Team Coast members, from left, Darshan "ZionSpartan" Upadhyaya,… (Mel Melcon, Los Angeles…)
International stars in sports such as baseball, hockey and basketball have long been afforded special immigration status to play on U.S. teams. Think David Beckham, the former Los Angeles Galaxy soccer player from Britain, or Dodgers rookie phenom Hyun-Jin Ryu, a pitcher from South Korea.
Now add Danny "Shiphtur" Le, of Edmonton, Canada, to the elite list.
Le, an online gamer, is one of the world's top players of League of Legends, a virtual capture-the-flag game in which two teams of fantasy characters compete for a glowing orb. Le is so deft at racing down the virtual field and opening up gaps for teammates that he recently became the first so-called eSports player to be granted a type of visa normally awarded to athletes featured daily on ESPN.
Like other stars on sports teams, Le needed the visa to live and practice with his Riverside squad. In the professional league, all five members of the team must be gathered together physically when they compete.
"It's kind of so big — actually kind of mind-blowing — that there's a demand for visas for League of Legends," said Le, 20.
With a generation of children having grown up playing video games, the decision by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services has been widely perceived as elevating America's newest professional sport to the same class as old-school stalwarts.
And in a worldwide competition in which the winning team can take home $1 million in prizes, the ability to sign the best players — whether from Canada or South Korea or Russia — was seen as a must-have for U.S squads.
"The elite have great reflexes. They're fast and they're good," said Michael Pachter, a video game analyst with Wedbush Securities.
The professional competition grew out of the free computer game League of Legends designed by Santa Monica's Riot Games. It is probably the world's most popular online game.
Two teams of five players compete in an epic battle fought on Internet-connected computers. Using their computer mice and keyboards, players have to slash through opponents' characters and an ever-growing swarm of robots called minions on a quest to destroy their opponent's orb, known as the Nexus. Players pay real money for extra weapons and characters.
In the U.S. bracket of the championship series, eight teams compete against one another on Thursdays and Fridays at a West Los Angeles TV studio.
The games are broadcast online and draw more than 1.7 million unique viewers. A typical National Hockey League game on the NBC Sports Network last season drew a quarter of that audience.
Gaming industry analysts estimate that more than 32 million people worldwide play the game, about half of them in the U.S. The rest come from Europe and Asia. By those calculations, 1 in every 20 Americans plays League of Legends. That dwarfs baseball, from Little League to Major League Baseball.
When Le of Canada initially tried to become the first international star on an American squad, U.S. immigration authorities turned him away at the U.S.-Canadian border.
International eSports players had sought visas in the past. They could come as business visitors for a single tournament and leave with prize money. But immigration rules bar such visitors from earning a salary and that resulted in Le's denial.
Riot, the game developer, turned to immigration attorney Jeptha Evans to fight for Le. He suggested that Le could play for the U.S. team under the P-1A visa program, which U.S. officials said is designed "to enrich the nation's cultural landscape" by welcoming "diverse talent" to perform in the U.S.
Several thousand athletes in professional sports receive a P-1A visa each year. They include, for example, all Dodgers players who have foreign citizenship and no green card. A slightly fewer number of internationally recognized singers and entertainers receive the similar P-1B visa every year.
Evans and Riot told U.S. officials that the eSports league met government benchmarks for a major sports league because it had clear rules and at least six teams with combined revenues of more than $10 million.
Like many people hearing about League of Legends for the first time, immigration officials scratched their heads, Riot Vice President Dustin Beck said.
"We had to show this was a profession," he said. "We had to make a case that this is just like Major League Baseball or the National Hockey League."
Le was approved for the visa May 29. A handful of other eSports players, including citizens of Argentina and Armenia, have received P1-A visas since then.
Daniel Cosgrove, a U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services spokesman, declined to talk specifically about eSports' classification as a major sports league. But he said that a P-1A is "highly specific visa" designed for "internationally recognized athletes" and that the agency considers "each petition on a case-by-case basis."