LOS ANGELES — International stars in sports such as baseball, hockey and basketball have long been afforded special immigration status to play on U.S. teams. Think David Beckham, the former Los Angeles Galaxy soccer player from Britain, or Los Angeles Dodgers rookie phenom Hyun-Jin Ryu, a pitcher from South Korea.
Now add Danny "Shiphtur" Le, of Edmonton, Canada, to the elite list.
Le, an online gamer, is one of the world's top players of League of Legends, a virtual capture-the-flag game in which two teams of fantasy characters compete for a glowing orb. Le is so deft at racing down the virtual field and opening up gaps for teammates that he recently became the first so-called eSports player to be granted a type of visa normally awarded to athletes featured daily on ESPN.
Like other stars on sports teams, Le needed the visa to live and practice with his Riverside squad. In the professional league, all five members of the team must be gathered together physically when they compete.
"It's kind of so big — actually kind of mind-blowing — that there's a demand for visas for League of Legends," said Le, 20.
With a generation of children having grown up playing video games, the decision by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services has been widely perceived as elevating America's newest professional sport to the same class as old-school stalwarts.
And in a worldwide competition in which the winning team can take home $1 million in prizes, the ability to sign the best players — whether from Canada or South Korea or Russia — was seen as a must-have for U.S. squads.
"The elite have great reflexes. They're fast and they're good," said Michael Pachter, a video game analyst with Wedbush Securities.
The professional competition grew out of the free computer game League of Legends designed by Santa Monica's Riot Games. It is probably the world's most popular online game.
Two teams of five players compete in an epic battle fought on Internet-connected computers. Using their computer mice and keyboards, players have to slash through opponents' characters and an ever-growing swarm of robots called minions on a quest to destroy their opponent's orb, known as the Nexus. Players pay real money for extra weapons and more powerful characters.
In the U.S. bracket of the championship series, eight teams compete against one another on Thursdays and Fridays at a West Los Angeles TV studio.
The games are broadcast online and draw more than 1.7 million unique viewers. A typical National Hockey League game on the NBC Sports Network last season drew a quarter of that audience.
Gaming industry analysts estimate that more than 32 million people worldwide play the game, about half of them in the United States. The rest come from Europe and Asia. By those calculations, one in every 20 Americans plays League of Legends. That dwarfs baseball, from Little League to Major League Baseball.
When Le of Canada initially tried to become the first international star on an American squad, U.S. immigration authorities turned him away at the U.S.-Canadian border.
International eSports players had sought visas in the past. They could come as business visitors for a single tournament and leave with prize money. But immigration rules bar such visitors from earning a salary and that resulted in Le's denial.
Riot, the game developer, turned to immigration attorney Jeptha Evans to fight for Le. He suggested that Le could play for the U.S. team under the P-1A visa program, which U.S. officials said is designed "to enrich the nation's cultural landscape" by welcoming "diverse talent" to perform in the United States.
Several thousand athletes in professional sports receive a P-1A visa each year. They include, for example, all Dodgers players who have foreign citizenship and no green card. A slightly fewer number of internationally recognized singers and entertainers receive the similar P-1B visa every year.
Evans and Riot told U.S. officials that the eSports league met government benchmarks for a major sports league because it had clear rules and at least six teams with combined revenues of more than $10 million.
Like many people hearing about League of Legends for the first time, immigration officials scratched their heads, Riot Vice President Dustin Beck said.
"We had to show this was a profession," he said. "We had to make a case that this is just like Major League Baseball or the National Hockey League."
Le was approved for the visa May 29. A handful of other eSports players, including citizens of Argentina and Armenia, have received P1-A visas since then.
Daniel Cosgrove, a U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services spokesman, declined to talk specifically about eSports' classification as a major sports league. But he said that a P-1A is "highly specific visa" designed for "internationally recognized athletes" and that the agency considers "each petition on a case-by-case basis."
Le is now living in a Riverside house with his four teammates and their coach. In between a morning gym workout and evening personal time, the team spends almost eight hours a day in front of computer screens practicing with various characters and weapons.
They sit side by side but use headsets to communicate. Practices involve "scrims," or scrimmages against other teams in the league. Sometimes one or two teammates will sharpen their skills by joining a random team composed of amateur players.
"The game's amazingly complex," Le said. "It helps to be mechanically sound individually, but the great teams are also good at strategy."
The League of Legends big event, the World Championship, will be held at Staples Center in October. About 10,000 fans are expected with tens of millions around the world watching online. In all, $2 million in prizes will be awarded.
Most eSports players make tens of thousands of dollars annually.
A few have total earnings in the low six figures, according to Esportsearnings.com. Many of them hope the salaries will continue to rise as more sponsors and advertisers take notice of eSports.
Data from the consulting firm Frank N. Magid Associates Inc. shows eSports in the U.S. are especially popular among Latinos and Asians, and about two in five players are men between the ages of 18 and 34. The demographics are certainly attractive to advertisers.
Analysts said it's clear that the eSports industry wants to broaden its audience beyond gamers to reach a wider market. Not everyone who watches baseball and football plays the sport, for example.
But Ninja Metrics gaming analyst Dmitri Williams, who is also a University of Southern California professor, said Riot faces one major challenge in being considered mainstream by more than just immigration authorities.
"Even though we all know better, you can't help but think that it's a silly kids' game, and those feelings don't go away quickly," Williams said.
Le plans to keep at League of Legends for at least five more years before returning to Grant MacEwan University in Edmonton to finish his bachelor's degree.
For now, he's dealing with Riverside's high temperatures and the sport's pressures.
"We're still trying to find out our way to play effectively," Le said. "Our team chemistry is slowly getting there."