The oldest child of a single mother, Delane Parnell grew up in an impoverished neighborhood off Detroit’s Seven Mile Road. His father was murdered a few months before he was born. His mother transported him from home to home as she bounced between jobs. Still, the young Parnell had a knack for business. By the time he was 17, he had parlayed a job mopping floors at a MetroPCS into co-owning three Detroit-area cellphone shops.
Seven years later, a chance meeting with a venture capitalist inspired Parnell to move to Los Angeles and found a gaming startup. His company had a name— PlayVS—but little else beyond office space at startup studio Science Inc. Still, he had no funding, no employees. Despite all that, his goal was nothing short of bringing e-sports to the highly lucrative and largely untapped high school market.
He was on the verge of fulfilling his lifelong dream— or failing miserably.
Delane Parnell strolled into the Santa Monica offices of Science for his first day in June 2017 and was led to his workstation: a small wooden desk in the corner of the second floor with a stack of Post-it notes on it. This was where he would begin to work on his new venture, which he’d decided to call PlayVS (as in “play versus”). To personalize his space, Parnell installed the oversize monitor he’d brought with him, and then printed out some photos and taped them above his desk. One was a screenshot of the original Google homepage—a reminder of the $700 billion company’s humble beginnings. Another was a photo of Jay-Z and Sean “Diddy” Combs. Their music had served as the soundtrack to Parnell’s childhood, and he’d hung their likenesses on the wall of his bedroom back in Detroit. Both had grown up without their fathers in drug-ridden environments, fought their way to massive success, and then held the door open for other Black men and women behind them. They were reminders of what was possible.
Science assigned an asset manager named Talia Rosenthal to serve as Parnell’s day-to-day contact. The Oregon native had worked in venture capital in Singapore for a few years before returning to the States. At Science, Rosenthal guided the company’s startups through business strategies, fundraising, partnerships, and daily operations. Parnell and Rosenthal had a critical first task: to figure out the best point of entry into high school e-sports.
Learning from a failed previous gaming startup, Parnell decided to put less early emphasis on the product and more on developing business relationships. He reached out to youth organizations including the Boys & Girls Clubs of America, hoping an alliance with that nonprofit could help get PlayVS’s still-hypothetical product into students’ hands after school. He asked colleges and universities that had created e-sports programs about their scholarship offerings, and if they could be used to entice high schools to create teams. He spoke with decision makers at game publishers, and sought out anyone who had an informed opinion on youth e-sports. He worked nights and weekends, practically living in the office. When visitors came to meet him at Science, he would lead them through the firm’s second floor into a conference room. “My team sits over there,” he would say and gesture toward his desk, which was near employees from several other startups. It technically was true, though the guests had no idea the “team” in question consisted only of Parnell.
Parnell and Rosenthal had recognized early that the surest way to crack the high school gaming market was through the National Federation of State High School Associations, or NFHS. The high school equivalent of the NCAA, the organization had the ability to declare e-sports an officially sanctioned sport and recommend that states’ governing bodies adopt it. It was the real-world equivalent of a cheat code: A partnership with the NFHS wouldn’t just give PlayVS an avenue into the demographic it sought, but would also provide the startup with leverage over publishers and defensibility against competitors.
Unbeknownst to Parnell and Rosenthal, the century-old organization had been discussing e-sports internally for the previous year and a half. A Pew study at the time found that 72 percent of teens played video games, including 84 percent of boys. According to the NFHS’s own research, more kids were playing video games than traditional sports. The NFHS had spoken with a handful of gaming companies over the prior 18 months about building the online infrastructure for high school competitions, but nothing had stuck.
When Parnell exchanged emails with David Rudolph and Robert Rothberg, two NFHS executives, he decided to shoot his shot, and asked if they could chat about his high school e-sports platform. They agreed. A few days later, Rosenthal and Science CEO Mike Jones sat in with Parnell as he pitched, over speakerphone, what his startup could offer the NFHS: essential gaming infrastructure built with software and, eventually, partnerships with game publishers.
“HOW ABOUT YOU GIVE US A DEMO IN ATLANTA NEXT MONTH?” THEY ASKED. “I’D LOVE THAT,” SAID PARNELL. THERE WAS JUST ONE PROBLEM: PLAYVS’S PRODUCT DIDN’T ACTUALLY EXIST.
“How far along is PlayVS with its software?” the NFHS execs asked. “Do you have a product ready now?”
“We do,” said Parnell. “We have a demo ready to go. Let me fly out there and show it to you all.”
“How about in our headquarters in Atlanta next month?” the execs suggested.
“I’d love that,” said Parnell.
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