Either way, it’s obvious that sports teams become cultural hubs for their communities, and merchandise is key to forming those tight-knit communities.
Since the rise of team-based esports, brands and sponsors have looked to capitalize on merchandise in a similar way. If it worked for a five-player basketball team on the court, why not a five-player League of Legends team on the stage?
However, esports is still finding its footing when it comes to merchandise. So far merchandising strategies have been cautious and have largely followed in the footsteps of traditional sports.
But the shoe isn’t always a perfect fit. Some companies and esports brands are innovating in the merchandising space, and turning heads—and setting trends—along the way.
100 Thieves and Matt Haag
Just a few weeks ago, esports organization 100 Thieves announced that they had raised $35 million in Series B funding, following up their first round of investments last fall of $25 million. That money will reportedly go toward both an LA training facility for the players as well as a shop for the fans.
The 15,000-square-foot building will also house rooms for streaming and content creation and an intriguing “apparel development workshop” according to the press release. But fans will be most excited about the addition of the retail storefront for 100 Thieves apparel.
Just a week earlier, 100 Thieves also announced a new VP of Brand & Apparel, Doug Barber. Both these moves will help the organization continue their momentum as one of the leaders in esports branding and merchandise, but that momentum started from the group’s inception and with their young CEO, Matt “Nadeshot” Haag.
A former Call of Duty pro, Matt Haag decided to let go of his old wardrobe and dress to impress. He brought that mentality to 100 Thieves, and the company put a heavy emphasis on merchandising from the start.
In a NY Times article, Haag credits the way players have elevated their look for the growing fan interest in esports apparel. He says that as soon as the players paid more attention to style “all the fans started doing it too.”
100 Thieves sells their apparel in a unique way, opting for “merch drops” with limited amounts of gear. The brand announces the next merch drop on social media, and places it for sale online until the merch runs out. Some of the merch drops don’t even last 20 minutes.
H4X and Jon Gurman
Not all esports merchandise needs to be tied directly to a team. Jon Gurman, a co-founder of esports apparel company H4X, was inspired by the popular, sport-centered apparel of companies like Vans, Billabong, and Burton. In a similar vein, H4X wants to be known as the go-to gear for fans of esports in general.
Gurman got his start in the apparel business as a teenager helping out his father, according to an article in the Esports Observer. After he and his brother took over management of the business, they had the opportunity to work with the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC). He brings some of the lessons learned in the UFC ring to the esports arena.
In 2018, H4X found high-profile esports partners in DreamHack and ESL, two of the biggest esports event organizations in the industry. Not only did H4X promote their sponsorship in the typical way, such as logos embedded in the broadcast, but they also provided apparel for officials and casters at the events.
H4X hosts an online shop to sell merchandise, but you might also find them at a local Macy’s. Earlier this year, the company announced that their clothing would be stocked at nearly 50 locations. Seeing the brand’s streetwear on the shelves of a department store will certainly help Gurman toward his dream of people buying a piece of H4X clothing because it’s stylish and not only because it’s esports.
Excelsior and Collette Gangemi
In an interview with Dot Esports, Collette talked about the latest stop in her career after working with Converse, Adidas, and Red Bull. She’s now the VP of merchandising and consumer products for the Overwatch League team New York Excelsior (NYXL).
Her position is still relatively rare in the realm of esports, but she’s happy to disrupt a market that—in her mind—wasn’t living up to the needs of the players and the fans.
Part of the gameplan for the New York team has been to partner with big-name brands that already have an existing fan base in the city. Some of those partnerships include Champion hoodies, Nike shoes, and Melody Ehsani jewelry.
In addition to partnering with known brands, Collette has made sure the team’s apparel isn’t limited to athletic jerseys. Most of Excelsior’s merchandise is the kind of gear that fans would want to wear anywhere through the streets of New York, just like a Yankees cap.
And how does NYXL promote and sell their merchandise? One recent ad involved another well-known brand, but not a company that makes apparel or accessories. The T-Mobile Tuesdays ad features players on the Excelsior team and encourages any fans and T-Mobile customers to shop at the online Overwatch League store and save $20.
Not all NYXL gear needs to be bought online, though. The brand has built popup shops with open computers for gaming and plenty of merchandise for buying. Collette says the popup locations have been a hit, with some customers staying for hours at a time.
Organizations like Excelsior, H4X, and 100 Thieves make merchandise more and more important to a successful brand, raising the bar for the entire esports market. With that raised bar will assuredly come a raised interest in merchandise collaborations for events, production, and sales.
As the esports market continues to grow, you might not be surprised to see t-shirts, hoodies, and bumper stickers for the local esports team as you jog through a city’s streets. Oh, and be careful wearing that TSM jersey around CLG fans, just in case.