Forget Friday Night Lights, Esports Is Becoming the Next Varsity Obsession

David Gardner@@byDavidGardnerStaff WriterJune 14, 2018

In this Aug. 25, 2017, photo, Connor Nguyen, at right, and Griffin Williams, second from right, compete in a
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In the early 2000s, Mason Mullenioux was trying to find where he fit in at Blue Springs High School. Located in a suburb outside Kansas City, Missouri, Blue Springs has a student body of more than 2,500 and an athletic pedigree to match. Mullenioux tried out for basketball and tennis but didn't make either roster. "I was athletic," he says, "but I couldn't make the teams. I was upset they didn't have anything for me."

What he wanted was a school-sponsored outlet for a competition that spoke to him: World of Warcraft. But back then, the idea of a varsity gaming team would have seemed as far-fetched as affordable virtual reality headsets. Now, Mullenioux and the company he co-founded, HSEL—the High School Esports League—are at the forefront of a growing movement to bring esports teams into the high school sports arena. HSEL alone has 850 partnered schools and boasts more than 16,000 users. It's added 1,000 players a week for the past four weeks. And this fall, another company, PlayVS, will launch varsity-level esports leagues in at least 18 states through a partnership with the National Federation of High School Associations (NFHS).

"There are a lot of older people who don't get it," Mullenioux says. "But that's changing. With colleges starting to offer scholarships, varsity esports will exist all over the country soon."

Mullenioux and his friend Charles Reilly launched HSEL with their own money in 2012, a couple of years after they graduated from the University of Missouri. They marketed the league to high schoolers through Facebook advertisements and were stunned when they got 20 schools to sign up for the inaugural summer season in 2013. By the fall, the number of schools had swelled to 300. As HSEL grew, they began attending live esports events—many of which sell out professional arenas—to track down more prospective players.

It was at one such event, a Counter-Strike: Global Offensive (CS:GO) world championship at Barclays Center in Brooklyn, New York, that the Champlin family discovered HSEL. Chris Champlin wrestled for Syracuse in his heyday, but he'd always loved video games. He grew up on Atari, and he kept up on consoles throughout adulthood. But Champlin had grown up going to football games with his father, so last fall, he offered to take his sons, Ryan and Kyle, to a Jets game. Instead, his boys asked to go to the CS:GO tournament. When Ryan and Kyle saw the booth promoting a high school esports league, they were hooked.

On train rides to and from the two-day tournament, the boys plotted a way to bring esports to their school, Bayshore High School in Bayshore, New York. They passed out pamphlets and collected more than 200 signatures in support. Almost 130 students attended their first meeting in October. Now, they have more than 50 students competing in various games on a weekly basis. The participants include the captain of the lacrosse team and a soccer star, who will attend Miami (Ohio) University this fall on a full-ride esports scholarship. (At many colleges, video game publishers sponsor scholarships in full or in part. The publishers get game promotion and penetration with new players, and the universities get to build state-of-the-art facilities.)

The Bayshore High School esports team.
The Bayshore High School esports team.David Gardner

Ryan, a senior, has also received an esports scholarship. He's the captain of the club's Tom Clancy's Rainbow Six squad, but Menlo College in California wanted him for more than what he could do in front of a computer: He's also received a leadership scholarship to help the school recruit more players and start more teams.

"People don't understand the opportunities," he says. "It's like actual sports. There's marketing and management and coaching and recruiting. You can compose music or even be an announcer. You don't have to be great at games or even play to participate. There's animating and coding. There are so many ways for people to get involved and find a community."

On June 6, Bayshore hosted the first high school tri-lan event, a three-way competition with Long Island high schools St. Anthony and Sachem North. Later this year, it'll host a quad meet, featuring high school, college and semiprofessional players of the game Overwatch at NYCB Live, a 16,000-seat nearby arena. And this fall, the esports team at Bayshore hopes to become an official school club. It missed the deadline for this school year, but it's confident its successful first year will convince the administrators it's time to take esports seriously.

"We have a national championship banner that hangs in the computer room," Chris Champlin says, "and one day it'll hang in the gym with the varsity sports. We'll be a club for the next few years, but this will one day be a varsity sport. It's a certainty."

This year, Indiana's Munster High became the country's first high school to allow students to letter in varsity esports. Further west, in Los Angeles, Delane Parnell has spent the past year building and strengthening the infrastructure of PlayVS, the high school esports platform he founded in 2017 and now runs. Backed by some serious Silicon Valley capital and even a few star athletes, PlayVS plans to roll out in 5,000 schools this fall for the first NFHS-sanctioned esports leagues. "We're the official high school esports league," Parnell says. "This is not a club. These kids can play varsity. They can win state championships. Individually, they can record official records by state. They can enter the Hall of Fame if they have incredible careers."

Parnell, 25, grew up in public housing in Detroit without an internet connection in his home. His first video game experiences were at his grandparents' house, where he and his brother and his cousins would crowd around the TV and play Nintendo 64. He sensed then the community-building aspect of these games and wanted to ensure kids from all different backgrounds would have the opportunity to pursue their passions—and potentially earn scholarships or even turn professional.

Photo courtesy of Delane Parnell

PlayVS will have two seasons each school year, and teachers or other faculty members will supervise the competitions, which will take place on campus. Each school can field as many teams as it likes. The cost will be $16 per student per month. "Traditional sports aren't scalable," Parnell says, "but esports are. We don't have to cut any kid that wants to play. And this will be the first truly coed sport in high school. We're really excited about how broad the opportunities are. No one needs to be left out."

Teams will be divided into tiers based on abilities, and algorithms will schedule programs to ensure the best possible matchup each week. PlayVS' software will assign a star rating to players based on their skill level at any given position in a game, and they'll assign teams letter grades. Both metrics will factor in strength of schedule. "No one has ever done that in esports," Parnell says. "College recruiters are really going to know how to find players. You can find a 5-star player on a bad team or separate a team that just plays weak opponents."

HSEL has a partnership with the National Association of Collegiate Esports (NACE), which is akin to the NCAA for esports. Players on the platform, who pay $5 per month as part of a school or $8 a month on their own, can opt in to be contacted by college recruiters. So far, more than 30 have received scholarships. Although HSEL will cede some ground to PlayVS, its founders are confident the league will continue to grow as a result of PlayVS' decision to not offer first- or third-person shooter games. And while that has garnered the support of high schools, it also means PlayVS won't run any tournaments for some of the most popular titles, such as CS:GO, Overwatch and Fortnite.

In total, HSEL offers tournaments in 14 titles. For its five "majors"—League of Legends, Overwatch, Rocket League, Hearthstone and CS:GO—it distributes a total of $70,000 in scholarships each year. And later this summer, the league will host the first national high school tournament for Fortnite. "League of Legends is still our most popular game," Mullenioux says, "but Fortnite could overtake them all."

But this movement is about more than one game. As with traditional sports, it's about more than the games themselves.

"This is about team building and camaraderie and life skills," Parnell says. "It's about people who have been left out finding their place. This is the beginning of something big."

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