Earlier this month, professional gamer Nikita “SKillous” Gurevich secured the Netherlands’ first-ever esports athlete visa, allowing him to compete for Team Liquid, a prominent Dutch esports organization. The news is the latest example of a world government altering its policies to accommodate the growing — albeit beleaguered — esports industry.
When Gurevich, a top pro “StarCraft II” player from Russia, traveled to Katowice, Poland, for a tournament in late February, he had no idea that his home country would be invading Ukraine in only a few days. But once the war broke out, he knew he could no longer return to Russia or play under the country’s flag in good conscience. By March 2022, he had moved to the Netherlands, where Team Liquid had offered to house Russian and Ukrainian players displaced by the conflict.
“I really like the Netherlands, and the ultimate goal would probably be to stay here,” Gurevich told Digiday. “But I don’t really know how possible it will be.”
Gurevich’s successful visa application is part of a wave of policy changes signaling governments’ acknowledgment of the rise of esports. For instance, the government of North Carolina opened a $5 million esports grant fund in November 2021. Meanwhile, French president Emmanuel Macron announced that Paris will host a “Counter-Strike” major in Paris this year. And the EU Parliament recently passed a resolution to support and fund gaming and esports.
Governments’ interest in esports is encouraging, but despite this groundswell of policy-level support, not all countries are equally enthusiastic about the space. The Indian government, for example, has banned games such as “Free Fire” and “Battlegrounds Mobile.” And while the U.K’s shadow culture minister Alex Davies-Jones has spoken up in support of the country’s esports industry, the current Conservative government there has never acknowledged the presence of esports in the country.
“Look at France, with President Macron supporting esports and wanting to bring the ‘CS:GO’ major there, inviting all the French esports industry personalities to an event — it seems like he has his own little passion for it,” said Dom Sacco, who interviewed Davies-Jones for his website Esports News UK. “We have Alex Sobel and a few others, but we need more MPs in the UK that have a good understanding of games and the potential of esports to start supporting this stuff properly.”
In Gurevich’s case, Team Liquid originated as a “StarCraft” organization, and with the high-ranked free agent Gurevich living at its headquarters, it made natural sense for the org to sign him on. But he required a visa to work for the company — and the Netherlands had only ever issued visas to athletes in traditional sports, never esports.
“They usually give these to football players coming into play for Ajax or something, with these big salaries and all this marketing and all that,” said Team Liquid senior esports manager Brittany Lattanzio, who helped steer Gurevich through the visa application process. “‘StarCraft’ is also one of the smaller esports, so it’s a lot harder to show them — I had lots of calls where I was explaining, like, ‘here’s the structure of ‘StarCraft;’ he’s like a tennis player, he goes to circuit events,” Lattanzio said.
Team Liquid’s advocacy, as well as Gurevich’s extenuating circumstances as a displaced Russian citizen, did the trick. In early January, the Netherlands approved Gurevich’s visa, and on Jan. 6, he was announced as the newest member of Team Liquid’s “StarCraft II” roster.
“He’s spoken up publicly against that invasion, so he literally can’t go back,” said Ryan Morrison, a leading esports lawyer and CEO of talent agency Evolved. “And I think the fact that he was out of the country and in the Netherlands for esports as a profession, to work and win and compete, is a really compelling argument, where many others probably would have failed on that application.”