If you’ve been following both the NA and EU LCS lately, you’ve probably noticed that the topic of work VISAs is a pretty big topic. The Western scene has seen an increasing move from ‘regional’ teams, teams who are gathered entirely from League’s home region, towards a more ‘international’ team scene, where foreign talent from Korea/Europe is imported to another region. With this, arguably, we’ve seen the talent-level of the LCS increase, but this also has led to many complications as far as VISAs go. Basically, given the ‘league’ format of the LCS, players must live near the city that hosts the LCS (Berlin for EU and Las Angeles for NA.) Unlike tournament circuits, this means that foreign players must apply for work VISAs to live in that area: which leads us to our current ‘crisis.’
We’ll start by discussing the NA situations. Everyone’s probably heard of Echo Fox by now, if for no other reason than its colourful and personality filled owner in Rick Fox. They also managed to nab arguably one of the most underused talents in the world: Froggen, who, since joining Elements never quite looked the same. But Echo Fox was dealt a heavy blow when they had to forfeit a match because they did not file the proper papers to field half their team: Froggen, from Denmark, Hard, from Canada, and Kfo, from Korea. They have managed to play in games by tapping on the shoulders of Challenger team, Ember, for subs.
While Echo Fox seems to have sorted themselves out, it cannot be said the same for those in Europe who have been hit hard by the recent VISA inquiry. The return of a legend in Diamondprox was brought to a swift end by local laws, as the ‘category’ of eSports players is still rather vague in Germany. To that end, Diamondprox, who was the starting jungler for a rebuilt Unicorns of Love, cannot play in the EU LCS, raising questions as to whether his non-EUship, being a Russian player, had anything to do with it. Sadly, it seems that the remnants of the great Gambit are slowly being dispersed again.
Diamond isn’t the only ex-Gambit player hit by the VISA issue, as his fellow in Edward, an Armenian, also is unable to play for his team, Roccat. Ryu of H2K was also found to be of invalid standing, where they subbed in a familiar face SELFIE, currently signed to Echo Fox as a sub, and seemed no worse for wear from it. While Roccat found themselves taking a wallop and leaving 0-2, UOL faired slightly better pulling a 1-1 record while H2K surprisingly went 2-0, one of which was against super team Vitality. Teams across the LCS will need to look long and hard at this issue going forward, as largely teams have had to scramble to find suitable replacements to their talent imports.
But where does this leave fans? Well it’s a hard and ambiguous debate right now really. Yes, to be seen as legitimate, it should go without saying that players and organizations follow local laws to a T, particularly given some of these teams have had a long tenure in the LCS, Echo Fox aside. Yet I don’t think any fan can sit and watch as both Edward and Diamondprox seem so… defeated by the blow to their careers. Sure, if these were less storied players, it might be a different story. Nothing against Ryu, but the aforementioned were definitely in the lime light (sadly) of this situation. This has to raise the counter question: would the scene be as up in arms if these weren’t such fan favorites? Surely biases exist, but it just doesn’t feel right to see some players lamented more than others stuck in the same situation.
Furthermore, there’s the big glaring question mark over Riot’s head. If the German government can’t even recognize your players properly, is it time to reconsider your location? Sure, Germany is quite central in Europe, but if its government is not forward-looking enough to sit down and iron out some laws over this issue, does it really deserve to be the host country of the EU LCS? Surely, a place like France or the U.K might be more progressive in this sense, or not at all. But the question is really being asked about the future of the EU LCS. While the creation of the C.I.S. region surely will help the fledgling (outside of Gambit,) Eastern European scene, is it really an answer to two players almost synonymous with the EU LCS?
But Riot also walks a double-edged sword here: eSports is still young, and it needs to be seen as a legitimate sport. That means following the laws, regardless of our opinions on them. It’s a harsh sentence to drop, but it’s also, sadly, a necessary one. Could you imagine a case like this in traditional sports? Of an imported talent flying in the face of local law? Wouldn’t be good. So Riot did need to come down hard on the players and organizations, not so much to punish them but to set an example going forward. Riot has increasingly taken the role of judge, jury and executioner, to the chagrin of some and the approval of others, laying down the heavy hand of fines to big teams like TSM and CLG (who practically became a meme of ‘better fine HotShotGG.’) This all might seem rather arbitrary at times, and sure the grey zone in some of these issues persists, but the fact that Riot is seeing itself as having a heavy influence in the leagues it’s responsible for shouldn’t come as a shock. What would the NFL be without some good ol’ fashioned fines?
One also has to wonder at the level that Riot is in communication with the German government over this. Surely the pains and costs associated with a move would be harsh, but if this is the view of your players by the local authorities, that they’re not ‘athletes,’ then maybe it’s time to look forward more. In the NA LCS, this issue is relatively small, as the USA government recognizes players as athletes, and thus applying for the proper work VISAs is only mildly a headache. The pressure is on not just Riot but also Germany to reconsider its archaic view or possibly lose its status as the heartbeat of the EU LCS. Teams shouldn’t be impacted by the politics of the locality they’re in any further than making sure they comply with local laws. Teams might very well face relegation threats over this issue, and to have that hang over not only the players but the organizations themselves and their trust/investment in the scene is troubling. Riot and Germany need to act swiftly to at least bring some level of discussion to the forefront, otherwise this might spell disaster for the EU LCS.