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With Athlete Visas for Gamers, Have Microsoft and Apple Inc Become the Sports Fields of the Future?


Professional "League of Legends" gamers can be awarded visas to work in the United States as pro athletes.

Watch out Nike (NYSE:NKE) and Under Armour (NYSE:UA), headsets, keyboards, and processors just joined the ranks of sporting equipment, thanks to a decision by the United States visa bureau.

How so?

This past weekend, the US visa bureau weighed the ability for League of Legends, or LoL, players to make a living by playing the game, and granted professional LoL players access to visas normally reserved for professional athletes in more traditional sports.

Players that compete to earn a living will now be able to gain entry into the US to partake in live LoL tournaments, which have grown to include a massive audience in recent years.

What Is League of Legends?

In the Riot Games production, players control one of over 110 "Champions" in an effort to destroy opposing players' Nexus, a home base of sorts. Like many multiplayer games, LoL pits multiple players, each controlling their own Champion, against one another. Depending on the selected battleground, a match may feature a team of three or five players on each side.

While the competitions occur online, major tournaments are often held in central locations. This allows for hardcore fans to view the competition in-person, seeing the gameplay broadcast onto large screens, much the way games are presented at traditional sports events. Having the best of the best players face off is central to the eSports movement, the effort to turn high-level gaming into a professional, spectator-friendly sport.

In an eSports format, announcers discuss the gameplay and viewers can listen in to conversations between teammates. For serious players, these competitive matches provide both entertainment and a learning opportunity.

With $8 million in prizes handed out thus far in Season 3 of the Championship Series, and $1 million set to be delivered to the winner of the Season 3 World Championship, the US government decided that the game series had reached a level of competition that warranted the same legal consideration as that applied to other sports.

For popular multiplayer games like Activision's (NASDAQ:ATVI) Call of Duty, viewership of eSports tournaments, held in arenas in various cities, is respectable. The League of Legends Championship Series, however, has proven to be the darling of the movement. (Soaring popularity in South Korea has helped boost its numbers.)

Taking the live stream approach to reach an international viewership online, LoL's All-Star Game in May drew 18 million viewers on its final day. Compare that to the audience for Game 6 of the NHL Stanley Cup finals this June: that event attracted only 8.16 million people.

"This is a watershed moment," Riots VP of eSports Dustin Beck told Polygon, speaking of the visa grants. "It validates eSports as a sport. Now we have the same designation as the NBA or NHL or other professional sports leagues."

So who stands to benefit from this new precedent?

The ability for LoL players to be designated pro athletes in order to work and stay in the US doesn't mean that video games will be stealing Sunday slots from the NFL. It does, however, put eSports in the spotlight as it continues to grow, something that could be critical for advertising revenue.

Logitech (NASDAQ:LOGI), Plantronics (NYSE:PLT), Azubu, and Alienware are already recognized as sponsors of the LoL Championship Series. These tech-based sponsorships make sense, but there is room to expand.

In the same way Anheuser-Busch (NYSE:BUD), Coca-Cola (NASDAQ:COKE), and Pepsi (NASDAQ:PEP) tied themselves to professional sports, these companies could next tie themselves to eSports. ESports offers energy drink producers like Monster (NASDAQ:MNST) a very target-worthy market in gamers, while Microsoft (NASDAQ:MSFT) and Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL) are looking at a new battlefield to wage war on. The free-to-play game runs on Windows and Apple's OS X, and just as there's no basketball without a court, there's no LoL without the right operating system.

Greater viewership of eSports incentivizes advertisers. More advertisers could, in turn, mean more tournaments, bigger prizes, and higher production value, all of which would help bring in even more viewers.

The games may be played out in virtual, Windows, and OS X supported arenas, but the Season 3 World Championship will be held in the Staples (NASDAQ:SPLS) Center, home to the Los Angeles Kings, Lakers, and Clippers, on October 4.
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