The Esports Advocate has learned that the board of the Illinois High School Association (IHSA) voted over the weekend to exclude NBA 2K from its list of approved games for the state-wide 2023 State Series esports competition because it would require a third-party to administer tournaments.
It is important to note that the IHSA is an integral part of all interscholastic sports and other after-school activities—including esports—at the high school level in the state and is a founding member of the National Federation of State High School Associations. In other words, scholastic esports associated with K-12 schools can’t happen in Illinois without its approval.
Board members agreed last year that it would be a standing policy that IHSA would not work with third-party scholastic esports programs.
TEA has also learned that scholastic esports tournament organizer PlayVS was the determining factor in the IHSA decision regarding NBA 2K. According to a communication obtained by TEA (that has been verified as authentic by an IHSA representative) that was sent to members by the IHSA this week, the board was approached by PlayVS to participate in its statewide esports series, but members rejected the rules the company would apply to games such as Mario Kart 8 and Mario Kart Crew Battle as incompatible with its own rules standards, and were disappointed that FIFA was not a PlayVS supported title.
When the IHSA informed PlayVS of this decision, the company then told the association that it held the licensing rights to NBA2K (it secured those rights in March of 2022), a game that had been played during the 2022 State Series. Later, the statement claims, the IHSA met with a 2K League representative: “…we were contacted by and met with a director at 2K League,” the statement reads. “He informed us that PlayVS had gone through a lengthy approval process to secure the right to use NBA 2K…”—the inference in this statement being, if the State Series wanted to use the game it had to work with PlayVS. At this point the IHSA decided that it would no longer run NBA 2K.
TEA reached out to the 2K League, who directed us to 2K Games—but the company declined to comment on this story. TEA also reached out to PlayVS, but the company did not respond to our request for comment at the time of writing.
The IHSA issued the following statement to TEA on Thursday afternoon:
“The 2022 IHSA Esports State Series was conducted without a third-party provider, and the Board decided to conduct the 2023 State Series in the same manner,” Dan Le, assistant executive director at IHSA, told TEA in an emailed statement Thursday. “Additionally, our esports advisory committee had developed rules of gameplay for the newly added competitions in Super Smash Bros. Ultimate “Crew Battle” and Mario Kart 8 Deluxe, which did not match how PlayVS typically conducts those games. Another game title that the advisory committee recommended adding to this year’s State Series was FIFA, which PlayVS currently does not offer although they said they could look into doing so.”
From what we understand, the IHSA State Series currently has around 175 schools enrolled for its 2023 season. Had the IHSA acquiesced to PlayVS and abandoned its ruling on using third-parties, we also understand that it would have cost $15 per player to participate in the IHSA State Series, with school (depending on the size of the school) participation size ranging from a handful to 20+ students per school. For schools that registered for the PlayVS Spring League PlayVS would have waived any fee related to the IHSA State Series. The cost of PlayVS League is around $80 (excluding any discounts) per player, but schools could also opt to buy an unlimited player plan for $750.
PlayVS charges a base price of $80, “redeemed per player per esport per season,” according to the company’s FAQ (we have archived it here for posterity). PlayVS also offers a single season pass for schools (which includes all approved game titles) for around $1.5K, or a three month pass per school of around $3K.
A communication obtained exclusively by TEA attributed to the state-wide association, reads:
NBA 2K will no longer be offered in the State Series. In January our Board of Directors approved the recommendation to continue conducting the IHSA State Series as was done last year without any outside parties involved.
PlayVS was interested in being part of our State Series, but the game rules for Mario Kart and Crew Battle format developed by the esports advisory committee did not completely align with how PlayVS would conduct those games. In addition, FIFA is not a game that PlayVS currently offers, and by not working with PlayVS we are able to continue our State Series without any additional participation fees to PlayVS.
We shared this decision with PlayVS and shared that they obtained the licensing to conduct NBA 2K tournaments. Then, we were contacted by and met with a director at 2K League. He informed us that PlayVS had gone through a lengthy approval process to secure the right to use NBA 2K, which left us with two options: either work with PlayVS to retain NBA2K and impact some other games or not work with PlayVS and remove NBA 2K from the State Series. Our board met this past weekend and maintained the decision to not use a third party in our State Series.
I know this is disappointing to coaches and students around the state, who have been preparing for the IHSA State Series with respect to NBA2K as well as those who competed in the NBA2K tournament last year.”
A Strange Sense of Déjà vu
If this sounds like a familiar storyline involving PlayVS, that’s because it happened last year with other schools, though the company’s approach in April of 2022 was categorized by several reports as a lot more aggressive. Reports from Washington Post and Upcomer from April of 2022, detailed PlayVS sending statewide nonprofit esports organizations emails instructing them to stop hosting matches for games owned by Nintendo and Activision Blizzard because it held the license.
“It’s come to our attention that WSSEA [Washington State Scholastic Esports Association] is currently operating ‘Mario Kart’ and ‘Overwatch’ and operated [‘Super Smash Bros.’] this past Fall. These are three titles that we reserve official/exclusive rights,” part of an email obtained by WaPo read. “Given this, we’ve notified our partners and ask that you cease operations, plus remove mentions from your website and marketing.”
Both Nintendo and Activision Blizzard said that PlayVS did not in fact hold “official/exclusive rights.” At the time PlayVS described these emails as miscommunications.
PlayVS has also been accused of engaging in fraud by allowing players who were not officially enrolled in a school to participate in its scholastic leagues starting in late 2020. Most of that story revolved around Fortnite competitions that were sanctioned by Epic Games through a license agreement with PlayVS signed in early 2020. The accusations came from former employees.
On a related note, it appears that PlayVS did have at least some financial ties with Silicon Valley Bank, which collapsed last Friday and was taken over by U.S. regulators. In a message sent to its customers at the end of last week or the beginning of this week, the company urged them to send their payments through the web portal and not to directly to the bank. The message obtained by TEA, reads in part:
“As you may have seen in the news, California regulators shut down Silicon Valley Bank (SVB) and put it under the control of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC). PlayVS was using a SVB operating account (an account for receiving payments and making payments for expenses – ed.) for customer payments which is unable to receive payments going forward. We are able to continue accepting debit or credit card payments via our secure online portal. We encourage you to use this method of payment if you are able to do so. If you require a unique payment link or assistance in making your payment online please contact our Accounting Department at [redacted phone number] or [redacted email address].”
It is unclear if PlayVS has other financial entanglements at SVB beyond a banking account. TEA reached out to the company for comment on this part of the story but it did not respond as of this writing. It should be noted that deposits at the bank were made available to customers on Monday, following a rather tumultuous weekend, so this situation was already likely resolved. We noted in our reporting over the weekend that Coatue Management—which invested $300M in Pokémon GO developer Niantic a few years ago and was part of a $15M financing round in 2018 for PlayVS—encouraged its partners to move their holdings out of the bank on March 9 (a day before SVB collapsed and was talent over by the FDIC).