I swore after dealing with my moot court “problem” I would stay away from immigration issues. They are messy, complicated, and, generally, subjective. However, the more I learn about the eSports industry, it has become more clear that I need to be ready to handle immigration issues.
In the summer of 2013, the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) officially recognized League of Legend (LoL) players as professional athletes which makes them eligible for P-1A visas. In simple terms, the P-1 classification is for professional athletes, whether it’s a team or individual sport. This recognition, however, does not officially extend to all foreign professional eSport players. Which has and will continue to create problems unless something is changed.
Case and point, professional Super Smash Brothers (Smash) player William “Leffen” Hjelte. Leffen is largely considered one of the best Smash players in the world and plays for Team Solo Mid (TSM). Late in April, TSM applied for a P-1A visa for Leffen to play in major tournaments in the United States. Ultimately, Leffen’s application was denied due to a list of reasons which included “Super Smash Bros Melee is not considered a legitimate sport” and “Super Smash Bros Melee is a grassroots game and is not institutionalized.” The result was an uproar in the community, including #FreeLeffen and a page dedicated to the issue by Red Bull’s eSports page. TSM ultimately reapplied for P-1 and, as of early May, Leffen was granted a temporary P-1 visa.It is a small victory that Leffen was able to obtain a temporary visa; however, it is a huge set back when the first application was denied because “[Smash] is not considered a legitimate sport” and other reasons which take away from the legitimacy of the eSports industry.
Applying for a visa is an arduous process in itself. A process which many of us will never have to go through. The P-1 status is a foreign players best chance to play competitively in the US. So, on top of the time consuming process, eSport players and teams are tasked with the challenge to convince a group of people, who know nothing about video games, that those who play video games are professional athletes.
As passionate as I am about this industry, I am not blind to the luke warm reception professional gaming and the phrase “eSports” has received in the States. There is still a large number of individuals in the United States that do not believe eSports is a sport or that the players are athletes. This mindset, I believe, revolves around our traditional understanding of what a sport or athlete is. The fact of the matter is that these players, these competitors they do not physically play on a field or court or rink. In fact, eSports Attorney Bryce Blum, who took time out of his day to answer a few questions of mine, put it best: “I don’t consider eSports players athletes—they’re not doing anything athletic, after all—but I also don’t think that matters. Sports aren’t inherently better than competitions.” I would even be willing to take Attorney Blum’s statement a step further to say what is a sport but a competition that has been categorized?
So, how can we change this? The solution is simple, recognize professional eSport players, regardless of the game, as professional athletes. In fact, there is a petition for professional players to be recognized by the USCIS as athletes due to the issue with Leffen. This is not a bad idea and the United States would not be the first to do it. The French government recently decided to recognize professional players as athletes for virtually the same reason: to make it easier for foreign players to apply for visas.
Although it is an easy solution, it does have one obstacle to overcome: The US is so far behind when it comes to accepting eSports in its culture. There is a reason why Asia, Korea specifically, is considered the best in the world in most competitive video games – the Asian countries have embraced eSports since its beginning. Social media explodes with both positive and negative reactions when ESPN broadcasts video game tournaments (mind you, the “E” stands for entertainment), compared to Korea which has over 10 networks specifically for eSports. The more we, as a nation, begin to accept eSports, the easier this transition will be.
The current trend is to recognize players as professional athletes. And until there is a better solution, regardless of the backlash, this needs to happen. If it continues to be difficult for foreign players to play in tournaments based in the United States, the solution will be as simple as moving them some place else. Let us not forget that in 2013, the LoL World Championship Finals sold out in an hour. ONE HOUR. This happened right off the heals of the LoL players being considered athletes.
LoL has nothing to fear, nothing to worry about; however, games like Smash or Heroes of the Storm or Hearthstone will be fighting for their lives to bring the best of the best to competitions stateside. These brands will continue to fight, until a change is made.The eSports industry is young, ripe, and set to explode within the next two to three years (projected to be a $1.1 Billion industry by 2019). It would be a shame to be on the outside looking in for years to come. So, US, here is your chance to join the ranks of Europe and Asia in the competitive scene. We have a long way to go, but here is your chance to take the industry more serious. Let us recognize these professional player’s skills and abilities.