For the first time a gamer has been recognized as a professional athlete and granted a P-1 visa. P-1 visas are available to athletes who compete at an internationally recognized level of performance. Think baseball, basketball and hockey. The obstacle they had to overcome was proving that playing in this league was a profession. Lots of professional gamers are allowed to come to USA to compete in tournaments under a B-1 visa. A B-1 visa allows an athlete who receives no salary or payments other than prize money to compete in a tournament as a business visitor. These types of athletes are expected to have a residence outside of the USA and return home after the tournament.
This was not the case with Danny “Shiphtur” Le, a Canadian. He plays a game called League of Legends and gets a salary. This makes him ineligible for a B-1 visa. League of Legends is a multiplayer battle arena type online game. Teams of 5 compete against each other to reach and destroy the other teams’ nexus. This is an online game so one would think that it wouldn’t matter where the team members played from. That is the beauty of the internet, you can be anywhere in the world and connect with people from every country. The problem in this case is that this game requires that the team be together physically while they compete. So this maybe a completely unique problem that only exists with this particular game.
Le needed a visa to live, practice and compete with his team in the USA. He has tried other options to compete, but was unsuccessful. Riot, the games’ developer, came to Le’s aid. Riot contacted immigration attorney Jeptha Evans. Riot and Evans went to work to prove that eSports was a profession and that League of Legends pro met the government benchmark for a professional league, like the MLB or NHL. The benchmark for a professional league is:
1. clear rules
2. at least 6 teams
3. a combined revenue of at least 10 million dollars
Showing the government that it was a professional sport was no easy feat. It had to be proved that it was a viable and consistent career. This meant they have to find people who actually made a living from playing video games, get proof of those claims and submit the proof to the US government. . Finding people who have made money from playing video games was the easy part, finding people who have made a living from playing video games was not. Video games have gone from a simple game of a ball and lines to fully immersive 3D rendered lands. A generation of kids has grown up playing video games. The gaming industry is a multi billion dollar industry. It is not unusual to see video game commercials during prime time television programming. It is only natural that there would be competitive leagues associated with online gaming and that these leagues would be sponsored. The prize money and sponsorships can be substantial. With Riot games willing to help and the resources they possessed. They were able to get US Immigration officials to certify it as a professional sport. This allowed for league professionals to apply for a P-1 visa. While League of Legends pro has been certified that does not mean all video games are certified. Each game must be certified separately.
Now what does this mean? First, it lends some legitimacy to eSports. I am sure there will be arguments about whether online gaming is a sport. That same argument has been going on with golf for years. With the US government officially recognizing League of Legend players as professionals, the implications of that could be far reaching. Professional athletes, teams, and leagues are highly regulated. As eSports become more main stream will they come under more and more regulation. Will we end up with a professional division and an amateur division or a major league and a minor league? Will gamers get called up to the Bigs? College already has competitive leagues of gamers. They do not have a governing body, think NCAA. Will we have an army of scouts out recruiting gamers? Then there is the question of coaches, trainers, and support personnel.
The door is open, we will have to see what comes through.