San Francisco 49ers part of $15 million funding round for PlayVS

AP Photo/Reed Hoffmann

PlayVS, the league for high school esports, has secured $15 million in a Series A funding round that includes the San Francisco 49ers, Twitch co-founder Kevin Lin and professional athletes Russell Okung, Baron Davis and Kelvin Beachum, the company announced on Monday.

The round was led by New Enterprise Associates, a Silicon Valley and Washington, D.C.-based venture capital firm that has invested in a number of successful companies, including Duolingo, BuzzFeed, Groupon and Uber. The total valuation for PlayVS was $50 million, sources familiar with the raise said. Multigame esports teams, most notably, have raised money in the last year on valuations ranging from $140 million to $200 million.

Other notable investors in the round include venture firms Science, CrossCut Ventures, Coatue Management and Cross Culture Ventures, as well as Dollar Shave Club founder Michael Dubin, Pindrop Security co-founder Paul Judge and Anthony Saleh, the manager for rappers Future and Nas.

The round is the largest ever raised in the consumer internet industry by a black founder. PlayVS was founded by Delane Parnell, a former venture capital firm employee turned esports CEO. According to Inc., the round is the third largest by a black founder across all industries.

In April, PlayVS struck a partnership with the National Federation of State High School Associations to begin bringing esports to high schools across the U.S. beginning in the fall of 2018. PlayVS estimates that by then it will be integrated into schools across 18 to 20 states, reaching about 5 million students. Participating schools will be required to pay $16 a month per student who takes part in their esports activities.

"Video games played a critical role in keeping me out of trouble and helping me develop an interest in technology when I was a kid growing up on the westside of Detroit," Parnell said in a press release. "Our exclusive partnership with the NFHS and NFHS Network was the first step toward creating a league system that will impact millions of kids' lives in an extremely positive way. Now, with our Series A, we can take all the steps necessary to ensure that our inaugural season is a massive success while being affordable for schools, parents and students across the country."

The 49ers' interest in esports first began several years ago, the team said. The 49ers were pitched on both the League of Legends Championship Series and the Overwatch League but ultimately did not get involved in either; the San Francisco slot for the Overwatch League was sold to NRG Esports, an endemic team led by former Apple executive Andy Miller and 24 Hour Fitness founder Mark Mastrov, in June, and the Golden State Warriors purchased into the League Championship Series in October.

PlayVS presented a different opportunity for the 49ers, however: extending their reach into youth communities through means outside of football, community outreach and other educational endeavors that the team supports within its region.

"The 49ers have committed significant both financial and intellectual capital in really going into our community and supporting our community's programs and building initiatives to create specific opportunities for kids to play and learn," 49ers chief investment officer Brano Perkovich told ESPN. "That approach really motivated our investment in PlayVS. At an annual level, we're around 100,000 kids that get touched by major programs we have that really work with kids at an early age and really help them learn the value of teamwork, competition, fair play -- keep them off the streets and on track. A platform like PlayVS will attempt that, and it's the keystone of what they do."

PlayVS has not yet chosen its game titles for the fall season but in a news release said it will play a total of four or five games spanning four genres: multiplayer online battle arena (MOBA), fighting games, sports games and action games.

"We focus less on game and more on genre," Parnell told ESPN in April. "First off, we're doing no shooting games: no third-person, not first-person shooting, no battle royale, as much as that sucks, because the contents of the games are not friendly in a high school environment. We're sensitive to all of the issues around violence in schools, and we do not want to promote that for the foreseeable future."