Excuse a (not really all that) old man from reminiscing, but anybody that’s been in the esports biz for long enough can say authoritatively that the aesthetics of it has done a nice, neat, turnaround. We all came in under that tired old stereotype – the Mountain Dewed slobs awkwardly standing in front of the camera while a faux-excited announcer introduces them to the audience, their MS Paint team logos a cheap print-job done on a nonexistent budget, looking for all the world like they just rolled out of bed not 10 minutes ago.
That’s not so much true these days. Fact, it hasn’t been true for a while now. Thomas Hajduk, AOE Creative’s Marketing and Media specialist, and a former colleague of mine during our respective stints with Infinite Esports & Entertainment, has a personal passion for the increasing overlap between esports aesthetics and hypebeast culture – a necessity of his career thus far, given the simple pragmatics of it.
“The best kind of exposure, other than winning, is through your fans,” said Thomas as we caught up over coffee. “Having them be your billboard is incredible. I think that, if a team isn’t strategizing to have some kind of merchandise that’s easily wearable by casual fans and by hardcore fans, they’re not thinking in the right direction.”
As seemingly obvious as truisms go, the industry-wide realization of this came sort of late into the game. Esports as a “thing” stems all the way back to the days when we still salivated over CPUs measured in megahertzes and carried beige-boxed CRT monitors to a friend’s garage for Brood Wars LAN parties – or in net cafes clogged with cigarette smoke across the Pacific, hidden from the prying eyes of nosy mothers and cram-course teachers. The deshabille aesthetics of a competitive gamer was, for over a decade, as hard to scrub off as nicotine stains off a cheap five-dollar mouse.
“I would say it was late 2016, was probably the start of the era where teams realized they needed to invest in the look and feel of their players, and for their fans,” said Thomas, reminiscing. “It’s funny enough that the whole kind of esports fashion boomed with hypebeast culture almost in parallel. As Yeezys and urban fashion grew, so did popularity of fashion in esports – it was just unique how they ran, first parallel with each other, then had a crossover in the last year and a half.”
Hypebeast culture, the colloquial term for what basically amounts to “modern male fashion.” It encompasses a distinctly brand-focused approach to streetwear and footwear – a matter of showing off your ability to buy into the latest and greatest (and most costly, given how much a good pair of Yeezys’ll run you for). And the flamingo power, as Thomas puts it, wouldn’t have happened if it weren’t for two distinct factors: one, that the entirety of esports is basically one big crowd of social media addicts; two, that some of these nerds have finally gotten too old to spend 14 hours a day on scrims, and yet are rich enough from their winnings and sponsorship deals to let their proverbial hairs down.
“Ultimately, I think it just comes down to personalities that had retired in esports, and have that cash to buy those sort of luxuries,” said Thomas. “And because they’re in the limelight, their posts are very popular on Twitter, or they get a lot of engagement on their videos… it naturally translates over. Players that are on the come-up say ‘oh, I need to do the same thing if I want to get attention.’ So, before you know it, five people are buying the same pair of shoes.”
The current king of esports fashion – “without a doubt, Nadeshot.” The former Call of Duty ace of aces, and now owner of franchised League of Legends brand 100 Thieves, is damn near undisputed in his leadership of the esports zeitgeist – not just in his own personal fashion, heavily advertised over his social media presence, but in the trends set by his team and designers as well. The long sleeves and notes cribbed from baseball apparel, in particular, were in recognizable contrast to the European-influenced soccer jerseys previously dominant in the scene. The black-and-red or white-striped baseball shirt, in particular, made for a sharp stylistic contrast to the entirety of the rest of the North American League of Legends professional scene – an attribute they leveraged heavily in their debut year.
most seen jerseys at the cs go event so far:— The Esports Writer 🇰🇷 (@FionnOnFire) January 19, 2019
100 thieves dont even have a team here
100 thieves dont even have a CS GO team currently pic.twitter.com/g0eexLIg6L
Unfortunately, not all esports brands have been on top of their fashion game – or branding. Thomas had praise for the concept of Counter Logic Gaming’s current marketing plan – “I really see that now as a big trend in esports: you take a segment of the year, usually a quarter, and you make that a theme out of your merchandise and out of your socials; helps keep your brand looking fresh.”
But, the actual execution? The organization’s former general manager and art director’s response was arguably one of the kinder takes on the subject:
we cloud 9 now, boyz— MaTTcom (@MaTTcom) January 14, 2019
After all, it’s one thing to emulate a successful approach to lifestyle fashion. It’s another thing entirely to be the brand that people want to wear.
“Everybody’s chasing ‘lifestyle,’” complained Thomas. “They should be chasing what defines them. I think a lot of these brands, they don’t really know what they are. We’ll use CLG again as an example – CLG is not Cloud 9, not Liquid, and not TSM. Those are all four distinct brands with their own distinct characters and personalities.”
Liquid, in particular, stands out among an increasingly crowded pack. Their stark-white high-collared softshell jackets and horsehead emblem are unmistakable. And the fact that they actually win games and take titles?
Well, that’s merely just a bonus.