Los Angeles-based amateur esports platform PlayVS announced Tuesday a dramatic shift in its business model that will see the company eliminate fees for students and high schools in the U.S. and Canada who want to participate in its esports ecosystem—beginning with its 2024 season. Prior to this change, the company was charging around $80 per student, per season.
The shift to free competition aligns with PlayVS CEO Jon Chapman’s new broader vision for the company—Chapman joined PlayVS in June, replacing PlayVS VP of Finance Joe Gibson, who was serving as interim CEO following founder and CEO Delane Parnell stepping down from the role at the beginning of May.
Beginning with the Spring 2024 season, PlayVS will remove enrollment fees for all state and regional leagues, offering students access to competitions across such titles as Madden NFL 24, Mario Kart 8 Deluxe, NBA 2K24, Rocket League, Splatoon 3, and Super Smash Bros. PlayVS hopes to crown more than 200 state and regional champions across these titles during the 2023-2024 school year.
According to data collected from the PlayVS’ Fall 2023 Mid-Season Survey of Active Coaches, “the vast majority of esports coaches (90%) see improvement in student socialization; nearly three out of four (74%) see improvement in mental health and positive life outlook; and more than half (60%) say they’ve seen improvement in grades or attendance among players.”
PlayVS’ shift to free competition follows what the company describes as a successful collaboration with the Network of Academic and Scholastic Esports Federations (NASEF), where the companies worked together to offer free access to competitive esports to member schools in the California Interscholastic Federation (CIF).
Speaking to The Esports Advocate on Monday, PlayVS CEO Jon Chapman offered a broad overview of this shift in the company’s business model, while acknowledging the mistakes that had been made in the past that didn’t cast the company in the best light with educators in North America.
While Chapman’s expertise in esports is limited (he joined the company in June), he brings decades of experience in the education and technology sectors, having spent more than 11 years in regional and national roles at global educational services company Kaplan starting in 1996. In 2007, he became national director of sales and business development at the company—a role he stayed in for a year before moving on to co-found corporate education technology company EverFi, which was acquired at the end of 2021 for $750M USD.
How to Pay For Being Free
First, when asked how the company plans to provide its platform and the required support needed by schools to operate an esports program while also being free, Chapman said that he will use what he learned while running the educational company EverFi.
“We’re going to execute a model that I’m really familiar with from my time co-founding and running EverFi where we create an ecosystem of organizations that want to support youth-based initiatives like esports, just like they supported our teaching the missing learning layer at EverFi and skills like financial literacy, health and wellness, and other things. We think the benefits of esports are something that organizations are going to want to get behind, and allow us to have them cover the cost of running teams instead of putting that burden on schools… just like we didn’t want to put the burden of having our learning platform paid for by schools at EverFi, we’re going to do the same thing here at PlayVS.“
PlayVS will provide these services to schools and students at no cost through the aforementioned support of sponsors and partners, as well as helping schools secure grants through NGOs and other avenues of financial support. “Judge me on my track record; we built a company at EverFi where we did well as a business by doing good,” Chapman said, adding that this new model has been fully embraced by the company’s board of directors and leadership.
Turning the Page on Controversy
Chapman also acknowledged PlayVS’ practice (in the past—here’s an example from earlier this year that TEA reported on) of using its licenses with companies such as Nintendo and 2K Games to stop high schools and school districts from running their own esports programs (and forcing them to join the company’s platform and program). Chapman stated he would not have chosen this approach and that–going forward–the company has no plans to continue to engage in that kind of activity:
“I’m going to take a very different approach [because] my goal is to grow participation in esports. I want to create a bigger pie, I don’t want to quibble over a small pie, and I’ve said that very clearly to all of the folks in the space [we’re working with], and have been able to lock arms and run California’s league this fall with NASEF, who arguably was our largest detractor in the space.
“We’re trying to work together, not get in a situation where we’re blocking participation, by any means. I’m not going to get into a situation where we’re making any overt moves to stifle participation and I’m very aware that this happened before.”
Working With NASEF
Regarding the collaboration with NASEF, PlayVS’ partnership stems from a pre-existing professional relationship between Chapman and NASEF founder Gerald Solomon. According to Solomon, he reached out when he learned that Chapman was taking over the leadership of PlayVS and ultimately ended up working together in California:
“I stumbled upon an announcement that brought an old friend, Jon Chapman, and colleague from my days at the Samueli foundation into the esports field. More than a decade ago, I had an opportunity to work with Jon and his organization in the development of a highly impactful and successful sports-related project, combining STEM education and sports, developing a project known as the ‘Science of Hockey.’
“This individual and his organization helped develop this program with me over a significant period of time, which ultimately led to a multi-million-dollar exhibit place after discovery Science Center in Santa Ana, and the creation of a high impact immersive and engaging curriculum developed by the Anaheim Ducks foundation that reaches tens of thousands of students every year in Southern California. I had the opportunity to get to know Jon for the quality of his work and his dedication to stem education and students.”
Chapman said that he and Solomon seem to cross paths frequently—a phenomenon that began in 2013 while he was at EverFi:
“I got to know Gerald and his team and I probably crossed paths with him every five years, it seems… That was in 2013, and then in 2018 when he was building out the STEM ecosystem concept that he was working on before joining NASEF. EverFi helped support that effort. And then here we are five years later, 2023, and Gerald’s at NASEF. I think that he was excited that the board of PlayVS had chosen to make a leadership change and that I was taking the helm.” [Chapman may have misspoke here, as Delane stepped down in May to “work on other projects,” and was not officially “replaced” according to what the company said in May – ed.] .
“So we got off to a fast start of thinking ‘how do we grow a bigger pie? How do we grow more participation? How do we lock arms doing that?’ Let’s try that first in California and see if it goes well. And what I’m pleased to say is that it has gone really well, we have more and more students, more schools participating in the fall league and CIF than we had previously. We’re really pleased about that, and again, it’s part of my approach as the CEO here. I want to be inclusive, create a win-win, and I want more individuals to be able to participate and experience the benefits of esports.“
Rebuilding the Team
Chapman acknowledged that the layoffs that occurred prior to him joining the company reduced staff dramatically, but also said that—with this new change in the company’s business model—PlayVS will need to rebuild its team:
“That [round of layoffs] obviously predated me—that was a decision that was made in the spring of this year—right before I started in June. Unfortunately, like most businesses, the majority of your overhead is your people, and so they made that tough decision. The good news is that our board and investors are very bullish on my strategy and are excited about it so we’re shoring back up, not scaling back. I think, especially as we gain momentum with these partnerships, that will also help us grow.
“You know, I wanted to get back into this kind of role because I really get excited about building an organization in its early stages. Upon reflection towards the last couple years at EverFi, I asked myself, ‘what did I like the most about that journey?’ From starting something from scratch to building it, to where we built it, and I realized I really liked that early stage. That’s what got me excited about being the CEO here at PlayVS, and it’s why I wake up excited every day. You know, my wife will tell you that I’m in a better mood because I just get excited about building something again.”
Finally, Chapman wouldn’t discuss the partnerships the company is working on, noting that this change in the business model is a relatively recent decision, so the company is still working on strategies to executive it effectively starting in 2024. But Chapman did say that the first partnerships are likely to be announced in the first quarter of next year.
Editor’s note: This story was updated with a small note after publication about founder and CEO Delane Parnell’s exit from the company as CEO in May. As far as we know, he still remains on the board.