High school students across the commonwealth will have additional opportunities to represent their communities through virtual competition this upcoming school year.

The Virginia High School League announced Tuesday the approval of a one-year pilot program for esports for the 2019-20 school year. The VHSL will work in connection with PlayVS, an esports platform provider, to offer gamers an opportunity to compete in the up-and-coming format.

Last fall, the VHSL invited member schools to hold interest meetings to determine if there was interest in offering esports as a potential opportunity. In May, the VHSL executive committee voted to initiate a one-year pilot program for the upcoming school year.

“Since approved by the Executive Committee, there has been a lot of positive feedback from schools and sponsors who are very excited about esports,” said VHSL executive director Billy Haun. “The Virginia High School League is always looking to increase opportunities for students, beyond the traditional activities.”

Darrell Wilson, the VHSL assistant director for Academic Activities noted that PlayVS is the exclusive partner of the National Federation of State High School Associations and has contracts with 10 state associations currently and numerous independent leagues in several other states.

Wilson said the interest to bring esports gaming to the VHSL was widespread.

“We’ve had contacts with schools from all over the state, so not one specific area has pushed it more than others,” he said. “Northern Virginia [Loudoun County] has several schools who have club programs and have shown interest and Freedom High School in South Riding hosted an individual this past spring.”

“We’ve put together an advisory group made up of teachers, principals, athletic directors and division Central Office staff from around the state this past year and that group has really done a ton of work to get us to the pilot year,” Wilson explained. “League staff felt this was enough of an emerging activity for high school students that it warranted exploration and we took the concept to the Executive Committee for approval of a pilot year.”

Locally, Monticello and Louisa County have already committed to starting programs at their schools.

“When the VHSL shared the possibilities of adding esports as a [VHSL] activity at the March membership meeting, it just made sense for us to determine the interest and feasibility of an esports program at Monticello,” Pearman said. “We held our first interest meeting on Apr. 16 with about 20 students present.”

Monticello has been at the forefront locally of embracing new activities, including the pilot scholastic mountain biking program through the Virginia Interscholastic Cycling League. The program has been a huge success. Four years after their program started, the Mustangs had their first team member sign a scholarship to continue mountain biking in college.

Pearman sees a lot of similarities between the two endeavors.

“We’re not quite sure exactly where this will go,” he said. “It’s flattering to say we’re on the cutting edge with new opportunities for students. The reality is that we have a diverse community at Monticello and when we have the ability to provide opportunities for our students to represent their school in activities they are passionate about, that’s definitely something we want to explore.”.

Louisa County athletic director George Stanley said their school system has approved the start of a pilot program, but won’t have further details until after school starts.

Athletic directors at Western Albemarle, Fluvanna County and William Monroe will gauge interest once school starts before committing to esports gaming.

Schools register directly through the PlayVS website and programs can register at any time prior to the start of the regular season. Competitions are divided into two seasons, with the first season starting in October and continuing through January. The second season will be determined.

The esports games offered include League of Legends, SMITE and Rocket League. In the pilot year, schools may enter more than one team (comprised of different students) in each game title competition. Cost is $64 per student, per game title, each season.

Because competitions are played online, there is no travel cost for teams. Practices and competitions happen after school in a supervised environment. In addition, students must maintain eligibility to participate as other students in VHSL activities.

Esports gaming has gained world-wide attention in the last decade through a series of online gaming companies. Since 2018, approximately 17 college varsity esports programs, including Averett University, ECPI University and Northern Virginia Community College in Virginia.

“Over the next year, we look to determine, to what extent, schools will get involved and if there is enough potential participation to add esports as a sanctioned activity in the VHSL in the coming years,” Wilson said.

Pearman believes this is a win-win opportunity.

“Esports is a natural next step for us,” Pearman said. “Our student interest is there. Our county has the technological resources in place to significantly reduce the cost barrier and esports has a strong competitive format. Combine that with potential future opportunities for students in terms of college scholarships and professional games, yes we’re excited about being a part of the pilot program.”

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