Move over, mathletes — America’s newest spectator sport is video gaming. The US Citizenship and Immigration Services will now grant competitive gamers work visas, the kind usually reserved for professional athletes. Riot Games, the California-based firm that makes the red-hot game “League of Legends,” successfully lobbied for the change ahead of its annual world championship in Los Angeles in October. While some might laugh off video gaming as the 21st century’s all-American sport — comfy chair, big-screen TV, cold beer, no sweat — recognizing top gamers for their economic value is a winning play for the United States.
So-called e-sports have been a major industry internationally for nearly a decade, but the United States has yet to cash in. Riot executives have said the company’s May 2013 All-Star weekend in Shanghai drew 18 million viewers worldwide, or more than 80 percent of sports broadcasts shown on ESPN. Some 8.1 million people tuned in to watch last season’s “League of Legends” championship, including 1.1 million online for the final, which nearly exceeded Major League Soccer’s highest-viewing audience ever, for David Beckham’s US debut.
A crowd of 20,000-plus fans is expected to fill the Staples Center in Los Angeles for this year’s showdown, and the winning team will take home a cool $1 million from a prize pot of $8 million. Considering the potential stardom for elite players, such as China’s Alex “Lilballz” Sung, the United States will surely benefit from making it easier to attract them to American arenas. Just don’t tell the Scrabble circuit.