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Inside the Race to Monetize Esports Apparel

Professional gaming has taken the world by storm over the past couple of years. Colleges are offering scholarships to aspiring esports stars, and dedicated esports stadiums are popping up all over the world. The recent Fortnite World Cup awarded $30 million USD in total prize money, and both the Olympics and ESPN have now sanctioned esports. According to Newzoo’s 2019 Global Esports Market ReportYouTube and Twitch audiences for esports were larger than the viewership of HBONetflix and ESPN combined in 2018. In short, esports are beginning to look and feel a lot like a traditional sports — and with that comes big sponsorship money pouring in.

Everyone from automaker Nissan to rapper Offset wants a piece of the esports pie, but it’s sportswear brands that stand to make the greatest profit and, subsequently, are making the biggest waves. Companies like adidas and Nike (NYSE:NKE +0.79%) have been quietly beginning to work alongside various esports teams, but adidas Originals made headlines when it signed a partnership with professional Fortnite player Tyler Blevins, better known as Ninja, marking the brand’s first endorsement deal with an individual esports player. “We are exploring what we might have to offer gamers to enhance game performance, or even possibly bring them closer to the gameplay itself,” adidas Originals said in a statement to HYPEBEAST.

Thanks in part to free streaming platforms like Twitch, which brings in 15 million daily viewers alone, esports stars like Ninja have managed to stand out among millions of players based on personality and appearance. After garnering an audience of around 14.6 million followers on Twitch, Ninja recently signed a deal with Microsoft, promising to exclusively stream his gameplay on Twitch’s competitor platform Mixer, where he amassed over 1.5 million subscribers and two million follows in just two weeks. Earlier this year, Fortnite creator Epic Games announced that its platform has more than 250 million registered accounts — that’s two-thirds the size of the US population. “In my mind [esports are] no different than any other sport or craft. You gotta put the time in to it if you love it and want to truly be one of the best,” Ninja tells HYPEBEAST.

On social media, Ninja commands an Instagram following of around 14.7 million individuals and growing, surpassing famous NBA players of the same age like Tristan Thompson by millions. “What I’ve found is that esports fans are just as passionate about their teams as traditional sports fans,” says designer Maxwell Osbourne of streetwear label Public School. “It’s amazing to see how they look up to their favorite players the same way NBA fans idolize LeBron James or Steph Curry.”

Esports do differ from traditional sports in at least one key way, however. Anyone with access to a computer and the internet can play, making it easier for those outside of the professional industry to understand and invest in the movement. “We’re seeing the smartest, most forward-thinking investors and organizations in sports lean into the movement, says Blake Lawrence, CEO of athlete marketing platform opendorse. “With their support, the ceiling is pretty high.

Among the list of esports admirers outside of the industry is rapper Offset, who’s known to play games like Call of Duty and NBA 2K to unwind outside of the public eye. Last month, the Atlanta rapper even claimed a stake in the industry by announcing his personal investment in popular esports team FaZe Clan, a monetary move he made because he believes in the players themselves. “The actual players, they’re like rock stars,” he says. “They’ve got great followings, they influence kids, and that’s what I do. It was just organic. These guys are cool.” In addition to Offset, Drake, Sean Combs and even Michael Jordan joined the list of many celebrities who invested in esports last year.

In addition to relatability, esports stars garner a desirable audience made up of 79% millennials — a demographic brands are eager to get their hands on. “For any company trying to reach the Gen Z and millennial-minded audience, streaming and esports is an enormous opportunity,” says Robert Cross, director, media and activation of Nissan North America, who also confirmed partnerships with Faze Clan and Call of Duty team OpTic Gaming earlier this year. “It’s just a massive audience of the hardest to reach demographic of young men, and they’re spending hours immersed in gaming,” echoes K-Swiss President Barney Waters. “The viewership of these big tournaments is bigger than the NBA Finals, and look at the time, money and energy that sneaker brands are spending there.”

Another draw for big brands looking to invest in esports is the potential to land the next big collaborator. “While certain market analysts would say YEEZYs have had little impact on adidas’ bottom line, it’s obvious the hype created by Kanye‘s involvement has stretched well beyond the sneaker, impacting the adidas’ brand perception and helping sales across the board,” says Lawrence. “I think Ninja [partnering with adidas Originals] could have a similar impact with this generation of esports fans.”

Along the same lines as sneaker releases like with YEEZYs, esports teams have begun experimenting with streetwear-esque product drops. Fortnite and Call of Duty team FaZe Clan offers its fans frequent merchandise drops that sell out almost instantly. The team recently hosted a pop-up at Stadium Goods NYC, which FaZe Clan Creative Director Erik Marino reports attracted hundreds of fans lining up days before the event and thousands flooding the space the day of. “NYPD had to shut down the event, but only after agreeing to extend a bit — as long as they could get pics with our pros to show their kids,” recalls Marino. “I’ve never seen lines like this in streetwear.” New York Excelsior had a similar experience when hosting its first pop-up shop, which released multiple collaborations between the professional Overwatch team and brands like UNDEFEATED, Nike, ChampionLevi’s and New Era.

The demand for esports related merchandise is clearly alive and well, however brands are still discovering what it is esports fans and athletes are actually looking for. Most would imagine esports to be a sedentary and immobile activity, but it turns out players at all levels are seeking a healthy mix of comfort, style and performance apparel and gear. “Everybody loves to look good, but we also want to be comfortable and able to get into the game,” says Ninja. “Esports fans are hungry for more streetwear apparel that looks great, but also serves a functional need for their daily lifestyle as gamers,” echoes Osbourne.

Brands like Public School and esports organization Andbox are leading the charge when it comes to performance apparel for esports players. The two brands recently collaborated on a collection of performance windbreakers, fleeces, lounge pants, jerseys and T-shirts, featuring design details that can enhance a player’s game. “The hoodies from our first Andbox collection have nylon patches on the back of the sleeves to decrease drag and friction when someone is moving a computer mouse across the table,” explains Osbourne. “Features like that are essential for this community.”

K-Swiss also tested out performance gear for esports players with its One Tap Esports Shoe designed in collaboration with multi-game esports team Immortals. For the iconic sportswear brand, the decision to not only invest in but to create product within the esports space stemmed from equal parts brand alignment strategy and pure interest. Waters says that beyond jumping on the chance to have the “first-mover advantage” in the emerging field, he has a vested interest, “in anything progressive, as a counter-weight to K-Swiss’ perception as a heritage brand,” noting that because sportswear brands are always looking for performance-inspired product design, he’d “rather be the first brand looking at esports than the twelfth brand looking at basketball.”

Performance gear fills one void in the esports apparel realm, but Co-Founder of Culture Group Michael Patent and his team noticed an even larger gap when it comes to overall esports team identity. Football players have kits, basketball players have jerseys, but esports players were lacking a way to communicate team identity to each other and to fans. As a result of this realization, Culture Group drove a partnership between Riot Games and Nike China to create a cultural identity for League of Legends players through lifestyle apparel.

Patent sees the ongoing need for esports team identity as an open invitation for someone within the space to create a new brand that will dominate, similar to to the beginnings of today’s heritage sportswear brands. “Take brands like Billabong and Vans for example, which emanated from skate and surf, he explains. “We will see a global apparel brand emerge from an esports specific organization.”

“Esports teams and athletes have suffered from a lack of brand identity and cultural resonance,” he continues. “If you look back into the ‘80s and ‘90s at iconic brands and campaigns like ‘Bo Knows’ in ’89, the launch of the Jordan Brand in ’84, or the impact of Team USA’s basketball jersey in 1992, you see the role that brands have played in driving a cultural conversation. The same will happen in esports.”

As for the future of sportswear and esports’ relationship, experts predict it will only continue to expand. “This is all early adoption still; I feel the market will continue to grow and the best of the best will rise to the top,” says Marino. But in order to find success as a brand entering the esports space, Ninja notes that, “the challenge will always be finding individuals that really fit the spirit of your brand,” and that brands will really need to “focus their time and energy on folks who can truly build and engage a community.”

Public School and Andbox’s collection marked one of the first crossovers between luxury streetwear and esports apparel, and Marino notes that he doesn’t see higher-end designers shying away from the industry anytime soon. “It’s not just heritage sportswear brands [like Nike or K-Swiss] that have an interest in collaborating with the esports space,” he says. “More independent designers and higher-end streetwear brands are also reaching out to FaZe Clan.” The team has previously worked on a project with Siberia Hills, and Marino has confirmed with us a FaZe Clan x Warren Lotas project dropping this fall, as well as a collaboration with Kappa on the way. “It will only be a matter of time until we see luxury brands enter esports,” echoes Patent.

Just like any company in the apparel space, though, Marino wants to drive home that “there will be teams, organizations and players that excel in building their brands, and there will be those that don’t.” He continues to detail what factors play into the success of a brand in a new space, stating that, “the success of any particular esports team, organization or player in relation to apparel is still dependent on organic growth in building a fan base and brand strategy.” From a player’s perspective, Ninja adds that he hopes that as brands enter the space, they will do so “with gamers, instead of making a weak attempt at ‘targeting’ the community.”

Authenticity will be key to capturing the hearts and wallets of the gaming community because as Ninja notes, “gaming is a massive community full of passionate people both at the competitive and hobbyist levels, but too often they don’t get to see folks like us represented in the mainstream culture.” The community needs an authentic, inclusive voice in the apparel space, and the esports star is hopeful that his collaboration with adidas Originals will be a step in the right direction. As Ninja himself says, “It’s not just about Ninja, or even just about gaming—whether you’re a gamer, running back, soccer player, musician, doctor, or entrepreneur, we’re telling the story of the grind, the thousands of hours of work that it takes to chase and catch your wave. Nothing happens overnight.”

Article adapted from Hypebeast