Over the past few years, immigration law has played a largely positive role in the growth of the esports industry. Many esports players have been able to work in the U.S. by getting P-1A visas, which are issued to "Internationally Recognized Athletes." That's right-Søren "Bjergsen" Bjerg is in the U.S. on the same type of visa as Kristaps Porzingis. The success rate on these visas has actually been quite high in League of Legends, thanks in large part to significant efforts by Riot Games. In contrast to the various esports immigration successes to date, the ecosystem is currently mired in immigration legal controversy.
Last Saturday, Echo Fox forfeited a game for the first time NA LCS history because it was unable to field a full lineup due to visa issues. Other teams faced similar roster problems, though they were able to play their games with substitutes.
On the other side of the pond, EU teams have started to deal with what appear to be more permanent issues. Unicorns of Love will be without its Russian jungler Danil "Diamondprox" Reshetnikov for the foreseeable future. ROCCAT is in a similar position regarding their Armenian support Edward "Edward" Abgaryan, and H2K won't be able to start Yoo "Ryu" Sang-ook for the time being.
These teams are working every possible angle to get these players work authorization, but thus far have come up empty: "Despite working closely with Riot, a visa specialized agency, German authorities and the German [E]mbassy, we have not been able to get a long time permit," said the Unicorn's of Love in their official statement on Diamondprox's status.
This upheaval stems back to Riot's recent decision to conduct a behind-the-scenes audit of work eligibility for all players competing in the LCS. When it took a look behind the curtain, Riot found a wide array of players that didn't currently possess the proper immigration status to be able to work either in the U.S. or in Germany (where the North American and European leagues are based). Riot has since strictly enforced its longstanding work eligibility requirements, and roster chaos has followed.
I'm of two minds when it comes to Riot's actions in this instance. On the one hand, I'm all for the substantive change - they're enforcing some relatively clear laws and limiting their own potential liability in the process. If Riot reached an internal resolution to shift the way in which it addresses visa issues and communicated that to all of the team owners during the offseason, I would've applauded that decision. Ensuring that every player is authorized to work in the country where they are competing resolves potential issues before they arise, enhances the level of professionalism of the LCS, and creates a level playing field for everyone involved.
Unfortunately, that isn't what happened. Riot made a significant shift in its enforcement of a longstanding rule after the season had already begun. This both impacted the results of matches and changed the circumstances on which teams made their roster decisions during the offseason, at a time when the teams have very little flexibility to adapt.
The LCS rules have required players to submit proof of work eligibility since at least the beginning of 2014, and yet this rule has largely gone unenforced; instead of affirmatively requiring proof of work eligibility, as the rules state, Riot has relied on "high level spot checks of visa paperwork." This system has not created a culture of strict compliance.
It's widely known by industry insiders that certain players competed entire splits on tourist visas. Think about every time a player had to travel home to "sort out" visa issues in the middle of a split - that is not something that has to happen when a player is already in the country on a valid work visa. I can come up with numerous instances of this occurring in 2014, though, in fairness to Riot, no 2015 examples come to mind. Whether behavior improved or teams simply got better at concealing their actions is hard to say, but in either case Riot likely had sufficient knowledge of prior wrongdoing to be able to address the issue between seasons, not as a gut check reaction to recent requests from some team owners.
It must be said that teams are not blameless in this situation-by in large, they knew the immigration laws, and rather than making plans that accounted for visa requirements they operated on the assumption that the rules would not be strictly enforced. But to place all the blame on the teams without understanding the context in which their decisions were based is overly simplistic.
Regardless of how and when the policy took effect, Riot's new stance is clear: it will strictly enforce work eligibility requirements. Teams must adjust their behavior as a result. For NA teams, roster decisions will need to be made even faster within the already limited offseason window. Even an expedited P-1A visa takes a minimum of three weeks to process, not to mention the time it takes to put together the petition materials and the potential for governmental processing delays. This timeline will severely limit the ability of a last minute entry from a team such as Echo Fox, at least to the extent when they're interested in using foreign players.
EU teams will face similar planning and timing issues, with the added layer of German immigration laws to tackle. I don't purport to be an expert on German immigration law, but the fact that Armenian and Russian players are having trouble getting work authorization is particularly telling - for non-EU/EEA citizens, competing in the EU LCS will be complicated by much higher legal barriers.
The situation is not hopeless. Just this past summer, Jake "Xmithie" Puchero was denied entry into multiple EU countries in order to be able to compete on behalf of Counter Logic Gaming at the 2015 World Championships, but was ultimately allowed to play thanks to the combined efforts of various advisors and influencers, including the European Commission and members of the Philippine Government.
It will take this type of effort to get the proper German authorities to recognize esports players as professional athletes or as deserving of some other specialized visa. I have no doubt Riot and the teams are doing everything in their power to ensure that Diamondprox and Edward are permitted to play. But this issue is far more important than the status of two individual players-it's about the future of the EU LCS itself. For now, we'll just have to stay tuned to see if those efforts pay dividends.
And in the meantime, the other esports ecosystems should pay attention. These are the types of challenges that arise as esports continue to push toward mainstream emersion. Ultimately, esports will benefit from addressing them proactively, rather than waiting for a governmental entity to come knocking.
Disclosure: Bryce Blum provides legal counsel for multiple teams in the esports scene, including Renegades, which are part of this article.