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Wednesday, May 22, 2024

The Inevitable Collision of Gaming and Athleisure

In a cavernous former bank in SoHo, New York, Fortnite pro Nate Hill was gaming in front of a live audience of dozens when, over Fortnite’s voice chat, a teammate asked if he’d ever modeled at New York Fashion Week.

“Yeah, I’ve done that a bunch of times,” said Hill, scoping in on an enemy. “Not a fan.”

Hill, 25, was a full-time model until he signed with the esports organization FaZe Clan in 2018. Now he games live on camera for a living, and, professionally, looks good doing it. At D-CAVE, a popup gaming event thrown by Diesel North America CEO Stefano Rosso, Hill wore a blue Champion hoodie with colorful Pac-Man ghosts down the sleeves and well-fitting, light-washed skinny jeans. His clean, white Puma sneakers were adorned with Tetris blocks, and yellow sunglasses framed his foxlike face.

“So many kids that are gamers are really into fashion,” Hill said in an interview with WIRED. “They are looking up to people like us who do both, and I think they want to do that as well.”

It’s passé to even mention the stereotype of gamers in fraying threads pale from basement binges, but in conversations at D-CAVE, Rosso’s new “lifestyle melting pot for esport fanatics,” some attendees didn’t hesitate. Most references to that phantom slob weren’t accusations; they were points of contrast. Attendees looked nice. A pair of red Nike Jordan 4s. Tailored sweatpants. A gray Adidas sweatshirt with blue details that played off blue-flecked Adidas sneakers. A Champion beanie with a matching Champion hoodie.

Despite the patina of money, the fashion on display at D-CAVE was not an enormous aesthetic shift from the at-home gamer uniform of cozy sweatpants and a worn-in sweatshirt. Right now, athleisure and streetwear are having a moment—and intersecting with the corporate mainstreamification of gamers.

“Athleisure is an outgrowth of sportswear,” says Dierdre Clemente, a fashion historian and professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. While sportswear was originally engineered to, say, help a golfer’s arms swing with the least resistance, synthetic fibers and other modern technology and textiles have made it comfortable and stylish enough to become “the new casual,” she says.


Growing up alongside sportswear was streetwear, now an inextricable ingredient to many athleisure brands’ looks. In the ’70s, tracksuits and high-end sneakers were big in urban landscapes. Over the next few decades, thanks to hip hop culture, streetwear proliferated into the mainstream. Now skateboarding apparel brands like Supreme elicit around-the-block lines for hoodies and T-shirts and, at least in Supreme’s case, $1 billion valuations.

“While the original athleisure trend was responsible for taking the comfortable silhouettes and performance features of sportswear out of the gym into everyday fashion, it was the global rise of streetwear that built the culture around it and made it collectible,” says Volker Ketteniss, head of menswear at trend forecasting firm WGSN.

In a cute way, gaming is athleisure incarnate. It’s competitive and athletic, but yeah, sure, you’re sitting down. Cozy and fly, athleisure and its streetwear manifestations naturally mesh with gaming, which is probably why so many companies are putting out gamer-bait clothing: Adidas, Puma, Champion, Nike, UNTFD, and Uniqlo all sell apparel featuring gaming icons or have partnered with gaming celebrities over the last year. Luxury brands Moschino, Louis Vuitton, and Prada have done it, too. At the same time, esports teams like FaZe and 100 Thieves are raking in cash selling athleisure repping their pro gamers. 100 Thieves chief operating officer John Robinson estimated in a recent New York Times article that his company can take in “about half a million dollars of revenue” in a single morning, selling sweaters, sweatpants, and T-shirts with the minimalist appeal of Apple.

Clemente theorizes that the gaming audience has outgrown its “image of guys in dirty sweatpants and pizza-stained T-shirts.” It’s not just passé; it’s inaccurate. “The clothes are constitutive of their identity rather than reflective of their identity,” Clemente says. “When people see these influencers with their nice clean clothes and tennis shoes, that’s how gamers in real life live out that identity,” she says.

Despite the recent merging of big-brand, big-money athleisure and streetwear with gaming, fashion and videogames have been inexorably bound for decades. At conventions, attendees and merchants wear and sell handmade T-shirts, dresses, hats, pins, and cosplay signaling their fandom for Overwatch, League of Legends, or any number of popular games. That’s not to mention the effort players of online role-playing games like World of Warcraft and Final Fantasy XIV devote to making their in-game avatars as gorgeous and expressive as possible—a devotion that lives on as more recent online games like Fortnite and Grand Theft Auto Online have introduced paid skins.

Those fan-driven fashion efforts haven’t gone anywhere. But big corporations are increasingly maneuvering to cash in on today’s so-called hypebeast culture, creating anticipation around merch “drops” and cultivating a devotion to athleisure logos and lifestyles.

“There’s an amount of people into gaming without enough products or services to even show that they love, what they’re passionate about,” says Diesel and D-CAVE’s Rosso, who suggests the bustling convention marketplaces where small-scale artists sell gamer merch aren’t enough to meet demand. “There are quite few, actually, and a lot of them are improvised.”

On the lower level of D-CAVE, Diesel-style streetwear with D-CAVE branding—single-color t-shirts and camo jackets—hung alongside merch from FaZe and Italian sportswear brand Kappa, which, in the gaming world, also refers to an emoticon on Twitch. Both Hill and streamer Ben “DrLupo” Lupo, who also attended D-CAVE, attribute the recent merging of athleisure branding and gaming to Fortnite, which launched the careers of countless Twitch streamers into the influencer space. The cycle is fairly straightforward: Streamers buy fancy clothes to signal their clout, their fans buy those same clothes to emulate them, which creates a market, which pushes more fashion brands into gaming.

“Before Fortnite and all that stuff blew up, I never really considered myself as someone who tried to maintain some level of fashion sense whatsoever,” said Lupo at D-CAVE. “If you look back 10 years, being a gamer was very unfashionable. I wore jeans and a t-shirt and that’s that. Now, I have nice shoes,” he continued, pointing to his Adidas Ultraboost 19s. Other top Twitch streamers like Imane “Pokimane” Anys have their own clothing lines, with hers featuring colorful joggers, sweatshirts and t-shirts with Japanese text.

Flashier gaming celebrities, anointed by Twitch, are taking the confluence to even further extremes. Tyler “Ninja” Blevins, perhaps the most famous name in gaming, was for a while glued to his Louis Vuitton sneakers, and just recently partnered with Adidas to make chunky kicks with his name plastered on the side. Earlier this year, Fortnite pro Turner “Tfue” Tenney said that, while he was at a Fortnite tournament in Miami, his luxury Swiss Audemars Piguet watch—potentially worth tens of thousands of dollars—was stolen out of his hotel room. In 2018, Overwatch pro player Jae-hee "Gesture" Hong told Dot Esports that he had spent $20,000 on streetwear—$10,000 of which was on sneakers.

“Before, it was [esports] orgs signing people to try to win tournaments. Now, it’s orgs signing people who have clout or the potential to represent the org for brands… and look good in their clothes to bring in more sponsors and stuff,” says Hill.

Hill says FaZe originally noticed him at a Fortnite tournament where he was wearing a Manchester City soccer jersey, which looked like the in-game jersey of his Fortnite character. Just last week, Hill tweeted out a gold statue in Fortnite of a chiseled man with a slick fade and a modelesque pout. He wrote, “Shoutout to @FortniteGame for putting a gold statue of me in the game. We made it boys.” The character’s name is Midas, and his description is “All that glitters is yours.”

Heading toward the New York subway after leaving D-CAVE, I passed through SoHo and into bordering Chinatown, where kitschy tourist shops displayed keychains, baseball caps, and fake license plates. One right across the street from D-CAVE hung two knock-off Fortnite shirts on the door. Inside, much of a wall was devoted to red, blue and black Fortnite hoodies. The store was empty, but a sign outside read “T-SHIRT 5 FOR $10.”

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