High school e-sports squads are now nearly as common as tennis teams, thanks in large part to a three-year-old gaming startup that's turning thousands of gamers into varsity athletes.

Los Angeles-based PlayVS provides a platform on which students can play team-based competitive video games, also known as e-sports. In 2018, the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS), the organization that sanctions high school sports and activities, began recognizing e-sports as an official sport. That same year, PlayVS signed a deal with the organization that made it the provider of the sport's software infrastructure--the platform that hosts and streams matches, makes schedules, and compiles statistics.

High schools in the U.S. have been clamoring to get involved with gaming ever since. In PlayVS's first public update on its growth, founder and CEO Delane Parnell revealed that more than 8,600 high schools have created e-sports teams on the startup's platform since the fall of 2018. That amounts to 43 percent of the 20,000 NFHS-sanctioned high schools in the country. By way of comparison, about 14,000 high schools offer football, meaning e-sports is now more than halfway there. 

Despite this rapid growth, the 28-year-old Parnell still feels his company has a long way to go. "We won't be happy until we have adoption at literally every high school and college in the country," he says. The phenomenon is not limited to high schools. More than 1,200 colleges and universities have also launched teams through PlayVS, about a quarter of those in the country, according to Parnell. The startup's growth has been fueled in part by $106 million in funding from investors including New Enterprise Associates, Science, and Elysian Park Ventures, the investing arm of the Los Angeles Dodgers.

A growing craze

About 90 percent of teens play video games, according to data from the Pew Research Center. In many cases, it's also a popular spectator sport: Professional championships take place in sold-out arenas and draw more viewers than the Super Bowl. But until a few years ago, the sport had little organization below the pro level.

PlayVS is helping to change that. The startup charges high schools $64 per season per student--far less than the cost of most traditional sports, since there's no travel, no referees, and little additional equipment required. Thanks to the company's partnerships with game developers, students can compete against other schools in the weekly after-school matches in games including League of Legends, Rocket League, Madden, and FIFA.

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Getting to this point hasn't been easy. State athletic associations must approve e-sports before schools in the state can adopt it. Twenty-three have so far, and many of them have needed convincing from PlayVS, which pitches them on benefits like getting more kids involved after school. Even after getting states on board, PlayVS must engage with individual schools that are considering signing up and walk them through the onboarding process, which often involves cutting through several layers of bureaucracy. 

For Lee James, a social studies teacher and gaming enthusiast in Washington, D.C., pitching his school on the idea of forming a team meant getting approval from the athletic director, vice principal, and principal. "There was a lot of convincing people who didn't know e-sports was a thing that it was, in fact, a thing," says James. Since then, the team has grown to 50 students. After school administrators witnessed the teamwork and communication involved, the school converted an old computer lab into a dedicated e-sports room.

"I used to be a lawyer, but there's only so much my words can do," says James. "Once people see this in action and talk to students about it, then they know it's real."

At the college level, PlayVS has signed up teams at Division I sports powerhouses like Ohio State, Penn State, and Texas A&M. In 2020, Johnson C. Smith University in Charlotte, North Carolina, launched several teams and became the first historically Black university to offer an e-sports management curriculum. The minor includes courses on gaming-related technology, business trends, and project management. BerNadette Lawson-Williams, a sports management professor and adviser to the program, views it as helping prepare students for a booming video game industry that made $67 billion in revenue in the U.S. last year.

"The opportunities are unlimited," she says. "These students are in a position to have an advantage in this industry. Many of them have been playing video games since they were 3 or 4 years old, so they've been training for this particular career their whole lives."

Aiming high

Managing relationships with nearly 10,000 schools is a tall order for the 90-employee PlayVS. The startup relies on customer relationship management software to handle its relationships and uses proprietary software to partially automate common issues like rescheduling canceled matches. The company's growing community and support teams onboard schools and help them deal with technological and administrative issues. Staffers get assigned to particular geographic regions so they develop familiarity with the coaches.

"We take a very personal approach to managing those relationships," says Parnell. "I can't truthfully say that we have all the answers or that we've done the greatest job managing every single relationship. But we obsess over the problems they share with us and we try really hard to fix them."

PlayVS also allows youths in states that haven't yet approved of varsity high school e-sports to form their own player-led teams and compete on a separate product that includes the popular games Fortnite and Overwatch. The startup exists in a space also occupied by High School Esports League and Super League, which organize amateur e-sports matches and make money through fees or sponsorships, as well as the nonprofit North American Scholastic Esports Federation. But PlayVS's exclusive deal with the NFHS gives it credibility and a layer of protection from competitors in the high school space. 

In June, the startup will hold the inaugural PlayVS Cup, a platform-wide tournament that will crown a single champion. Parnell think it's a glimpse into a future when PlayVS, which expanded into Canada last year, becomes the dominant platform in the global amateur e-sports space.

"If you believe in gaming and you believe in e-sports, you have to believe that a company like PlayVS will exist," says Parnell. "We're just facilitating the behavior that people already want."