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This Company Is Bringing ESports to High Schools. To the Students Who Play, It’s Bringing a Life Line

Thanks to a small startup in California, high schools across the country are launching esports clubs. Here’s what that looks like.

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BY Kevin J. Ryan - 19 Dec 2018

PlayVS CEO Delane Parnell, whose company built the software on which high school e-sports operates.

PlayVS CEO Delane Parnell, whose company built the software on which high school e-sports operates. CREDIT: Courtesy PlayVS

After school on a recent Tuesday in the quiet town of Orange, Massachusetts, more than a dozen teenagers sit gazing intently at their computer monitors and tapping away at their keyboards. They're playing the massively popular online game League of Legends. Every few seconds, they shout directions to each other. They let out occasional whoops and exasperated groans. It's a scene similar to the one simultaneously playing out in thousands of living rooms across America.

Except they're not in someone's living room. They're in a high school classroom. And they're earning varsity letters.

This October, esports launched as an officially sanctioned high school activity in five states. In addition to Massachusetts, the games have already come to Rhode Island, Connecticut, Kentucky, and Georgia. Students stay after school with a teacher to hone their skills and, once a week, compete against other schools in the state. More states will follow when the next season begins this February.

A small startup in Santa Monica is making it all happen. PlayVS, a company founded in July 2017 that employs just 15 people, built the platform on which high school esports operates. It hosts and streams the matches, creates the schedules, and compiles the statistics.

For the schools that have participated in this initial season, PlayVS hasn't just helped helped students play games and earn stats; in helping form esports teams at the high school level, the company has brought teens together around an activity that until recently wasn't taken seriously--and in many places, still isn't. And if the level of interest being shown by students is any indication, this is only the beginning.

A high school club for the 'outsiders'

At some schools, such as Connecticut's Shelton High School, teachers like Doug Williams pushed their school districts to adopt the new activity. Williams, a 26-year-old tech teacher who games in his free time, leads a club of six students.

Maher High School students in Orange, Massachusetts, compete in League of Legends after school. CREDIT: Courtesy PlayVS

Other teachers became their school's esports coaches more randomly. Kyle Magoffin is a physical education teacher at Mahar Regional High in Orange, Massachusetts. As recently as August, the 32-year-old, who is also an assistant coach for the football team, had little interest in gaming. "Heck, I didn't even know what League of Legends was," he says of the game that boasts 100 million active monthly players.

On the first day of the school year, Magoffin was talking with a junior in his homeroom, Justin St. Pierre, about the tragedy that had unfolded the day before at an esports tournament in Jacksonville, when a 24-year-old gamer shot and killed two fellow competitors and then himself. St. Pierre was frustrated that some were interpreting the incident as indicative of gaming instead of as a mental health issue. "Gamers are misunderstood," he told the teacher.

Magoffin's reply: "Why don't you do something about it?"

He did. Together, student and teacher decided to try to create an esports club at the school. Their research led them to PlayVS. The duo pitched the idea of an official school esports team to the school's superintendent, with St. Pierre giving a presentation to a room of administrators. The school district approved the team and agreed to fund the first two seasons.

Magoffin is learning about video games on the fly. He lets St. Pierre act as team captain, leading the discussions about strategy and suggesting roster tweaks. (As the teacher has discovered, each League of Legends lineup consists of five positions that require unique skill sets.) Magoffin has studied YouTube videos and streams to help him understand the game more.

"I watched a documentary on esports on Saturday night with my wife," he says. "That's sort of where my life has turned to, because I see the importance of esports in high schools, and some of the demographics of the school that are being missed by not offering it."

By that, he means the outsiders--the kids that probably don't play organized sports nor have big friend circles. The kids that turn to video games instead. At the first team meeting, Magoffin asked the students to describe who they were and what they wanted to get out of the club. "The kids started describing themselves," he says, "and the phrases they used were 'loner,' 'outcast,' 'forgotten about,' 'don't have a place.' As a teacher, that breaks your heart to hear that you have a bunch of kids who don't think that they have a place in your school."

Since the team's inception, Magoffin says he's seen changes in the players' confidence and engagement in school. St. Pierre's attendance and grades have improved: Last year, he was a D and F student; this year, his lowest mark is a C, placing him within a few points of the honor roll.

"I think this will lead me to actually find a career in the future," St. Pierre says. "I'm someone who's been really unmotivated in school and was thinking about just not going to college. I've realized if I step up my game and show people that I'm the kid that is smart, is not failing classes, then maybe I have a chance to make it somewhere in this world."

Justin St. Pierre leads a strategy session for his team. CREDIT: Courtesy PlayVS

Building the platform

In April, PlayVS announced that it had signed a deal with the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS), making it the exclusive platform on which high school esport would operate.

"We are introducing a sport at scale within schools," says 26-year-old founder and CEO Delane Parnell. "If you're making football a high school sport at the national level, for example, every school would need to get a coach, get assistant coaches, make a playbook, get players, get equipment, get someone to collect the stats, get someone to validate the stats, get referees. All these things are required to get done before you play one match. So we're building significant infrastructure."

David Loubser, PlayVS's chief technical officer, leads a team of three that has been tasked since January with building essentially all of the back-end software. Complicating things is the fact that he and his team are based in Johannesburg, South Africa. Thanks to the nine-hour time difference from California, their schedule entails programming from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m., then testing and reviewing with the staff in Santa Monica until around 1 a.m. The setup, Loubser admits, has its perks, since the developers can code distraction-free during the day, but it doesn't exactly lend itself to work-life balance.

"We've literally put our lives on hold," Loubser says. "The three of us have families, and they're so understanding that they just haven't had husbands and boyfriends this year."

On October 30, the PlayVS team held its collective breath while gamers logged on and competed for the first time. Some players' stats didn't compile properly, but the gameplay ran smoothly. The staffers were ecstatic.

"It's a small thing compared to somebody who launches a space shuttle," Loubser says, "but I know what they felt like seeing the rocket go up and not crash."

In November, the company announced a $30.5 million Series B round, less than six months after it announced a $15.5 million Series A--the largest for a black founder in consumer internet history, according to Peter Pham of VC firm Science. In addition to Science, the startup's roster of investors includes Sean "Diddy" Combs, Nas, Adidas, Dollar Shave Club founder Michael Dubin, and the Los Angeles Dodgers.

PlayVS charges schools $64 per student for the season, which can be paid by his or her family or the school itself. The first season is limited to League of Legends, but more games will join the slate in February, including popular hybrid soccer-slash-racing game Rocket League and the battle arena game SMITE. The startup is referring to the current season as Season Zero, reflecting the fact that it's essentially a test run--a way to work out the kinks before a wider release in February.

"We wanted to have a controlled launch," says Laz Alberto, the company's vice president, who is tasked largely with managing the company's relationship with the NFHS and the individual states. PlayVS's goal is to operate in all 50 states, but each has its own governing body, which requires significant legwork for the startup's small team. The company, which hopes to double its headcount by the start of the next season, already has signed on Texas, Alabama, and Mississippi. Alberto expects that more states will be announced in the coming months. In addition to reaching out to schools, the company is discussing marketing directly to students with the hopes that they'll push their districts to adopt the new sport.

"While it's new, the audience is already there," he says. "Kids have been waiting for this opportunity for a long time."

'We want to watch'

While it might offer social benefits for the students who play, esports has run into a range of criticisms. "Sport" or not, the obvious truth is that esports won't improve one's health the way basketball or field hockey can. And a significant number of gamers don't just dabble: A study by digital media firm Limelight Networks found that 15 percent of those who play video games do so for 12 hours per week or more.

There's also the issue of gender imbalance. All 18 players on Mahar Regional's roster, for example, are boys, not an outlier in the male-skewed world of competitive gaming. Game makers tend to market their products toward males, and a Pew study found that females who play video games are less likely than males to identify themselves as 'gamers.'

The high school coaches who spoke with Inc. contest that the students joining their esports teams generally aren't doing so in lieu of physical activity: They're kids who otherwise would be gaming at home, in a room alone, talking to people through a headset or not at all.

PlayVS hosts coaching clinics for high schools, and it says it works with coaches to help them build all-inclusive programs. And for Mahar Regional's part, Coach Magoffin says the school district is pushing to get girls involved with video games--especially given the fact that girls who game have been found to be more likely to pursue degrees in STEM.

And while video games often come under fire for their violence, PlayVS says it won't incorporate any first-person shooter games.

Parnell, who was raised by a family friend in one of Detroit's toughest neighborhoods and used to play a Nintendo 64 in a shed in his backyard, hopes that video games can provide structure to youths across America--and, eventually, beyond.

"I want to build the biggest esports company in the world," he says.

PlayVS won't say how many students or schools are participating so far. Anecdotally, Coach Magoffin sees the scope of esports as growing quickly. During football practice before the school's big Thanksgiving Day rivalry game, the team's starting running back asked Magoffin if it was true that the school would be forming a squad for the game Rocket League next year.

"I'm like, 'Dude, you've gotta focus on this game coming up and you're thinking about esports during practice?' " the coach says. "The level of interest shocks me."

On match days, while his team competes in the school's computer lab, students from all social circles have been packing in just to watch.

"In the past, these kids might have gotten made fun of for being gamers," he says. "This has kind of given legitimacy to those passions. It's nice to see these kids that might have been loaners, outcasts, have support from their classmates. It tells them, 'We want to watch you. We think what you're doing is cool.' "

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