High school e-sports are about to go mainstream.

Since being added to the National Federation of State High School Associations' list of officially sanctioned activities in 2018, e-sports have seen high schools across the U.S. form teams and compete against squads from other schools. PlayVS, a Santa Monica, California-based gaming software startup, builds the infrastructure for these gaming competitions through a deal it signed with the organization (also known as the NFHS) last year. Its platform hosts the matches, streams them for other students to watch, and compiles standings and statistics. Since late last summer, the 41-person startup has been spreading the word and helping schools create their own e-sports teams. 

Those efforts have been largely successful. According to figures released by PlayVS on Wednesday, 13,000 U.S. high schools have either created e-sports teams or are on a waitlist to do so. That amounts to 68 percent of the country's 19,000 NFHS-member high schools, which includes public and private schools. For comparison, 14,257 schools have football programs, according to the NFHS. PlayVS also announced a $50 million funding round that brings its total raised to $96 million.

Delane Parnell, PlayVS's 27-year-old founder and CEO, says the startup is recruiting high schools to sign up for its platform using a grassroots approach, often flying staffers to athletic conferences to give presentations and meet with educators. It's come a long way since a year ago, when it didn't yet have a dedicated marketing team and relied on a single letter written to each state's athletic association. "A really bad, super-long email," Parnell says with a laugh. "We've learned a ton since then."

PlayVS's deal with the NFHS makes it the exclusive platform for hosting officially sanctioned high school e-sports matches. The organization chose to partner with PlayVS in 2017 after meeting with a handful of candidates. At that time, PlayVS was a few months old and had fewer than 10 employees. The company makes money by charging $64 per student per season, which is paid by the student's family or, more commonly, by the school. 

Parnell declined to say how many schools he expects to participate in the next season, which begins on October 21. Onboarding a school requires training the teachers who will coach the teams and ensuring that they have the proper technology--processes that he says the company has refined significantly but are still time-consuming. The CEO hopes that PlayVS will expand its staff to 80 by the end of the year, with many of the new hires being tasked with expediting those processes. He didn't offer a timeline as to when the company expects to have all 13,000 schools ready to go.

PlayVS's $50 million Series C round announced Wednesday includes investments from Battery Ventures, former Twitter CEO Dick Costolo, and existing investor New Enterprise Associates. The company has now raised $96 million since its 2017 founding. Other previous investors include Dollar Shave Club founder Michael Dubin, startup incubator Science, Sean "Diddy" Combs, the rapper Nas, the San Francisco 49ers, and the Los Angeles Dodgers. PlayVS's $15.5 million Series A, announced last June, was the largest ever by an African American-led consumer internet startup, according to the company.

High school e-sports are divided into fall and spring seasons. Students compete by playing games including League of Legends, Rocket League, and Smite, and PlayVS says partnerships with more game companies are coming. According to the startup, the schools that have launched teams are averaging 15 students apiece. At that rate, when the company gets all 13,000 schools up and running, that would mean 200,000 students playing on high school e-sports teams--more than those who participate in indoor track (150,253) and just fewer than those who play lacrosse (213,452), according to the NFHS.

Of course, whether that's a good thing is a topic of debate. Some, including President Trump, have argued that violent video games can lead to aggressive or violent behavior in real life, though experts have pointed out that the evidence connecting the two is weak. The World Health Organization last year added "gaming disorder"--characterized by "impaired control over gaming" and "increasing priority given to gaming over other activities to the extent that gaming takes precedence over other interests and daily activities"--to the International Classification of Diseases.

For its part, PlayVS doesn't offer first-person shooter games. And Mark Koski, former NFHS director, who led the deal with PlayVS, told Inc. last year that he didn't anticipate e-sports detracting from student participation in other sports. "The majority of these students are not on the basketball courts or softball fields," he said. "Any time we can get more students involved in afterschool programs, it's a positive thing."

Published on: Sep 18, 2019