Gaming the System

Ever wonder how those major league baseball players from countries like Japan or the Dominican Republic got their visas to compete for teams like the San Francisco Giants or Boston Red Sox? Well, before I became an immigration attorney, I used to wonder about this all the time. As it turns out, there is a nonimmigrant visa specifically designed for athletes, and it is called the P-1A visa. Think only a world class baseball player can qualify for a P-1A visa? Think again.

A recent article which ran in the Los Angeles Times reported that United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) has been approving a number of P-1A visas for online gamers who come to the United States to perform as professional athletes in internet video game competitions such as League of Legends. As the article states, E-gaming has become big business, with events being broadcast online to a viewership numbering more than 1.7 million.

To obtain P-1A visa classification, the employer of an on-line gamer hailing from another country must show, among other things, that the individual is performing on a sports team which competes in association with 6 or more teams that have combined revenues in excess of $10,000,000.

Moreover, a person may be eligible for a P-1A visa if he or she is coming to the United States to perform as an athlete individually, or as part of a group or team, in an athletic competition having a distinguished reputation and requiring participation of an athlete or team with international reputation. The individual athlete or team must also be internationally recognized. The P-1A category is not limited to professional athletes, however, and can include certain minor leaguers or amateurs.

"Internationally recognized” is defined by USCIS regulation as meaning “a high level of achievement ... evidenced by a degree of skill and recognition substantially above that ordinarily encountered, to the extent such achievement is renowned, leading or well-known in more than one country.” An athletic team can be 2 or more persons who function as a unit.

The petition filed on behalf of the athlete must be supported by contracts, descriptions of the activities and beginning and ending dates, itineraries, and evidence of the individual athlete’s achievements, the individual athlete or team’s international recognition and consultation with a labor organization. The admission period for P-1A visa holders is up to five years (with the possibility of extension of visa status for up to five years) for individual athletes, and one year (with the possibility of extension of visa status for up to one year) for athletic teams. A P-1A athlete can seek to become a permanent resident of the United States.

So how, you might ask, does skill at maneuvering a mouse or keyboard make one a professional athlete on par with the likes of Mariano Rivera or Hideki Matsui? The regulations do not define "athlete." So demonstrating eligibility for the P-1A visa is a very fact specific exercise. Furthermore, USCIS evaluates each case on its own merits. Nonetheless, having played -- and lost -- many a game of Halo (under a screen moniker I would rather not reveal) against more adept gamers, I can attest that the mental concentration and reflexes required to vanquish one's on-line opponent are not all that dissimilar from those needed to win on the tennis court or baseball diamond. Play on.

Timothy D. Widman is a San Jose Immigration Attorney and the owner of the Law Office of Timothy D. Widman.