Competitive video games, often called eSports, are taking the world by storm. In 2014, more people tuned in to watch a video game tournament—the League of Legends championship—than the World Series, NBA Finals, or Stanley Cup. With a worldwide audience of over 134 million people and yearly revenue of over half a billion dollars, eSports is here to stay and only getting bigger.
The U.S. gets one of the biggest slices of the eSports pie, making over $143M per year. The U.S. has also long offered temporary P1 visas to professional athletes, allowing them to come to the country and compete. So maybe it should come as no surprise that, in 2013, the US provided the first P1 visa to a professional League of Legends gamer. This has set the precedent for several other professional gamers to receive P1 visas.
Smashed Hopes: Visas Denied
Super Smash Brothers is an incredible popular video game from Nintendo. The game features classic Nintendo characters—as well as a few special appearances—pitted against each other in combat. The game has seen numerous versions, each with its own competitive scene. The version with perhaps the most persistent competitive scene is Super Smash Brothers Melee.
William Hjelte, known as “Leffen” in the competitive community, is considered a top Super Smash Brothers player. He has been controversial in the scene, considered a bit of a villain for his brusque manner and rude behavior, but is known for high placements at the biggest tournaments and consistently defeating players considered to be the best Smash Brothers Melee has to offer.
In 2015, on his way to a large Smash Brothers tournament in the U.S., Leffen was turned around and deported from the country—his P1 visa had been denied. He was told that he did not qualify for a P1 visa because "Super Smash Bros. Melee is a grassroots game that is not institutionalized, Melee is not considered a legitimate sport, there is no real ranking system other than a few non-legitimate websites." This inability to get a P1 visa kept Leffen out of the biggest tournaments until he managed to finally secure a visa with the help of his sponsors—Red Bull and Team Solo Mid.
This uncertainty in treatment for visas leaves international players in an eSport uncertain of their future. In the last few weeks, however, the Smash Brothers community has taken advantage of Obama’s “We the People” initiative. They’ve launched a petition to the White House, requesting U.S. Citizen and Immigration Services (USCIS) to officially recognize all eSports as actual sports.
The petition was started April 29th and already has about 64,000 of the 100,000 signatures it needs for the petition to be given to the White House for review. There are several potential advantages to eSports being an officially recognized sport. However, the most important one to the Smash Brothers community seems to be consistent P1 visas.
Petitioning for P1s: Will it Work?
A P1 visa is a temporary visa that allows entertainers and athletes to enter the U.S. for a specific event or performance for up to 5 years. Entertainers must apply as part of a group, while athletes can apply as a team or individually. An athlete seeking a P1 visa must first show evidence of having legally contracted with a major U.S. sports league as well as providing a written consultation from labor organizations with expertise relevant to their sport. They must also provide evidence that the athlete meets at least two of the following criteria:
- Significant participation in a U.S. major sports league in prior seasons
- Participation in international competitions with a national team
- Significant participation in a prior U.S. college/university season in inter-collegiate competitions
- Written statement from a major U.S. sports league or official of the sport's governing body
- demonstrating the alien's or team's international recognition
- Written statement from the sports media or a recognized expert
- International ranking provided by internationally recognized sports' organizations
- Significant honors or awards in the sport
If eSports are indeed sports, many eSports players could at a minimum show honors in their sport, rankings, and provide written statements from experts on their sport. However, even if eSports are sports, this won’t be enough to guarantee high tier players P1 visas. The question may simply shift from whether eSports are sports to which competitive video games are true eSports. There are countless games that are played competitively, arguably any multiplayer video game that has organized tournaments could be considered a legitimate sport.
The issue the USCIS had with Leffen’s P1 application was not whether he was an athlete, their issue was that competitive Smash Brothers Melee was not organized enough to be a legitimate sport. Many of the larger competitive video games, such as League of Legends, have leagues associated with them in much the same way as the NBA represents basketball. The League of Legends competitive scene is governed by regional leagues under the League of Legends Championship Series or LCS.
In order to truly ensure P1 visas to their players, regardless of whether eSports are sports, competitive video games will need to restructure themselves. This will require investment on the part of game developers, just as has been done with League of Legends. As they are, many competitive games are mostly ranked and organized through the fans of that game. Without a true organized league, receiving P1 visas will be difficult.
P1 visas leave a great deal of discretion to the agent of the USCIS that is handling them. Even if the recent petition becomes law and competitive video games organize themselves into leagues, there is a real chance that some agents will look at requests with substantial skepticism. Many P1 visas for eSports players require refiling, which can be done immediately after rejection, or appeal.
The first P1 visas for eSports athletes that were actually granted required a long back-and-forth process. League of Legend’s LCS stated “This was a lengthy process; we had a lot of people fighting for this and it wasn’t something that happened overnight. This was a constant back and forth of ‘show us more proof… is this realistic?’ and that sort of thing. Eventually it got to the point where they were like ‘we have no reason to say no… okay, this is legitimate.”
A Good First Step
The fact that USCIS has provided P1 visas to some eSports players in the past indicates that there are at least some situations where they believe eSports to be legitimate sports and its players athletes.
A classification of all eSports as official sports is a huge step, but it is unlikely to have the effect the petition’s proponents hope it will have. An unorganized video game competition will be unlikely to be treated as an eSport. Just like with Leffen, the efforts of the sponsors, organizers, and game developers will be necessary to structure competitive gaming into true eSports.
Authored by Jonathan Lurie, LegalMatch Legal Writer and Attorney at Law