Trends in the Esports Apparel Market

Competitive video games and designer clothing are two very different entities with very different target demographics. While there are certainly individual exceptions, and while these two circles are trending towards more overlap, I think most people would agree with this statement at a surface level. This is what made Louis Vuitton’s partnership with League of Legends in 2019 so groundbreaking and unexpected. In a two-pronged offering, Louis Vuitton developed a LoL-inspired line of clothing and Riot Games added Louis Vuitton themed skins into their enormously popular game. This seemingly out-of-left-field partnership was truly symbiotic; not only did these collaborative offerings generate revenue for their respective companies, but they also helped spread brand awareness and gain new customers in what were likely previously untapped markets for each.

Last month, another large esports x designer clothing collaboration was announced, with 100 Thieves and Gucci partnering for a limited release of apparel and accessories. This is a monumental moment for both 100 Thieves and esports as a whole, as it further pushes our culture into the mainstream and legitimizes these brands, and their clothing, as being more than just “gamer gear”. I remember buying my first FaZe Clan hat in 2012, when the online store had maybe a handful of shirts and hats with similar designs, and the only ones purchasing them were true gaming nerds. Today, every team has dozens of offerings, ranging from simple, sleek designs to bold, vibrant statements to collaborations with other clothing brands; there’s something for everyone. It’s encouraging to see how much the esports apparel and merchandise market has evolved, and it’s equally exciting to wonder what the next big development or partnership will be.

The merchandise arm of an esports team is crucial to its success. While the actual revenue from sales may not be the largest item on most organizations’ balance sheets, developing a successful merchandise offering undeniably translates to greater brand awareness, higher brand loyalty, more exposure, more fans, and better prospects for corporate partnerships. This importance, coupled with my personal interest in apparel, is what prompted me to focus my first survey on apparel and merchandise.

Couple quick notes before jumping into the data itself. I asked more questions/collected more data than is shown; what I dive into below is what I consider to be the most unique trends. Also, some of the questions simply didn’t yield meaningful trends worth sharing. Additionally, I want to reiterate what I mentioned in my first post: I am simply one person conducting surface level research with a limited budget. While I received a high enough number of responses on most questions to be directionally confident in these trends, in no way am I suggesting that these findings are definite / guaranteed future states of the esports apparel and merchandise market — just what I think is likely to occur based on trends in the data.

In this survey, I asked questions on both the current state (i.e. what consumers have purchased, what they associate certain brands with) and anticipated future state (i.e. what consumer are looking for and how they are likely to behave in the future) of the market. Nearly all of what I present below will be from the latter section on future state though. I had no way of identifying current esports apparel owners before launching the survey — the next best thing I could get, which is what I used, was launching to a list of email addresses associated with Twitch accounts. I figured this was the best audience to target, as Twitch users are much more likely to be aware of esports teams and to consider purchasing merchandise. Luckily, the future state is much more important and interesting to analyze — it matters less what consumers have already done (and this is also data that all teams have readily available to them), it matters more where trends are heading.

To start the survey, after screening out those unfamiliar with esports and those who aren’t fans of any of the organizations that compete in esports, I asked three demographics questions: age, gender, and country of residence. Answers to these questions were not forced and respondents could select “prefer not to say”, but collecting this data from those willing to share allows me to segment the remaining questions and see how trends may differ based on type of consumer. The breakdown of respondents across these buckets can be seen in Figure 1. Questions for the remainder of this post will rarely be shown by gender and country — both due to responses being heavily weighted towards US-based males and differences in responses by gender and country being negligible for the most part. Age, though, was the one demographic where I received a relatively even response rate across buckets, and many of the questions I asked exhibited differences by age group which will be highlighted below.

Now let’s get into the meat and potatoes of the survey. The first thing I wanted to discern was how important apparel and merchandise is to esports consumers when selecting which team(s) to follow and cheer for, so I tested this relative to other dimensions that would cause an individual to follow a team. These results can be seen below in Figure 2.

Unsurprisingly, apparel offerings were less important than having teams in games the consumer follows and having a winning pedigree. After all, these are professional sports teams, and at the end of the day people want to follow teams who win in games they like more than teams who have cool merch. When compared to the team’s personalities and their gaming content creation, though, apparel carries comparable weight when deciding fandom, and all three of these dimensions are more important to younger consumers. Older esports consumers (like me, as much as I hate to call myself “old”) may be satisfied with simply following a winning team and watching their professional matches, but younger consumers have a stronger desire for this to be coupled with cool merchandise and out-of-competition content from streamers they can connect with. This is a positive note for the future — as more and more children and young adults become familiar with esports, the appetite for apparel and merchandise (and also personalities, which I’ll cover in a later post) will only grow further, and it will be important for teams to continue evolving their offerings to satiate the consumers. This is backed up by data displayed in Figure 3 as well, which proves that younger and older consumers alike will gradually start to value merchandise more when selecting teams to cheer for.

As I mentioned earlier, I was unable to specifically target those who had already purchased esports merchandise. Of the 151 esports fans who completed the survey, only 19 were current merchandise purchasers, and this was distributed across several different teams. As such, I did not collect sufficient data to share regarding organization-specific pieces of merchandise (e.g. through questions like why they bought apparel from a specific team, what they liked most about the apparel they owned). The one statistic worth reporting though is that, of the 19 apparel owners, 18 purchased the clothing primarily because they liked the look of it while only 1 purchased it primarily to support their team / show fandom. Unlike pro sports, where fans may feel inclined to purchase a jersey or shirt solely to show support when going to games regardless of how much they like the clothing aesthetically, esports apparel needs to look appealing in order to sell, further emphasizing the importance of good designs.

While statistics on specific organizations’ apparel cannot be reported, perception of teams’ apparel was something I was able to measure since awareness of a team’s products is all that was needed to answer this question, not actually owning anything. Figure 4 below highlights what words (from a preset list) are most commonly associated with some of the bigger teams’ offerings.

While there are some differences in the most frequently cited themes across teams, what stands out most to me is that there is a wider distribution of apparel associations for 100 Thieves and Cloud9 than for other teams (including those not shown). 100T and C9 are also widely known to have two of the most successful apparel offerings. While some organizations have strong, uniform brand perceptions, they may have limited penetration past consumers who have an affinity for their specific type of offering. For example, Team SoloMid’s apparel is widely perceived as sleek, and while sleek certainly has a positive connotation, TSM may struggle selling merchandise to fans of their team who prefer more vibrant, busy designs. 100T and C9, on the other hand, are perceived to have multifaceted offerings, which I hypothesize helps them secure customers with a variety of tastes and sell apparel to a higher percentage of fans.

Now, we shift our focus to the future state of merchandise purchasing. I want to begin by sharing some data that is positive for all esports organizations. In professional sports, it is exceedingly rare to purchase apparel from teams that you don’t support. I’m a diehard Chicago Blackhawks fan, and while I love the color scheme of the Edmonton Oilers and think that the New Jersey Devils have one of the coolest logos in professional sports, I would never wear another NHL team’s merchandise. In esports, however, this is not the case, as seen below in Figure 5.

While diehard fans of specific organizations who will not spend money on other teams are still prevalent, the majority of fans are willing to purchase apparel that they like regardless of whether it is from their favorite team or not. I’m a perfect example of this — I’ve owned apparel from 5 different teams across the past decade, most recently having purchased a Cloud9 shirt that I thought looked cool even though I wouldn’t necessarily consider myself a C9 fan (in the two esports I follow that C9 fields teams in, Apex and VALORANT, I cheer for TSM and 100T respectively). Also, it is worth noting that younger fans are more likely to purchase apparel across multiple teams than older fans. This is promising for all teams; even though TSM, 100T, and C9 are direct competitors, they will increasingly be able to coexist with each other in the esports apparel market as younger consumers grow up and have more disposable income.

One other positive trend worth mentioning for all teams is the willingness to wear gaming / esports apparel in public, which directly translates to the overall appetite for this clothing. A decade ago when I was first introduced to competitive Call of Duty in high school, there was a nerdy stigma around fanaticizing over video games, and as much as I hate to admit it, I wouldn’t have dared to wear my FaZe hat to school. Five years ago, while esports was gaining traction but still a bit of a niche hobby, I was comfortable explaining what my OpTic Gaming jersey was to friends and family, but I wasn’t about to wear it to a college party or lecture. Today, I’ll happily wear my 100T long sleeve just about anywhere. This is both due to me maturing as an individual and esports becoming more widely recognized and accepted as a hobby and form of entertainment. The data shown below in Figure 6 proves that my personal experience is not just anecdotal; it is representative of the way many esports fans feel, and as comfort wearing esports apparel continues to grow, sales will undeniably follow.

Now, regarding the type of apparel that will be most successful in the future, I wanted to first test what I consider to be the two main aspects of a piece of clothing: the overall design and the color scheme. Figure 7 below highlights how important these two elements are when evaluating apparel for purchase in the future, as well as three other elements that I wanted to benchmark design / color scheme against. Design and color scheme score the highest and are pretty much equal in terms of importance, which is what I expected; when you purchase clothing, esports related or not, you want it to look good both in terms of the design and the colors.

Both affordability and quality being less important than looks is something I also expected, but I honestly thought quality would be more important than it actually is. Perhaps this is because it is inherently difficult to judge the quality of material from online pictures and consumers just assume that teams aren’t trying to rip them off with scratchy, low-quality materials. That being said, I definitely wouldn’t say this means teams should switch to lower-quality manufacturers to increase profit margins by a few dollars, since reputations spread quickly. On the other hand, though, it seems like using high quality, luxury materials like Supima cotton over generic cotton is also not really that important. Simply put, it seems that industry-standard materials and quality will do the trick.

Finally, exclusivity. Sometimes teams offer a limited amount of clothing in a “drop”. While this is unsurprisingly the least important dimension across those I tested, it’s worth diving deeper on the score of 2.3 / 5. This isn’t the result of all consumers scoring 2s and 3s; rather, it’s the result of the majority of consumers scoring 1s and 2s with a select group of fans scoring 4s and 5s. The average consumer doesn’t care about exclusivity, but there’s a small contingent of those who care about it considerably and are likely willing to spend top dollar to secure an exclusive, numbered piece of apparel — 100T’s success with drops is proof that this business model can succeed. I’d stress the importance of teams having staple stores that offer certain designs in perpetuity for consistent revenue, though, as I’m skeptical that the market can sustain another “drops only” org like 100T. Still, having the occasional drop of exclusive clothing on top of the staple store can further boost revenues and satisfy that niche group of consumers who care about exclusivity.

Before we further investigate design and color scheme, I want to make a quick note on another dimension from above: cost. I included a specific type of price sensitivity question which I used frequently in my consulting projects: the question would ideally feed into the Van Westendorp model for determining optimal price point. I think I was a bit ambitious including this question, though, especially given the target demographic of the survey. The data I collected was not sufficient to make any meaningful conclusions other than the obvious one that older consumers, who are likely to have more disposable income, have a higher willingness to pay than younger consumers. Nonetheless, I imagine that all these teams have already conducted internal analyses to determine the optimal price points for their apparel, so even if my data was workable, I doubt it would have yielded any new insight that wasn’t already known by organizations internally.

Now, to dive one level deeper into the aesthetics of esports apparel, starting with design. Apparel acts as a canvas on which an infinite number of designs and patterns can be painted, but for the sake of this survey, I wanted to condense to a few simple, broad groups that would be easy for respondents to interpret and visualize. The four groups I used were defined as follows. Simple designs are ones that are sleek and straightforward, e.g. mostly one solid color with maybe a secondary highlight color, with just the team’s logo or one other simple small image on a front pocket. Complex designs are ones that have many colors or patterns integrated together, a la streetwear. Something in the middle is exactly what it sounds like — maybe 2 colors playing together in an abstract fashion, or one color with a uniform pattern across the piece of clothing or a larger logo covering the majority rather than just a small pocket. Finally, graphic designs are ones where the primary element isn’t the team’s logo or a pattern, but rather an image, e.g. one of the team’s athletes celebrating a win. Figure 8 below highlights preferences for these different styles going forward.

One misinterpretation of this data that I want to address is that it implies complex and graphic styles should maybe be deprioritized. Similar to exclusivity, the lower scores are due to significantly sized groups of both those who would not be likely to purchase (1s and 2s) and those who would be (4s and 5s), rather than a large concentration of lukewarm 3s. At the end of the day, everyone has different preferences, and styles of all types should be created to cater to each individual’s tastes. However, with simple and something in the middle scoring notably higher, it seems that going forward teams may be wise to concentrate the majority of apparel offerings in these themes. For example, a team could offer the same simple monochrome T-shirt with logo on chest in 5+ color schemes (which we’ll dive into next), while offering graphic tees in maybe just two options for color background in order to reduce risk of running inventory too high.

Regarding the demographic trends exhibited in Figure 8, the trend by age I think is fairly self-explanatory. Everyone has their own tastes and there are certainly exceptions to this overgeneralization, but I would argue that as people grow older, their preferences trend towards simpler designs. This is purely anecdotal, but in high school or college it may feel more socially acceptable to make bold fashion statements with graphic tees and exuberant attire, but as you grow older, simpler shirts have more use cases. You can “get away” with wearing them at a restaurant, or maybe in your office depending on where you work, and they thusly provide more utility.

The large difference by gender for graphic designs is something I was not anticipating, but given the low number of responses from females, I hesitate to draw a definite conclusion from this. Regardless, it is worth mentioning, and further research here may prove out whether it makes sense, for example, for teams to focus on non-graphic styles when designing female specific lines of esports clothing.

While there were noticeable differences in preferences for designs, the same did not ring as true for color schemes, as can be seen below in Figure 9. Greyscale ranked as two of the top three color schemes, which I think speaks to how universal white, grey, and black attire is — nearly everyone incorporates some whites, greys and blacks into their wardrobe regardless of their favorite color, and teams should offer greyscale clothing as such.

While the data displays a clear hierarchy for the remaining colors, I think it would be wrong to read this graph and conclude that all teams should focus on blues while not offering yellows and oranges. Rather, I think the correct interpretation of this data is that offering a wide variety of color options is best for capturing most consumers. For example, even though FaZe Clan’s main color is red, they shouldn’t limit their colored apparel as such. Some fans may elect not to purchase red apparel because it doesn’t match their eyes or skin tone, or perhaps they simply don’t like the color, but they would be more than willing to buy a navy blue FaZe shirt. It would be unwise in my opinion to neglect a certain color because it’s not a team color or it because it scores low on the graph. To tie back to the design of the attire, the most successful apparel offering that captures the maximum number of consumers might be one that includes simple shirts, sweatpants, hats, etc. offered in a multitude of colors beyond just the team’s primary color, while more complex patterns and graphic tees might be limited to greyscale and the team’s primary color.

To tie back to the story that I kicked off this post with, another theme I wanted to explore was co-branded / crossover apparel as teams are increasingly bringing on partners to offer joint products. This has been mostly limited to athletic apparel partnerships, e.g. Cloud9 partnering with Puma to sell branded shoes and more, but 100 Thieves’ newly announced partnership with Gucci opens the door further to what remains an unlimited number of potential crossovers. I wanted to gauge appetite for different types of potential crossovers. For starters, I wanted to benchmark the appetite for crossover apparel against “team only” apparel (e.g. the shirts with just the team’s logo /design and no links to any other companies, as has been discussed up until this point). This can be seen below in Figure 10.

Honestly, I thought there would be a pretty even distribution across buckets and I was surprised at team-only apparel being preferred to crossovers, but clearly I was blinded by my own bias. As an avid skier who loves Burton clothing, an Adidas stan who owns 7 pairs of NMDs and Ultra Boosts, and a typical guy in his 20s with a few Ralph Lauren polos in his closet, I would leap at esports apparel crossovers with any of these brands. The demographics support that older fans like me do indeed have a higher affinity towards crossovers, perhaps due to more exposure to other brands and more income to spend on higher-priced crossover items. While org-only merch is more preferred overall, there is an appetite for crossovers and also a contingent of indifferent consumers who would presumably buy a crossover item if they liked the looks of it, and since these partnerships can only serve to bolster brand awareness and perception, they should be aggressively pursued.

To dive one level deeper, I wanted to analyze what specific types of apparel crossovers would have the highest likelihood of widespread purchase. I measured appetite for 5 different types of crossovers, which can be seen in Figure 11.

The big takeaway here for me is that there are groups of consumers who are likely to purchase (i.e. score 4 or 5) from each of these crossovers, even though some are more popular overall than others. A common theme of this post has been “offer a variety of options, even the less popular ones will be attractive to certain cohorts of consumers”, and the same rings true here — teams would be wise to partner with other apparel companies, whether it’s with athletic apparel crossovers to mass develop permanent shop items or with a higher end company to develop a limited drop. Partnerships with non-apparel companies may not be as lucrative though, and with time / effort being better spent elsewhere, these can likely be ignored unless the opportunity arises organically.

One final note on the above data: I failed to include any consideration of cost in the question I asked, which I believe likely biased the data. For example, the above suggests that the appetites for semi-luxury and luxury crossover apparel are similar, but in reality, I expect a $100 Ralph Lauren shirt would have a higher volume of willing purchasers than a $1,000 Balenciaga shirt. If I’d written the question differently to include cost, I hypothesize that we’d likely see declines in the more expensive categories of streetwear and luxury. We may also see a slight rise in the less-expensive athletic and non-apparel crossovers, but I’m not as certain of this; respondents may have already assumed relative affordability of these items when answering the question, so these levels may not have changed.

Now, to close out the discussion on apparel, we shift our gaze to arguably the simplest, yet most important question of my survey: what types of esports apparel are consumers likely to buy in the future? Figure 12 below shows purchasing likelihood for different types of apparel in the future. As many would expect, shirts and jackets are at the top of the food chain. The rest of the results, however, were not what I was expecting; let’s march through these one at a time.

I was surprised at how high jerseys scored — I thought they would score significantly lower than other upper-body clothing, but the appetite for jerseys is only marginally below that for shirts and jackets. The data discussed earlier in Figure 6, which showed increasing comfort with wearing esports jerseys in public, is supported further by this unexpectedly high appetite for jerseys. In my opinion, this is something that can be used to entice more corporate sponsors / partners as jerseys are the only esports clothing where partner logos are prominently displayed. While this definitely wouldn’t be a main selling point for a partnership, a rising appetite for purchasing and wearing these jerseys in public will result in more eyes on the partners’ logos, which is not negligible. Finally, just as pro sports teams have a variety of jerseys (home, away, alternate, retro, etc.), I believe this high appetite for esports jerseys coupled with the varying preferences on color schemes / designs discussed earlier opens the door for something similar. I know it has been done by some teams in the past, but it is not commonplace. An offering of, for example, a “home” jersey that is primarily the team’s main color, an “away” jersey that is white with trimming of the team’s main color, and an “alternate” jersey that has a different design entirely could be an enticing offering.

In addition to jerseys, I was surprised at how high shoes and sunglasses scored. As far as I’m aware, Cloud9 is the only team to currently offer shoes, and sunglasses are not offered by any teams. Shoes, I acknowledge, are more of a specialty item that may be difficult to produce, but teams would be wise to at least explore potential partners for developing a shoe offering with, because there is clearly overlap in the sneakerhead / esports fan spheres. Sunglasses, on the other hand, are very easy to offer. Whether it’s cheaper plastic sunglasses in the < $10 range or slightly nicer ones in the $20–50 range, there are a plethora of custom sunglasses manufacturers who can easily slap a team logo / color scheme on the side and mass produce. Of all the non-traditional items I tested (more of which will be analyzed in the final Figure, 13), sunglasses are a desired, easy-to-produce item that teams should look to add to their catalogue. Almost all teams offer hats, rightfully so given how popular they are, but sunglasses are on par with hats and in my opinion should be offered widely as such.

The final surprise for me on Figure 12 was how low shorts and pants scored. I included specialty apparel not currently offered by many teams (shoes, sunglasses, belts, jewelry) to benchmark against the more traditional offerings, and was surprised to find pants and shorts towards the bottom of the list amongst these specialty items. Many teams offer several two-piece outfits that couple a top and a bottom with the same design, and while these should keep being offered to satiate the select few customers, this data suggests that any more investment into developing unique pants / shorts might be better placed elsewhere.

Now, up until this point, all we’ve talked about is apparel, and while apparel is undeniably the juggernaut of esports merchandise, I wanted to gauge appetite for common non-apparel items that teams could easily produce and sell. The results can be seen below in Figure 13.

The fact that these non-apparel items mostly score below the apparel seen in Figure 12 reaffirms the decision that teams have made to focus on apparel thus far. However, there is clear interest in a few items that, like sunglasses, can be easily mass-produced. Water bottles stand out as reasonably sought after, being on-par with gaming equipment and backpacks, which several teams already offer. Partnering with a well-recognized company like Nalgene or S’well to produce branded water bottles is easy, and they can be produced in batches to limit the risk of running a high inventory.

Stickers, which are the big winner here, are even easier to make. It would be wise in my opinion for teams to begin offering stickers — not because of the profits, which will be negligible compared to apparel, but because of customer acquisition and brand awareness. There may be plenty of fans who don’t want to drop $50+ on clothing but would gladly drop $5 on a few stickers, and reaching these consumers to increase the raw number of customers a team sells to could be a statistic to entice new investors and corporate sponsors. It will also likely be easier to sell apparel to these individuals after they’ve been one-time customers who liked their stickers. The final selling point for stickers is how they raise brand awareness. Whether it’s on someone’s laptop or posted on the back of a street sign, stickers inevitably make their way out into public and can help generate more interest in and awareness of a team. This dispersion of stickers throughout the world can be encouraged by selling, for example, packs of 3 stickers for $5 rather than just an individual sticker for $3, and also by giving away a free sticker with every purchase of a piece of clothing.

That wraps up all the data for now! If you’ve made it this far, thank you for your interest and for making it through this marathon of a post! I’m going to make my subsequent posts shorter and try to split up topics across multiple posts to make them more digestible, which brings me to my next survey. As mentioned in my introductory blog post, I want to test growth vectors for a variety of esports and gaming stakeholders. We looked at esports teams here, and next we shift our focus to game developers. I coded and launched a survey that has two components: what viewers look for when selecting a competitive game to play, and what they look for in an esports scene / league when deciding which games to watch professionally. I’ll split my findings across two posts and share both within the coming few weeks. I hope you return to read my results; until then, take it easy and feel free to reach out to me regarding any of the data above or to just discuss the landscape more broadly!



Esports and gaming enthusiast, Northwestern graduate, former management consultant, current MBA student at The University of Chicago Booth School of Business.

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Reed Kolbe

Esports and gaming enthusiast, Northwestern graduate, former management consultant, current MBA student at The University of Chicago Booth School of Business.