Science, Tech & Environment

Why foreign video gamers are considered America's new pro athletes

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Credit: courtesy of Intel Extreme Masters

Kim Dong Hwan is a South Korean professional StarCraft2 gamer who goes by 'viOLet' in the gaming community. In 2012, he won first place at the Intel Extreme Masters gaming competition in Sao Paulo, Brazil.

There are some big games coming up this year, from the Olympics and the Super Bowl to the World Cup. In the US, it's not unusual for some heavyweight, foreign sports stars to receive special visas to work and live here.

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Now, add video gamers to the mix.

For the first time, foreign gamers are being issued P-1 visas, normally reserved for pro athletes. Why? Video gaming — and the eSports industry in general — is a growing business.

Stadiums like Los Angeles' Staples Center, where the Lakers play, are selling out as thousands of fans line up to watch gamers compete live on stage in soundproof glass booths. Millions more watch online.

But many gaming rockstars are foreigners — mostly from South Korea, where gaming is huge. And they’ve lobbied the United States for years to be recognized as professional athletes.

Now, immigration officials are saying yes.

Choi Seong Hun, better known by his StarCraft2 game name "Polt," is very pleased to have his P-1 work visa in hand. He started playing video games in South Korea when he was around 6 or 7.

Choi is 25 now and a master at StarCraft2, an intricate, military sci-fi game. And with a visa, he can live in Atlanta and train with other players.

And for those who say eSports isn’t a sport, he says, just watch. "In like 10 or 20 years, many people will recognize it as a sport," says Choi. 

It took his parents in South Korea a while to accept his gaming. "Of course, my parents hated that because I used to play games too much," he says. "[It's] very difficult to get good grades, but I was doing well. So my parents couldn't touch me."

And Choi started winning big gaming tournaments around the world, including live StarCraft2 matches in the US.

But Choi isn’t in Atlanta by himself. He lives with another StarCraft2 player, Kim Dong Hwan. Nickname: viOLet.

He’s also Korean. Growing up, he’d play video games in secret while his parents slept. Once, he snuck out and headed to Seoul for a televised gaming competition there. He left his parents a note saying, “Turn on the television Sunday night. I’ll be on.” And he won the game.

“Then my parents said, 'I’m so proud of you,'" he said. "I was really happy about that time. And after that happened, my parents do support me.” 

At home Kim and Choi practice — clocking 300 APM, or actions per minute — on their consoles. Speed is key, along with game strategy.

I asked them about a typical day. It’s practice before and after lunch, then the gym, dinner, and then practice starts again until midnight. "It’s a long day,” says Kim. 

Also in the house is their 23-year-old manager, Andrew Tomlinson. He’s the one who persuaded immigration officials to give his players visas.

“I think that if a normal person tried to pick up the game and play the game that these guys are playing, they would immediately find out how difficult it is," says Tomlinson. "And the live events is where the bigger money is at. And those take place anywhere from Anaheim, to South Korea and Seoul, to Brazil, to Cologne, Germany [and] China."

And what about the fan base in the United States for eSports? It doesn’t match gaming's popularity in Korea or China, but it’s growing. ­

At a dinner recently, I ran into Alex Haskell, a lawyer in San Francisco and a serious gaming fan.

“So I guess I played it and then I started watching it on YouTube," says Haskell. And then Haskell noticed the skill and speed of gamers from South Korea and "I kinda got sucked in.”

But his roommate, Anand Parikh, isn’t a convert.

“He’s tried to get me into it and I kinda understand what’s going on," says Parikh. "But it’s weird when he calls it an eSport. I’m not going to lie. I’m a very analog sports guy, I guess, sports where people actually do things with other human beings."

Opinions aside, the reality is cyber-sports are growing and independent players like Choi and Kim can earn tens of thousands of dollars in a single match.

But Kim, a StarCraft2 champion, might have to take a break eventually.

“I have to go [to the] army because I’m a Korean," said Kim. And then, he added, it would be time to "look for a girl and marry. Normal life.”

For now though, it’s about practice, keeping fit, and enjoying living in the US — legally — as a recognized pro, high-tech athlete.

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