By Bernabe Villegas
The following article is featured in the January 2020 special edition of The Campus, The Beaverbeat.
Esports is a growing billion-dollar global industry, and nearly half of it is centralized in the United States. Since major competitions are hosted in the US, many professional foreign players encounter challenges when competing here. There is a variety of visas that foreign players can use for entry into the US: B-1, B-2, H-1B, O-1A, and P-1A. The most coveted types of visas for esports players are the O1-A and P-1A visas as they both apply specifically to international athletes. Whether esports players are considered actual “athletes” has been hotly debated over the years. If esports professionals are not classified as “athletes,” then they do not qualify for “athlete” specific visas. Furthermore, not qualifying for these visas makes international esports players lives more difficult when competing in major competitions in the US. This situation can have a negative effect on the US; esports titles would have to host more competitions overseas, denying the US of positive esports growth, and ultimately not stymieing economic benefit to the US.
As of 2013, Riot Games successfully lobbied in support for recognizing esports players as athletes. Now, as recognized athletes, esports players in League of Legends (Riot’s game) are eligible to enter the US with a P1-A visa. The P1-A visa allows professional and amateur competitors to train and compete in the US. This type of visa, however, has been hard to extend into other competitive esports titles. Even gaining P1-A visas for League of Legends players has been unpredictable, making players turn to the last resort: a B-1/B-2 visa. Training and competing under these visa categories places esports players in violation of the terms of these visas. Under these visas, esports players are not allowed to be employed and compensated while living in the US.
If esports is considered a sport and by extension, esports players are athletes, which visa is best for them? B-1/B-2 visas would be out of the question, since esports players’ salaries far exceed the allowed amount for these visas. The next type of visa is the H1-B, which is for individuals who meet specific education requirements, type of occupation, and employment in the US. Esports players would not qualify for this last visa because many of them are teenagers/young adults who have either quit school or are still in school to pursue a career in esports. The O1-A visa, as opposed to the P1-A visa, is for “outstanding individuals in their field of study and practice.” The O1-A visa is extended to athletes, raising the question of whether esports players are athletes. The term “athlete” is not a legally defined term when it comes to attaining these kinds of visas. In the end, I believe, as many others, that esports professionals should be considered athletes because of the amount of training and skill it takes to play a video game professionally.
There are also other distinctions between the P1-A and O1-A visa. The P1-A visa allows for esports players to compete in a specific event. On the other hand, the O1-A visa can be used for up to three years. It is arguably easier to apply for and get a P1-A visa for a competition by competition basis, as the O1-A visa requires more time and information than the P1-A. By attaining a O1-A visa, an esports athlete is able to apply for a green card, which is a positive step towards their future careers as esports players. To conclude, many teams rely on international talent to field their esport teams. Various teams are putting in millions to attain these players and have them signed to their teams. However, difficulty in attaining player visas has left esports teams less likely to sign talent from overseas. Questions such as “why does someone need a visa to compete in an online game?” have come up frequently, especially to immigration lawyer Genie Doi. This question comes out of the bigger misunderstanding that is yet to be fixed: “what is esports?”