Competitive video gamers can now get visas to “work” in the US

High stakes.
High stakes.
Image: AP Photo/Shawn Rocco, News & Observer
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If you are a non-US citizen and looking to ply your trade as a game developer in the US, your quest may take some time, particularly if Congress remains locked in mortal combat around immigration reform. But if you are a crack gamer looking to come to the US simply to cast a few spells in a competitive league, you may have just gotten lucky. Riot Games, makers of game-of-the-moment League of Legends, said this week it has successfully lobbied US Immigration and Citizenship Services (USCIS) into granting visas to competitive gamers normally reserved for professional athletes.

Nick Allen, Riot Games’s head of e-sports, the leagues organized to enable international competitive gameplay among teams, told Gamespot, “the United States government recognizes League of Legends pro players as professional athletes and award (sic) visas to essentially work in the United State under that title.”

While pro athletes competing in traditional, or what Allen calls “analog” sports, such as baseball or soccer, foreign participants in multiplayer game tournaments have often had a difficult time getting into and staying the US with standard work permits. Riot says the new classification will come in time to allow teams into the US for its upcoming World Championships in Los Angeles in October. Athletes currently qualify under either O-1 visas, which also cover businesspeople and others who can be proven to bring something unique to their field of endeavor, or P-1 visas, which cover pro sports athletes and teams, and would seem to be the more likely category for classification of pro gamers.

Riot reportedly argued in part to the USCIS that its tournaments draw similar sized audiences as major sports broadcast on ESPN, with cash prizes growing to enormous levels—the prize for winning teams in the upcoming World Championships is $1 million, out of a total prize pot of $8 million. Riot reported last season’s championship had a viewership of 8.1 million people, including 1.1 million online viewers for the final. The tournament itself is large enough to require not only the Staples Center in Los Angeles, but also two additional venues. When you consider that the online viewers of last year’s tournament exceeded the highest TV viewing audience of an MLS match for 2012, 880,000 for Portland vs. Seattle last June, and almost bested the league’s highest-ever viewing audience for David Beckham’s debut, 1.4 million, you can see the argument Riot made in economic terms.

It’s hard to tell whether this decision by the USCIS says more about how we value work, or short-term economic contribution, or skills. What is clear is that this decision takes us one step closer to characterizing digital play as physical competition and rewarding it likewise—Riot’s coup is surely not the last expansion of these visa definitions, and by extension, formal recognition of gaming as a generator of economic value. Hopefully, the US government will start taking a similar view of those who actually create the games, rather than just those who collect the prizes.