Scholastic esports is unique in that schools, educators, and students have to contend with for-profit companies attempting to monetize the space in ways much different than seen in traditional school sports. Companies such as PlayVS and the newly partnered Playfly Esports and High School Esports League offer “turnkey solutions” for schools with esports programs, which means they will provide the competition, schedule, and host events such as playoffs and state championships. All the schools need to do is show up and play.
Typically, in traditional scholastic sports, state athletic associations oversee sports in their state with guidance from the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS). The NFHS sets competition standards and best practices on a national level, and then the state athletic associations govern sports among their schools at a state level.
Here’s where things get messy. Where traditionally state athletic associations have organized events and overseen traditional athletic competitions using various forms of sub-committees and adjacent coaches associations, around half of the nation’s state athletic associations currently contract for-profit companies to provide esports for their member schools. Back in 2018 the NFHS Network, the for-profit counterpart to the NFHS, named PlayVS as the official esports provider of the NFHS, which is why they have the market share in scholastic esports with 21 of the nation’s state athletic associations under contract.
The two largest for-profit competition providers in scholastic esports have pricing higher than educators may be used to:
PlayFly Esports, who has recently partnered with Generation Esports and their High School Esports League brand to “...operate and service Playfly Esports high school state association partners” in Arizona, Washington, and Louisiana, charge a flat fee of $1,800 per school per year for the first three years. The annual membership includes:
- Unlimited number of student participants
- Live and interactive workshops for teachers, coaches, and administrators
- Access to customer success and support teams
- Fall exhibition and a full spring season of formal competition, including weekly streamed/produced matches
- Access to national competition via High School Esports League
- Teacher’s guides for Generation Esports’ Gaming Concepts curriculum (the entire curriculum is an additional cost)
PlayVS schools will either need to pay $80 per player, per game, per season, or purchase an unlimited single season pass for $1,500 or unlimited school year pass for $3,000 per school. For that price tag, the PlayVS website states schools will receive:
- Official publisher partnerships
- NFHS and state recognition
- Exclusive in-game perks
- Automatic league scheduling
- Prizing opportunities
- Teams led by verified faculty
- Free hardware and software
- Dedicated PlayVS account rep
- Priority tech support
Scholastic Esports Costs vs. Traditional Scholastic Sports
What may stand out to educators is that these for-profit companies are charging for esports what most state athletic associations are charging for participation in all sports. At these price points, schools are paying as much or more than what districts pay for all of their students to compete in sports for the entire school year.
In New Jersey, Washington, Iowa, and many of the other states I could find information on, state athletic associations generally charge a flat fee for schools or districts to participate in traditional sports. On the low end, the Iowa High School Athletic Association only charges $25 per school and finds sponsors to cover the rest. The Illinois High School Association charges between $500-$2,000 a year per school based on enrollment size. In New Jersey, annual dues to the state athletic association, the NJSIAA, are a flat $2,500 per district regardless of size.
Two interesting case studies:
In Washington, the Washington Interscholastic Activities Association (WIAA) charges based on school enrollment. Depending on the size, schools pay from $350 to $3,800 to participate in traditional sports. WIAA, however, also offers esports to its member schools at an additional cost of $60 per student; an additional fee no other sport is charged.
The California Interscholastic Federation, who recently awarded the nonprofit North American Scholastic Esports Federation the right to run their esports offering, is charging a flat $100 per school to compete in scholastic esports this year.
What Should Be Done About Scholastic Esports Monetization?
When I asked educators around the country about how these companies are monetizing esports, how the price points would be viewed by their district, and how they would monetize esports, there were a lot of strong feelings. One recurring sentiment is that these price points were too high for how new scholastic esports is, or as Texas educator Patrick Neff put it, “Scholastic esports is 1922 football, but we are being asked to pay 2022 football prices.”
Other thoughts on monetization in esports included:
- Companies should charge less if they are going to charge on a per school basis. Many educators put the price point at $300-$500 per school.
- Many noted a need for a difference in pricing between middle schools and high schools.
- Schools/districts should be charged, not students/parents.
- Companies in the space should have an educator advisory board to help them operate in the best interest of students and schools.
- The use of free teacher labor some companies are depending on to grow their business is unacceptable.
- Because of the college scholarships and career opportunities in esports, basic competition should be as cheap as possible, if not free.
If basic competition was cheaper or free, what else could companies monetize? Jason Dilley of the Washington State Scholastic Esports Association best summarized the gist of the conversations I had:
Aspects that can be monetized:
- Summer camps
- Content / media (though there was uncertainty and trepidation about how to navigate name, image, and likeness [NIL] rights of students)
- College recruiters
- Special events/tournaments
Aspects that should have a cap on monetization:
- Participation fees
- Platform membership
- Ticket sales
Aspects that shouldn't be monetized:
- Student data
An interesting, seemingly unexplored idea: many state athletic associations have a type of revenue share with their member schools who host tournaments or events on their campus. There is social value in having face-to-face competitions. Many companies have a referral program, but could companies give back by helping schools/educators host more local/regional esports events?
It’s hard to say whether or not the for-profit companies in the scholastic esports space are providing enough bang for the buck. On the surface, their prices seem high, especially when compared to what state athletic associations may be charging schools to play traditional sports.
On the other hand, there are a lot of “hidden costs” that come along with traditional sports, mostly in money spent on transportation and equipment. But again, scholastic esports may not have a transportation cost (yet), but esports could come with significant equipment costs for schools who want to go the top-of-the-line equipment route.
At the end of the day, people will pay for a service if they find value in what is being offered. We know scholastic esports is booming, but the K-12 esports landscape is far from settled. With two major for-profit companies, a host of up-and-coming for-profits, and a growing number of nonprofit organizations operating in the scholastic esports space, it will still be a few years before we see how everything plays out.