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Kentucky athletic association bans Fortnite from high school esports competition

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Officials say their esports scheduling partner didn’t clear the game with them, or any other state

Fortnite Battle Royale - firing from steps Image: Epic Games

Kentucky’s high school athletic association has banned Fortnite from varsity esports among its members, calling shooter video games inappropriate in a school setting and saying its esports partner never consulted with their officials before adding it to this season.

The Lexington Herald-Leader reported on Monday that the commissioner of the Kentucky High School Athletic Association emailed school officials this weekend, regarding news that a national esports partner, PlayVS, would begin offering Fortnite in competition. “There is no place for shooter games in our schools,” Julian Tackett, the KHSAA commissioner, wrote.

Tackett told KHSAA members that he and other states’ officials did not know about PlayVS adding Fortnite to a lineup that includes League of Legends, Rocket League, and Smite. League of Legends and Smite are multiplayer online battle arenas, or MOBAs, and Rocket League is a variation on soccer played with cars.

Joe Angolia, the KHSAA’s director of communications and primary contact for esports there, told Polygon that his organization only learned of Fortnite’s addition after a member school emailed him with a notice that it would be adding the game to its competition schedule. Angolia said school esports officials logged into their PlayVS portal to find a solicitation to register Fortnite teams and begin play.

PlayVS and Epic Games announced their partnership on Jan. 22, saying they were creating the first Fortnite esports league for college and high school competitors. The Washington Post later reported that PlayVS considers its Fortnite competitions to be a “national club league” whose schools are participating “separate from their respective state associations.”

“We’ve had to fight to get esports to the point it is right now,” Angolia told Polygon. “We had people that were concerned about the games we were offering, and whether they were suitable for schools. Then we […] worked with our partners, with our schools, we worked with the [state] department of education here in Kentucky, with the Center for School Safety, to get that clearance.

“We felt like we were in a good position, and now this announcement has kind of undone a lot of that goodwill.”

PlayVS, established in 2017, provides a turn-key solution for high schools looking to field esports teams. Players pay a fee ($64 per season, and there are two seasons in a school year) to participate. League of Legends is contested on Tuesday, Rocket League and Smite on Thursday, and Fortnite just joined the schedule for Wednesdays.

Tackett, according to the Herald-Leader, told school officials that the National Federation of State High Schools Association Network (NFHS) is “proactively taking steps to have this decision reversed.” Angolia told Polygon that the KHSAA is under contract with PlayVS, but he did not know how long that contract lasts. Seventeen other state high school athletics associations are partnered with PlayVS, working through the NFHS.

The Washington Post, which also obtained Tackett’s email, said he wrote that Fortnite’s addition “violates the contract signed by PlayVS and the NFHS ... and places the future of the program at peril.”

As for Kentucky’s member schools, reaction has “been all over the board,” Angolia said. “Some want to do it, but only if we sanction it, and we’re not going to sanction it,” he said. “A lot of the kids were pretty into it, because it’s extremely, wildly popular.”

Angolia said he understands arguments that Fortnite isn’t an inappropriate game because of its T-for-Teen rating, the gunplay is mostly cartoonish, and that it gets students involved in an extracurricular activity. However, “the fact that we weren’t allowed to do our due diligence and talk to our partners, to take the steps we needed to take to make this happen, that’s the issue,” Angolia said.

In the email reported by the Herald-Leader, Tackett mentioned that it was especially troubling that a shooter game would be stirring up this kind of controversy so close to the two-year anniversary of a mass shooting at Marshall County High School near Benton, Kentucky. On Jan. 23, 2018, a 15-year-old student killed two classmates and wounded 12 more in a handgun attack.

Angolia said the timing is unfortunate for another reason: The Kentucky state championships in Rocket League and League of Legends are tomorrow on the campus of the University of Kentucky. “We have this kind of hanging in the balance over the whole thing and casting a cloud over it,” he said.

Update: A PlayVS representative responded to Polygon to highlight the difference between the scholastic service it offers and its direct-to-consumer business, which it calls “club” competition. Fortnite, the representative said, is considered a club competition and therefore separate from the agreements it has with the NFHS and 18 state associations. Smite is also considered a club competition, the representative said.

“We’ve made it abundantly clear since we announced our Epic Games partnership that Fortnite operates the same way as Smite,” with regard to the games PlayVS supports and offers to participants, they said. Thus PlayVS did not consult with its NFHS or state association partners before adding it in as a club competition.

“We understand the sensitivity surrounding what is deemed appropriate for a school setting,” the PlayVS rep continued. “We also understand the position that the KHSAA has taken due to our announcement being misrepresented. We have made numerous clarifying efforts on social media, to press outlets that misrepresented the announcement and will continue to do so.”

Update (Jan. 30): This morning, NFHS chief executive Matt Koski gave the following statement on the controversy:

“The NFHS Network is disappointed that our esports partner has chosen to offer Fortnite as a game option to high school students. The NFHS Network and its Board of Directors has made it clear since the inception of our esports partnership that we would not engage with or offer shooter games. We are working to resolve this, collaboratively with PlayVS, as quickly as possible.”