Esports Merch 101 Guide
Kicking off a new esports apparel line? Refreshing your current merch campaign? Before you do, arm yourself with recommendations from the pros. You’ll gain an edge on the competition and, maybe someday, see your line up on the big stage.
Take our word for it. We’re Visuals by Impulse, the world’s largest creative agency for gamers. We eat, breathe, and sleep esports. Our team has designed merch for some of the biggest names and brands in the game. Let’s just say we’ve learned a thing or two over the years.
And there’s a lot to learn. From changing styles to printing to materials, pitfalls are everywhere… and slip-ups can be costly. Shoddy products and outdated styles can tank your team’s reputation (not to mention your wallet). It’s the Wild West out there, and esport brands are rising and falling on a weekly basis.
That’s why we’re here; a guide through the uncharted wilderness. We polled our team of experts: “What tips do you wish you received when just starting out?” You’ll find their top answers below. But first…
What is Esports Merch?
Well this part’s pretty easy. You already know esports. Competitive leagues for some of the world’s biggest video games, from Fortnite to Overwatch to League of Legends. These leagues attract professional and amateur teams, and – just like traditional athletics – their fan bases can span the globe. And with fame comes merch and apparel.
OK, but what makes ‘esports’ merch different from ‘traditional’ athletic merch? Well, for starters, esports apparel is generally made for comfort, not performance.
Traditional athletic apparel needs to hold up to the rigors of physical play. Its fans are more active, and all that movement needs to be built into the final design. As you’d imagine, that’s not so much the case with esports gear. A more laid-back fan base means comfort and style take a higher priority over performance.
What does this mean for you? Well it means you have far more creative freedom. You can explore wilder designs and different fabric types. You can even experiment with accents like embroidery, specialty printing, and contrasting materials. With fewer performance limitations, esports lines are free to innovate elsewhere.
What about esports apparel vs streetwear? Recently, the line between the two has become very blurred, and that’s a good thing. Thanks to a few enterprising brands, esports merch is no longer confined to boring graphics on nylon jerseys. Nowadays, teams can really push the envelope, as long as the designs stay true to their core brand (and abide by tournament regulations).
With that out of the way, let’s dive into the main course. Our top seven tips for esports merch design. Starting with…
Don’t rush in. Before diving headfirst, analyze the competition. You’ll want to take a few signals from industry leaders. What are they doing right? What are others doing wrong? Find lessons that can be emulated in your own apparel line.
So who are the merch leaders on the esports scene? The unquestioned top dog at the moment is 100 Thieves. They’ve helped spearhead the merch revolution, pushing the boundaries of traditional esports apparel. New 100T shipments sell out within hours, with some even calling them the ‘Supreme of Esports’.
Don’t just limit yourself to esports brands, however. It’s important to seek inspiration elsewhere, to avoid becoming overly-derivative. Some of our artists’ favorite sources:
- Johnny Cupcakes: One of the ‘old guard’ of independent streetwear. Great custom experience, a genuine feel, and clever work.
- Hydro74: A talented artist with a very distinct style. Has created promotional art and merch for everything from Halo to Fortnite.
- Lurking Class: A newcomer to the scene providing creative streetwear by hit artist Sketchy Tank
- Rebel 8: The legendary brand that continues to push the boundaries of streetwear.
Over time, you’ll develop your own list of inspirational brands and artists. But for now, make note of trends that seem to be growing in popularity.
Which leads us into the next tip…
Pick The Right Style
Styles are constantly changing in the fashion industry. You’ll need to stay on top of the rising and falling trends if you want to be successful.
A common mistake we see is ‘bandwagoning’ on overdone themes. Don’t assume that because a style is popular now, it will be in the future too. Styles have a limited shelf-life, and you could find yourself investing time and money into a dying trend. Not to mention, when you ‘buy-high’ on existing trends, you’re entering an overly-saturated market with lots of competition.
Here are a few popular esports designs that are currently being done to death:
- Patterns featuring a faded – often oversized – logo in the background, and a smaller, full-color logo in the foreground.
- Nascar-inspired jerseys featuring an absurd excess of sponsor logos.
- Apparel with unnecessarily crazy patterning. Overly-complex graphics that distract from core branding.
The esports industry is defined by innovation and growth. Don’t find yourself creating designs that are stuck in the past.
Rather, you’ll want to ‘buy low’ on new and emerging styles. If you want to be viewed as a modern, trendsetting brand, you can’t be afraid to mix things up. We don’t claim to be fashion prophets, but here are a few ways to stand out in today’s market:
- Use a wider range of materials and methods to add ‘dimension’ to jerseys.
- Print logos and graphics in non-traditional locations.
- Add easter eggs and hidden elements for a more ‘exclusive’ feel.
- Dare to not always use full-color logos!
These are just a few ideas to get you started. Spearheading trends may seem riskier at first, but the rewards are well worth it.
Know Your Merch Types
Once you have an idea in hand, you’ll need to decide what specific merch assets you’d like to market. Let’s run through the must-haves, some potentials, and a few you’ll want to avoid.
Let’s start with the obvious choices. T-shirts, hats, and jerseys (both short and long-sleeve) represent the core of most esport collections. The good news is that they all sell somewhat consistently throughout the year, being less dependent on weather and season. The bad news is that there’s a lot of pressure to nail the design. Get it right, and you’ll be seeing orders pour in all year. Get it wrong, and you’ve potentially just doomed your entire line.
From here you may want to consider seasonal apparel. Both hoodies and beanies have huge winter potential, often serving as limited-time best-sellers. Better yet, since they’re outerwear, you have more freedom to get creative with customization and patterns.
Pins and patches continue to be huge hits, no matter the season. Given the super-low cost of manufacturing, both are no-brainer inclusions.
Scarves are an underrated apparel with big potential during wintertime and with European fans. They’re an item we wish more teams were including in their merch lineup.
Custom tech products can be hit or miss. Branded skins for mouse pads, mouse, controllers, and headphone skins can be very interesting if done well. But that’s a big if, given the risk and high manufacturing costs.
Stay away from things like phone covers, which can be tricky to produce in scale. Given the variety of case sizing, we often see them as the first things to go in the bargain bin sale category.
When first starting out, you may be tempted to print on everything you can get your hands on. We recommend a more strategic approach; focus on a handful of strong-sellers instead. Avoid overextending, at least until your store has built up a solid fanbase.
Now it’s time to make things official. Let’s talk ink.
Don’t Skimp On Printers
In the merch world, you live and die by your printer.. A top-tier design is useless if the final product is shoddy.
Generally, you have two choices: Direct To Garment (DTG) or Screen Printing.
For years, direct to garment (or ‘print on demand’) services have been the default choice for small apparel shops and content creators. Platforms like Design by Humans have grown wildly popular, thanks to their low overhead and ability to print ultra-small batches.
We recommend caution here, however. The quality and longevity of DTG printing techniques can be very poor. You don’t want to be caught sacrificing quality to save a quick buck. Not to mention these platforms are notorious for poor customer service.
Given the choice, we prefer spending up for more reliable and higher-quality screen printing options. But should you source your screen printer online or locally?
If you go online, make sure to request samples before placing a large order – to better review the final product. Some of our favorite online printers are Threadbird and Acme Prints. As with all things online however, the downside is a lack of personalization and physical involvement in the process. This can make a huge difference in apparel design.
In the end, our favorite option is to find a good local screen printer. Why? Well for starters, you can physically review the type of apparel blanks they have available. Better yet, you can see firsthand the variety of print methods at your disposal. It may take more time to track one down, but – once secured – you have a huge advantage over your competition.
Which reminds us…
Create Mockups, Everytime
Never underestimate the importance of a good mockup. In this industry, they are 100% essential.
Mockups allow you to create professional proof of concepts, without the need for expensive photo shoots or editing. With the right mockup tool, you can test your design over a number of background colors and body types, optimizing your design for IRL wear.
They’re also a fantastic tool for driving preorder attention and sales. Mockups provide a cheap means of promoting your upcoming line, even while it’s still in pre-production.
There are plenty of mockup tools to choose from, but here are two of our favorites:
- Creative Market: A go-to template resource with an extensive library of blank options, from t-shirts to hoodies and more.
- Placeit: Their apparel mockup generator is easy to use and offers a huge variety of templates and product types.
Now let’s get into the big question. How does all this impact your wallet?
Plan Ahead For Pricing
Let’s talk $$.
The first investment you’ll need to consider is the design. Unless you’re an artist yourself, you’ll probably be contracting this work out to a professional. How much should you be prepared to dish out?
That’s a tough question. There’s really no set ‘price’ for merch design. Pricing can vary wildly depending on the artist; it goes without saying that you’ll pay up for top talent. Commissions will also fluctuate with the scope of your project; simple graphics will cost less than a full illustration. Shop around and find the right balance for your goals and budget.
Whatever price you agree to with your artist, make sure to get it down in writing. Both parties should sign a contract covering not only the scope of work, but also usage rights. It’s an unfortunate necessity, but something that will save you a lot of headache (and cash) in a worst case scenario.
Next up is the printing process. Again, it’s tough to nail down an exact number here. There are just too many factors that play into cost. These include:
- The garment blank you’re using (fabric, fit, quality)
- Your choice of ink type (ex, water-based, plastisol, etc)
- Printing method selected (DTG vs screen printing)
- Total number of colors included (with screen-printing, more colors = more $)
- The number of printing locations needed
- Size of your order (often cheaper in bulk)
It unfortunately needs to be said; do NOT cut corners by using the cheapest blanks and inks available. Your excellent markup doesn’t mean a thing if no one buys the final product. Your design may look great on the computer screen, but trust us… you’ll pay the price if you select bargain plastisol inks that are so thick they’d stop a bullet.
Typically, direct-to-garment services are more economical when ordering small batches. You’ll generally pay the same per shirt whether you’re ordering one or 100. As your order size increases however, screen printing becomes the cheaper option. Initial setup fees typically make up the largest cost when screen printing (36 is the standard minimum order). Once set up, the cost per shirt is much cheaper than DTG alternatives. This means you’ll get more bang for your buck with large screen printing orders. Just make sure you’ll be able to sell them all!
And with that we’ll touch on one last tip…
Find The Right Artist
We nearly forgot one of the most important steps. Finding your Creative. But where to start?
Ideally, you’re looking for artists with years of experience under their belt. Creatives who have designed merch for esports teams, Twitch streamers, YouTube creators, gaming brands, and more. They know the tricks of the trade, and are immersed in apparel and gaming culture. Professionals with strong communication skills and a proven workflow. Sounds like a needle in a haystack, no?
Not quite. All it takes is tapping into the right networks. Here are a few of our favorites:
- Twitter: The gaming and esport community loves Twitter, and luckily so do designers. Follow the right accounts and conversations – you’ll begin stumbling upon hidden gems.
- Instagram: Here you’ll find communities of artists that prefer to let their art do the talking for them. Track the right #esports hashtags to get connected.
- Dribbble: The artist’s Mecca, home to some of the most talented creatives across the globe. Run a search for relevant keywords and start exploring.
- Pinterest: Don’t underestimate it. Experienced designers call this platform home, and they’re just waiting to be discovered.
We’d suggest avoiding Fiverr, unless you’re truly desperate and willing to take on a lot of unnecessary risk.
Want to skip the headache? Commission our team of experts here at Visuals by Impulse. Our merch pros have designed for some of the biggest brands in the biz. We’re becoming the gamer’s #1 source for apparel design, and with good reason.
Well, there you have it. Our top tips for jumpstarting your esports apparel line.
Each of these topics deserves their own dedicated article, and they will soon! For now we hope this guide gives you the confidence to get out there and start making moves.
We hope to see your merch on the big stage someday. Until then, team VBI is here to lend a helping hand.
Special shout-out to Andrew ‘Rockhart‘ for co-writing this merch guide! His years of experience and lessons-learned proved invaluable, and we’re stoked to have him on the Visuals by Impulse team!