Los Angeles-based PlayVS (pronounced “Play Versus”) and its 25-year-old founder and CEO, Delane Parnell, this month completed a $15 million funding round to bring esports infrastructure to high schools across the country.
It’s the largest Series A ever by a Black founder in consumer internet history and the top five across all industries, Parnell tweeted on June 4.
PlayVS signed an exclusive contract with the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS) to provide support in building the video gaming infrastructure for high school esports, allowing students to play esports on behalf of their school all the way to the state championship level.
There are 21,000 high schools in the U.S. Esports will be sanctioned just like any other sports — basketball or football. “You can compete for state championships and have your statistical records recognized by the State Athletic Association,” Parnell said.
A Detroit native, Parnell was just 20 when he founded Fifty Founders events, designed to bring tech-savvy entrepreneurs to Detroit. As a 22-year-old associate for IncWell Venture Capital, Parnell gained a reputation as the youngest African-American venture capitalist in the U.S., managing the funds deal-flow process and handling outreach. He was on the founding team of an automotive group and led the company to six- and seven-figure profitable years “through a tight focus on quality over scale,” according to his Black tech Week bio. And he headed the retail division at Rocket Fiber, a venture-backed fiber-optic ISP startup in Detroit.
At the urging of PlayVS investor Peter Pham, co-founder of the startup incubator Science, Parnell moved from Detroit to Los Angeles to start PlayVS.
Parnell spoke to Moguldom about the state of diversity in esports — “there isn’t really any,” — building a tech company outside Silicon Valley, and whether Black venture capitalists have a responsibility to invest in Black founders.
Here’s an excerpt from that video interview, recorded by Moguldom Producer Anita Sanikop at Black Tech Week Miami 2018, held Feb. 6-10.
Moguldom: What’s the state of diversity in esports as it relates to African Americans and women?
Delane Parnell: There isn’t really any diversity. The biggest professional gaming league, the North American League of Legends Championship Series (LCS) (has) only one Black player. I guess Echo Fox is the only Black team. There’s very little diversity in gaming, specifically esports, and no women professional players in that space. There isn’t much initiative, but the conversation’s starting to grow.
Moguldom: Was it important to build your company outside of Silicon Valley?
Delane Parnell: It wasn’t necessarily important for me to do that. I was born and raised in Detroit. I wanted to bet on the community that I was in and I wanted to be involved in the tech community and so we had to build it because there just wasn’t one. I think the Valley has its benefits and if you move to the Valley and invest in it and build a network you’ll be successful there. Tristan Walker is a great example of that. I’m a big fan of location. I think location matters a great deal. Los Angeles is the ideal location for our company because esports and the entire gaming industry is mostly based in L.A. I’m not against building a company in or outside the Valley.
Moguldom: Do Black venture capitalists have a responsibility to invest in Black founders?
Delane Parnell: All venture capitalists have a responsibility to invest in diverse founders — African American, Latino. VCs just have to find the best company and the best founders behind them. Not just Black investors but all investors have a great responsibility finding the best entrepreneurs, no matter the background, and build connections where they don’t normally have them, where those entrepreneurs reside. I’ll give you an example. I went to Atlanta not long ago. One of the biggest investors in the world told me he’d never been to Atlanta, which is insane considering the number of Black entrepreneurs and technologists that live in Atlanta and are building companies in Atlanta. I wouldn’t just set that responsibility on Black investors. I think all investors share that responsibility equally.
Moguldom: Does esports play a role in diversity in technology?
Delane Parnell: I’m not sure that it does play a role. Esports is a subsector of gaming. I would love to see more African American entrepreneurs, more women entrepreneurs starting esports companies. I’m not sure that it plays a significant role though in leading the charge for diversity in tech, although I think it’s just another avenue for people who want to build companies — a hot market, untapped, with a lot of opportunities.
Moguldom: What are your goals for 2018 and beyond?
Delane Parnell: Oh, my goals are weekly, daily. We’re in the process of … getting the raise closed, building out our team, launching a product, really focused on building the best possible leadership team. There’s a bunch of roles that we’re hiring for so we’re being very selective, taking out time, because the team is probably the most important part of the company beyond the product, even above the product. For me, my goals are daily goals. Overaching, we want to get our product to market, we want to raise our next round.
Moguldom: Can you talk about your next project you’re launching?
Delane Parnell: We’re launching it in the fall. It’s what we like to describe as a events utility product for all things high school esports. The concept is with one single platform you’ll be able to manage your teams, sign up for leagues on behalf of your school, compete in matches leading up to a state championship, be recruited, see leaderboards, ranks, news — everything on a single platform for various esports. The best way we like to describe it is we’re building a four-stack sports club. If you take all the components it would take to run high school sport and you just add esports on there, there’s a lot of technology involved in that. We want to create a single environment that is the hub for all of that. The name will be PlayVS.com.
Moguldom: You got famous as the youngest African American venture capitalist. How useful was that for you?
Delane Parnell: That wasn’t something that I actually knew at the time. It’s certainly something that I’m proud of but it’s a little sad that no one else has been given the shot to break that, especially (since) people who don’t look like us have been given the opportunity to work at VC at 18, 19, even younger. I’d love to see someone shouted at, but that experience has been extremely useful as I’ve built my company. It’s helpful for me when I’m out about pitching my company for partnerships and fundraising.
This video interview was recorded by Moguldom Producer Anita Sanikop at Black Tech Week Miami, held Feb. 6-10, 2018.
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