Video Gaming Inches a Step Closer to Pro Sports

The definition of sportmanship may lie to some extent in the eye of the beholder, but on Monday the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service reportedly recognized the video game League of Legends as a professional sport.

The decision enables the most elite of players in the field to qualify for Internationally Recognized Athlete visas, also known as “P-1A” visas, which allow people holding them to stay in the United States for up to five years.

As with professional athletes in other sports, the designation will allow League of Legend players to join U.S. teams as well.

Currently there are nine such teams, and the first player to benefit from this ruling will be Canadian player Danny “Spiphtur” Le, who until now had been unable to compete in the United States due to work-permit complications.

‘The Same Level of Training’

“In its ongoing efforts to help elevate e-sports, Riot Games has recently worked with the U.S. federal government to expand the official definition of athletes to include e-sports competitors, officiallyrecognizing e-sports as professional athletes for visa applications,” Chris Kramer, a spokesperson for the company, told TechNewsWorld. “The U.S. government will now grant foreign e-sportsplayers visa permission to come to the U.S. to compete in e-sports events, such as the League Championship Series.”

Riot Games lobbied to make the change happen, Kramer said. The LCS itself is now officially recognized as a professional sports league, much like the NBA, NFL or NHL.

“Riot has always maintained that e-sports competitors operate with the same level of training and specialization as athletes, and the company was very pleased that the government agreed,” Kramer added.

A League of Its Own

Currently this new USCIS ruling applies only to League of Legends, a multiplayer online battle arena game developed and published by Riot Games for Microsoft Windows and Mac OS X. The free-to-play game, which is supported by micro-transactions, was released in the fall of 2009.

Since its release, League of Legends has been a popular game in public competitions, and it first debuted at the 2010 World Cyber Games Grand Finals in Los Angeles, where teams from around the globe competed. There have been numerous League of Legends tournaments throughout the world, making this one of the most popular games today for professional gamers.

This October, Riot Games will host the League of Legends Season 3 World Championship, which is apparently already sold out at the Los Angeles Staples Center — the venue that serves as home for the Los Angeles Lakers professional basketball team as well as the Los Angeles Kings professional hockey team.

‘A Difference of Opinion’

The P-1A classification is provided to those who come to the United States to perform at a specific athletic competition as an athlete or as part of a group or team at an event that is recognized for its level of performance. To be eligible, one must be internationally recognized with a high level of achievement and well-known in more than one country.

“No way they’re athletes,” Lewis Ward, research manager for gaming at IDC, told TechNewsWorld. “Don’t you have to be in motion to be an athlete? It may be a sport, but that doesn’t make them athletes.

“Some pro athletes do look down their nose at other sports,” Ward pointed out. “So there is clearly a difference of opinion.”

Drawing the Crowd

In any case, it remains to be seen what impact this new ruling will have on future gaming events.

“Why is a League player a pro athlete but a World of Warcraft gamer isn’t?” Ward mused.

In the meantime, the door is now open for “more of this thing,” Wanda Meloni, senior analyst at M2 Research, told TechNewsWorld. “Riot worked pretty diligently for this to happen.

“More companies will have to continue to push on this so this starts precedence,” Meloni added.

In South Korea, e-sports see three times the spectators of traditional sporting events, Meloni pointed out. “The trend in some parts of the world is towards e-sports — South Korea has been at the forefront of these trends, and we can see that bleeding over to the U.S.

“The participants are given more attention than some of the local baseball stars and other athletes,” she noted. “If we look historically at online gaming has progressed, South Korea has been at the forefront, and we can expect those trends to pick up here.”

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