- Delane Parnell, a 25-year-old Detroit native, is bringing a competitive video gaming (or eSports) league to high schools across America.
- He is not the stereotypical Silicon Valley tech founder and has overcome a lot. “I’m from Detroit. I grew up in the Jeffries Projects. Raised by a single mother. My father was murdered before I was born,” Parnell said matter-of-factly.
- His startup PlayVS is teaming up with the country’s leading governing body for high school sports to build infrastructure for an eSports-focused league.
- Student athletes will form eSports teams at their schools, compete with players from other schools, and battle for titles at state championships.
Growing up, Delane Parnell and his friends would gather after school in a classroom, where a plucky science teacher set up laptops and PCs for an unofficial competitive video gaming, or eSports, club. It created a safe space for Parnell, who grew up in a tough Detroit neighbourhood, to be competitive, laugh, socialise, and engage in something he loved: video games.
Now, Parnell, 25, wants to bring a competitive eSports league to high schools across America.
His venture-backed startup, PlayVS, is building an online platform that will let teen gamers form eSports teams at their high schools, compete with players from other schools, and battle for titles at state championships. The idea is to bring eSports into the fold of traditional high school athletics by giving gamers a platform to operate on and a stage for recognition.
PlayVS is announcing on Thursday that it’s landed an exclusive partnership with the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS), an organisation that writes the rules of competition for most high school sports in the US and reaches nearly eight million high school athletes. The two will work together to introduce eSports across NFHS’s 50 member states.
From 8 Mile to Silicon Beach
Without eSports, Parnell isn’t sure he would have made a career in technology.
“I’m from Detroit. I grew up in the Jeffries Projects. Raised by a single mother. My father was murdered before I was born,” Parnell said matter-of-factly.
As a teenager, he moved to the city’s West Side and lived a few blocks away from the notorious 8 Mile Road. He started his first job at age 13 and played sports – requirements his mum put in place to ensure her two sons would stay out of the neighbourhood until she got home from work.
Parnell grew up without a computer or home internet. So when a science teacher put together an unofficial eSports club – before eSports was even “a thing” – in his classroom after school, Parnell jumped at the opportunity. There, he found his community, and his people.
After graduating high school, Parnell went onto become a senior associate at a small seed-stage investment firm called IncWell Venture Capital and an early employee at Rocket Fibre, a high-speed internet company based in Detroit. But he had an itch to build something around eSports.
A fateful meeting on a dance floor with Peter Pham, an angel investor and cofounder of a startup incubator called Science, at South by Southwest led Parnell to move from Detroit to Santa Monica to develop his idea. He founded PlayVS out of the incubator a month later.
How PlayVS works
Parnell describes the PlayVS platform as a virtual gymnasium, weight room, and trophy case.
High school students will choose from four game titles to play, “practice” online on school computers, and compete during two four-month seasons that each end in a state championship.
While students will play the games on a bigger distribution platform like Steam, the PlayVS platform will download the scores of those matches and publish the results on its own ranking of top gamers. Students will be able to maintain player profiles and team pages on PlayVS.
“We look at ourselves as a full-stack sport,” Parnell said.
The inaugural season kicks off in October, with high school students in at least 15 states getting access to PlayVS’s platform. Parnell declined to name the game publishers or states taking part, but said the games will span three genres: multiplayer online battle arena, fighting, and sports games.
The eSports industry is on fire
PlayVS will lean on the NFHS to help it build infrastructure for an eSports league that Parnell hopes to take across 50 states someday. According to Parnell, the federation had been looking to expand its offerings into eSports for at least two years, as it watched interest in eSports grow.
Some 335 million people watched or played eSports in 2017, an increase of 19% year over year, according to market intelligence firm Newzoo. If the eSports nation were an actual nation, it would be the third largest country on the planet, ahead of the United States in population size.
Newzoo expects the global eSports economy will grow 38% to $US906 million in 2018.
PlayVS will make money in part by charging a $US16 membership fee per student per month that they (or their school) must pay in order to access the platform. That works out to about $US128 per year, which could be cost-prohibitive for some students, over two four-month seasons.
When asked if he thinks there will be backlash from school administrators or parents who say eSports “isn’t a real sport,” Parnell bristled, calling the criticism a “generational issue.”
Not everyone will agree with bringing eSports to high schools, though.
Last year, the World Health Organisation said it was considering adding “gaming disorder” to a list of mental health conditions, stating that problematic gaming behaviour might cause problems in other areas of people’s lives. There’s been a call for more research into the links between video games and violence in the wake of events like the school shooting in Parkland, Florida. For this reason, Parnell said that PlayVS will not offer shooting games on the platform.
Still, the percentage of teens who play video games rose to 72% in 2015. Some colleges in the US and Canada have started recruiting and offering scholarships for eSports, while some enthusiasts have turned their hobbies into lucrative careers as professional eSports gamers.
Parnell wants to give students a chance to seize those opportunities.
“Esports is about more than just playing games,” he said in a statement. “It can be used to help students grow their STEM interests and develop valuable life skills, and since there are more high school gamers than athletes, it’s about time we foster this pastime in an educational setting.”
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