Sep 19, 2019

High school esports goes mainstream

An illustration of a gaming console controller and football

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

PlayVS, a software startup that allows high school students to compete on varsity esports teams through their schools, just closed a $50 million Series C, bringing its total funding to $96 million in just 13 months.

Where things stand: Through an exclusive partnership with the NFHS (the NCAA of high school sports), as well as deals with game publishers, PlayVS hosts and streams matches, compiles stats and standings and sets up leagues to allow neighboring schools to compete against each other.

  • PlayVS makes money by charging either the player, parent/guardian or school $64 per player to participate in a "season."
  • This spring, they offered competition in three games: "League of Legends," "Smite" and "Rocket League."

How it works: "On average, every school has one coach — typically a teacher who oversees the program. After that coach has been onboarded and activated, they go out and recruit students," PlayVS founder Delane Parnell tells Axios.

  • "The 'home' of esports on campus is typically either the computer lab, the library or an under-utilized classroom that's been retrofitted, though some schools have invested in building actual esports arenas," he added.
  • "Unlike traditional sports, there's no need to get on a bus and travel to another school to compete. Instead, teams go to PlayVS, we connect them to their opponent and they play."
  • Important note: Not every kid is playing the same game, so it's kind of like track and field in that sense, where hurdlers and shot-putters are on the same team despite competing in different events.

By the numbers: PlayVS launched in five states last fall and expanded to eight in the spring. The growth will continue this fall, with 15 states using PlayVS to compete in esports leagues, all culminating in state championships.

  • Those 15 states: Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Georgia, Hawaii, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Mississippi, Rhode Island, Virginia and Washington, D.C.
  • Over 13,000 schools (68% of the country) are on the waitlist to build an esports program through PlayVS, according to the company. For comparison, ~14,000 U.S. high schools have a football program.

The big picture: Think about all of the organizations, products and services that exist around traditional high school sports. Things like recruiting platforms, state tournaments, equipment companies and coach management tools.

  • Almost none of that has been built for esports yet, putting PlayVS in a unique position to build an all-encompassing environment where they're both the platform and the infrastructure.

The bottom line: With esports still in its infancy, there's a huge opportunity to build the talent pipeline that every skill-based industry needs to survive — and companies like PlayVS are beginning to seize it.

Go deeper: Industry veterans fear an esports bubble

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