As far as the United States government is concerned, eSports and traditional sports are equal.
Five months after American immigration officials first cleared professional video game players to apply for the same visas as traditional athletes, the first StarCraft 2 pro has finally obtained a P-1A visa. Kim “Violet” Dong Hwan, a 23-year-old South Korean professional StarCraft player, followed trailblazing League of Legends star Danny Le to become an internationally recognized athlete on Dec. 9.
Kim said he teared up over the phone when he was finally assured that he’d be allowed to live, compete, and earn a salary in the United States for at least the next five years. He called it a “life-changing” event. Kim's ultimate goal is to become an American citizen.
“It was do or die for [Kim],” said Andrew Tomlinson, whose Cyber Solutions Agency (CSA) represents Kim. “He either got the visa or entered the Korean military.”
The CSA published a triumphant press release just minutes ago.
Kim's professional gaming career has been in limbo since he took a triumphant silver medal at the North American StarLeague in December 2012. He was denied student visas to study English three times in 2013, causing him to forfeit three times in the World Championship Series, a $1.6 million competition that he repeatedly committed to, despite being unsure that he could actually compete.
Following the competitions, rumors swirled that Kim had overstayed previous visas. Tomlinson shot down those allegations. “We never broke any rules,” he said. “He wouldn’t have been granted the visa if he broke those rules. Those are serious violations.”
Despite winning nearly $100,000 in prizes and signing a contract with Azubu worth $50,000 in 2012, Kim faced slim pickings in tournaments in 2013.
Kim and his management say they received explicit warnings in November 2012 from American customs officials: If Kim tried to enter the country without the proper documents, he risked getting placed on the no-fly list and being permanently barred from the U.S. That would have ended his career.
Tomlinson, who has managed Kim since 2011 and lived with him in College Station, Texas, during 2012, was the main force behind the push to get Kim the visa. The process, which began in June 2013 and concluded only days ago, cost more than $5,000 in lawyers’ fees and immigration applications.
In August, League of Legends paved the way for international eSports competitors when Canadian Danny Le was awarded a P-1A visa. Still, the process to extend the policy to StarCraft 2 players was lengthy and difficult. CSA had to go to great pains to demonstrate that StarCraft is a legitimate sport with a real, long-term future.
In addition to a 10-page letter explaining eSports to American immigration officials, Tomlinson reached out to key figures from around the industry to write letters of support for Kim.
Riot Games, the publisher of League of Legends, actively lobbied American legislators to allow their eSports athletes to gain P-1A visas. Blizzard, StarCraft 2's publisher, elected for a slightly different strategy. Jacqueline Geller, Blizzard’s eSports network coordinator, pushed the issue within the company. Chief Operating Officer Paul Sams wrote a support letter and worked extensively with CSA to provide a realistic forecast of StarCraft's next five years as an eSport.
Others who wrote support letters included Russell Pfister, CEO of North American StarLeague, Marcus “DjWheat” Graham, senior manager of partnerships at video game streaming site Twitch, and Ryan “Fwiz” Wyatt, head of eSports for video game entertainment company Machinima.
Genna Bain, former owner of the Axiom eSports team and wife of famous YouTube personality John “TotalBiscuit” Bain, also played a particularly important role in Kim’s application process. Having dealt with an arduous four-year immigration process, which ultimately ended with Bain obtaining a visa and moving to the U.S., the family was uniquely positioned to give advice. Genna Bain helped guide CSA toward Kim’s P-1A visa while avoiding the many pitfalls her husband had met.
Photo via Cyber Solutions Agency
Not everyone CSA approached assisted in the process. Major League Gaming, the largest independent eSports league in North America, declined, saying they don’t endorse visa work that’s not directly related to their own events. (MLG no longer runs StarCraft 2 and Kim is not attending an MLG event in the near future.)
Kim has competed in MLG events in the past, however, even winning $10,000 in a New York City tournament in May 2012. That year, MLG had helped Kim obtain a 90-day visa. When MLG ran a Dota 2 tournament in November 2013, the company worked for months to endorse similar 90-day visas for over 35 players competing at their own events.
“I appreciate their business, and their point of view,” Tomlinson later told me, speaking about MLG’s refusal to help Kim. “However, MLG's support would have been invaluable to a player that has been to many of their events in the past and hopefully in the future. Kim's career was on the line, and in his most important time of need they were not there to support him.”
CBS Interactive's vice president of eSports, Kim Rom, also declined to endorse him. Rom, who is Danish, felt uncomfortable getting involved when he himself wasn't an American citizen.
In addition to rounding up support within the industry, CSA had to put in hours of additional work. In letters to immigration officials, the agency had to provide an overview of Kim's four-year-long professional career, including translated Korean interviews and virtually every article ever written about him. The application added up to more than 500 pages in total.
The officials required proof that Kim was internationally recognized in the form of press materials—but forbade the use of video as evidence. That meant clips of Kim's Major League Gaming events, full of screaming fans and extensive, on-camera interviews, couldn't be used to illustrate his worldwide popularity.
With the long, arduous visa process finally over, Kim can finally get to the pressing issue at hand: saving his career.
Kim’s life as a pro-gamer began with tragedy and there haven’t been many boring moments since.
In 2009, while beginning his career as a Warcraft 3 professional player, Kim’s house caught fire shortly after he sat down to play a tournament. As a young Orc prospect, he had won several games that night when the power went out and he finally opened the door to see the disaster that was consuming his home.
“I was so shocked,” he said. “I didn’t know what to do.”
The fire had spread to entirely cover the ceiling, beneath which Kim’s father was lying on the floor. Composing himself, Kim called the fire department and got his father out of the house. Running back in, he fought the fire with an extinguisher, but failed to save his home.
Kim was ultimately hospitalized after inhaling dangerous quantities of smoke
“It was definitely much scarier than the movies,” he told an interviewer in 2011. “I’ve had bad dreams ever since. But I like to think about the good part of that memory: My father was safe.”
Kim’s StarCraft 2 career was marked by a record-breaking, speedy ascent to the very top of the Korean leagues in 2011, followed by inconsistent results and a failure to find a permanent team to call home. In 2012, he finally began to find major success online and around the world. He gained a major fanbase just in time to run into immigration troubles in 2013.
After seven months, the 500 pages submitted as part of Kim’s application got the job done. He was approved on Dec. 9 to remain in the country working for at least the next five years.
Kim will arrive in the United States before the end of the year.
Photo via Cyber Solutions Agency