PlayVS is a software company out of Los Angeles that is bringing competitive esports to high schools. They recently announced an esports pilot program for Virginia through the Virginia High School League (VHSL). Roughly 40 schools have signed up for the 2019-2020 season.
Clint Kennedy and Seth Reinhart are the contacts for Virginia at PlayVS. They have previous experience with official and unofficial esports programs in other states. They will be working with Darrell Wilson, the Assistant Director of Academic Activities at VHSL, in this esports experiment. I got to talk with Clint and Seth about Virginia’s new pilot and what their roles are within PlayVS.
Me: So before we get into discussing the new pilot program, I am hoping to learn more about your background and your roles within PlayVS.
Clint: I am the Director of Education with PlayVS. Prior to working here I worked within public school systems for over 20 years. Five years ago I worked with Connecticut students, where we launched the first high school esports league.
Seth: I just recently joined PlayVS to help the high schools build out their esports programs. I was previously an IT director in Kentucky and a high school esports coach. My job at PlayVS is to lead the engagement with VHSL.
Me: Does PlayVS do anything else besides high school esports?
Clint: PlayVS is a software company, and our sole focus right now is on being an esports league provider to high schools across the country. We negotiated an agreement with the National Federation of State High School Associations for bringing esports to the high school level, and that is our best opportunity right now.
Me: And it is only for high schools right now, right? Not middle schools?
Clint: We only offer programs at high schools right now. Middle schools are on hold for a few reasons, but the main one is game ratings. PlayVS has contracts set up directly with each game developer [Riot Games, High-Rez Studios, etc.] League of Legends and Smite are rated T for Teen, which means players have to be 13 years or older to participate. We know their are students who play Call of Duty and other Mature games, but PlayVS is sticking to the game developers’ requests for official leagues.
Me: So which games are offered right now and how were they chosen?
Clint: Right now PlayVS offers leagues for League of Legends, Smite and Rocket League. There are three main reasons these games were chosen. One, like we already touched on, we want to make sure the game is appropriate for high schools. T for Teen is the highest rating we can offer. Two, we have built relationships with the publishers, which leads to three. These games allow APIs [Application Programming Interface], which allows us to build a more sustainable platform and analyze data from the high school competitions.
Me: How many states and schools are involved right now?
Clint: We work with 14 states officially right now. We are expecting three to five more before the Fall season begins. There are also about 15 to 20 unsanctioned leagues on PlayVS for other states.
Me: So what does an esports season look like at the high school level?
Seth: There is a Fall season and a Spring season, which allows students to participate in other activities if they want. Fall and Spring each have a preseason, a regular season, playoffs and a state championship. Everything is played remotely, except some state championships, which means students do not have to travel for competition. A school can have as many teams as they would like.
Me: Is there any kind of national championship?
Seth: No, most executive directors are not interested in participating in a national championship just yet. Some states are investing in live high school esports events, like Massachusetts’ state championship at Becker College earlier this year.
Me: And do players have to be a certain rank in the games to participate? How do you set up the competition in regards to rank?
Seth: Students don’t have to be a particular rank. Iron to Challenger, all are welcome to participate. PlayVS takes rank into account, as well as strength of schedule when analyzing which teams play each other during the regular season. The preseason period is designed to filter teams into similar ranks for the regular season. At the end of the day, we just want the games to competitive. No one enjoys stomping or being stomped, so the pilot will also be monitoring those systems and addressing any issues along the way.
Me: Does PlayVS have any kind of eligibility requirements? Most athletic events require students to have specific GPAs and no disciplinary problems, does PlayVS have any requirements like that?
Clint: Eligibility requirements is mostly left up to the schools themselves at this point. PlayVS only verifies the coaches as an adult employee of the school, and the coach actually has final say in whether or not the players can participate. They are responsible for ensuring the students meet any eligibility requirements.
Me: How has it been working with VHSL for the pilot?
Clint: Darrell Wilson has been our main point of contact with VHSL, and he is a great guy. It is wonderful to have someone without any personal esports experience that still sees the opportunities and educates himself.
Me: Has there been much push-back about the program?
Clint: Not really. Any concerns come from a lack of knowledge about esports, and a little bit of explanation goes a long way helping people understand the positive impact esports could have on students.
Seth: Also esports is not something that is just happening in the future; it’s already here. These students are most likely already playing the games. Now it’s more a matter of directing that energy in a positive way.
Me: What would you say to someone who does not think playing video games at school is a good idea?
Clint: I got into bringing esports to the high school level, because I used to be a public school administrator and I knew that most careers were interested in certain skills, so we would build a horizontal curriculum around those skills. Esports is an activity that develops those skills, especially giving students experiences to fail and try again. These programs are co-ed, highly inclusive, and also usually bring along other opportunities beyond gaming, like marketing and social media. Just like traditional sports, esports has its own economy with all kinds of opportunities, which we are also hoping students start to take an interest in.
Seth: I left my previous job and moved out to Los Angeles, because of the impact on the kids. It’s really special to see the typical “lone wolf”-type kids that play video games after school put on the same platform as a football player, getting fist bumps and wearing jerseys walking down the hallway. Giving back to the next generation is what it’s all about.
Clint: Adding to that, we have an excellent relationship with Riot, who allows us to have all champions unlocked when the students play League of Legends. Some students really light up when you tell them that, and it helps ensure the game is more equitable for competition. Riot also invited high school teams from California and Connecticut to play a show match before the CLoL [Collegiate League of Legends] Championship. They got to prepare in the rooms for Cloud9 and play on stage at the LCS Arena. It was a really cool opportunity that we hope more high school students get to experience.