We wrapped up the first day of the Inven Global Esports Conference with a panel all about merch and the esports community. Reporter John Popko led a discussion called "The Story Behind Successful Esports Merchandise Campaigns," featuring some of the most creative minds in the esports merch space. This included:
Walter Brandsema - Lead Producer, Panda Global, TurnDownForWalt
David Patti - Merchandise Director, More Better / Allston Melee
Damian Estrada - Creative Director & Marketer, TL
Adrian Gale - VP - Merchandising and Licensing, Cloud9
John: The esports merchandise industry is super fast-changing and fast-growing. There's been so much development in the last five to 10 years. What is the biggest development and change you've seen from when you first started in the space?
Adrian - Three, four years ago I couldn't even imagine some of these collaborations and brand activations coming to life. It's pretty phenomenal. [...] We have been shifting gears from just jerseys to actually having an apparel partner, moving past just blue jerseys and blue t-shirts. As a brand, we've focused on brand partnerships for apparel and merch. This year, we partnered with Pac Sun for some opportunities as well.
David - We're broadening what people expect. It used to be a logo on a t-shirt. We're going past print to order and doing wholesale merch and create products that can be sold online and in person. We want the product to be best as possible and the customer knows they are supporting the community.
Damian - We were doing more merchandise than apparel at first but always had aspirations to kind of do more and lean into the apparel side. This was around the time that 100 Thieves was making waves on what apparel versus merch is.
Walt - I'm a content creator first and merch creator... Not first [laughs]. It changes my perspective on how I look at merch and apparel and how we do it for my own personal brand and for Panda, the Smash bros lens. It's interesting to me in that whether you're in the gaming space or not, consumers are just interested in things that look cool.
If something is appealing to them, they'll buy it. And then after the fact, they'll find out it's gaming or esports-related. They can choose to become interested or not but that initial first step is a different marketing strategy. It's pretty unique and pretty cool. Bridging that gap between gamers and normies of the world.
FaZe Clan recently collaborated with Disney. Do you see more collaborations like this in the future of esports?
Damian - From the collaborator side, not the team side — whether it's Naruto or Disney — they are looking to get into the space. There's no denying that the majority of these IPs that have games aren't touching the esports spectrum of gaming. Collaborating with FaZe or Panda or Cloud9, you're reaching an audience that the casual gamer or stream viewer won't hit. Marvel was interested in the concept of Team Liquid players as heroes and being on a stage, going to challenge someone.
Adrian - There has to be a strategy. It has to have the Cloud9 vibe. It needs to be our brand vibe. A little meme-y. A little humorous. We need to work with brands that actually get us. I worry that some of these brand collaborations being done right now feel a little forced. It may come off as inauthentic.
When you talk "on brand," do you mean making sure it's still something that resonates with esports audience, like Naruto? Like something gamers would like?
Adrian - I want to make sure it fits our brand and brand feel — making sure they're tuned into the fanbase, the subreddit. We don't want to turn those guys off to things that we do. You want to make sure it fits into gaming but it's more about fitting into the brand. Team Liquid has the same vibe where each collaboration makes sense and seems like a TL thing. Some recent brand collaborations just weren't super on-point and didn't fit their brand.
Merch used to be just jerseys. Now it's water bottles, camping chairs. What's your thought of this trend? Is there ever a point where we should stop?
David - Right now I'm on a mission to unlock as many non-apparel products as possible. We are doing trading cards, a bunch of things like polaroid pics from the events. Things that aren't normal, not what you'd expect. When I buy a t-shirt, I can also buy a cheap item that goes along with it that reminds you of the brand and the experience.
Damian - It's great to get people to enter with tees and hoodies. But there has to be an opportunity to add a couple of other things to the cart. A lower entry item. The keychains, the small little tchotchke here and there.
There's a fine line with some brands where they want to go with that. But some brands don't want to feel like stadium merch where other brands do. At the end of the day, we're all sports teams at sporting events. Maybe you should offer some of those sports memorabilia-type things. I love the concept of trading cards. I'm so shocked that that hasn't been tapped in a big way.
In terms of Melee, live events are a huge part of the scene. Now that we are in the post-pandemic area, how much does that change the merchandising space?
Walt - It's a net positive. In-person sales have some level of intimacy between consumer and seller that's invaluable. When you grab any match major out of a hat — GENESIS, Big House... The amount of times I've seen people walking around with the Panda duffle bag, Panda merch... That number triples on Day 2 because they see people walking around with it. That level of relationship you can build with your consumer is so amazing at in-person events. It builds on itself over time the more you are able to do these things in person.
David - Your most expensive item will probably be your best seller. That's super true for in-person sales as well. At tournaments, people want to buy a t-shirt to remember the event — an exclusive GENESIS logo t-shirt to show they've gone to the tournament.
Adrian - We are working on a dedicated game-plan for event rather than sending stuff from our store to the floor. We want it to feel speal and integrated into what is going on. The LCS tailgates, we'll be offering Jensen jerseys all day long. We want the events to feel super special. Even from the product marketing side... We want to captivate fans that want to hang out and feel welcomed. It's not just merch at a rock concert. It's about activations and engagement with fans.
Damian - The coolest experience for activations was the Attack on Titan pop-up we did, welcoming everyone. Those moments where you build a fandom and their attachment to the brand as opposed as handing them hoodies... These in-person moments are invaluable.
IGEC 2022 is currently live through June 2nd at 5:00pm PT and is being livestreamed here.