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UK immigration options for competitive esports players

01 November 2023

The esports industry is rapidly evolving. As a popular host of international competitive events, the UK needs to continue to attract and retain competitive esports players. An esports visa may be in the pipeline, but for now, esports players should be aware of UK’s available immigration routes.

In this article we look at the immigration options for competitive esports players to come to the UK.

Esports is also known as competitive gaming. ‘Esports’ and ‘sports’ are generic terms. In the same way sports players play basketball or football rather than ‘sports’, esports players play Call of Duty or FIFA rather than ‘esports’.

Demand exists for an esports visa

The popularity of esports has rocketed worldwide. This summer, London hosted some of the biggest esports competitions including the ‘Call of Duty World Series of Warzone Global Final’ and the ‘League of Legends Mid-Season Invitational’.

Esports is accelerating faster than law and policy, which means there are inconsistencies across jurisdictions as to how esports are regulated, how they are managed and how they are organised. This in turn makes it difficult for esports players to navigate how they can play in competitions. One way the UK can seek to attract and retain talent in esports is to improve the player’s experience through the introduction of an esports visa.

Several countries have already introduced specific esports visas such as the USA, South Korea, Germany and the Netherlands.

What are the current immigration options available for esports players?

Competitive esports players travelling to the UK for a short trip or a competition may be eligible to apply for two types of short-term visitor visa.

Standard visitor

This route allows a person to visit the UK for up to six months to engage in a defined range of permitted activities.

Esports players may carry out the permitted creative activities allowed for ‘entertainers’, including:

  • Giving performances individually or as part of a group;
  • Taking part in competitions or auditions;
  • Making personal appearances or engage in promotional activities; and
  • Taking part in a cultural event or festival authorised by the Home Office (note however that these are currently almost exclusively music events).

A standard visitor is restricted from working in the UK outside the scope of permitted activities.

Receiving payment from a UK source is also restricted for standard visitors, however the following is allowed:

  • Payment of prize money;
  • Payment for performances at an authorised cultural event or festival; and
  • Reimbursement of reasonable expenses for travel and subsistence.

Nationalities of certain countries (known as ‘visa nationals’) must apply for a visa in advance of travelling to the UK. Others (known as ‘non-visa nationals’) can ask for permission to enter on arrival at the UK border. Visitors passing through the passport eGates must still comply with the visitor visa requirements.

Permitted Paid Engagement visitor

A Permitted Paid Engagement (‘PPE’) visitor visa allows a person aged 18 or over to:

  • Visit the UK for up to one month; and
  • Perform paid work relating to their expertise or profession.

An esports player applying to undertake a permitted paid engagement must be able to demonstrate that they are a full-time esports player. It cannot be a hobby or a ‘side-hustle’.

The engagement must be prearranged. A PPE visitor must have an invitation letter issued by a UK-based arts or entertainment organisation, agent or broadcaster. If applying for a PPE visitor visa in advance, the letter must be submitted with the application. If applying for permission to enter as a PPE visitor at the border, the invitation letter must be presented to a UK Border Force officer. A PPE visitor cannot use an eGate to enter the UK.

Additional requirements apply when entering for a permitted paid engagement as a professional sportsperson, but these do not currently apply to esports players.

While the above offer viable options, neither cater to esports players or esports teams who want to establish themselves in the UK long-term.

The International Sportsperson route is not open for esports players

The UK has an international sportsperson (ISP) visa, which offers a route for elite sportspersons and qualified sports coaches to come to the UK.

The ISP route is not currently a feasible immigration route for esports players for the following reasons:

  • Under the ISP route, an applicant is normally required to obtain an endorsement from a Home Office-approved Sports Governing Body that confirms they are ‘elite, internationally established and will make a significant contribution to the development of their sport at the highest level in the UK. There is currently no recognised governing body for esports in the UK.
  • Esports as an industry does not run in the same way as other sports such as football or rugby. Gaming companies often own the IP in the games they create and they often host their own competitions. Whilst it would make sense for esports to be incorporated under the ISP route, the nature of esports itself might prove to be an obstacle for this movement.
  • Esports is not recognised as a sport in the UK. There are many reasons on both sides for esports to be and not to be recognised as a sport that are outside of the scope of this article.

Horizon scanning: what might the UK do in the future?

More and more countries are introducing esports visas. It is not currently clear if the UK will follow suit

Aside from the possibility of amending the scope of the ISP route, the UK may consider adapting other immigration routes, such as the Creative Worker route. This is a temporary work route and it does not offer long-term or settlement opportunities.

It could be that we see the creation of a separate immigration route for esports players.

As the UK looks to keep pace with the rapidly growing esports industry, it seems inevitable that immigration policy for esports players will need to be elaborated. Just what form that will take remains to be seen.

If you have queries about immigration and esports, please get in touch with a member of our Immigration Team.

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