PlayVS announced an exclusive partnership with Activision Blizzard to add Hearthstone alongside Overwatch (an existing PlayVS regional league title) to the PlayVS high school esports game lineup starting in the spring 2022 season.
Activision Blizzard joins Riot Games, Nintendo, Electronic Arts (EA) and Psyonix as the fifth official and third exclusive publisher partner of the high school esports platform operator.
This partnership adds another big game to scholastic esports, as it provides high school-aged players a chance to participate in organized league play with coaching similar to that of professionals. PlayVS also complements Activision Blizzard’s existing efforts to grow local fanbases for its city-based professional franchises and will serve as a reliable talent pipeline for identifying future esports stars.
Activision Blizzard had a rocky year in 2021 as the state of California filed a sexual harassment lawsuit against the company. But a management change will likely be coming as Microsoft agreed to acquire Activision Blizzard for $68.7 billion in gaming’s largest acquisition to date.
“We continue to grow season over season in terms of the number of schools that sort of actively participate,” said Delane Parnell, CEO of PlayVS, in an interview with GamesBeat. “One of the most fascinating metrics to me is how many kids on average participate in esports in each school.”
In just three years, PlayVS has grown that number from essentially zero to 28, which means 28 kids per school on average participate, which is actually on par with traditional sports. As more coaches come online, that number will grow and it will likely soon pass baseball, which has 29 kids per school.
“Right now we’re limited based on the number of games that we add, that we have in our portfolio,” Parnell said. “As we continue to add more games, that number also climbs. And then as schools get more access to equipment, that will grow. As esports matures, naturally, there will be more investment into the space.”
PlayVS has operated with Overwatch for three years, and now it has an exclusive on that as well as with Hearthstone. PlayVS operates eight different titles altogether.
Changing the culture of high school
Parnell has observed that esports is transformative for many students in high school. Once upon a time, jocks and nerds had little in common and often ostracized each other. But with the popularity of gaming, esports has become a bridge between the different subcultures within high schools, as just about everybody plays video games. And in this kind of sport, neither side really has an advantage. The result is that esports can be a unifying force in high school.
On top of that, it’s an activity that can be played online, even during the pandemic, which has hobbled many in-person sports events. Parnell said that students who participate in esports feel more connected and motivated, and that leads to improved attendance, better grades, and higher graduation rates.
On top of that, high school esports programs are co-ed and inclusive. They offer students access to both in-game and life mentorship that they’d otherwise miss out on when playing online at home. Esports programs cost schools a fraction of what they spend on sports like basketball and baseball, although esports reaches a similar amount of students, Parnell said.
Los Angeles-based PlayVS has seen big growth since its founding four years ago in 2018. While traditional team sports participation and viewership continue to decline, gaming and high school esports keeps growing. The national average for esports program sizes has already reached 28 students per school, putting it on par with popular traditional sports after just three years, Parnell said.
“Sports have always been a cornerstone of the academic experience,” said Brandon Snow, senior vice president and head of Activision Blizzard esports, in a statement. “A strong academic esports program helps foster a sense of community and positivity, which is a driving passion of Activision Blizzard Esports. We are thrilled to work with PlayVS to bring Hearthstone and Overwatch to high schools all across North America and develop the next generation of professional gamers.
The PlayVS Spring season will kick off with pre-season on January 31, 2022, and run through the end of April. Schools interested in starting an esports program need to visit PlayVS.com to sign up. The registration deadline is February 11, as the regular season begins February 14. Matches will be played every week on Wednesdays.
PlayVS has raised more than $107 million to date. It has more than 550,000 registered users and 12,000 competing teams. More than 62,000 matches have been played, and the company has grown to 17 times. And a total of 212 state champions have been crowned.
PlayVS has official, exclusive status with any game on its platform, acquiring the rights and operating the right way. Publishers didn’t have any of these deals or infrastructure in place in the past. No strategy was present, schools didn’t have programs and no states endorsed the concept of esports from an association standpoint.
PlayVS operates with 26 state associations. The percentage of team sports at the youth level has dropped from 45% in 2008 to 38% in 2018, highlighting the decline in interest levels among kids.
Kids who play esports within PlayVS leagues have had noted improvement in educational performance, an increase in socialization, better grades and higher attendance rates. More than $500,000 in scholarships has been paid out in the past four years. PlayVS now has a team of 120 people across the U.S.
PlayVS is now headed into its eight season. The company tried a competitive program at the college level, but it recently shut that down. That program reached 35% of colleges after three seasons. But it found that market was too fragmented and so it decided to reinvest in the high school platform instead, Parnell said.
“We have the best high school program,” Parnell said. “The majority of high schools that have esports programs operate with PlayVS.”
And in high school, the company is benefiting from its exclusive deals, including a couple that have not been revealed yet. It also has deals to play on school campuses with state and district support. It works with the National Federation of State High School Associations in 26 states.
“That means esports is now sanctioned much like it is with basketball, football, where kids can compete for a state championship,” he said.
Some games don’t go over well at the high school level. Violent games such as Call of Duty are mature rated, and so they aren’t as appropriate for the younger players in high school. PlayVS focuses on games that have a teen or lower rating with the Entertainment Software Ratings Board.
PlayVS doesn’t have to pay the publishers for using games in its esports programs, as it helps those publishers build engagement with younger fans.
“They’re very focused on making sure that every single kid who is excited about their title, and who wants to play on PlayVS, can do so,” Parnell said. “We agree that competition and community is why people enjoy sports, and it’s also why people enjoy video games. PlayVS merges both of those things into product form. And today, we deliver that in the context of high school esports. But in the future, you know, maybe PlayVS could be a place where every gamer can compete and engage with their friends and build new relationships.”
As for the pandemic, esports had more growth online as lockdowns happened, Parnell said, and the company encouraged schools to increase their participation even if they had budget challenges.