Although your mom might not recognize playing video games as a sport, US Citizenship and Immigration Services does—so stuff it, Mom! Months after the lobbying efforts of Riot Games got the first pro-athlete visa awarded to a professional video gamer, Canadian League of Legends player Danny "Shiphtur" Le, Kim “viOLet” Dong Hwan became the first Starcraft 2 player to receive a P-1A visa for “Internationally Recognized Athletes.”
The five-year visa allows viOLet to live and travel in the United States and earn a salary while training in between tournaments, in addition to any tournament winnings. viOLet was denied entry to the United States three times in 2013, which, according to his official statement, brought him to the brink of retiring from esports at 23 for his compulsory military service.
“:D JAGERBOMB TIME HUH?” said viOLet in his official statement, where he talked about how excited he was to have his visa situation sorted out and to be coming to America on Monday. “You don’t know how happy I am, I’m like flying dude :D.”
Naturally a lot of the comments under articles covering this announcement as well as Le’s visa in August object to the idea of esports players being considered athletes. Those arguments are pretty predictable—someone points out that Starcraft is actually really difficult and that NASCAR is considered a sport, someone says it’s just pressing buttons, someone unfairly disparages ping-pong and so on. It's weird that the definition of "athlete" means enough to people that they'd be moved to named calling, but then, these are comment sections on the internet.
But, even though the P-1A is for "Internationally Recognized Athletes," what the internet commentators of the world recognize or don't doesn't much matter. After the lobbying efforts of Riot Games opened the door with the government for esports by proving its popularity—it fills the Staples Center and has more people watching its broadcasts than the highest-rated Major League Soccer match—it’s easy to see how viOLet fulfills the other requirements.
For viOLet or any individual athlete to receive a P-1A, the US Citizen and Immigration site says he has to meet the following criteria:
You must be coming to the United States to participate in individual event, competition or performance in which you are internationally recognized with a high level of achievement; evidenced by a degree of skill and recognition substantially above that ordinarily encountered so that the achievement is renowned, leading or well known in more than one country.
ViOLet is 66th in WCS rankings, which are dominated by Korean players but open to anyone who ranks, so they're sprinkled with “foreigners” as well. His big tournament wins in 2012 came in Sao Paolo and New York. The only part of the visa website that seems suspect or inapplicable is the part that explains how the P-1A visa is applicable if "you are coming to the U.S. temporarily to perform at a specific athletic competition as an athlete." The site conspicuously sidesteps the definition of an athletic competition or athlete, perhaps relying on the old saw "you know it when you see it."
Still getting the visa was a group effort that took everyone from Blizzard Entertainment, which makes Starcraft, the head of North American Starleague, because the visa application requires a statement from an official of a major U.S. sports league or an official; the Starcraft caster Marcus “djWheat” Graham, as a member of the sports media; and others. The Daily Dot reports that the process started in June and cost $5,000 in lawyer's fees and immigration applications. ViOLet's manager and former roommate Andrew Tomlinson and his company Cyber Solutions Agency had to put together a 500-page overview on the gamer's career to prove that StarCraft 2 was a legitimate sport and that viOLet was a legitimate competitor.
Tomlinson also commented on the new visa situation: "Battling these issues with [viOLet] has been one of the most taxing and emotional roller coasters I have ever faced in my life," he wrote. "Seven months of work, and 500 pages later it has paid off, and I couldn’t be more thrilled for Dong Hwan."
Presumably the next Starcraft 2 player who applies for a visa should have a slightly easier time convincing the USCIS of Starcraft's validity after all of viOLet's work. Whether or not the general public will be convinced remains to be seen.