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Crossing your T’s for your O-1’s and P’s: A Visa Checklist for the Professional Gamer

By Pablo G, Velez, Esq. & Justin M. Jacobson, Esq.

The global esports phenomenon is growing in the United States.  Players from around the world are coming to the United States for a chance to participate in big money tournaments as well as to sign exclusive playing contracts with U.S.-based organizations and teams.  However, many gamers are locked out because they fail to secure their work visas due to a lack of proper planning.  This has been a notable issue with several examples of professional gamers not being able to sign with a particular team or attend a specific tournament due to visa issues.  For instance, Overwatch League franchise, Shanghai Dragons high-profile signee, Kim “Geguri” Seyeon’s debut was delayed “due to visa issues.” Similarly, immigration complications prevented the 100 Thieves’ Counter-Srike: Global Offensive team from competing at “The ELEAGUE Major” in Boston last year; as well as, immigration issues preventing Russian Overwatch player, Denis “Tonic” Rulyov from participating in the Overwatch Contenders Season 1 Playoffs. It is clear that a failure to properly plan through the entire visa petition process can hamper a professional gamer’s ability to compete.  This article tackles the basic considerations for esports athletes and other stakeholders to set themselves up for a successful immigration petition process.

  1. All Athletes Of All Ages Need a Visa

Competing as a professional video gamer for a variety of tournaments is a “for-profit” venture.  This means that proper work visas are needed for non- U.S. citizens to participate in the United States and earn a wage.   This regulation applies to any individual, whether they are a seasoned veteran or a teenaged prodigy; as a work visa is required to comply with American labor laws.  Additionally, there is no minimum or maximum age requirement when applying for a visa; so, as long as the other qualifications for the visa are met, a minor may apply for such a visa.

  • The O-1A vs. P-1A Visa – Are you a famous lone wolf or a well-known team player?

The key difference between the O-1A and the P-1A is a gamer’s personal notoriety and their long-term objectives.  In the United States, the O-1A visa is for an individual who possesses extraordinary ability in a particular field (i.e. playing a video-game).  It is typically appropriate for the athlete who has made a mark in the particular field and has enough industry-wide name recognition (literally, seeing the individual’s name published for personal accomplishments apart from their team) to justify the visa’s issuance.  This is more the rare case and requires substantial documented evidence to corroborate the individual’s notoriety.

In contrast, the P-1A is appropriate for a gamer that has been internationally recognized as having skill substantially above the average participant.  This type of visa also allows for teams (two or more individuals) to petition whereas the O-1A visa is only available for one specific individual.

  • Timing is EVERYTHING

As discussed above, there have been several past occasions where an international gamer or an entire team’s participation in a tournament was not permitted due to the proper work visas not being timely issued.  It is important to note that there are two government agencies, the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) and the State Department, who are involved in the visa process; and, therefore, administrative delays must be accounted for when preparing to make a timely entrance into the United States.

To avoid being subject to the several months backlog for either the O-1A and P-1A, gamers should strongly consider using the Premium Processing  option when filing with immigration in order to elicit a response within two weeks of filing.  While this option may be costly, if limited time restraints exist, this may be the appropriate decision.  Another factor to consider is the specific wait time at your local consulate.  Applying in Seoul is not the same as Shanghai or Toronto as they all have their own unique workload queues based on a variety of factors.  Moreover, it is also important to factor in the standard 7-10 business days that it could take the visa applicant to receive the approved visa from the consulate. 

  • Make your list, and check it twice

Last, but certainly not least, is the substantive portion of the visa application. Whether applying for an O-1A or a P-1A, a professional gamer must ensure that they submit all the required evidence.  This includes the invitation letter or contract from the United States team or tournament organizer as well as records of credentials substantiating the applicant as a prominent esports athlete.  An Advisory Opinion letter from a proper entity, such as the league organizer or game developer, can objectively confirm the gamer’s exceptional status.  This letter, which must be addressed to USCIS, is also necessary to demonstrate that the individual is, in fact, a qualified athlete.

While the above information is not an exhaustive list of the requirements for the O-1A and P-1A visas, it serves to highlight a few important matters a professional gamer should be aware of when applying for a visa.  Ultimately, the more substantive evidence demonstrating the gamer’s exceptional skill, the more likely that a visa for a professional gamer will be issued.  It is prudent for a gamer who foresees the need for a foreign work visa to begin the process as early as possible to ensure that the gamer receives the approval in sufficient time to permit them to participate in a tournament or to sign with the organization when they desire.

This article is not intended as legal or business advice, as an attorney or other professional specializing in the field should be consulted.

© 2018, 2019 The Jacobson Firm, P.C. & Velez & Cipriano, PLLC

About the author

Justin M. Jacobson, Esq. - Vice-President, The Jacobson Firm, P.C. - Attorney Specializing in Entertainment, Sports, Esports, Fashion and Art Law. In particular, The Jacobson Firm, P.C. handles Trademarks, Copyrights, Contracts, Estate Planning, Music Business and Brand Development on behalf of creative talent and lifestyle brands.
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