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Why does so much official video game apparel miss the mark?

I’ll start this out with something that’s going to make me feel old: I remember when people got teased for wearing gaming-themed clothing or accessories. I remember friends wearing Pokémon T-shirts to school and feeling cool for exactly five minutes until some other kid looked at it the wrong way and made them self-conscious. I went to conventions as a teenager that were filled with fans absolutely covered in gaming paraphernalia, which earned them strange looks from my mom. (I was one of those fans.) It was a rough time. You felt like you couldn’t express yourself or your hobby without earning the ire of someone who thought you were weird.

I’m so glad those days are over. Gaming has become mainstream enough that fandom apparel has become acceptable, even trendy. Most major games have their own shop websites where fans can purchase shirts, loungewear, accessories, drinkware, and any other branded item their heart desires. Even high-profile fashion brands have gotten in on the action: last month, sneaker and apparel brand Puma collaborated to release a line of Animal Crossing-themed shoes and clothing.

This week, Australian store BlackMilk released a Legend of Zeldathemed collection that plastered scenes and iconography from across the series onto trendy leggings, shirts, dresses, and more. Even prominent indie games generally get their own line of apparel, vinyl records, plushies, and other related merch. So … why is so much of it downright ugly?

Merch or die

I’m a self-proclaimed merch junkie: I love buying, wearing, and displaying stuff from my favorite games. My foot-tall Nessie plush from Apex Legends arrived last week and it’s been lighting up my life ever since. I have an endless selection of Overwatch and Heroes of the Storm-themed T-shirts. I own a beret that looks like an Animal Crossing bell bag. Don’t even get me started on my enamel pin collection. I consider myself a merch connoisseur, simply because the first place I go after I discover a game I love is the official store.

As a moderate Zelda fan, I was interested in BlackMilk’s collection. The brand is fairly high-profile, and from the little that I know about actual fashion, it’s considered a respectable place to shop. After seeing thousands of unique fan designs and fan-made apparel on sites like Etsy, Instagram, and Twitter, I was excited to see what a brand with design chops and a big budget could do for Zelda

Upon checking out the collection, I was immediately disappointed: A lot of the designs are simply screenshots or key art from the games plastered onto dresses, skirts, leggings, or T-shirts. There are a couple of interesting patterns, but on the whole, the designs are busy and way too obvious (the map-based designs are particularly egregious.) There’s a time and a place for being loud and proud about your favorite games, but what happened to more subtle or creative fandom clothing?

Our The Legend of #Zelda collection is LIVE ~

What epic pieces did you get?#blackmilkclothing @NintendoAUNZ @NintendoAmerica

— BlackMilk Clothing (@BlackMilkTweets) October 11, 2021

BlackMilk isn’t the only shop with gaming-themed clothing that misses the mark. The Apex Legends official shop struggles with its T-shirt designs. Many of them are just white T-shirts with the game’s logo plastered on the front. In most cases, it’s not even a transparent background logo, like on this Olympus-themed T-shirt, which looks like a sleep shirt at best. The rest of the Apex clothing line is mostly black or white shirts and pants with a little bit of text and the triangular logo on them.

Puma’s Animal Crossing sneakers are cute, but there was only one women’s shoe design in the entire group, which seems like a huge oversight for a fan community that’s predominantly female. Overwatch used to have some fun clothing, including this D.Va bomber jacket that’s still sold at Hot Topic, but as the game’s popularity has waned (and Blizzard’s reputation has hit rock bottom), all that’s left are the less inspired designs.

The big cash-in

As much as I love merch, I’m not oblivious to its purpose: To make money and promote the game. People like me, who walk around wearing Overwatch T-shirts, are essentially free advertising for the game. The ZeldaBlackMilk line wasn’t supposed to break any barriers in fashion or try anything original; its goal was to sell Zelda-themed clothing to slightly more fashion-forward people who are already fans and inspire other BlackMilk shoppers to check out the games. Despite the line’s less-than-stellar clothing, the BlackMilk site still struggled under the load of people who tried to check out when the collection launched. This kind of stuff sells, and it sells well, which is why most companies have merchandise lines for their biggest properties in the first place.

A close look at Animal Crossing's Puma sneakers

That doesn’t mean that companies can’t try to do better. Merchandise designers and publishers would do well to take inspiration from fan designers, who have been making incredible creations since the early days of gaming. Instead of doing it for cash, these artists, designers, and creators do it because they love Zelda, or Animal Crossing, or Overwatchor thousands of other games and franchises. The designs are unique, subtle, and incorporate deeper references than most official merchandise does.

The reason there are so many fan designers in the first place is that there’s demand for designs that cater to different, unique fashion styles. Fan designs might be a little more expensive than official merchandise — and are more likely to be cracked down on by famously inflexible companies like Nintendo — but they more often come from a position of genuine love and joy than official merchandise does, and I think that ultimately results in a better product.

The gaming merchandise phenomenon shows no signs of slowing down. Big developers and publishers with lots of money will continue to foster high-powered collaborations with clothing and merchandise brands in order to make a few extra bucks and promote their game, and the designs will generally be mediocre to bad. We can only hope that they follow in the steps of smaller fandom creators and take a more subtle, nuanced approach with their clothing designs. Not everyone wants to walk around with Zelda’s gigantic face plastered on the back of their bomber jacket.