Are League of Legends Players Athletes? Why the Debate Doesn’t Matter

As I sat down to play League of Legends this evening I did so with no illusions. I knew I was going to lose some games, I knew I was going to have my patience tested and I knew that in no way does playing League of Legends make me an athlete, regardless of what a recent ruling by the US government might suggest.

In case you are one of the few gamers not discussing this recent turn of events, US Immigration Services recently declared that the League Championship Series (LCS) is a professional sports league. As a result, players who play in the LCS are now, for legal purposes, entering the US as athletes.

Gamers of all stripes, LoL fans or not, were all suitably interested in this ruling, and it became a huge topic of discussion and debate. A great deal of that debate, to my amusement, was focused around whether or not gamers (specifically LoL players) should be considered to be the same kind of athletes as the more traditional kinds like baseball players, football players etc.

Cases were presented that considered the amount of training done, the mental focus required and many of the other great attributes possessed by gamers. It was all pretty compelling stuff, but I wasn’t buying it. No, not because I was one of the many people who are happy to point out how non-physical gaming is, or how it’s an embarrassment to see fat nerds compare themselves to Michael Jordon (comments like this made me laugh). I just wasn’t convinced that this particular debate was at all relevant to the whole situation.

When a company like Riot Games decides to invest its time and money to try and get a government to do something it is because the company has a problem that needs to be solved. That problem is often related to business operations/profits; rarely is it about taking some kind of philosophical stand. So if Riot isn’t all about making gamers into athletes just for fun, what is this problem that I claim Riot is trying to solve? Well, as some of you know, the LoL World Championships have been hosted in the US each year since the game became big, roughly three years ago. This has been great for Riot, but there has been trouble getting some of the players from other nations into the country.

In order for an event like the World Championships to be successful it requires that Riot be able to ensure that it can get the top level talent from around the world into the US for the tournament. As Jonathan Rothwell, a researcher at the Brookings Institution, puts it, “Just think of how lame the US Open would be if Roger Federer or Rafael Nadal weren’t allowed to play.” Thankfully, Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer are allowed to enter the US by applying for visas reserved for athletes.

If Nadal, Federer and now LoL players are able to get the same athletic visas then what similarities do they have with each other? Many people have been debating this to death, but they are not working for US Immigration Services. What this particular branch of the US government is most concerned with examining is whether or not these “athletes” will be able to earn enough money to support themselves, playing their sport, while they are in the US. Nadal and Federer can, but can a professional League of Legends player? Riot might have had a tough time comparing the physical feats of its players to those being accomplished by Nadal or Federer, but when it comes to talking about money and making a living, Riot probably presented the government with a heck of a case.

For starters, the last major international LoL competition, the first ever LoL All-Star Game, drew 18 million unique viewers for the final day of competition alone. The next major international competition, the World Championships, will be held in the Staples Center in Los Angeles. On top of what is sure to be a huge number of online viewers (generating revenue through ad views) the Staples Center itself is likely to sell out its 18 000 seats. This doesn’t even take into account the revenue generated from the something like 32 million people who play LoL each month. When Riot Games is able to give $1 million to the winner of the upcoming World Championships, I think it is safe to say that Riot is not hurting for cash, and neither are the LCS players.

On top of the various sponsors who pay the LCS players to represent their brands, write guides and sign autographs, the manager of Team MRN has stated that each player receives $12 500 for playing in a LCS “split” (season) which lasts roughly half the year. More money is given to the manager of each team to help pay for the player’s accommodations, food, travel expenses etc. For Team MRN, this was an additional $25 000.

This manager has also indicated that Riot provides additional money when needed by the teams to take care of virtually any necessary costs that might arise over the course of the split. Even if these numbers are not precisely accurate, or the same for all of the teams, it is clear that Riot is committed to providing its LCS players with enough money to live comfortably while they are participating in the LCS – or at least US Immigration Services seems to think so.

So let’s go back to the “whole physical athlete or not” debate at hand and why it doesn’t matter. I think it’s not relevant because this whole ruling is focused around immigration law. I think it’s not relevant because, in the realm of immigration law, the major requirement for being considered an “athlete” is being able to make a living playing your sport. Can you make a living playing in the LCS? Yes, because it is already more profitable and attracts more viewers than many well established professional sports.

That was what mattered to US Immigration Services. The idea that players could make a living playing LoL, not whether or not the players in the LCS could throw touchdown passes like Tom Brady. In the debate over whether or not the LCS should be a professional sports league, and its players should be considered athletes, the only relevant arguments were fiscal.

There will still be a few people who are tempted to argue that because the US government says LoL players are athletes anyone who plays LoL is an athlete as well. For those of you who are tempted to pursue this line of argumentation just remember that the players who are technically considered to be “athletes” are the players who can make a living playing the game. I don’t know about most of you but I am certainly not one of the probably 50 something players in North America who can actually make a living playing LoL. In truth, this game has done nothing but cost me money. It would be fun to be considered an athlete, but I would not even fit the technical definition used by the US government which, again, has nothing to do with any kind of physical criteria.

What I think that no one can argue against is that this is truly a momentous achievement for eSports and gaming in general. It is very relevant that a major government has allowed people to enter its borders with the intent to make money playing video games. This is incredible, and something that we could only have dreamed about a decade ago. Let’s not waste our time debating whether or not those gamers are the same as other athletes. I think we all know that there are strong differences and similarities between people who play all kinds of games.

In the end, the only official similarity these athletes will share, for the time being, is that they are making a living playing their sport. What matters to me more than any official similarity is the idea that we now have a whole new group of people who can better chase their dreams, wherever that might lead them.




4 thoughts on “Are League of Legends Players Athletes? Why the Debate Doesn’t Matter

  1. Excellent post! Enjoyed greatly. I hadn’t thought about the issue of supporting oneself when visiting another country as an athlete (as a significant consideration for US and other country’s immigration laws). Does make you think that perhaps the visa category should be something like “pro sports player” or “professional player” or similar rather than athlete, as there is a growing number of “athletes” that stretch the typical meaning of the word – darts, bowling, and pool/billiards to name a few. Thanks as always.

    • Great point! It’s another example of how the rise of eSports is going to really challenge a lot of our traditional definitions of things. I fully agree that LoL / eSports is probably deserving of its own unique classification, but I also understand that governments tend to move about as fast as glaciers, if they act at all. If this keeps the players moving then I am happy, for now, and hopefully it will lead to a whole new category of visa that might even give more average gamers a chance to travel. I know this is probably still a long way off, if it happens at all, but I have hope.

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