Here’s a new one for the letterman jacket: esports.
Competitive gaming is expected to become more common at high schools around the state following a deal struck by the Michigan Association of Secondary School Principals and PlayVS, a fast-growing West Coast startup founded by Detroit native Delane Parnell.
The deal announced Thursday creates the first varsity level esports league in the state: the Michigan High School Esports League: Champions Series. Participating students will compete in League of Legends, Rocket League and Smite — multiplayer arena video games that have garnered massive player bases.
The fall season starts Oct. 19, and there is even a state championship being planned for the spring. Unlike with in-person sports, the COVID-19 pandemic poses little risk of delaying it. Wendy Zdeb, executive director of the association, said discussion about creating the league started early in the year.
“We had been talking to them since the start of the pandemic,” she said. “If kids don’t have the opportunity to play in sports, this might be a good kind of diversion and another opportunity.”
Competitive gaming has exploded in popularity around the world, including in Michigan, where colleges, universities and even the Detroit Pistons are building sports teams and platforms to plug into a global e-gaming industry valued at $160 billion.
PlayVS was launched in 2017 as a digital platform for high school students to compete in video games. The esports startup nabbed $50 million in a Series C round of funding last year — a feat celebrated during a panel discussion at Detroit Homecoming last year.
The company brands itself as the official scholastic high school and college esports league, administering esports competitions at hundreds of schools across the country. It says most U.S. high schools with a football program already use PlayVS or are in the process.
The deal with the principals’ association marks its entry into Michigan. The company holds the licensing rights for the games and will host the league, providing all the back-end support. For its part, the association advocates for the esports league and promotes it to its member network of 1,800 high school and middle school principals.
Zdeb said she views the games as a potential tool for student development.
“We certainly don’t want to offer any of like the active shooter games or even the Madden-type games,” she said. “We really were interested in kind of looking at this from a soft skills perspective, similar to robotics.”
Zdeb said any school in the state can enroll an unlimited number of players in the league for $20.20 per school. The deadline to enroll is Oct. 19. She expects at least 40 schools to participate at the beginning.
As part of the deal, Zdeb said the association will receive around 10 percent of the revenue generated at esports events through sponsorships. Gaming will be done remotely until the pandemic passes.
She said the Michigan High School Athletic Association had discussions with PlayVS but ultimately declined to partner with the company.
“Obviously, with the pandemic, they have their hands full,” she said.