Are Video Games a Sport Under Immigration Law?

Whether we consider playing a video game a sport in its common meaning doesn’t determine whether e-gaming is considered a sport for immigration purposes.

Are Video Games a Sport Under Immigration Law?

Professional athletes are allowed to come to the United States using the P-1A visa, nominally reserved for internationally recognized athletes. While these athletes have typically been baseball players, soccer players, and other traditional athletic competitors, in recent years the P-1A category has been expanded to include professional competitors in activities other than those commonly referred to as sports.

In 2013, United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) began issuing P-1A visas to professional video gamers.[1] According to their decision, professional competitors in “e-sports” meet the same qualifications as professional baseball players and other athletes for admittance to the U.S.

To obtain a P-1A visa, the applicant must be

  • Coming to the U.S. to participate in a competition
  • Internationally recognized with a high level of achievement
  • Able to show a degree of skill and recognition beyond that which is ordinarily achieved making his or her achievement renowned, leading, or well known internationally.[2]

While none of these qualifications explicitly require athleticism, the term used by USCIS to describe these visa holders is “Internationally Recognized Athlete”. By some accounts, this makes video games a sport under American immigration law.

Are video games sports?

Merriam-Webster defines a sport as “a contest or game in which people do certain physical activities according to a specific set of rules and compete against each other” and other dictionaries use similar definitions including physical exertion or activity.[3]

While the other words in these definitions certainly describe video games, the matter of physical activity or exertion makes the word’s applicability to e-games questionable.

But today, video gamers are offered university scholarships to compete. They practice, train with other gamers to improve their skills and strategies, and some even consult with sports psychologists.[4] All of this combined with the fact that some professional gamers make hundreds of thousands of dollars competing in front of thousands of fans lends credibility to the idea that video games should be considered sports.

But whether we consider playing a video game a sport in common parlance doesn’t determine whether e-gaming is considered a sport for immigration purposes.

Who qualifies for P visas?

Generally, P visas are available for athletes, entertainers, and artists.[5] The P-1 visa is specifically for internationally recognized athletes and entertainers. P-2 visas are intended for artists or entertainers performing in reciprocal exchange programs while P-3 visas are for artists and entertainers performing in culturally unique programs. There are also P-4 visas available for the family members of applicants under the other three categories.

The P-1A visa is for individual athletes and the P-1B visa is for entertainers such as musicians, dancers, and circus performers.

For an individual applicant to obtain a P-1A visa, he or she must meet the requirements discussed above by showing the following.

  1. He or she is coming to the United States to participate in a scheduled competition he or she is qualified for
  2. He or she is internationally recognized for a high level of achievement
  3. He or she can demonstrate skill and recognition which is renowned, leading, or well known in more than one country

These requirements have been met by many famous athletes such as Pedro Martinez and David Beckham, but lesser-known professional athletes are also granted these visas as long as they can demonstrate some kind of international ranking or recognition of their extraordinary athletic abilities. Professional athletes in less popular but equally competitive sports such as bowling, darts, and bull riding are also eligible for P-1A visas.

The 2013 decision to issue P-1A visas to video game players was not the first time non-athletic competitors have obtained this visa. Professional poker players have also been granted P-1A visas.[6]

Does this make e-gaming a sport under immigration law?

American immigration law does not specifically define sports to include or exclude video games, but professional gamers from foreign countries are treated the same way under the law as professional athletes. An avid gamer who considers his hobby a sport could argue that this makes e-gaming a sport under immigration law.

On the other hand, although those admitted to the U.S. with P-1A visas are officially described as internationally recognized athletes, none of the qualifications for the visa include reference to sports, athletic activity, or physical activity. The P-1A visa could simply be described as one for international competitors, without reference to the primary eligibility of athletes.

Regardless of whether we consider video games sports and how the visa requirements and descriptions are written, professional gamers are able to enter the U.S. with P-1A visas, those created for internationally recognized athletes.

If we consider the P-1A category exclusively reserved for athletes, then some professional gamers are considered athletes under American immigration law. But the law does not expressly reserve these visas for athletes which leaves the question of whether video games are a sport up for debate.

The U.S. Supreme Court has issued rulings on whether a tomato is a fruit or vegetable[7] and whether playing golf can include riding in a golf cart[8], but has not yet spoken to whether video games are sports.

Until they do so, those who ask this question may be left with the unsatisfying answers of lawyers who begin their responses with “Well, it depends.”


[1] http://www.npr.org/sections/alltechconsidered/2013/12/15/250793493/u-s-recognizes-a-south-korean-starcraft-player-as-an-athlete

[2] http://www.uscis.gov/working-united-states/temporary-workers/p-1a-internationally-recognized-athlete

[3] http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/sport

[4] http://www.cnn.com/interactive/2015/07/us/varsity-gamers-american-story/

[5] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/P_visa

[6] http://www.uscis.gov/sites/default/files/err/D9%20-%20Artists,%20Athletes,%20and%20Entertainers%20(P-1,%20P-2,%20and%20P-3)/Decisions_Issued_in_2006/MAR082006_04D9101.pdf

[7] Nix v. Hedden, 149 U.S. 304 (1893).

[8] PGA Tour, Inc. v. Martin, 532 U.S. 661 (2001).

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