Next time your kids start whining about how they wish they could play video games for a living, you may have to take them seriously.
Games may still considered little more than high-tech toys, but like their analogue precedents in the realm of sports, competitive games are fast giving rise to their own professional class of coaches, and commentators, as well as players who earn salaries even while training for competition and other perks connected to the "athlete" designation. This week, "Kim “viOLet” Dong Hwan became the first 'StarCraft 2' pro to obtain a P-1A visa, which will allow him to live and earn a salary in the United States as a "professional athlete" for the next five years.
Like many top "StarCraft 2" players, Kim, 23, hails from South Korea, which has posed problems for him throughout his career whenever it came to traveling to the U.S. and participating in high-level tournaments. Many eSports athletes make part of their living from their team salaries, product sponsorships, and broadcasting gameplay sessions on services like YouTube and Twitch.tv. But if they can't compete in regular tournaments, they lose out on potential prize money — which can run into the millions for top winners in games like "StarCraft II" and "League of Legends" — and are unable to defend their position among the most highly-ranked players in the field.
Before Kim received his pro athlete visa, the young "StarCraft II" champ was denied entry into the country three times in 2013 when applying for student visas to study English, according to Cyber Solutions Agency, which represents him. Immigration services rarely, if ever, accepted "coming to the U.S. to play video games for a living" as a legitimate reason to cross the border. This kept Kim out of top tournaments like the World Championship Series that culminated in a finals event hosted at "StarCraft" creator Blizzard's annual BlizzCon event in Anaheim, Calif., last month with a $1.6 million prize for the first-place winner.
Attitudes about the legitimacy of eSports took a turn for the better earlier this year, however, when "League of Legends" creator Riot Games successfully lobbied U.S. immigration officials to start issuing professional players P-1 visas. In August, Danny 'Shiphtur' Le, a Canadian "League" player, became the first eSport athlete from that game to successfully apply for the same visa.
Yannick LeJacq is a contributing writer for NBC News who has also covered technology and games for Kill Screen, The Wall Street Journal and The Atlantic. You can follow him on Twitter at @YannickLeJacq and reach him by email at: Yannick.LeJacq@nbcuni.com.