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 forspecialist 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 mo

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