On March 13 ULT, the apparel division of Ultimate Media Ventures, announced their first drop of the OWL x ULT Essentials Collection. Joining Fanatics as official merchandise partners, ULT’s men’s hoodies and crew neck fleeces were received positively on Twitter, yet there was a common question: where was women’s sizing?
ULT representatives responded quickly to these concerns, announcing that women’s sizing will be coming soon, and that over the next few months more products, including women’s capsules, would be launched.
Only weeks after Cranium Apparel’s painful attempt to “give a new identity to female gamers” with a dress that is currently the only product in their women’s section, the conversation of inclusion in esports merchandise has continued to resurface. We spoke with Madeleine “Shadowfax” Brown, cosplayer hoihoisado, and co-founders of Ateyo Rachel Feinberg and Breanne Harrison-Pollock to further discuss inclusion in esports merchandise.
A New Identity to Female Gamers
March 2’s announcement of Cranium Apparel’s now infamous esports dress stood out to Shadowfax immediately for a variety of reasons, but the “tone deaf marketing” struck her most. “The basic message was ‘Hello girl gamers, we know you’ve been harassed for a long time in this industry, so it’s high time we do something for you! So TA DA! The esports dress, tag all the girl gamers you know.’ Insert nail painting emoji, to boot. It just reeked of someone who just doesn’t get it.”
This prompted Shadowfax to ask if any women were involved in the design and development of this product. “Even though doing research of and working with your target demographic is basic business 101, their confession that they had no women involved in the creative process didn’t come as a surprise to me. After Cranium made a followup tweet acknowledging the criticism and asking for advice from the community, it struck me that they were actually surprised this total nightmare of a marketing campaign was being rejected by the female community.”
Co-founders of Ateyo Rachel Feinberg and Breanne Harrison-Pollock also expressed disappointment with Cranium’s campaign. “We try hard to be a positive force in esports and not criticize others’ choices. That being said, we were incredibly disappointed [with] the dress design and launch did not include the amazing industry and community of women that are active in esports/gaming.”
Ateyo has strived to embrace inclusivity and diversity in their products, with all products photographed being worn by those with various gender identities. Rachel and Breanne emphasize the importance of representation when designing and marketing their clothing. “We take our time to develop great products that we can stand behind, which takes time and commitment. We are super conscious about engaging with the diverse community that is esports and gaming and currently test our product on a variety of people (including a variety of genders.)”
Men’s Snapback Hats
While Ateyo has been visible in their commitment to community engagement and diversity, tone deaf campaigns and lack of female merchandise are anything but a surprise to hoihoisado, who uses her art and fashion to support Overwatch League. “I’ve been following OWL since Blizzcon 2017 and since we’re still new, I wanted to show my support as much as possible, buying the merch, buying the skins – I own all of the Pacific division team skins and a handful of Atlantic team skins.”
Hoihoisado’s dedication to the Overwatch League motivated her to ask for women’s merchandise throughout the inaugural season and beyond. “I usually wear dresses every day and finding opportunities to wear OWL merch outside of game days and the gym was rare. I had high hopes when the Fanatics deal was announced. Unfortunately, we were only afforded one women’s style shirt per team.”
Fanatics’ launch was not immune to scandal, with many customers expressing disappointment at the quality of jerseys and increased price. However, with all jerseys categorized for men, and even all snapback hats being specifically labeled for men, Fanatics continues to have a disparity in the sheer amount of merchandise for men and women. Recently increasing the amount of female categorized merchandise with scarves and flip flops, as of the release of this article, Fanatics has 68 pieces of women’s merchandise as opposed to 688 pieces of men’s merchandise. Hoihoisado says that she is “not a fan” for gender labeling merchandise, saying that “simple size charts help explain fit, but to specifically label things as for men begs the question: so what about the merch for everyone else?”
When ULT announced their collaboration with OWL, hoihoisado was excited to see the company asking the community for opinions, but was disappointed with the release. “When the announcement came out today and all I saw were Men’s hoodies in lazy pastel colors, I just felt so tired… I’m going to give ULT a chance and see what their ‘women’s capsule’ entails, but if it’s just more lazy attempts to include us because they forgot initially, then I’ll just make my own things. I really want OWL to succeed, but they have so much more they can do to include their whole market.”
Beyond Women in Esports
So why the disconnect between consumers and merchandisers? Shadowfax suggests that this is an issue that is perpetuated beyond the esports community. “This isn’t unique to our industry and in the past few years, we’ve seen how a lack of diversity in designing products and spaces can lead to things being inherently racist or sexist even if they aren’t deliberately so. From automated soap dispensers which only recognize light-colored palms, to male bathrooms which don’t have baby changing tables, to buildings with no ramps. A lack of diversity in these design teams have meant they overlooked issues with their products and spaces. While none of them were deliberately racist, sexist, or ableist, their products are inherently discriminatory.”
She refers back to Cranium’s esports dress and marketing strategy. “Not only did they create a product that the majority of women who saw it felt that it was not a product for them, they also managed to alienate and offend a huge group of people by admitting they did not even value the opinions and expertise of the group they were trying to make money out of enough to actually consider them in their design process. They touted supporting women in esports by making a dress nobody asked for rather than hiring women in the industry for their expertise, researching their intended demographic and creating a clothing range that resonated with their consumers – that we would all happily throw money at, by the way.”
As Shadowfax notes, companies are ultimately losing potential customers by not including them in their decision making, design process, and ultimately merchandise. Rachel and Breanne discussed the importance of the community to them as a company and individuals. “Some of our most engaged community members are female. We noticed that early on and have been working for the last six months to release something special. They are so important to us in building this company and couldn’t imagine where we would be without them.”
They further emphasize their desire for inclusivity, stating “we believe that every person is an important member of the community and that diversity only improves things for everyone. We work hard to be inclusive and try to give back to the community in ways more than just product. Even if you can’t buy a zip-up we want to welcome you by creating content you love, memes that make you laugh, popping into your stream to say hi and and holding community events. We want everyone to feel like they are part of our team!”
However, for many customers including hoihoisado, the lack of adequate inclusion and representation in esports merchandise has led them to close their wallets and find other ways to support the community they love. “Coming from a cosplay background, I’ve used online printing shops to design my own pieces. I would love to support OWL brands, but after a whole season to work things out, I want to see things I would choose to wear, instead of guilt tripping myself into buying more gym clothes. I’ll keep buying skins, sending care packages to teams who list PO Boxes, going to the games, but I’ll wait on clothing purchases.”
We would like to thank Shadowfax, Rachel and Breanne, and hoihoisado for their time and input. ULT was reached out for comment but did not reply before publication. We will update this article as this develops.