The world of eSports is beginning to look more like the traditional sports landscape in a variety of ways. Competitive video games like Overwatch League and League of Legends are getting more airtime on TV, and the absence of sports in recent months thrust sports sims like Madden and NBA 2K on ESPN and showcased pro gamers in a new light.
As eSports leagues get bigger, though, one emerging trend is that they’re actually starting to look a lot less like the sports we’re familiar with. When it comes to fashion in particular, the eSports world has seen an influx of luxury brand influence and streetwear collaborations that have changed the look of competitive gaming in a big way. Some of these changes are more subtle than others. Louis Vuitton, for example, in 2019 made a case for the League of Legends World Championship trophy and released a digital capsule collection designed by Nicolas Ghesquière.
The trophy case is literally ceremonial, but the Summoner’s Cup joins other trophies like the FIFA World Cup, the Davis Cup and the trophies awarded to winners of the French Open at Roland Garros as prizes wrapped in the company’s signature wordmark. Deals like these work both ways: it legitimizes eSports in a distinct visual way, and these luxury brands see the huge streaming numbers eSports events get as an opportunity to get more eyeballs on their products.
“The eSports audience is global, highly engaged, and has grown to a scale that is on par with some of the biggest sports and entertainment audiences in the world,” said Naz Aletaha, head of global eSports partnerships and business development at Riot Games, which owns League of Legends. “Brands see value in reaching this increasingly hard-to-reach, digital-first audience by connecting with their passion points and elevating their gaming and eSports experiences.”
Aletaha related it to how companies partner with traditional sports leagues and teams. But for streetwear designers, the relationship is often more personal. Streetwear and music artist Joe Perez cited his love of Call of Duty first and foremost when it came to his decision to partner with its eSports league on a design project.
“I kind of got involved myself about a year and a half ago and kind of got lost in the world,” said Perez, Kanye West’s former art director who has also designed album covers for stars Billie Eilish and Janelle Monáe. “I started learning about the culture that’s involved in Call of Duty and how it brought in people from different cultures and backgrounds together. And I really liked that part of the game and the platform.”
Perez designed a limited run hoodie for Call of Duty League’s inaugural season, which had a worldwide tour moved online-only due to the coronavirus pandemic. The two working together is another example of a mutually beneficial partnership at play. His name is significant in the streetwear scene, which lends the upstart Call of Duty League some credibility in a highly competitive fashion world. And for Perez, it’s a chance to transform an industry whose early eSports “jerseys” looked more like NASCAR fire suits or ad-filled pro bowling gear than something LA Lakers star Kyle Kuzma would wear casually.
“When it came to eSports and Call of Duty League, it is like a startup,” Perez said. “It gave us a starting point where we could built it up and kind of cross-pollinate the two cultures: this second culture kind of being the streetwear that I help build with Virgil (Abloh) and Kanye while I worked at Kayne’s studio.”
Perez noted his work with Virgil, the Pyrex and OFF-WHITE founder, and the “design language” that comes with streetwear. Bringing that influence to a largely unexplored market, the thinking goes, would undoubtedly stand out against other products leaning heavily on traditional sports design.
“A lot of esports leagues had jerseys and tee shirts and merch that felt very sports-oriented. And, well, that’s great, but what does the eSports language look like? We already know what the sports language looks like, from anywhere from Formula One racing to NASCAR to football. We know that language,” Perez said. “But here what was an interesting challenge was we had the ability to build that from scratch. That’s why I really wanted to get involved.”
One particular advantage was the time he had to develop something that felt authentic to both the pros competing and the fans who have grown up watching Call of Duty evolve into a pro touring league. Other projects he’s worked on develop at a much faster pace — album art often needs to come together in a matter of days, and tour merchandise sometimes gets a week of break-neck development at most. But Call of Duty League offered more time to build something new and apply it to other pieces of merchandise that reflected what many fans are already wearing.
“We have liberties to kind of redefine what (Call of Duty) looks like. The one-off special drops of this nature and each platform has its own personality and culture that comes with it,” Perez said. “So it’s really important to kind of digest that and put that into the merch so the fans feel like they’re getting not only a piece of the league and a piece of the brand but the personality of the game.”
And to be sure, the sheer variety of games and players in the eSports scene does make for different results across the industry, letting companies and sponsored gamers create special collections that cater to their own fans and causes. Call of Duty League’s Chicago Huntsman may honor Michael Jordan with a shirt extremely influenced by Chicago Bulls nostalgia, for example, but FaZe Clan’s merch runs a much more varied gambit in the different leagues in which they own teams.
Andbox, which owns Overwatch League’s New York Excelsior, has even developed a line of apparel and fragrance around Overwatch star Jong-ryeol “Saebyeolbe” Park. The SBB Collection includes a cherry blossom-inspired hoodie, bomber jacket and shirt. To his fans, the limited run of merchandise is instantly recognizable and contributes to a good cause, but to those outside of the eSports world it would look nothing like sports merchandise.
Andbox designed the collection to release much like major fashion houses reveal their products, and the limited run of merch follows streetwear sensibilities more than anything you’d see from the traditional sports world. And for designers like Perez, the merging of eSports and high-end fashion has been a long time coming.
“This is something that I’ve expected for years, quite honestly. I knew that in entertainment there’s this evolution going on that’s emerging between films and interactive and this culture that’s emerging with video games online and with Twitch,” Perez said. “It’s the most exciting as a designer and creative director to see a new frontier kind of blossom. Obviously you want to be a part of that and help define that. And through that you can kind of inspire and dictate the language for another generation so that challenge always excites me.”