Esports Visas: An Introduction to P-1 Visa Legal Issues For Professional Gamers

esports visasIn the not too distant past, Asia was all about esports; but in the U.S., professional gaming was in the purview of Pepper Brooks and the gang over at ESPN 8, The Ocho. 

Lately, however, esports is surging in the United States. Companies are sponsoring tournaments with sizable purses; leagues like the NBA and NFL are forming corresponding esports clubs. Proof: Prizes at the 2016 International Dota 2 Championship weighed in at $20 million — almost double the total payout of The Masters golf tournament.  In short, the professional gaming economy is cruising upwards, at warp speed.

But something is vexing international esports athletes: Work visas to compete in U.S. esports tournaments.

Esports Visas in the United States: P-1

Esports continues to exist in a legal gray zone. For example: Are esports professionals considered “athletes” and can they qualify for P-1 visas (which are needed to legally participate in stateside esports tournaments)?  The process to acquire a P-1 visa is not altogether difficult, but it’s also an inconsistent process. For example, there have been stories of esports athletes who were green-lit for 2016 tournaments, and then denied in 2017. There was also chatter about someone who was accepted in April for a tournament, and then rejected in August for another.

The P-1 visa system is unpredictable and inconsistent, which makes competing in the US difficult for many players.  Visa applications can take months to be approved. Moreover, since there is no hard-and-fast rule on whether or not a professional gamer qualifies as an athlete, the decision sometimes falls to the opinion of one government worker.

Proving “non-immigrant intent” is the first hurdle to securing a P-1 visa.  Applicants must demonstrate that they have permanent employment, relevant business or financial connections, or familial ties in their country. Why? Because officials wants to make sure that P-1 participants go home after their visas expire.

Visas For Professional Game Players: Esports v. Chess Community

The situation faced by many esports athletes got us thinking: How does it work for chess tournaments?  After all, the US hosts many chess events, with participants from every corner of the globe.

We discovered that the US Chess Association offers invitations to foreign players, which streamlines the process for acquiring a P-1 visa.

Video game players, on the other hand, have to get a US employer to obtain an approved PQ petition from the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS).  Once officials approve the request, the player can then apply for a P-1 visa.  Going through this paperwork process, multiple times a year, to compete in a handful of tournaments, can be exceptionally frustrating.

With the esports industry skyrocketing, both at home and abroad — not to mention rising viewership — the industry must figure out a way to make it easier for the world’s best video game players to compete on the US stage. If not, the U.S. esports programs may not be able to become contenders.

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Kelly / Warner works with esports athletes and teams on various business and legal issues — including esports visas, contract negotiations, and other business logistics. Questions? Please get in touch.

Article Sources

New, C. (2017, May 18). Immigration In Esports: Do Gamers Count As Athletes? Retrieved June 20, 2017, from https://www.forbes.com/sites/allabouttherupees/2017/05/18/immigration-in-esports-do-gamers-count-as-athletes/#5fae6a03468e

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