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P1 Visas in eSports: A Crash Course

Many of you are probably familiar with President Obama's We the People Petition Initiative.  Anyone can go to the White House website , draft a petition on any topic, and if the petition receives 100,000 signatures, the White House must formally address it.  This has, of course, led to some abuse. However, this process can address, or at the very least bring attention to, some very real and important causes.

One recent petition will be near and dear to the eSports community. Specifically, this petition asks the White House to officially recognize eSports as a "legitimate sport" so that gamer athletes may   obtain a P1 Visa.    P1 Visas permit "internationally recognized athletes" to enter the United States for a period of up to 5 years for individual athletes, 1 year for a team, and 1 year for "essential support personnel," e.g. coaches.   For years, athletic organizations have relied on P1 Visas to allow their participants to enter the United States. Because of P1 Visas, such sports are more diverse and more competitive.

The United States Citizenship and Immigration Services office (USCIS) only recently began to recognize eSports players as "athletes" for P1 Visa purposes.  This is in large part thanks to the efforts of Riot Games and, as you would expect, many of the P1 visas continue to go to LCS players. That is not to say that a P1 Visa is exclusive to LCS athletes.  Indeed, there are several cases of P1 Visas being issued to athletes that play DOTA2, Starcraft, and other titles.  However, it is still a difficult process as Super Smash Brothers Melee athlete Leffen, recently found out.

If the petition succeeds, all eSports would be considered a legitimate sport and consequently all players would be recognized as athletes.  Unfortunately, it is not so simple. There are dozens if not hundreds of titles which could be classified as "eSports."  It is highly unlikely that the USCIS will pass a blanket regulation that recognizes all interactive entertainment as a legitimate sport.  Thus, it will come down to individual titles and the efforts of their developers, sponsors, governing bodies, and best teams and athletes. LCS only achieved recognition after a lengthy back and forth and the process is not likely to be easier for any other title.

Additionally, even if other titles are officially recognized, there are still several hurdles for players themselves. The USCIS does not issue P1 Visas to any schmuck who can bounce a ball.  An applicant must provide demonstrative evidence of his or her extensive participation and international renown in the sport in question.  It is no different for eSports, however is certainly more difficult. The government officials that enforce these rules are familiar with  baseball, basketball, golf, etc. because such sports are ingrained into our culture.  They are common knowledge and most people generally know what separates Alexander Ovechkin from an average hockey player.  eSports does not yet have this recognition and thus, applicants will have to provide that much more evidence  to distinguish themselves from the pack.

This is not to say that you should not sign the petition.  GO SIGN IT!!! At the very least, if the White House is forced to respond, it will bring that much more attention to eSports.  There are other avenues of course, such as B1 Visas.  But really, do we want to treat eSports athletes like athletes or like people going to a business conference?  I know my answer.   It is very possible for eSports players to obtain a P1 Visa.  However it is still very difficult. Until eSports develops a stronger lobby and creates more recognition, athletes that play titles without LCS/DOTA-sized governing bodies will continue to find themselves in Leffen's shoes more often than they would like.

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