After intensive lobbying by Riot Games, a Santa Monica-based gaming company, U.S. Citizenship & Immigration Services (USCIS) is now issuing visas that are normally given to foreign professional athletes to professional gamers. This breaking news comes just in time for the League of Legends Championship Series (LCS) held at the famous Staples Center in Los Angeles during the first week of October. National and international gamers have the opportunity to showcase their gaming talent at the LCS in hopes of winning a $1 million prize.
Before USCIS’s expansion of the P visa category to include “electronic sports,” foreign gamers were limited in the types of work permits that they could obtain in order to enter the United States and participate in league tournaments. This recent development did not come without the persistence, persuasion, and the presentation of hardcore evidence. Riot Games showed how gamers practice 10 to 12 hours a day, building stamina and advanced skills in order to improve their craft.
The controversy leading up the USCIS’s recognition of gamers as athletes for immigration purposes leads one to ask, “what is an athlete?” The government was less interested in Merriam-Webster’s definition, “a person who is trained or skilled in exercises, sports, or games requiring physical strength, agility, or stamina” and more interested in economics.
To secure visas for event participants, Riot Games had to establish not only that gamers are professional athletes dedicated to the sport, but also that the video-gaming industry had made significant contributions to the economy and will continue to do so in the future. Referencing the National Basketball Association, the National Football League, and the National Hockey League, the company argued that viewership was comparable to major broadcasting sports events. According to an interview with Riot Games eSports manager Nick Allen in GameSpot, a website dedicated to gaming news, last year’s tournament had 1.1 million concurrent viewers at its peak and more than 8.2 million total unique viewers worldwide for both television and online.
As a recognized sports league, LCS garners well-known corporate event sponsors. In addition, over 32 million gamers pay to play every month. As a result, the tournament brings in enough money to issue a $1 million prize out of an $8 million dollar prize pot.
USCIS’s inclusion of pro gamers under the P visa category will likely have a positive impact on the gaming industry. With only 40 professionals currently, the LCS has the potential to grow and become just as recognizable as the four major sports leagues. Could we someday see video gamers competing for gold? Maybe, so long as the gaming industry’s economic and international influence continues to thrive.