Merch ado about gaming: How being a geek became cool

Matthew Jarvis
Merch ado about gaming: How being a geek became cool

It’s never been cooler to be a geek.

From characters on TV shows such as The Big Bang Theory to successful YouTubers and British comedians like Phill Jupitus and Ed Byrne, clothing and accessories inspired by the virtual world can now be seen everywhere – and on anyone.

Walk down a T-shirt aisle in Tesco or H&M and you’re just as likely to find references to Sega and Nintendo as you are mainstream brands like Coca-Cola.

“Hoodies, T-shirts, bags and caps are categories that have always worked well with consumers in the past five years,” says Michiel de Ruyter, online marketeer at Bioworld Europe.

“Other categories that do well are small accessories like wallets, keychains and necklaces. There is also an increasing demand for more specialty items like bathrobes and leggings.”

But it’s not only shirts and smaller products that are in vogue – more expensive items are proving just as popular.

“We’ve seen a small, yet noticeable, shift away from low-ticket apparel such as T-shirts to higher-priced, higher-quality items,” acknowledges Phil Rolls, buying manager for specialist distributor Gaming Merchandise UK.

“Hoodies, with a typical RRP of around £40, and a faux-leather Arkham Knight jacket, retailing at around £70, have been particularly good performers this year.

“Manufacturers seem to be prepared to take a few more risks in the categories they are entering; glassware, jewellery and cosplay accessories – such as our own PayDay 2 face masks – have performed unbelievably well.”

Dan Long, co-founder and head of communications at Insert Coin, adds that video game clothing has become much more fashionable, too – going beyond a simple logo on a shirt and reflecting trends in the wider industry.

“We’ve found that gamers still really want sleek, subtle designs, but there’s a definite move towards retro styling too – not just in the actual games, but in the garments representing them, too,” he explains.

“There have been a lot of milestones this year – PlayStation’s 20th and Rare’s 30th anniversaries spring to mind – and these have helped promote a swell in nostalgia for classic games and fashion.”


"We’ve seen a shift away from low-ticket apparel to higher-priced, higher-quality items."

Phil Rolls, Gaming Merchandise UK


The rising ubiquity of video game merch has presented new challenges for firms.

Ken Goodisson, marketing director at toy manufacturer Jakks Pacific, comments upon the drive to create games products that stand in from an ever-crowded market.

“As long as it sticks close to the licence and doesn’t take it off in a tangent – as long as it respects the licence and is relevant to it, then it seems a right thing to do,” he says.

“Four-inch action figures are a good example of that, where you can take all the characters from Nintendo and give somebody the opportunity to collect across the universe of those particular characters. Then, for the collectors, the serious guys, the guys who have the money to spend, there are 20-inch versions of those characters.”

Models continue to sit among the most popular categories for merchandise collectors, as brands such as Play Arts Kai and Kotobukiya are able to attract older enthusiasts with deeper pockets than the kids audience traditionally associated with toys.

“The large figures around £30 – often highly-detailed characters such as Link that have been around for a good 20 years – are targeting those 25-and-up collectors who are big fans and have the money as well,” explains Goodisson.

“If you look at the demographic, quite a majority of them are single; they’ve got cash because they don’t have families and such. The same goes for Star Wars as well – we have the everyday price point 20-inch figure, but then you can have your 31-inch and 48-inch figures as well – price points go all the way up to £100.

“We do tailor as much as possible to collectors, but at the same time they’re appealing to kids.”




















Game merchandise may be thriving as of late but, much like the industry as a whole, it hasn’t been without its recent challenges.

“A particular frustration is the licensing approval process,” reveals Rolls.

“We’d like to see the industry as a whole working to ensure availability of merch at or, preferably, prior to the release date of key titles.

“If the item doesn’t hit day one, and your game doesn’t cut the mustard, merchandise sales will be, at best, negligible – no matter how compelling the offering is.”

de Ruyter adds his concern that merchandise produced quickly in an effort to cash-in could turn some consumers away from investing in such products.

“There are still a lot of manufacturers making sub-quality products which damages the general feeling around merchandise. One of the biggest challenges is to convince the bigger retailers that the quality of the items is very good and the demand for merchandise is very high.”

Rolls continues that, in line with the growing discussion of female representation in games, merch manufacturers need to push for further diversity in their products.

“With one or two exceptions, the dearth of products available for girls and women is frankly embarrassing,” he criticises.

“We hear so much about how girls form an increasingly sizeable and important tranche of the gaming market, yet the range of apparel available is nowhere near reflective of this. We hope that manufacturers and licence holders put their heads together and resolve this as soon as possible.”

Long says that this ties in to a wider need to actually listen to the people playing games. 

“It’s always important to remember and understand that gamers really know their onions,” he says.

“You have to research and look into what individual audiences like and want to see. To be honest, the best way is simply to ask them.”

Sarah DeFoor, VP of sales and operations at accessories specialist KontrolFreek, agrees, stating that products must be much more than a cheap cash-in.

“Players are becoming more and more invested in games and their culture,” she observes.

“Franchises like Call of Duty become ‘badge brands’ that players want to identify with. The brand says something about them as a gamer and as a person.

“Players spend a lot of time within a game’s universe. Merchandise allows dedicated fans and players an opportunity to bring a piece of that virtual universe into their physical worlds, and represent their favourite franchise.”


“People want to engage with their favourite franchises in a more meaningful way – it is a hugely valuable part of the modern industry.”

Dan Long, Insert Coin


Dresses made of meat, old crisp packets and bin bags have all been paraded down catwalks around the fashion world, and it may often seem that gaming merchandise trends are as unpredictable and mysterious. So what is it that players actually want?

“We’re increasingly seeing that team-based games, whether its traditional team deathmatch-types such as Counter-Strike, MOBAs such as Dota 2 and League of Legends, or even MMORPGs like Elder Scrolls Online, are attracting more widespread merchandise offerings,” suggests Rolls.

“The common denominator is a ‘display of loyalty’ – players will attach themselves to a team, character, class and so on and merch themselves to the point where they’re almost wearing a team uniform.”

The ultimate form of brand loyalty is often seen in those that dress up as their favourite game characters.

“Cosplaying is mushrooming,” enthuses Rolls.

“Franchises such as PayDay and Dota lend themselves to ‘accessorising’ in a way that makes cosplay simple yet authentic. We expect to see a proliferation of this category over the coming 12 to 18 months.”

It’s probably little surprise to hear that Star Wars is set to rule the merchandise galaxy this Q4, as Goodisson forecasts.

“You’ll see a lot of games, apparel and toys coming together to create a huge world for Star Wars around the movie,” he predicts.

“You’ll see retail space for toys, even in the grocers, open up immensely in November and December. It will definitely be a Star Wars year this year, and Frozen is still strong as well. Kids are very fickle, there’s no doubt about it, but as long as the proposition is still good and there’s still a consumer need for it, it will still remain strong.”

Back with the core gaming audience, Rolls believes that 2015’s blockbuster franchises will inspire a hunger for branded products – but adds that quirky items may see viral popularity, too.

“It’s no secret that Fallout, Call of Duty, Assassin’s Creed and Halo are all franchises that will explode in Q4,” he says. “There is some amazing product out there. Oh, and you won’t be able to move for geeky Christmas jumpers this year.”

de Ruyter agrees: “Q4 2015 will be jam packed with big games and there will be a lot of lifestyle products to back this up. During Q4, Assassin’s Creed and Call of Duty products always perform really well. This year we also have Fallout 4, which has the potential to outsell them both.

“With Uncharted 4, Deus Ex: Mankind Divided, Dark Souls 3 and Zelda’s 30th anniversary you know the first half of 2016 will be big, too.”

There are also products set to emerge targeted at nascent games trends such as the burgeoning eSports sector and YouTubers, as DeFoor reveals.

“By creating products with and for personalities like Ali-A, TmarTn or Clayster, or pairing merchandise with products and setups that pros use, retailers can generate a good bit of interest around a product,” she advises.

From bathrobes to books, the merchandise market continues to expand, reeling in an ever-devoted audience of fans.

“More and more firms are becoming aware of the power of their brands – and the vital role that merchandise can play with communities,” Long states.

“People want to engage with their favourite franchises in a more meaningful way – it is a hugely valuable part of the modern industry.”


Gregory Ferraiolo, VP of licensing and business development at Sumthing Else Music Works, discusses the growing demand for video game scores released on CD and vinyl.

“Demand for game music has gone way up, to the point where labels are now continually trying to break into the game soundtrack business – whereas five years ago they had little to no interest.

“As for the evolution of game music sales, soundtracks will continue to sell well. The trick is to have the ability to sell and market the soundtrack alongside the game in some format, whether that’s a digital download card inside the game or perhaps even the inclusion of vinyl in the game’s collector’s edition. 

 “Although physical music sales have declined over the past several years, game soundtracks perform well because they’re also collectibles. As a result, dedicated soundtrack collectors still demand CDs because fans enjoy having something tangible they can listen to and display to their friends.

“When selecting what music to release physically, a game’s popularity is very important, as is the composer who created the score. For example, Assassin’s Creed is a huge franchise with a very loyal fan base and the music is fantastic, so releasing these titles on CD is a must. We also know from composer Jesper Kyd that his fans have been requesting a CD release of his scores for a long time.”



Although triple-A efforts are obvious focal points for merchandise firms, the growing popularity of indie titles could mean a future gold rush for products based on smaller-budget games.

“A collective effort from publishers, manufacturers and retailers is needed to fully exploit what is undoubtedly a massive opportunity,” says Gaming Merchandise UK buying manager Phil Rolls.

“Indie studios don’t necessarily have the resources to dedicate the man hours needed to see through the introduction of a range of quality products. The onus is on everyone to remove as many of the barriers to entry as possible.”

Dan Long, co-founder and head of communications at Insert Coin, concurs.

“There’s definitely a market for merchandise inspired by games of all shapes and sizes,” he explains.

“It isn’t the size – or even the amount of units sold – that impacts on the popularity of related merchandise, but the passion behind it. Indeed, people playing indie games are often more engaged and invested. They want to represent as much as possible, and merchandise is the perfect way for them to do it.”

Bioworld Europe online marketeer Michiel de Ruyter observes that increasing investment in the indie sector has expanded the potential for add-ons items.

“To develop merchandise for a game you need to have a minimum amount of fans and only a percentage of these fans will buy products based on the game,” he says.

“Sometimes games start as indie but as soon as they get more than normal attention you see companies like Sony and Microsoft pick them up and change them into triple-A titles.”


Tags: Licensing , merchandise , toys , insert coin

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