League of Legends

In a mildew-filled basement, under low light somewhere outside the United States, the next world champion athlete is practicing his moves. He’s not practicing to be the next Michael Jordan or Pelé, but rather banging away at a game controller connected to his PC or a video game console hoping to become the next Alex “Lilballz” Sung, a top-ranked hardcore gamer from China who’s earned $203,396.17 playing in five tournaments this year.

We’re still a long way from elite gamers gracing sports drink and cereal advertisements, but the live gaming industry is enormous and growing rapidly. Despite this, however, until recently, Alex and those like him would have a hard time competing in the United States. That all changed last Friday, when the United States government began recognizing players of at least one particular video game as professional athletes.

That game is League of Legends, a multiplayer online game produced by Santa Monica-based Riot Games. Through a herculean lobbying effort, the company has convinced the US Citizenship and Immigration Service (USCIS) to recognized League of Legends as a professional sport, meaning that its most elite players now qualify for Internationally Recognized Athlete visas. The news was first revealed by eSports manager Nick Allen in an interview with Gamespot.

The P-1A Visa allows players stay in the US for up to five years. As a result, international players can now join US teams, of which there are nine currently. The first player to benefit from this ruling will be Canadian player Danny “Shiphtur” Le who had been unable to compete this year in the US due to work permit complications. The ruling only applies to League of Legends at present, but it opens the door to other e-sports who can meet similar qualifications.

The threshold for recognition under a P-1A visa is that players must be able to make a living as professionals playing the game. A quick look at League of Legends’ top earners chart shows 25 players bringing in more than $50,000, with the top achievers topping $200,000 – more than enough for rent and ramen. Nearly $5.3 million has been paid out in total over 97 tournaments since League of Legends was released in October 2009, with each of these numbers rising steadily.

On October 4, Riot will host the League of Legends Season 3 World Championships. For non-gamers, this may seem like an amusing sideshow, but the venue alone should offer evidence to the contrary. The finals of this year’s event will take place at the Los Angeles’ Staples Center, an 18,000-plus person venue that plays home to the Los Angeles Lakers, Clippers, and Kings, as well as headlining world tours of musicians like Britney Spears, Bruce Springsteen, U2, and even Justin Beiber.

In an interview with gaming site Polygon, Riot Games E-sports VP Dustin Beck said, “Our viewership numbers are stronger than 80 or 90 percent of the sports covered on ESPN. In Shanghai [at Riot Games’ May, 2013 All-Star event] we had 18 million unique viewers. We are seeing growth over growth for every subsequent event that we do.” By comparison, the finals of last year’s League of Legends World Championship attracted 8.2 million unique online spectators.

Needless to say this is a big deal. Beck describes the USCIS ruling as a “watershed moment.” All hyperbole aside, while this decision won’t lead to a cure for cancer or an end to clean water problems around the world, it could very well lead to an explosion in e-sports, bringing about new league and sponsorship opportunities and generally elevating the industry in significance. Given the massive size and engagement level of the audience that League of Legends competitions command, the potential stardom of its champions is only beginning to become clear.

While hardcore gamers rejoice, there are plenty of constituencies still battling immigration regulations that will be less enthusiastic about the news. Among them are a group of US technology companies, startups, and investors who have been campaigning relentlessly for comprehensive immigration reform with the goal of attracting the best and brightest to build innovative companies in America. The US Senate passed a bill addressing this issue three weeks ago, which was widely praised within the technology community. But the bill faces tough opposition in the House of Representatives and is far from being signed into law.

E-sports may be new to the US, but it has been a major industry internationally for nearly a decade. As the concept becomes more well known stateside, expect advertisers to flock to get a piece of the pie. Other hits like World of Warcraft and Starcraft have attracted enormous global audiences for years, with the former generating more than $1 billion in annual revenue. One of the most appealing attributes of the broader hardcore gaming category is demographic concentration, namely among the highly coveted 18- to 35-year-old males audience. With less barriers to entry facing those who can participate at the sport’s highest levels, the stage is set for a stateside e-sports explosion.