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Is it time for eSports gamers to be recognised as athletes? 10/06/2016
Basim Usmani
• Visa issues are keeping many of the world’s best gamers from competing at top events – because eSports is not considered a ‘legitimate sport’ by US immigration

The competitive gaming community is eagerly anticipating a White House response to a petition asking eSports to be formally recognized as athletics. The petition specifically asked the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services to recognize competitors as athletes in order for them to be eligible for P-1 visas, allowing them to compete for money at major tournaments. The petition surpassed the 100,000 signature threshold in under one month, warranting an official comment from the White House.

It was filed in response to the deportation of Sweden’s William “Leffen” Hjelte, who is currently ranked as the third best Super Smash Bros Melee player in the world. Visa issues have kept Hjelte from major tournaments since last October.

On 4 May, Team Solomid announced that a visa had been approved for Leffen until July, to allow him to participate at the Evolution Championship Series, the most prestigious fighting game tournament in the USA.
According to a government statement that has since gone viral via a video of Hjelte reading it, he was originally not approved for a P-1 visa because “Smash Bros Melee is not considered a legitimate sport.”

The statement has sparked many debates on social media. The petition amassed the 100,000 signatures required to guarantee a response by being shared by many different eSports communities, and retweeted by musicians like Lupe Fiasco and celebrities like Dylan Sprouse.

Esports are in a transitionary period, where immigration officials probably don’t know much about them or the fact that major cable networks like TBS and ESPN broadcast matches of competitive Starcraft and Counterstrike.

Many competitive games are team-based, but receiving a P-1 visa has kept complete teams from participating.

Riot Games has been successful at building out League of Legends into a recognizable sport (with an official championship series called LCS), and it has the distinction of facilitating the very first P-1 visa to an eSports competitor in 2013.

There are conversations in the Super Smash Bros community as to whether Nintendo needs to play a more active part in growing Smash into what the USCIS would recognize as a sport.

“We would need a Nintendo-endorsed league (content would have to be driven from them). Getting this is difficult,” says Tafo, a blogger for Melee it On Me – who maintain the most authentic player rankings for various Smash games. As of now, Nintendo is providing logistical support for various Smash tournaments throughout the year. It’s a good first step, but an assortment of unconnected annual tournaments are not the same thing as a formalized Nintendo Smash league with a set season leading up to grand finals.

Attempts to get an official comment from Nintendo on the matter have proved fruitless. Nintendo told the Guardian: “We have nothing to announce on this topic.”

A Reddit post from four months ago details a conversation between a Smash community member and Nintendo Treehouse employee @JCDotFace, hinting at larger role to be played by Nintendo in 2016. The exchange has since been verified on Twitter by both JC and D1, the Smash community program manager for Twitch. There is a general sense that some announcements could be forthcoming at Evo 2016, or maybe with the rumored NX release of Smash. Much of this is based on anecdotal information.

The fighting game community, or FGC, which began in the arcade scene of the early 1990s, is going through a cultural transition itself. According to Kotaku, Evo itself was borne out of an argument in 1995 about who was the top player, which resulted on an online beef being settled at an arcade on Broadway in New York City. Now it takes place in a massive Las Vegas convention center, though the FGC community has played a major part in deciding which games get included at the tournament and which do not.

Smash Bros was included briefly in 2007’s line up at Evo, and then stopped in 2009, and then only started again in 2013 when the Super Smash Bros Melee community managed to win a coveted slot on Evo’s mainstage after winning a fundraising competition for breast cancer research. Just a few years ago, it was controversial to accept Smash as a fighting game by the FGC (who emerged from the arcade era of more traditional 2D fighters). It was included into the Evo roster at a time when fanbases for games had to prove something to the FGC in order to be considered.

This year’s Evo, in contrast will be including Pokken, a new Pokemon fighting game that has only been available for two months. Nintendo has been partnering up with various tournament organizers around the USA, including those at EVO to help provide logistical support, though the details of their support remain unclear. What is somewhat clearer is that there’s a likelihood Nintendo saw an opportunity to promote their latest IP. The role that Smashers need from Nintendo is a different one than just publicizing new games to them.

In 2013, 32 million people tuned into the League of Legends third season World Championship series, more than either the viewers for the MLB World Series or average viewers per match of the NCAA Final Four that year.

While there have been scant studies about the popularity of eSports versus traditional televised sporting events among young people, there’s no reason to believe eSports won’t grow in viewership. Super Smash Bros Melee came out in 2001, but the largest Super Smash Bros Melee tournament ever is taking place this July at Evo 2016. Last year, the Evo stream for Super Smash Bros Melee broke the 200,000 viewer mark, setting a new record for concurrent viewers at a fighting game event.

Getting a response to the White House petition will help draw attention to the plight of eSports competitors, but ultimately it will take more than awareness to transform the communities that have grown around competitive video games, like Super Smash Bros Melee, into true sports.
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