There's a joke in esports that the final boss anyone faces before competing in a tournament isn't another player, but passport control. Even before the Trump administration's naked xenophobia added an extra layer of difficulty to entering the United States, there's a dismal history of great esports competitors being denied at the border.
Less common, though, is on-air talent running afoul of passport control. Yet that's exactly what happened to Henrik "AdmiralBulldog" Ahnberg, a popular Dota 2 streamer and ex-pro who, until Monday night was slated to be an analyst at The International, which begins today.
Bulldog laid out his version of the story in a long statement on Twitter. It sounds like a bureaucratic nightmare. The sticking point appears to have been Ahnberg's B1/B2 visa, which allows for business and tourism, but not gainful employment. When Bulldog explained that he was in the United States to commentate a video game tournament, he was denied entry and told to return to Europe immediately.
For a Dota 2 personality, it's hard to imagine a greater disappointment. In addition to forfeited talent fees and emergency plane tickets, being turned away means that Bulldog won't be able to take part in one of the few events that brings the Dota 2 world together.
"We've been looking forward so much to this, so just having the highlight of the year turn into one of your worst life experiences just sucks," he said.
This episode has reminded everyone of how fragile an event The International may actually be in light of US immigration policies. Many are pointing the finger at Valve—why didn't the company do more for Ahnberg, before, during, or after his troubles? Will the company compensate him for lost wages and unexpected expenses? And, above all, why does the keep happening in Dota 2? Not one day after Bulldog was turned away, Team Empire announced that a player's passport was being held indefinitely by the American Embassy in Moscow, and that he would be replaced by a stand-in.
After seven years, you might think that Valve should have solved the yearly visa roulette. But the truth is that much of esports operates in a legal gray area, because immigration laws move much more slowly than esports does, and there's only so much a publisher can do. Players often compete on a tourist visa, especially for one-off tournaments like The International, and they also increasingly have athletic visas open to them as well.
But on-air talent have their own complicated situation, as they are usually one-off contractors. What's more, to a customs agent who may or may not know anything about esports, saying "I'm here to commentate a video game tournament" sounds a lot more like work than "I'm here to play in a video game tournament."
This time, that distinction was enough to scuttle the plans of one of Dota 2's biggest names. The fact that Bulldog was previously a professional player and would have travelled to The International before on the same visa he has now is probably not coincidence. But between this incident and Team Empire losing a member of their lineup, it's a reminder of how vulnerable esports can be to the capriciousness of the US immigration system.