How does USCIS categorize eSports Athletes for P-1 Visa Status?

Sherrod Seward P-1 Visa Attorney

How does USCIS categorize eSports Athletes for P-1 Visa Status?

 The United States Immigration System is historically very slow to accept change and tailor itself to modern times. This is especially true for humanitarian immigration solutions but usually work visas related to sports and entertainment in the O and P visas categories are pretty flexible. Unfortunately, this was not the case for eSports athletes seeking to obtain work authorization to compete and get paid in the United States. Perhaps, the shear economic opportunities of the global eSports turned the tide for USCIS to categorize eSports competitors as athletes.

 

Here is an overview of the eSports Industry from Forbes.com

In 2017, the eSports economy is expected to grow to $696 million, a year-on-year growth of 41.3% and the global eSports audience is expected to reach 385 million in 2017. Some estimates are even higher. Total prize money in 2016 reached $93.3 million, up from $61.0 million in 2015 and eSports are already arguably as popular as some of the well-established professional sports among certain demographics. According to Sports Illustrated, in 2016, eSports events sold out KeyArena in Seattle, Nationwide Arena in Columbus, the Staples Center in Los Angeles and Madison Square Garden in New York. The purse for the Seattle event, The International Dota 2 Championship, was $20,770,460, which Sports Illustrated points out is roughly double the total payout of The Masters. In 2017, major eSports competitions have been scheduled across North America, Europe, South Korea, and China, to name a few, making eSports truly international.

Are eSports athletes, really athletes? And why does it matter? 

Athletes from all over the world have trained for their competitions and tournaments in the United States on visitor B1/B2 visas for years. However, recent changes in immigration enforcement aggressiveness threatens athletes’ ability to move freely in and out of the United States on a visitor visas. For these purposes, it is very important for eSports competitors to be qualified as athletes by USCIS or it will be very difficult for foreign competitors to come the United States.

P-1 visas for eSports professionals has traditionally been mixed because USCIS does not have a precise definition for athlete and set criteria for international recognition which has led to mixed results. The first successful P-1 visa for an eSports athlete was

 In 2013, Riot Games successfully facilitated the first P-1 visa for an eSports competitor. After six months of lobbying and establishing a League Championship Series, the first eSports athlete was able to obtain a P-1 visa. Establishing a league rather than individual event was key to getting the visa because the series justified the validity date of the visa and the revenue of the sport brought legitimacy.   

"This is groundbreaking for eSports. Now we can start looking at international players that come over. It's a much easier process because they're actually recognized by the government. It's a huge thing.” - Nick Allen of Riot Games.

While this was a huge break for eSports promoters and eSports athletes, each petition is still evaluated on its own merits. So each eSports P-1 visa petition must be carefully articulated to obtain approvals from USCIS.

The quality of the petition often has a major effect on the likelihood of obtaining the visas. This goes for the competition, the game being played, and the international recognition of the athlete. For example,  Sweden’s William “Leffen” Hjelte, a top Super Smash Bros Melee player, was initially denied a P-1 visa because according to USCIS, “Smash Bros Melee is not considered a legitimate sport,” but a subsequent P-1 visa petition on his behalf was approved.

There are situations where competing on a visit or visa or waiver program is appropriate, getting it wrong can lead to devastating consequences in the future. Working in the U.S. without authorization can serious complicate competitor’s ability to obtain U.S. visas in the future. Working with a competent attorney that knows how to articulate these petitions is highly recommended.  

How to qualify for P visa as an gaming athlete

  • Evidence of having legally contracted with a major eSports league, tournament or team

  • A written consultation from an appropriate labor organization

Evidence demonstrating that the athlete meets at least two of the following criteria:

  • Significant participation eSports league in prior seasons

  • Participation in international competitions with a national team

  • Written statement from a eSports 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/awards in the sport

Specific expertise in eSports related Immigration is an underappreciated until something goes wrong. Our combat sports practice is tested and proven in the growing world of eSports. If you are interested in finding out more about QCI Law’s eSports immigration practice, please contact our office at (704) 500-2075 or email.

Sherrod Seward