One of the most successful StarCraft 2 players of all time is now officially recognized as an athlete by the United States government.
Choi "Polt" Seong Hun, a 25 year old South Korean who is the number three ranked player in the world according to Aligulac rankings, was just granted a P-1A visa, a document reserved for “internationally recognized athletes.”
Both players are represented by Cyber Solutions Agency, which put the majority of legwork into securing the visas. Both took about six months to procure. The CSA produced 500 pages of paperwork while Choi and Kim spent $5,000 on lawyers’ and immigration fees for each application.
Kim and Choi’s visas are symbolic of eSports' movement towards mainstream acceptance, even as they also demonstrate the serious roadblocks still facing the industry. In the comments section of every article covering Kim's visa, discussion focused largely on the semantic question of whether eSports players should be considered “athletes.”
Despite the controversy, this is a big win for both the players and the CSA. Kim and Choi see the time and money spent as an investment in their personal and professional futures. The CSA sees all of it as a good investment in their firm. Their marquee players are making global headlines with their moves—Choi was featured in mainstream outlets like NPR and the Wall Street Journal. That's the best advertising money can buy. And in an industry where most players lack representation, these kinds of unprecedented moves can give a firm significant clout.
“CSA benefits not only from the landmark nature of our achievement in securing [Kim's] visa, but also from the demonstration of consistency in accomplishing it a second time with Choi,” said Andrew Tomlinson, the CSA's owner.
“Now our agency has a working relationship with [U.S.] immigration and their procedures, making us attractive to other foreign talent who would also seek P-1A visa status and managerial representation.”
The American dream
Choi's actually been living in the United States for a full year. He arrived in Dec. 2012 to study english under a F-1 student visa, which required him to go to school 16 hours per week at the University of Texas Austin.
Surprisingly, Choi's arrival in the U.S. had little to do with StarCraft. Early in 2012, he competed in the Lone Star Clash, a major tournament held in Austin, Texas. Choi visited local schools and was impressed with the diversity and culture. He went back home to Korea with a dream of studying English in the States.
Choi’s original plan was to move to the U.S. for a year, learn English, and retire from StarCraft competitions. Then Blizzard, the game’s publisher, announced that the U.S. would host the American leg of the World Championship Series, the biggest international tournament in StarCraft. Choi’s career was given a lucky extension.
In that time, he’s only become better. In 2013, Choi easily ranked as one of eSports' most successful stars, taking in three gold medals and $50,000 in prizes. Remarkably, he wasn’t even a true full-time player at the time. English classes and studying drastically cut into his StarCraft practice regimen.
“It was painful to do both taking classes 16 hours a week and practice every day,” Choi said. “Since I couldn’t sleep enough time, I sometimes got a headache and even couldn’t play well at tournaments.”
Choi competing against fellow-Korean star Ko "HyuN" Seok Hyun
Choi’s decision to live and compete in the U.S. for another year may earn him a few sideways glances. After all, North America offers a much weaker competitive environment compared to South Korea or even Europe.
But his success in 2013 offers an answer to those doubts. Choi completed the vaunted “triple crown” in June, a big feat requiring a player to win major tournaments in South Korea, Europe, and North America.
“The triple crown has special meaning,” Choi told the Daily Dot. “It's considered easier to win tournaments in America and Europe. However, this also means I have a championship in Korea.”
Choi boasting three crowns. Illustration by Nicolas Chaussois.
Before leaving Seoul, Choi had already secured a spot in Code S of the Global StarCraft League, the top league in the Korean StarCraft pyramid.
Choi is the defending two-time champion of the American leg of the World Championship Series, having taken home $40,000 for his efforts. He’s earned a total of $259,602 in prize money throughout his career. However, despite that big success in 2013, Choi landed at a disappointing 5th place at the Global Championships in December.
Now, Choi has something to prove. Prize totals at the World Championship Series have gone up and the competition is better than ever. Choi will be able to fully dedicate himself to StarCraft 2.
The P-1A visa allows players to stay and compete in the United States for five years, but Choi is unsure of what will happen after 2014.
“There are many things to consider,” he said. “I have to do military service and go back to school soon.”
After all, school was the inspiration for his American trip.
“For now, I’m just thinking to live in the US for one year,” he concluded, “and will figure out later for the next year.”
Photo via Waytao Shing