This is the promise and the process of eFight Pass; a nonprofit Nhan founded in 2019 that gives pro gaming hopefuls from disadvantaged countries the chance to secure travel documentation to compete at the highest level at tournaments abroad. Nhan, 29, is based in Los Angeles, where she works in sales and marketing for a wheel manufacturer. But she’s also been a fixture in the Street Fighter community for years, and plays the game professionally with Team Frost. As she made her way to tournaments around the world, she kept encountering great players who were held back from competing in higher profile esports events due to the tricky paperwork and financial burden of the visa bureaucracy.
Today, she's a one woman army who's resolved to make that gauntlet a little more navigable for the players she represents. Oftentimes she finds herself sitting by her phone, heart in her throat, as she waits for one of her clients to tell her whether or not their application was accepted.
“We’ve all been there where we really want something and it’s a little bit out of our hands if we’re going to get it,” Nhan said. “That’s why I’m so scared to fail them. I know it’s not my fault, but if they get rejected, they’re heartbroken.”
In general, the U.S. visa application requires specific information about the length of a visitor’s trip, the reason for their stay, their family ties and employment history. It also includes questions like, “Have you ever ordered, incited, committed, assisted, or otherwise participated in genocide?” After that, a visa hopeful uploads a headshot and schedules an appointment with the American consulate at which time a clerk will take their fingerprints and interview them about the contents of their documents. If they are approved, the player will be cleared to enter the country and compete.
Thus far, Nhan has assisted players in Mexico, Brazil, Cameroon and Pakistan. Broadly speaking, she sticks to the same plan for everyone she sponsors. The eFight program is completely free, and once a player is accepted, Nhan jumps on a screen-share Skype call with them so they can work through the Visa paperwork together. She will walk them through the sections requesting information on their education, job history, family ties and legal records. Nhan will tell them what to expect during the interview, and she also pays the fee required to process the visa completely out of her own pocket.
For Sebastián Alejandro Aguilera, a Mexican Street Fighter V player who competes under the moniker “El Tigre,” the cost was $160, or about 3,000 Pesos. As Nhan notes, that price is untenable for many Latin American esports athletes.
“We have good players in Mexico, but they work informal jobs, not the kind of jobs that will give them the visa,” explains Aguilera. “They live in the streets. They’re really good, but they don’t have the opportunities.”
El Tigre is now one of eFight’s success stories. Later this year, he’ll be attending Combo Breaker 2020 in Illinois. Arslan Ash was another beneficiary. The Pakistani twenty-something came out of nowhere to claim back-to-back Evo titles in Tekken 7. That wouldn’t have happened if Nhan wasn’t there to assist with the red tape.
“The visa forms, even not being difficult to fill out, can be tricky and she knew all about it," said Raphael “Zenith” Henrique, a Brazilian Street Fighter player who also enlisted Nhan’s help. "Most of all, I felt really safe with her help and very sure that everything was right. It can be really hard if you’re not used to this kind of documentation. Having someone with previous knowledge is really crucial.”
Esports is still new ground for U.S. border enforcement. Nhan recalled working with Housseini Sali, a player from Cameroon, who arrived at the visa office with everything, even his Evo invitation letter, in hand. When he arrived, he was met with scrutiny from border agents. “They said, ‘Why would they want you? Why would they invite you?’” said Nhan, recalling the conversation she had with Sali after the fact. “He got nervous, and they shut him down.”
Traditional sports athletes aren’t scrutinized in nearly the same way when they cross borders, Henrique believes, which is a reality that he thinks is discouraging to the global esports scene.
“I feel that people at visa offices don’t have a clue about esports and the need for the players to travel to compete,” he said. “They have to know more about that in order to understand people’s needs and make the whole process easier and more fluid.”
Nhan said she has witnessed some positive signs. The United States allows some esports players the ability to earn P1 visas — the equivalent of the visas offered to internationally recognized athletes and teams — though Nhan said that most of her clients don’t qualify for that pedigree. Instead, she tries to set players up with normal business visas, which is an operation that’s getting smoother all the time.
“My approval rate is 85 to 90 percent,” she said. “As [esports] continues to grow, it will get easier. People won’t question the legitimacy as much.”
As of the beginning of 2020, Nhan has only worked with people within the fighting game community, and one of her goals for eFight Pass is to broaden its scope to other esports titles. She’s currently exploring new ways to generate funds for the nonprofit — last year she threw a charity tournament, and partnered with fighting game legend Justin Wong to fly players in the eFight program to Las Vegas for Evo. Currently though, the organization remains a one-person enterprise, and she’s still paying every visa fee out of her own personal bank account. This can be overwhelming. Nhan was recently forced to turn down an international Call of Duty pro who emailed her, simply because she isn’t familiar enough with that particular corner of the esports industry. She speculates that eventually, eFight will need to grow to survive.
“It scares me," she said. "I’d love to help people everywhere, and I hope that it gets to that point, and right now it’s still a pretty heavy workload for me. ... I want to have a system established, but I don’t know who will volunteer their time to do this.”