The United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) have finally come around to acknowledging that competitive video gamers are eligible to apply for the same types of nonimmigrant visas as other, more traditional, sports athletes. This is indicated in a recent article in Forbes magazine, “The U.S. Now Recognizes eSports Players As Professional Athletes”.

If you do not have a high-speed internet connection and don’t play video games, you may not be in the “know” when it comes to the eSports arena. Electronic sports or eSports is a term for competitive gaming that consists of eSports leagues, such as the North American Star LeagueDreamhack, and Major League Gaming. Organized competitions are held internationally and include rankings, prize money, trophies and major sponsorships. eSports has grown exponentially in the past couple of years.

How big has it grown? Riot Games (RG), a popular game designer based in Santa Monica, California, has successfully filed applications and petitions with USCIS for its athletes. RG maintains rankings for its own League of Legends – a multiplayer team game that in 2012 recorded over one billion hours of play. The Season 3 League of Legends World Championships will be held on October 4th at the Staples Center in Los Angeles, home of the Lakers and Clippers professional basketball teams. It is estimated that attendance will be over 10,000 spectators, with online viewers of the streamed Games expected to exceed the 18 million who watched the All-Star finals in Shanghai this past May. Total international prize money for the season may top eight million dollars, with one million to be awarded to the winning team at the L.A. championships this October.

One can debate whether competitive gaming is a professional sport, but USCIS has approved and awarded the same athlete visas as it would to any other individual athlete or team. Thus it seems that USCIS concedes that an “eAthlete” may be eligible to enter the U.S. on one of USCIS’ existing athlete visa types: as a professional athlete receiving no payment other than prize money for competing in a tournament (B-1 visa), as an internationally recognized athlete (P-1 visa) or if the athlete is ranked at the top of his or her game, as an athlete of “extraordinary ability” (O-1 visa). The length of time that an athlete may stay in the U.S. is based on the visa type and the duration of the “event”. An event can be a tournament or series of tournaments that may include promotional appearances and/or brief layovers incidental to the event.

U.S. immigration law has specific criteria associated with each athlete visa type that must be met. For example, O-1 and P-1 visa regulations require that a U.S. petitioner such as an agent, promotional sponsor, team, or athletic club files the petition on behalf of the athlete. Other necessary components of an approvable visa petition include documentation about the athlete’s record and the itinerary of U.S. event(s). The petitioner must file and receive approval of a visa petition from USCIS on behalf of the athlete before the athlete can obtain the visa from the Department of State (through a U.S. consulate) and then enter the U.S. via U.S. Customs.

Navigating this process often involves dealing with all three government agencies, each having its own regulations, procedures and processing times. If a visa petition is not filed with USCIS months in advance of the U.S. event, there is the possibility that delays in the form of responding to USCIS requests for additional evidence (RFEs) and/or waiting on scheduling a visa interview at the U.S. consulate can drag out the athlete’s U.S. entry date.

As eSports competitions continue to grow and gain popularity, it will be interesting to see how successfully the industry continues to fare with filing petitions with USCIS. Any experienced U.S. immigration attorney has encountered more than his or her share of RFEs and denials from USCIS when filing approvable cases. Nevertheless, bringing international athletes to the U.S. on visas generates jobs and money four our nationa’s economy through ticket and merchandise sales, corporate sponsorships, and prize winnings. Not to mention the cultural benefits and technological advances that eSports events provide.

So let the eGames continue in the U.S. in earnest!

Posted by: Cynthia Hemphill, Shareholder