Competition Heats Up Among Esports Leagues

Esports has become a massive industry in the last few years, and it’s only getting bigger: CNBC reported that the global esports market is expected to exceed $1.6 billion by 2021. Amid this rapid growth, a number of esports leagues have emerged that give high school students a platform for competing.

Joining an official esports league offers many benefits. The leagues schedule matches between teams, provide resources to help coaches and advisors and even offer prize money for teams that win tournaments.

But there are key differences among the various leagues, from how much it costs to join and which games are played to which states are participating. Here’s how some of the leading options compare.

High School Esports League (HSEL)

One of the earliest esports leagues for high schoolers, HSEL is also the largest. The league is affiliated with the National Association of Collegiate Esports.

“HSEL started way back in 2013 as a passion project and has been growing ever since,” said CEO Mason Mullenioux. “Our first-ever tournament had around 20 teams sign up. Today, we serve over 1,500 partnered schools and over 35,000 registered students, and we work with schools in all 50 states and every Canadian province.”

HSEL offers the largest number of tournament games, with 10 as of the spring 2019 season. However, some of these are first-person shooter games, such as Fortnite and Tom Clancy’s Rainbow Six: Siege. During the regular competition season, which lasts eight weeks, teams compete against other teams with similar won-lost records. The top five teams in each regional bracket (West, Central and East), plus one wild card team, advance to the postseason.

HSEL developed its own platform, called Varsity Esports, to manage school clubs and competitions. There are fees for schools and individual students to participate, though 10 percent of each pass sold goes to fund scholarships, the organization said.

North American Scholastic Esports Federation (NASEF)

NASEF is unique in that it’s a nonprofit league with no entry fees. It began during the 2017-2018 school year as a partnership between the Orange County Department of Education, the esports program at the University of California Irvine (UCI) and the Samueli Foundation, founded by Anaheim Ducks owner (and UCI professor) Henry Samueli.

In its first year, the league served 25 schools in California’s Orange County. This past school year, it expanded to include all of North America. More than 180 schools in 26 states and Canada participated in the spring 2019 season.

As a nonprofit league, NASEF has education at the heart of its mission. Aside from hosting gaming competitions, the league has introduced “Beyond the Game Challenges” that recognize students’ prowess in supporting esports roles such as graphic design, marketing and video editing.

“We’re working on teaching students how their love of esports can translate into careers, possibly as a gamer, but more likely as a member of the supporting ecosystem or in a parallel career in other industries,” said spokeswoman Claire LaBeaux. “For example, a shoutcaster in esports may become a journalist. We also offer webinars and workshops, all free.”


As the official partner of the National Federation of State High School Associations, PlayVS is the only esports league as of press time that is recognized as a varsity sport, with state-sanctioned championships.

Students in eight states — Alabama, Connecticut, Georgia, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Mississippi, Rhode Island and Texas — have an opportunity to compete for an official state title. Additionally, PlayVS supports Club Leagues in Arkansas, Florida, Illinois, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Texas.

PlayVS charges a flat fee per student for participating. Gamers had a choice of three games during the spring 2019 season: League of Legends, Rocket League or Smite. Additional games are expected to be announced for the fall 2019 season.

About the Author

Dennis Pierce is a freelance writer with 17 years of experience covering education and technology. He can be reached at