By: Dean Takahashi Nov. 5, 2019 VentureBeat
Video games aren’t just a drag on a child’s study habits. Sometimes they can lead to college scholarships if your kid happens to be an esports star.
Tournament organizer High School Esports League (HSEL) has teamed up with the charitable organization Varsity Esports Foundation (VESF) to provide financial aid and opportunities for students across the country.Ad
HSEL is one of several competitive video game companies (rivals include PlayVS and All-Star Esports League) that is bringing esports to high schools. It has partnered with 2,100 schools and has 60,000 participating students.
Ever since a 16-year-old won the $3 million in the Fortnite World Cup in July, high school students have been thinking about their chances to win esports glory. HSEL preserves the amateur status of high school students by awarding them scholarships that they can use in college. And that means esports is becoming a viable career for some young adults, albeit a fraction of those who play video games.
I spoke with Mason Mullenioux, the CEO of High School Esports League, and Bubba Gaeddert, the executive director of Varsity Esports Foundation. While some parents might think esports isn’t right for high schools, they say they have seen overwhelming support. And high school might be just the right way to teach kids about participating in sports the right way, without toxicity or bullying.
Here’s an edited transcript of our interview.
GamesBeat: High school esports is a big thing this year. I’ve talked to some of the other folks in the space like PlayVS and All Star Esports League. Can you tell me how you got started?
Mason Mullenioux: We started in 2012 with some different projects. It was kind of out of necessity. You had the recession in the late 2000s. We wanted something that involved gaming and that was a way to give back to the gaming community that helped us through high school. That’s how the idea came about. We started running tournaments for a few years, just for fun, everything out of pocket. It got so big that we had to decide—okay, this is something real. Let’s turn it into something structured.
We started building out the tech platform so people could get involved and manage their clubs, provide some oversight and some structure there. We built new rulesets and guidelines and bylaws and all that stuff. We did that about two, two and a half years ago. We launched what we call our partnership program, where we’re directly partnering with schools. That means there’s a teacher there and the administration has given approval for the club to participate in the league. They use the logo, the colors, the name.
Our first season, we had about 160 schools signed up for the partner program. We’re up to about 2,200 now in the latest. The way our seasons work, we follow the semesters. Our big ones are fall and spring. It’s an eight-week season. Thinking of it like traditional sports, there’s a regular season and then playoffs leading to the finals. It’s school versus school. They pay a small fee to participate in the seasons. They can pay for a year, or we offer multi-year deals now as well.
We do things in the off-season as well. In winter and summer we run some smaller events that are more open. They don’t have to be involved with the school. It’s a more competitive, club-type traveling team, if you will. Altogether, we’ve served about 60,000 students on the platform right now.
GamesBeat: Does that mean you have 60,000 players in the leagues, or is that something different?
Mullenioux: They have other things that they’re doing. Sometimes in the fall they’re playing football or other extracurriculars. Same thing with spring. It’s split up. This fall season we have about 12,000 active participants.
GamesBeat: Which games are you focused on?
Mullenioux: We have all the big ones, except for League of Legends, because they wanted to do their own thing. We have Overwatch, Rocket League, Fortnite, CS: GO, Rainbow Six. We just added some sports titles this year for the first time. We have NBA2K and Madden. We’re trying to diversify and give everybody options to play the games they want to play.
GamesBeat: The teamup with Varsity Esports, does that mean there’s going to be scholarships involved? What does that mean?
Mullenioux: We’ve offered scholarships in the past. We don’t ever do straight cash prizing. It’s always scholarship-based. There’s a couple of reasons for that. It’s to promote higher education, but then there’s also—if the NCAA or other governing bodies decide amateurism is a thing they want to enforce in the college space, we don’t want to disqualify anyone from competing at that level. But with this partnership, now the foundation will hold and receive and distribute all scholarships through HSEL.
GamesBeat: Is that what the Varsity group already does for everyone else?
Bubba Gaeddert: That’s what we do now, yes.
GamesBeat: What sparked your interest in esports? How did that develop?
Gaeddert: For the group, we’re a foundation created to support those students with a pipeline for them to be able to succeed through esports beyond high school, and beyond college, potentially. We chose to partner with HSEL because they’re the largest and the longest-running competitive gaming organization for high schools. There are other organizations out there, but the integrity and the values for HSEL are above and beyond everyone else when it comes to curriculum and scholarships. The other leagues may be more expensive, or cheaper or free, but HSEL has the right package. We were happy to partner.
GamesBeat: Where is the HSEL on charging students to participate? Do they pay some kind of entry fee?
Mullenioux: If you’re paying for one seat, it’s $37. But that price can go down significantly if your club is a lot bigger. The bigger the club, the cheaper the cost to participate. That’s to encourage club growth and the communities there in schools. It’s significantly cheaper than anyone else.
GamesBeat: I don’t recall whether the other leagues had this kind of scholarship designation for prizing. It didn’t really come up when I talked to them before, the distinction between cash and scholarship.
Mullenioux: Yeah, I don’t know. HSEL so far has helped facilitate around $20 million in scholarships now since our inception. That’ll grow as the college base grows, and with this foundation. The foundation isn’t just limited to HSEL. They’re planning to offer a lot of other scholarships, merit-based scholarships and things like that, outside of just winning HSEL seasons. That was another reason we wanted to partner with them. They were providing incentives for value to our students.
GamesBeat: As far as how the schools are embracing esports, have you noticed changes on that front? Did you face opposition early on?
Mullenioux: Early on, it was more prevalent than it is now. Mainly based around the shooter, as you can imagine. But the argument, or really the selling point, is that they’re going to play this at home anyway. Why not have it in a structured environment at school with adults there for supervision, teaching sportsmanship and how toxicity affects everyone? It’s not just you. There are a lot of life lessons you can learn in that arena there at school. They’re interested in these games anyway, possibly above anything else, so if you can use it as a tool—if you don’t you’re just going to be left behind. It’s an easy selling point. We can usually see the lightbulb switch on when we explain it that way.
Other than that, we don’t force anybody to be affiliated with any game. If they don’t want to be involved with the shooter games, they don’t have to. They can pick and choose whatever they want to offer.
Gaeddert: That’s where the foundation comes in as well. We’re taking hold of that soft-skills side of the esports industry. We want to support schools and the industry as a whole, whether it be businesses or teams or professionals or colleges, in the sense of all those things Mason mentioned beyond the classroom. We do see, especially with the curriculum that we’ve created in partnership with teachers and a principal–this is a 150-page free curriculum that schools can use as an elective. It’s called “Gaming Concepts.” The benefit around that is we’ve seen an increase in GPA of 1.7, I believe, and about a 10 percent increase in attendance for these students.
Beyond just having gaming in your school, that team participation, just like any sport, provides the ability for kids to realize, “I need to do well in school. I need to get good grades. I need to eat right exercise like I would with any sport so I can be on the team and play.” The by-product of that is that these students are eating at home with their families and playing games with their friends. They’re socializing. It covers every base and every demographic of kids in school, too. It’s not just male or female. It’s coed, and it hits every subset, every clique of kids.
GamesBeat: As the Varsity group, are you OK with any type of game, or do you limit that in some ways, like with mature-rated games?
Gaeddert: There are limitations around certain games. The games HSEL provides are the best fit, as well as—the benefit here we have is we actually have data, an Oxford study about the linking of video games to violence that simply doesn’t find anything there. Part of what we do is literacy around esports and gaming. The foundation wants to help teachers, parents, and administrators understand beyond just what they see on the surface of kids playing video games. There’s a positive impact.
Beyond that skill set we’re teaching, kids can go to college on the scholarships we provide. They can potentially go on to careers in the tech industry or anywhere else because of the opportunities they had in high school.
GamesBeat: I went to an esports conference recently and came across some brands there that said they didn’t want to back any games featuring red blood. Green, blue, black blood, that’s OK, but apparently red blood is one of those lines they don’t want to cross. It sounds like you don’t have as much of that distinction.
Mullenioux: No. It’s kind of also a statement. Our main core value is that as much opportunity as we can provide to students, we will. Removing a game like that when there are professional opportunities and scholarships there, it doesn’t serve our mission or our core values. And like Bubba said, we don’t believe that there’s link there. In fact we believe the opposite, that it reduces aggression. So it’s a statement. We’re supporting the esports industry as a whole, but overall and more important, we’re supporting students.
Gaeddert: To add to that, the subset of kids who struggle with loneliness, with feelings of not belonging, they now have something that they can belong to. They don’t need to be physically able to dribble a basketball or tackle somebody. They can be physically able to do what they like to do on a daily basis and use technology. That subset of kids now has the ability to partner up and have social interactions around a team aspect. That’s really beneficial. That’s our passion. Our passion’s not anything else but that right there.
GamesBeat: I’ve heard that from a number of people. High school can often be divided into the culture of the nerds and the jocks, right? They don’t usually get along. The nerds haven’t historically had as many sports to get involved with.
Mullenioux: Right. Besides eating, sleeping, and going to class, this is a thing that will pull them all together. They all play video games.
GamesBeat: Schools are embracing this for social or cultural benefits they see from it, then?
Gaeddert: That’s true. The by-product of all this interaction, actually–I feel like it gives more strategic development and professional development to students than playing a regular sport. It’ll teach you about how to lead and follow, about collaboration and teamwork. But beyond that, esports teams can create even more when it comes to things like problem-solving. You need to problem-solve in the game and problem-solve in real life, just like we all do every day with work. It prepares kids, potentially, even more than in traditional sport.
GamesBeat: As far as parents go, parents might want their kids to hit the books instead of playing games. How do you make a pitch to them as far as how this is good for students?
Mullenioux: Parents are actually an easier sell than administration. Most parents nowadays who have high-school aged kids were around for Atari and Nintendo. They grew up with that stuff. They understand. They get it a lot more than their parents probably did. There’s really not that much pushback. In fact, we get emails all the time — “I’ve never seen my son or daughter behave this way before. It’s incredible to see them come out of their shell. It started when they joined the esports team at their school. They have friends now.”
All that kind of stuff comes from — gamers are often people that struggle with loneliness, and that stigma of sitting in the basement. We’re trying to erase that and give them something to do. Parents usually see that right away.
GamesBeat: How do these leagues in high schools feed upward? Is there a path to college esports or professional play of some kind?
Mullenioux: Esports is a little bit different. We tend to see the professional scene filled out by college-age or younger players. Once they’re done with their professional career, then they go back to college. It’s kind of backward in that way. I don’t know if that’s good or bad. I’m not sure it matters too much either way as long as they’re going back to school. They can often make enough money to pay for their schooling, which is nice.
As far as from high school, we try to create a pipeline there. We work with every college that has a varsity program, just making that connection. Here’s a giant pool of talent that you can offer scholarships. Much of the time there are scholarships left on the table because they’re not able to fill all their slots. There’s just a ton of opportunity there. As we grow and as the collegiate scene grows, it’ll become a lot more streamlined.
GamesBeat: You mentioned League of Legends. Does Riot do something itself around high schools?
Mullenioux: Yes. That’s still being fleshed out. We’re waiting to see where that goes. As it currently stands, Riot and the RSAA that they just founded want to do scholastic esports entirely on their own. We’ll see how that works out for them. I don’t know. It could be that next year we’ll be offering League of Legends again. But we’ll see.
GamesBeat: Do you have any stats on how many people shared the $20 million in scholarships so far? How many students does that cover?
Mullenioux: The average scholarship right now is about $4,000-$5,000 per esports player. That average will probably go up quite a bit. I don’t have the exact number of players, because we got that number from NACE, the National Association of Collegiate Esports. They’re our partner. We’ve been partnered for a few years now. That comes directly from all the varsity programs. I know that some of the club programs offer scholarships as well, so it could be even more than that. I’m not 100 percent sure. But since we have about 90 percent of the market share in the high school space, with all the schools that have programs, we’re assuming that a majority of that number can be attributed to players who’ve gone through our leagues.
Above: High School Esports League playersImage Credit: HSEL
GamesBeat: I was interested as a way of gauging what an individual’s chances are. What percentage of players might be able to get a scholarship?
Mullenioux: Something that’s important to us is that there’s a lot of scholarships being left on the table. They’re not necessarily looking for top-tier players. They’ll take a silver-tier, gold-tier player over someone who’s maybe better in terms of skills, but has a bigger ego, is less coachable, less willing to work on a team. You don’t have to be the best to earn a scholarship right now. That’s another important point of literacy for all these kids to know. Some of them won’t even attempt to get a scholarship if they’re around that silver tier, but they should, because there’s a bunch of them available. We try to communicate that to all of our students.
Gaeddert: The pipeline we talk about for those students, this is why we want to partner with HSEL. We want to help these students with scholarship opportunities to go to university, because there are more than 200 colleges and universities in the United States now offering esports programs. What’s great about these scholarships we’re providing to students is they’re not always having to use it at a university with an esports team. They’re going to any type of university, all across the country. That’s beneficial, because this is just a platform for kids to do all the positive, impactful things we’ve talked about, and earn scholarship dollars, rather than just having to focus on one single thing like sports or making the honor roll. They can play games, do all the other things they do, and earn scholarships in other ways.
But that pipeline certainly helps kids go from high school to college anywhere, in any field, any degree they’re looking for, any career ambition.
GamesBeat: If somebody wants to earn cash prizes or otherwise go semi-professional — if they’d rather earn cash than scholarships — what happens in that case?
Mullenioux: Everything is distributed through what we call varsity points, and they can redeem those for scholarships through the foundation. Everything outside of that—we have rules against winning money in tournaments. It’s a pretty high threshold, over $10,000. We just raised it. It used to be around $1,000. But we want to encourage higher education. We don’t just want to give out cash prizes and you can buy whatever you want. We want to be student-focused.
Gaeddert: That’s why we send scholarship dollars directly to a student’s university account. They give us information and their student ID and we make a deposit in their account at the university they’re attending.
GamesBeat: I guess a lot of them are still interested in winning $3 million in the Fortnite tournament, though.
Mullenioux: I think we all are. [Laughs]
Above: High School Esports League playersImage Credit: HSEL
GamesBeat: It feels like there’s a lot of cultural change happening here, in a positive way. I’m interested to see how this can change gamers themselves.
Gaeddert: That’s a secondary focus of the foundation. Beyond the financial support, education, literacy, awareness, advocacy, those are big pillars of ours. It goes to healthy lifestyles for gamers, whether they’re esports professionals or students. That means mental health, physical health. We’re talking about cyberbullying a lot. A lot of the initiatives we’ve had around diversity and inclusion—all these things are very important for the foundation.
Right now what we have is an industry that’s a bit like the wild west. Everyone is trying to get a piece of it, because they see large arenas full of people. Large companies see an opportunity to reach 18-35 year olds by sponsoring and putting their logo on things. Esports has grown that way. But all these important things in traditional sports and traditional life, regular jobs, aren’t there, because people are so focused on the grandiose aspects.
We’re seeing a lot of organizations doing one piece, and doing it pretty well. You have an organization like GamerDoc, where she’s going into schools and helping them with things like posture and exercise and healthy eating. We see people doing things around mental health, because they’ve involved in that field. But there’s no one collecting all those pieces together for esports. That’s where we come in. We want to collect all these people, all these individuals, put this data and research together, connect everyone, and then push that back to tell not only the esports industry, but all those who don’t understand what esports is.
There’s a lot of literacy issues when it comes to esports. You think it’s one thing because you’re outside of it, until you see what it is. First you see the big money, but then you learn more. There are opportunities for students, opportunities for college education. That literacy level goes up. We just had Saturday Night Live do an esports sketch. If you’re on SNL, that means you’re being noticed. It’s joking about the industry, but that’s where literacy has come in. That literacy needs to happen for this industry, because nobody’s talking about it all as one whole yet. That’s what we’re here for.
GamesBeat: Are there strict rules in the league around behavior and hate speech, things like that?
Mullenioux: Oh, yes. We have a very strict, no-tolerance policy around that stuff. If the league needs to get involved, we will. We’ve had instances of doxxing where we had to get local police departments involved. We take it very seriously. There are extensive rules around that.
GamesBeat: Have you seen the number of women playing grow? Is that a sizable percentage of your player base overall?
Mullenioux: We’ll get there. It’s still majority male. In our league, it’s still pretty heavily male. I’d say around 80-20. But it used to be more like 99-1. We have a couple of women’s schools participating, and we’re seeing girls coming in and feeling more comfortable, taking team captain roles. We’re seeing forward progress there. It’s still going to take a little while. But we’re working toward that.
GamesBeat: Is there a game that’s most popular for you?
Mullenioux: Overwatch. Overwatch and Rainbow Six are usually the two top contenders. CS: GO is usually right behind them. Sometimes it’s number one.
Above: Varsity Esports FoundationImage Credit: VESF
GamesBeat: It sounds like these games are pretty established. They’re not changing every year. I think some people have been concerned that esports would rise and fall and rise and fall as games come and go.
Mullenioux: Some of them do have a lot of longevity. Some of them do rise and see popularity for maybe six months and then fall off. The great thing about what we do is we listen to the community. If they want a game, we’ll offer that game for them. We’re not too concerned about that. It doesn’t affect us too much. We do like the stability of an Overwatch or a Rocket League or a Fortnite, but if the new Call of Duty comes out and it’s way better than last year’s, we’ll add it in.
GamesBeat: Is there anything else you’d like to mention?
Mullenioux: The one thing that I still wanted to make very clear is the foundation’s commitment to helping lower-income areas and more disenfranchised students. That’s one of the reasons it was so important for us. Most of our userbase is in suburban areas, more middle class. Like I said, our main pillar and mission is providing as much opportunity to as many students as possible. That helps fill that piece in. As many of those lower-income areas and schools they can help, the better. That serves our mission.
Gaeddert: We work to offset some of that cost. We grant out money to Title I high schools around the country, where they qualify because they have free and reduced lunches. We get documentation from those schools based on the percentage of free and reduced lunches. If it’s 50 percent, 25 percent, 100 percent, we’ll grant them the fee back. They’ll pay whatever league fee to play in the HSEL fall season and submit documentation to us, and we’ll write a check back to them. It’s fun for schools, because the teachers get to say, “Hey, we’ve got a grant to participate in this great program with our students.”
We gave out about $10,000 this fall semester, just in the last few weeks, for grant dollars. We’re always looking for sponsors to help build that out, because the more bandwidth we have, the more funding, the more schools we can support. We vet sponsors, of course, just like we vet HSEL and other esports organizations. We want to make sure the partnership is right and people aren’t coming in just to get their name out there. We want them to have the same values as we do. We’re looking for those sponsors and those donors, whether it be grassroots, small family donors, or tech companies that want to support this industry because it later sends students into their professions and their workforce.
GamesBeat: Does some of this money go toward equipment for schools so students can play, or does it go toward other things?
Mullenioux: We’re working toward that. That’s something we want to be able to offer. HSEL now does a three-year program where if your school commits three years to us, we’ll donate six high-end PCs. We’re trying to figure out a good way to move that over to the foundation, so there’s not only the donation coming from there, but it’s also coming at a subsidized cost to help lower-income area schools with equipment, just like with the league fees. That’s very much in the works. We’re just waiting on resources to be able to support that offering.