Immigration law has recently come to the fore in esports, with the League of Legends ecosystem recently mired in immigration controversy in both the U.S. and Germany. This week, competitive Counter-Strike: Global Offensive is facing similar issues, as the all-Mongolian squad the MongolZ has been unable to secure the necessary visas to compete in the upcoming Qualifier for the Major in Columbus, Ohio. Team YP had the same problem, and will be without Dmitry "S0tF1k" Forostyanko and Dmitriy "Dima" Bandurka for the event.
CS:GO fans around the world are disappointed by this outcome, and the rush to blame everyone from MLG to the U.S. federal government has been as predictable as it is misinformed. At the end of the day, there really wasn't anything MLG or another third party could have done-this whole situation boiled down to the decisions of a couple misguided, all-too-powerful consular officers.
U.S. immigration law primer
Generally, a citizen of a foreign country who wishes to enter the U.S. must first obtain a visa. Some nonimmigrant visas, like the B-1, B-2 and ESTA, are just for tourism and business visitors, and do not allow for employment. Other nonimmigrant visas, like the P-1, allow for employment.
The P-1 visa was created to facilitate easier travel to the U.S. for "internationally recognized athletes." The athlete must be coming to the US temporarily for the purpose of competing or performing in a competition or event that requires an athlete of this caliber. It can include short trips, promotional appearances, an entire season or even a multi-year contract.
Applying for a P-1 visa is very different and much more time consuming than applying for the B-1, B-2 or ESTA. Typically, a U.S.-based team acts as a sponsoring organization and a detailed petition is prepared to show how the athlete or team meets the requirements. The petition is sent to a processing center in the US for adjudication, and a decision will be reached within 4-6 weeks of submission (this can be reduced to 15 days through "premium processing"... for an extra $1,225 fee, of course).
If the petition is approved, then the athlete schedules and attends an interview at a U.S. embassy or consulate. A P-1 visa is considered a "non-immigrant" visa, which requires proof that the applicant (a) is not an intending immigrant, (b) has an un-abandoned foreign residence, and (c) is coming to the U.S. temporarily. This is where things can go horribly wrong, and esports players are especially vulnerable.
Proving non-immigrant intent weighs factors including family ties, assets owned in the home country, marital status, and employment commitments. And while not every esports player is the same, they certainly trend younger, unmarried, and don't possess the type of assets or traditional career that consular officers look for when determining if a person is likely to return home.
Unprepared beneficiaries may not have sufficient documentation to prove their non-immigrant intent. Conversely, unduly aggressive or misguided embassy staff may ignore, mischaracterize or overly scrutinize the evidence presented by the beneficiary and unjustly deny an application. The U.S. Embassy in Mongolia's own website makes numerous assertions about fraud-it's clear the consular officials are actively looking for reasons to deny an application.
Columbus major situation
Contrary to the prevailing wisdom on reddit, this isn't about the U.S. needing a "cultural or diplomatic attitude change" or some failure on the part of MLG. The MongolZ and Team YP situation is relatively simple-they got screwed on the final step of the process (the interview stage with the U.S. Embassies in Mongolia and Russia).
MLG did everything they could, but to no avail.
"We started by going through our normal process, which has always worked in the past," said Adam Apicella, Senior Director of Events at the Activision-Blizzard Media Network. "We gave each petitioner a letter detailing the nature of the event, the level of competition, and inviting the player to compete. We spent tens of thousands of dollars booking tickets in advance so they could prove their intention to return. We also provided letters from the hotels showing the temporary nature of their stay."
This evidence proved sufficient for the vast majority of competitors to obtain visas. But the MongolZ, Team YP, and FlipSid3 Tactics all had players get denied on their first petitions.
MLG redoubled its efforts.
"We didn't give up," said Apicella. "We got a separate letter from Valve to add more legitimacy, and even had a US Congressman contact the respective embassies on the players' behalf."
The second time proved the charm for FlipSid3's Georgy "WorldEdit" Yaskin, whose petition was approved. Unfortunately, Team YP and the MongolZ were not so lucky. Their players' petitions were denied again.
The lesson here is that nothing is certain in immigration law. Identifying immigration issues early and careful planning are the best way to hedge against the uncertainty inherent in the current system. But sometimes, the ultimate result is out of your hands.
MLG has no power over the individual decision making process of the consular officers who acted as judge and jury in deciding whether to grant the MongolZ and Team YP players their visas.
This wasn't a case of poor planning. This is simply the perfect embodiment of a highly discretionary and inherently flawed system. Same evidence, different result.
Someday, perhaps, esports will rise to a level of prominence to obtain special consideration from the U.S. Federal Government, and consular officers will be trained in the unique nature of esports P-1 petitions. But in the meantime, this is the system we're stuck with.
So fasten your seat belts, esports fans. This isn't the first, and won't be the last time immigration law stands in the way of an otherwise great event.
Disclosure: Bryce Blum practices law at IME Law, where he provides legal counsel for multiple teams, individuals, and businesses in the esports scene. Additionally, immigration attorney Joe Adams of Joe Adams and Associates helped advise on this article.