received a massive round of funding from a star-studded collection of high-profile investors.

The company raised $15 million dollars in series A funding, the largest amount ever raised by an African American founder in the consumer internet category. Investors include an assortment of venture capital groups, but also the San Francisco 49ers, hip-hop artist Nas, Twitch co-founder Kevin Lin, the Los Angeles Chargers’ Russell Okung, NBA all-star Baron Davis and the New York Jets’ Kelvin Beachum.

ESPN reports that the valuation of the company is around $50 million dollars.

PlayVS is the only private company officially sanctioned by the National Federation of State High Schools (NFHS), the non-profit organization that literally writes the rules for organized sports at the majority of high schools in the United States. So far the group facilitates a total of 17 sports, which are played by 7.9 million students in more than 19,500 American high schools. Next school year, with the help of PlayVS, it will also add MOBA, sports and fighting video games to that list.

PlayVS estimates it will expand the number of potential high school athletes to more than 16.1 million students.

“The 49ers organization is committed to going into our community to support programs and initiatives designed to create opportunities for kids to learn and play, an approach that motivated our investment in PlayVS and its potential to positively affect the lives of kids across the country,” said Brano Perkovich, chief investment officer of the San Francisco 49ers. “Our 49ers EDU and 49ers PREP programs collectively involve more than 100,000 people each year through STEAM education curriculum and we’re excited about the PlayVS platform and its ability to enable more than 16 million kids to learn the value of teamwork and competition.”

Polygon interviewed PlayVS CEO and founder Delane Parnell in April. At the time, he said that video games were a key part of his childhood growing up in Michigan.

“I grew up in the Jeffries Projects in Detroit,” Parnell said. “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.”

The PlayVS logo.

In a press release, Delane emphasized the good that this investment can do, especially for low-income schools. The cost per student could be as low as $16 per month.

“With our [funding],” he said, “we can take all the steps necessary to ensure that our inaugural season is a massive success while being affordable for schools, parents and students across the country.”

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.

A list of specific titles will be released next month but, according to the NFHS Network CEO Mark Koski, shooters such as Counter-Strike: Global Offensive and Fortnite have been explicitly ruled out.

Remarkably, Parnell tells Polygon that so far, no money is changing hands between developers, publishers and PlayVS.

“We’ve been very fortunate to be able to work with publishers to date where they see bigger value beyond dollar amount,” Parnell told Polygon. “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.”

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