Minnesota Varsity League launches scholastic middle school esports program

a girl plays a game on a computer
High school students compete in scholastic esports at the 2023 Minnesota Varsity League High School State Finals at Wisdom Gaming Studios at the Mall of America in Bloomington, Minn.
Courtesy of Wisdom Gaming

Middle schools around Minnesota can level up opportunities for students wanting to play esports with the launch of a league of their own. 

Earlier this week, the Minnesota Varsity League (MNVL) announced the start of MNVL Jr., a scholastic esports program specifically geared toward grades 5-8. It’s part of the league’s mission to expand academic experiences for students and provide competitive gaming and educational enrichment through play. 

MNVL director Jake Utities said this new program deepens connections with students and engages them in an activity they’re excited about, while also giving structure to supplement their academics and giving them the tools to go beyond the confines of traditional education. 

“We are thrilled to expand our mission by providing this first of its kind academic esports program for Minnesota middle schools,” Utities said. “This initiative has always been a goal that has received nothing but support from the community.”

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The scholastic realm of esports continues to see growth. Since launching in 2019, MNVL has more than 82 high schools participating and over 2,000 members as of the fall 2023 season. Colleges are also joining the competitive realm of esports. 

esports athletes hold a trophy
High school students compete in scholastic esports at the 2023 Minnesota Varsity League High School State Finals at Wisdom Gaming Studios at the Mall of America in Bloomington, Minn.
Courtesy of Wisdom Gaming

Earlier this year, the league launched the MNVL Fund, allowing for donations to support its student internship program that offers student immersion in careers such as STEM, marketing and production.

The loss of Minnesota’s professional esports

There were some recent losses in Minnesota’s professional esports scene. Torrent, a Minnesota-based esports organization ceased operations in February 2023. 

On Tuesday, Version1, the parent company of the Minnesota Rokkr Call of Duty league team — who also fielded teams in VALORANT and Rocket League — announced that it was merging with G2, one of the most prominent esports organizations globally, which fields teams in titles like League of Legends, VALORANT, Counter-Strike 2 and more, according to CEO Brett Diamond. 

“G2 will receive operating rights to the Minnesota ROKKR Call of Duty League team,” Diamond said. “Going forward the Version1 brand will no longer be fielding competitive teams or active content creation.”

However, it was known since April that Version1 was exploring a merger with other gaming or esports organizations and possible strategic alternatives. For several months, Version1 started parting ways with several teams and players representing them.

It’s also reported that Version1 will vacate its 11,000 square-foot training facility, studio and headquarters in Eagan. 

Version 1 is backed by Gary Vee and WISE Ventures, which is the investment arm of the Wilf family who own the NFL’s Minnesota Vikings. Other esports teams under Version1 such as its Rocket League team and VALORANT team are also being discontinued. The Viking Lakes Innovation Center space won’t be used for esports or gaming moving forward. 

It’s unknown what’ll happen with the vacated space. 

Fostering scholastic esports

With the loss of professional esports teams in Minnesota, Utities said the need for supporting scholastic esports at all levels is important, especially to reach students who weren’t traditionally being served in other extracurricular activities.

“We have lost all professional esports in Minnesota now, with Torrent and Version1 both leaving the scene,” he said. “So at this point, if we don’t do it, who will? We’re the ones leading the charge. This isn’t going to continue on if we don’t push it. It’s only natural that we branch out and try to serve more students, because we know that those students have the need and we want to support them.”

Though the format is similar to the high school league, there are some differences. MNVL Jr. will have a six-week season and there won’t be a state championship, though there will be state finals hosted at the Mall of America where the middle school teams can compete. 

Weekly middle school matches won’t be broadcasted or streamed, unlike the high school matches, to abide by Children Online Privacy Protection Act compliance laws. Internship programs will also be limited to high-school age students. 

Utities said that coaches will also be more involved with middle school students and practices will only be twice a week as opposed to four to five times a week. The types of titles played in the junior league are also reduced to meet the appropriateness of grade level and the amount of involvement for coaches. 

The four titles middle school teams will compete in include: Super Smash Brothers, Mario Kart 8, Minecraft, and Chess.

Middle schools interested in onboarding for the 2024 spring season have until the end of January. Schools interested or have questions about joining the league can visit mnvl.org.