Over the summer, the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services denied a P-1A visa — the one for internationally recognized athletes — to William Hjelte, a Swedish national better known in Super Smash Bros. Melee circles as Leffen, A 117,677-signature petition did not sway the White House from intervening in a decision made by USCIS, which told Leffen he had to apply for the more onerous work visa.
Whoever answered the mail the day Leffen filed didn’t consider Smash a legitimate sport, even though USCIS had previously extended this courtesy to League of Legends players. So the question remains: Are esports competitors legitimate athletes?
Yes, I very strongly believe so. Then again, I’m the proud dad of one such athlete, Tri-State rookie A Pocket Friend, who just participated in his first competition, Super Smash Con’s Wii U tourney. I witnessed him train, saw him compete, observed the camaraderie of rivals, experienced the exaltation and disappointment of competition and, more than anything, heard the roar of crowds. USCIS doesn’t need to convince me that esports are for real; it also has to convince the 2,000-or-so non-competing fans at the venue and the untold number of streaming media viewers.
The convention was replete with corporate sponsors (Geico, but not Nintendo?!), play-by-play commentators with ties and blazers, all the accoutrements of professional athletics. One source for this post is an article on the Esports Betting Report and, if you want any further evidence that Smash is a pro sport: People bet on it!
But if we’re to go just by dictionary of “athlete” (and I hate this rhetorical crutch), there seem to be four elements: 1) training and 2) natural ability at an activity that requires 3) skill and 4) strength. Granted, anyone strong enough to pick up a controller is strong enough to play Smash, but the same could be said of anyone strong enough to pick up a club or turn a steering wheel. If golf and Nascar are sports, then how isn’t Smash?
Esports, like golf and Nascar as well as other sports, do require a great deal of skill on two levels: the fine-motor dexterity necessary to operate the controller, and the strategy behind selecting characters, combos, maps and all other elements within the gamer’s discretion. Some of these skills are innate and others come from practice, competition, practice, viewing, practice, getting advice from more experienced players, practice, coaching and practice. How many times can you press a button in one second? If your answer is less than six, then you won’t make it out of pools.
According to Nolo.com, these are the criteria USCIS uses to determine who’s a P-1A eligible athlete (pick any two):
- proof of the applicant’s or team’s previous significant participation with a major U.S. sports leagueproof of participation in an international competition with a national team
- proof of previous significant participation with a U.S. college in intercollegiate competition
- a written statement from an official of a major U.S. sports league or the governing body of the sport, explaining exactly how the person or team is internationally recognized
- a written statement from the sports media or a recognized expert regarding the person’s or team’s international recognition
- evidence that the person or team is internationally ranked, or
- proof that the person or team has received a significant honor or award in the sport.
Any ranked esports athlete can lay claim to each of the last three.
Super Smash Con was an eye-opening event for me, as it introduced me to a world that my son has so far experienced without me. It’s a great world. There’s fair play, good sportsmanship and all the best in us that competition brings out.
America needs to recognize this. One reason why the United States is the preeminent power in the world today (this doesn’t set well with my personal politics but is nonetheless true) is that we bankrupted the Soviet Union by throwing more money into Space-Age defense technology than the Reds could ever beg, borrow or plunder. They thought the Cold War was a chess match, but Ronald Reagan recognized it for what it was: a video game.
But that was 30 years ago. Today, we have a generation whose entire adult lives have been spent in wartime. Not to take anything away from our courageous frontline fighters but we are beginning to see their role replaced at least in part by screen-scanning button pushers sitting in ergonomically designed chairs in windowless buildings. Drone warfare is becoming an increasing part of our national security infrastructure, and it would be defense malpractice to do anything to discourage our youth from becoming world-beaters in that skill set.
Let’s welcome gamers from all over the world. If we can prove we can beat them at Smash, they’ll know better than to come at us with anything.