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This 25-Year-Old Has #Nas And The #49ers Investing In High School #Esports $ATVI $TTWO $GAME $ $TCEHF

Posted by AGORACOM-JC at 10:07 AM on Tuesday, June 5th, 2018
  • PlayVS, a startup developing software to formalize high school gaming competitions
  • By integrating with a select number of games,
    • PlayVS serves as an all-in-one online portal for students and administration
  • Growth has been fast since its founding last June
Matt Perez , Forbes Staff

Delane Parnell is the cofounder and CEO of PlayVS.

If there’s a constant in the flourishing world of esports, it’s that enthusiasm often outpaces the necessary infrastructure to match it. In particular, high school students and teachers who hope to participate in competitive gaming must self-organize without the structure of an official body.

Delane Parnell’s high school science teacher was someone who took it upon himself to organize a gaming club for students. He provided the equipment, he kept track of stats and even awarded trophies for the myriad of games they played. It was a way for students to come together and to participate in a hobby they all enjoyed. It was also a way for Parnell to stay out of trouble on the west side of Detroit where he grew up.

“I was super in love with that, and it was probably one of the highlights of my life,” says Parnell, now 25 years old. “I never made the connection until maybe last year that I was building that company.”

That company is PlayVS, a startup developing software to formalize high school gaming competitions. By integrating with a select number of games, PlayVS serves as an all-in-one online portal for students and administration. Matches are set and scheduled on the platform, player stats are tracked and collected, and wins and losses are auto-reported to prevent cheating.

Growth has been fast since its founding last June. By November, Parnell and his collaborators at the incubator Science struck up a partnership with the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS), which publishes the rules for most high school sports and performing arts activities across the United States. The organization was searching for around 18 months before finding the right fit in PlayVS. With the NFHS exclusively rolling out esports through its Web app, Parnell’s company can now reach 19,500 high schools and the many students who pine for an esports program that functions like an officially sanctioned sport.

“There are 8 million kids today that don’t participate in any sports, and there’s an opportunity for them to get engaged, develop an affinity for their school, to just be a part of something that’s bigger than themselves,” Parnell says.

The inaugural season starts this fall, with around 18 to 20 states set to participate, a starting base that encompasses about 5 million students. Two seasons make up a school year, with each regular season played across two months and leading into conference finals and a state championship. PlayVS is still mum on which games will be offered, though it’s working with publishers to sanction IPs within three genres: MOBAs, fighting games and sports games. Students will need to pay a $16 per month participation fee to register for the platform.

While PlayVS still needs to prove itself come this fall, it’s already earned some believers in high places. The startup this week announced it pulled in $15 million through a Series A funding round. Investors include the NFL’s San Francisco 49ers, NBA All-Star Baron Davis, LA Chargers Pro Bowler Russell Okung and rapper Nas. According to the company, it’s the third-largest Series A for a black founder.

Despite the young age of the company—and its founder and CEO—it was an eventful journey to this moment.

Listen to Delane Parnell discuss his startup PlayVS on our podcast, Overworld:

Parnell grew up in Detroit’s Jeffries Projects, a notoriously rough neighborhood. His father was murdered before he was born, and his older brother’s dad passed away from sickle cell soon after. Part of his childhood was spent living with a family friend, but when the city imploded the housing project, he moved back in with his single mother on the west side of Detroit. Hoping to keep him and his brother out of trouble, Parnell’s mother put them in school sports and got them summer jobs. While his brother worked at a meat-packing facility, he got a job at a cellphone store. The man in charge taught Parnell the ropes.

“Without him, I’m not sure I’d be here today,” Parnell says. “Taught me everything I know about business, about hard work, about empathy and leadership and management, and just took me under his wing.”

They were lessons Parnell quickly put to use. He went on to own three Metro PCS stores, then he helped start a car rental service that now has 16 locations in the Midwest and Southeast. Turning his eyes toward venture capital, he came to work with billionaire Dan Gilbert’s Rocket Fiber.

“I’ve always been a gamer, but I fell in love with esports throughout working with Dan,” Parnell says.

Despite some early goings in the industry, including selling the team Rush eSports to Team SoloMid, Parnell wasn’t able to find sustained success in esports. But through a long series of connections and fortunate coincidences, Parnell would find the key to eventually founding PlayVS. While at a friend’s SXSW party, Parnell was introduced to Science cofounder Peter Pham, who was the lone brave soul out on the dance floor.

“He mentioned he was really interested in building something in esports,” Pham says. “I had been obsessed with the space for a while and wanting to kind of find a team to help build something in that space.”

Considering esports will near billion-dollar revenues this year, and considering 72% of teens play videogames, the interest was warranted. It was just a matter of finding the right partner and deciding where attention should go, something that became obvious upon talking to Parnell.

“Esports sort of has this task—this mountain task—to become multigenerational,” Parnell says. “If a sport has a strong and a stable high school system, then that sport typically not only has staying power but it also lasts for multiple generations at the pro level.”

The industry lacks a system to readily usher in the next wave of athletes. It’s endemic at the collegiate level. Though universities are beginning to offer esports scholarships, they use unorthodox measures to recruit the kids. With a more formalized ladder, a clearer path exists.

The two continued speaking for a number of months, and Pham asked Parnell to make the move to Los Angeles. He was hesitant given the deep connections he’d made in the Detroit startup scene.

“I wanted to see that through, and I was pretty passionate about that and I still am,” Parnell says, “but I knew if I wanted to build a big company, and certainly a company in esports, location matters.”

Pham finally gave an ultimatum to move out to the West Coast. As soon as he got off the phone, Parnell decided to make the leap. He got out of his lease, took his car into the dealership, gave most of his belongings away, threw the rest in a U-Haul and headed across the country. Former pro player and now 100 Thieves team owner Matt “Nadeshot” Haag hooked him up with a place to stay, but everything happened so quick, Parnell never even saw his new apartment before shipping out.

“It was really a decision around, how bad do you want to do this,” Parnell says.

Since then, Parnell’s been under Pham’s wing as they build PlayVS. Already, they’ve pulled a national partnership and a $15 million funding round. Now it’s time to spend the summer prepping for its debut season this fall. But given how fast he moves, it’s no wonder Parnell’s already thinking of the future impact of PlayVS.

“I can’t wait to send hundreds of thousands of kids to college on esports scholarships in the future, keep kids off the street and out of gangs and, most importantly, help kids develop new friendships,” Parnell says. “I think there’s something to be said around the benefits of gaming and how gaming brings people together.”


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