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From Animal Crossing to esports: How fashion met gaming

By Huw Hughes


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Fashion |IN-DEPTH

While the mash-up between the gaming and fashion worlds is by no means new, the relationship between the two industries has undeniably been growing in recent years. Now, from fast-fashion giants to storied luxury houses, it seems everyone wants a piece of the digital pie.

It’s perhaps unsurprising that fashion is embracing the world of gaming and esports (electronic sports) when you look at the size of the industry and the explosive rate at which it’s growing. Market analyst firm Newzoo expects the 2020 global games market to generate revenues of 159.3 billion dollars - that’s 9.3 percent more than the prior year.

It’s also worth noting that while other industries - fashion included - have been heavily and negatively impacted by the Covid-19 pandemic, gaming has prospered. After all, what better excuse than a government-enforced lockdown to blow the dust off your game console?

Animal Crossing - a new way to showcase fashion

One particular success story in recent months has been Nintendo’s Animal Crossing: New Horizons. For those of you who don’t know, a quick summary of the game: Launched in March, New Horizons is the most recent installation of Animal Crossing, a game originally published almost 20 years ago. It’s a ‘social simulation’ video game allowing players to customise and control digital avatars and walk around a desert island doing odd jobs for a guy named Tom Nook. Sounds rudimentary, and in many ways it is, but it has nonetheless taken the world by storm.

One feature that has made the game so popular - and has caught the fashion industry’s attention in particular - is the ability for players to elaborately customise the clothing their characters wear, sparking waves of sartorial creativity among its expansive audience. Instagram profiles such as Nook Street Market have capitalised on this appetite for fashion-savvy avatars by recreating looks from top designers such as Chanel, Off-White, Vivienne Westwood and Fendi, and making them available for other players through shared codes.

The account is run by New York City-based graphic designer and photographer Vivian Loh, DJ and designer Michele Yue, and model Fernanda Ly. “In the beginning, the three of us were creating and sharing custom outfit designs with each other in private. It was almost comical how closely we could get our designs to resemble those in real life, and we fell in love with the process,” Loh told FashionUnited.

Another key to the game’s overnight success is its community-based format - meaning players can interact with the characters of other players - which has fostered a feeling of togetherness at a time when many are feeling more isolated than ever.

“Nook Street Market was created purely for fun, and as a way for us to connect with each other and our friends. This has now become especially important as we're in the midst of a global pandemic,” Loh said. “I believe that people visiting our feed have been in a similar situation - cooped up in their homes, seeking some semblance of normalcy, and finding ways to express themselves sartorially, even when their reality couldn't be farther from it.”

Photo: Chanel (left) and Off-White looks created by Nook Street Market

Photo: Vivienne Westwood (left) and Fendi looks created by Nook Street Market

British streetwear label Lazy Oaf launched a competition in April asking its Instagram followers to recreate the brand’s looks in the game with the hashtag #oafcrossing for the chance of winning a 250 pound gift card. Engagement and effectiveness for that post were up 25 percent from the previous week’s average, according to visual marketing software company Dash Hudson.

And big-name brands have also noticed the reaching power of the game. Luxury Italian label Valentino recreated iconic archive looks in the game which it shared through its Instagram account. And that resonated with the label’s audience, with its post seeing a 100 percent higher engagement rate than it’s previous week of posts, according to Dash Hudson.

“What’s interesting about a lot of player behaviour in Animal Crossing and other popular games, is that ‘traditional’ patterns of consumerism exist in virtual spaces,” Victoria Loomes, senior trend analyst at Trendwatching, told FashionUnited. “Some people in real-life line up around the block for a limited drop of Supreme shoes - you see the same pattern of people in digital queues waiting to get some exclusive piece of content, or wanting to dress their avatar in some customized clothing.”

That’s exactly what happened with New York fashion designer Sandy Liang. In April, she teamed up with Paige Rubin, the director of luxury buying at What Goes Around Comes Around, to recreate digital versions of her brand’s looks as part of an Animal Crossing virtual pop-up. She then invited fans to join the event but was restricted by the eight avatar capacity of the game, so she had to set up a queue through an external website. At one point, there were 100 people queuing up, she told fashion and culture publication Nylon.

“The stories and experiences you collect in games can give you a status hit”

Loomes explained that this type of behaviour - consumers' desire even in a digital format to feel included, and their willingness to wait in line to achieve that - is part of a trend she refers to as ‘the Virtual Experience Economy’. “It's essentially this idea that digital experiences - such as in a game, with VR, or with AR - can be as meaningful to consumers as the experiences they have in the real world,” she said. “The stories and experiences you collect in games can give you a status hit.”

One way gamers are getting this ‘status hit’ is through buying clothing - or ‘skins’ - for their online characters. The concept has been around for a long time, but recently games like Fortnite have propelled the trend, with players splashing out more real cash than ever on virtual clothing.

In April, Travis Scott played a virtual concert inside Fortnite. The 10-minute show drew a crowd of 12 million people who watched a digital avatar of the musician perform. It was the game’s biggest ever event, according to its maker, Epic Games. Attendees could also buy exclusive merch from the concert - or ‘skins’ - for their virtual avatars as proof they were there. “For brands, it’s about thinking about digital experiences not as ‘entertainment’, but a platform for status-accruing experiences,” Loomes said. “Once you make that shift, the possibilities are infinite.”

Fashion invests big in gaming partnerships

When we consider this idea of a digital ‘status’, then it’s a natural step to look at luxury fashion which has long been considered an indicator of wealth and social positioning. And while video games and high-end fashion may not seem like the most natural pairing at first glance, it makes sense when you consider the heavy reliance each market has on younger Chinese consumers.

In December 2019, Louis Vuitton, the driving force of French luxury conglomerate LVMH, marked the first collaboration between a luxury fashion house and a global esports brand when it teamed up with Riot Games’ League of Legends, the most popular PC game in the world. The luxury label’s artistic director of women’s collections, Nicholas Ghesquière, designed a capsule collection inspired by the game to be worn both in real life, as well as by in-game characters. A real leather jacket from the collection cost 5,000 dollars while a digital outfit for a character cost around 10 dollars.

Photo: Louis Vuitton x League of Legends, courtesy of Louis Vuitton

The popularity of that same game has also since been tapped into by Gucci. The label invited the League of Legends esports team of London-based gaming organisation Fnatic to sit on the front row of its AW20 menswear show at Milan Fashion Week in January and kitted them out in Gucci apparel. “As game spending goes up, gamers are becoming the new celebrities, and it’s becoming impossible for fashion brands to ignore the importance of gaming,” Loomes said.

In fact, last year deals between apparel brands in esports more than tripled, according to a report by market intelligence service Sportcal. Nike struck the biggest deal - one with the League of Legends Pro League estimated to be worth over seven million dollars per year.

Conrad Wiacek, head of analysis and consulting at Sportcal, said in the report that he expects brands to continue capitalising on that growing market. “Esports continues to defy expectations. With brand sponsorship already a crucial part of the sports revenue, it is perhaps no surprise to see that esports has followed traditional sports in exploring the viability of kit deals.

“With nearly half the esports audience based in Asia, many brands see esports as a way of reaching this fan base. While Louis Vuitton is already present in China specifically, the ability to partner with esports engages both the younger audience and the country's growing middle class.”

Brands launch games

And it's not just partnerships that brands are interested in. Some are now experimenting with mobile games. It makes sense: More people own mobile games than ever before, and with the rate at which mobile technology is developing, those games are vastly improving. According to Newzoo, mobile games are expected to generate revenues of 77.2 billion dollars in 2020 - up 13.3 percent from the prior year. That’s more growth than both PC and console gaming.

Gucci has been one of the most active luxury brands in that department. In July 2019, it released 8‑bit arcade games Gucci Bee and Gucci Ace on its app. More recently in May, the label announced a partnership with mobile tennis game Tennis Clash. Launching on 18 June, the collaboration will allow players to dress their avatars in exclusive Gucci outfits and participate in a special Gucci tournament.

See above the ways these brands are experimenting with games. Multimedia created by Belén Bednarski for FashionUnited.

Similarly, British label Burberry launched its first online game in October 2019, called B-Bounce. The game has so far been played by two million people in over 40 countries, a spokesperson told FashionUnited. The brand has seen a growing appetite for gaming among its younger consumers, especially those from China, they said. Burberry later released an extension of the game, this time called Ratberry, which came out for the country’s Lunar New Year in January in honour of the Year of the Rat.

In October 2019, Adidas became the first retailer to allow customers to purchase items within a Snapchat game. The German sportswear giant partnered with Snapchat to launch an 8-bit game called ‘Baseball’s Next Level’, inspired by old-school videogames and the start of the Major League Baseball playoffs. The ‘8-BIT’ cleats are available directly from the Snapchat game as well as from the Adidas website for 130 dollars.

And some brands have begun selling gaming hardware - even further blurring the intersection between physical and virtual worlds. In December 2019, German sportswear brand Puma released a pair of sock/shoes designed to be worn while gaming. The 'Active Gaming Footwear' comes in three ‘modes’ for gaming: Medial wrap-up grip in ‘seek’ mode, lateral wrap-up support in ‘attack’ mode, and heel wrap-up stability in ‘cruise’ and ‘defense’ mode. They sell for 80 pounds on the company’s UK website.

Photo: Puma 'Active Gaming Footwear's, courtesy of the brand

In March, Adidas teamed up with football video game Fifa to launch GMR, a physical smart insole tag that players can place in their football boots to trace their real-life movements on the pitch, allowing them to measure kicks, shot power, distance and speed. Players can complete challenges to win virtual in-game rewards and climb rankings in global leaderboards.

“Adidas GMR lives at the intersection of gaming and the material world because that’s where the audience is,” Moritz Kloetzner, director of business development at Adidas Football, said in a statement on the brand’s website. “By exploring and challenging traditional approaches to product development, alongside Jacquard by Google and EA Sports’s FIFA Mobile, we have been able to equip players with a whole new way to use their creativity for the betterment of their sport.”

Looking forward, the fashion industry has a lot of exciting new opportunities on what is largely untrammelled grounds when it comes to gaming. One idea that particularly interests Loomes is the way brands might embody themselves in virtual characters, allowing them to more closely engage and interact with consumers through digital channels. “It would be very interesting for fashion brands to think: ‘if this brand was a living character, what would it look like? What values would it have?’ Could it help you to connect with consumers on a new level?” she said. “Fashion brands should certainly not abandon more traditional marketing strategies. But they should think about how they can create integrated real world and digital world campaigns and meet consumers in more than one ‘place’.”

Whether it's through digital avatars, multimillion-dollar inter-industry sponsorship deals, the launch of branded games, or a pair of ‘performance’ socks, the fashion industry has proved that it has a real appetite for gaming as a new way to engage with an increasingly digital-savvy audience. The gaming market is expected to surpass 200 billion dollars by 2023, according to Newzoo, and it’s safe to say the fashion industry will be watching with interest as it does.

This article was created with the help of Belén Bednarski

Main article image: Burberry, Chanel and Prada looks created by Nook Street Market on Animal Crossing

Animal Crossing