Esport athletes are not real athletes. This is not an opinion. This is a ruling held by multiple countries including the United States. We can argue this day and night but the decision U.S. government officials make pertaining to work visas affects every single player hoping to compete.
Visas differ country to country and sometimes even city to city. For example: a visa is required to travel to Beijing, China but not to Shanghai. It’s understandable that this process is vital to national security but it’s become a huge hindering factor for players to compete in the United States.
Let’s take a quick look at the two major types of American visas:
-P-1A Work Visas are for an Individual or Team Athlete to perform at a specific athletic competition. This is typically what players attempt to receive. Work visas also require a company (technically your “employer”) to back you up. For example: League of Legends players are technically listed as Riot Games employees in order to help them gain access to work visas. But this same case doesn’t work for all games.
-B-2 Tourist Visas are for individuals visiting for tourism, vacations, visitation with family, or medical treatment. This also includes participation by amateurs in musical, sports, or similar events or contests. Tourist visas are basically the backup plan if a work visa is denied. Players can list their travel as tourism but as events grow, the problems do too.
The visa process for the U.S. is actually fairly simple but can take an excruciating amount of time. You fill out some paperwork and send it off to a government officer. Even if your application is approved you still have to go through an interview process. Sound easy? Well it is except for the fact that every officer judges differently. It doesn’t help that the subject of esports is not understood by most in the mainstream. This makes it extremely difficult to convince a government officer you qualify for a “work” visa.
One of the most popular examples is Super Smash Bros player, William “Leffen” Hjelte. As a Swedish citizen in 2015 Leffen was denied entry to the United States to play in The Big House 5. Even though he was sponsored he was denied based on the grounds that Super Smash Bros. is not a real sport to compete in. The gruelling process to travel to the States took him an entire year, forcing Leffen on the sidelines. He was finally granted a P-1A work visa in October 2016 but in that time he missed key Melee events like Genesis 3, Battle of the Five Gods, and Evo.
TBH is still uncertain. I'll keep you posted!
So happy I'm finally in the clear. Huge shoutouts to everyone who supported me through it.
— William Hjelte (@TSM_Leffen) October 3, 2016
Gaining a work visa is obviously just a flip of the coin which is unacceptable for top professional esports teams trying to travel to the United States for competitions.
The 2017 Immigration Ban
Recently President Trump signed the ‘Executive Order on Protecting the Nation from Terrorist Attacks by Foreign Nationals’ suspending the entrance of nationals from Iraq, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen until further notice. On top of how difficult it already is to access the United States, this ban put a further limit on players attempting to travel. Merely a week after Trump signed this executive order, U.S. District Senior Judge James Robart of Seattle issued a nationwide restraining order blocking the ban.
While there is a huge back and forth within the government, airports are now running as if the ban didn’t exist. During this time Gankstars Co-Owner, Vainglory player and Iraqi dual-citizen Hamza ‘IraqiZorro’ Najim has been trying to move to the United States from Canada. He had previously been blocked due to the ban. The ruling from Judge Robart enabled him to enter California without any issues.
— GankStars (@gankstars) February 5, 2017
Unfortunately there’s no telling if another ban will be implemented. With the already looming issues of work visa access this ban, and any others like it, could seriously cripple esports communities.
Sadly there isn’t a simple solution. Government officers could be a little better educated on what necessarily constitutes qualifications for an athletic work visa. Overall it would be ideal if every major country would accept esports players as athletes and therefore, employees. It may be best not to hold your breath on that, although the International eSports Federation has been taking actions to hopefully see that through to fruition one day.
Aside from changes in the law, the game companies should make themselves more aware of just how big of a problem this is. Riot Games has made a lot of headway and while it is a huge company, and not all are created equal, others should take note to its achievements.
While there isn’t an ideal clean cut solution, we can all agree visa issues are a major blemish on the esports community. One can only hope that as the scene grows these issues will one day become a remembrance of the past.