“So how long have you been playing Fortnite?” asks a Twitch streamer with blue hair.
“Probably for a month or two,” replies Spotify’s most-streamed artist of all time. “I’ve been watching your shit for a minute, man.”
Streams crossed. Worlds collided. And by the end of the night, over 635,000 people – including one Travis Scott – were tuned in to watch two strangers play video games.
For many, last year’s Drake x Ninja Fortnite stream was the first time gaming had registered as a force within street culture. That one night may have even seemed like the dam-breaker. How else do you explain K-Swiss gaming shoes? Kappa esports gear? Or an Overwatch team rocking custom Nikes? It was just like Drake said: after that, nothing was the same.
From the year 1 AD, everything After Drake reads like pure momentum. But the real story reads a little different.
While that wave may have crested last March, like any tidal wave, the roots here run deeper. Way deeper. Past the deep cuts. Past the throwbacks. And right to a shoe famous for being overshadowed.
The story of gaming and streetwear starts with the Air Force II.
It’s in the game
In 2003, Nike and EA Sports released a collaborative AF2 sneaker. Red, white, and branded, the shoe was far from innovative – at least in terms of design. But the foot was down.
“EA Sports was really the first one doing collaborations,” explains Christopher Erb, former VP of Brand Marketing at EA Sports. Erb managed the publisher’s collaborations from 2005-2013, and is now the founder and managing partner of Tripleclix, an LA-based agency.
“The athletes loved video games. The video game guys loved shoes. It was easy to scan shoes into the games, but we wanted to bring those together in real life.”
Video games – well, sports games, at least – had a space in streetwear. And that was just the start.
Nike would go on to release the legendary Playstation AF1 in 2006. Players loved the wink to their off-court hobby. Sneakerheads lusted over the limited run of just 150 pairs, including ones owned by Kobe Bryant. The court/console crossover was so potent, new Playstation Nikes like the PG 2.5 are still made today. Video games – well, video game consoles, at least – were through the door.
And then came Agent Zero.
In 2008, three-time All-Star Gilbert Arenas celebrated the launch of another three-peat. One that was definitely not a sports game. One that was definitely not rated E.
10 years before Drake went Battle Royale, adidas dropped the Gil II Zero “HALO.” A special-edition sneaker for an M-rated video game worn by an NBA All-Star who, “sponsors a team of professional HALO gamers dubbed ‘Team Final Boss.’”
On the eve of Halo 3, the streetwear-esports connection upped its game.
Play by play
The next decade is a scoreboard.
In 2011, EA and adidas release a complete streetwear collection around Need For Speed: The Run.
In 2012, Final Fantasy XIII-2 characters appear in a Prada ad.
In 2015, ACRONYM’s Errolson Hugh designs a coat for the main character of Deus Ex: Mankind Divided while UNDFTD drops exclusive Halo 5 merch.
“Drake and his team have definitely been great partners for us,” comments John Robinson, president of Los Angeles-based 100 Thieves, one of the world’s most popular esports franchises and a successful streetwear line its own right. “He’s a huge fan of games, and he’s given us tremendous feedback on what we’re trying to build as a brand.”
Just years before, gaming was seen as a nerd hobby: the respite of basement dwellers, of little brothers everywhere. Now, turn-based JRPG’s could command the same attention as supermodels.
Something had changed.
Gaming got in position to make waves through savvy footwear brands and a few proud players. But both brands and the ballers were riding a wave of their own.
2003 was one generation’s length from the early 1980s- aka, the “golden age of arcade games.” Gaming had grown up from quarter-fed Pac Man to NBA 2K. More importantly, the first wave of gamers (Arenas was born in 1982) had grown up, too.
As “golden age” kids became 2000s parents, the stigma around video games began to erode. That stigma didn’t disappear, mind you – gaming is still a convenient cultural foil, incorrectly blamed for everything from America’s mass shooting epidemic (despite a commanding lack of evidence) to falling youth interest in some traditional sports (despite the risk of brain damage that’s actually causing parents to bench kids).
However, look no further than the existence of college esports scholarships to understand the power of generational change.
“Gaming is popular now because when I was a kid, I played video games and my parents would groan,” comments Erb. ” But you see this everywhere in culture. My grandparents didn’t think they needed a phone in the house. My parents warmed up to a TV in the house. Now, I need a video game console.”
Kids whose parents threatened to hit pause on them gaming grew up to introduce the next generation to the thing they loved. Some of those kids are now winning $3m prizes at the Fortnite World Cup. Others, like Danny Brown and Tyler, the Creator, would get famous for other things, then shout their love of gaming from the stage. Case in point: in 2016, Kanye’s new album was briefly given the working name Turbo Grafx 16.
Call it changing social norms. Call it the power of the internet. One thing is undeniable: the same generational shift that reduced gaming stigmas put PS2 controllers in the hands of kids everywhere. For those kids, gaming style isn’t a contradiction. It’s a way to show off varied interests. One that if done tastefully, can outflex – and in the case of 100 Thieves, even out-resell – conventional cool kid labels.
“In the same way that other brands start in skating or another endemic group then go from there, gaming will always be our roots. But we’re not making a sweatshirt ‘for gamers,'” explains Robinson. “The most important thing is just making high quality apparel.” 100 Thieves hired a Reigning Champ executive to head brand and apparel this June.
From comic book blockbusters to Supreme x Akira, it’s now accepted, if not cool, to embrace what was once uncool. And when yesterday’s “nerd culture” is today’s cutting edge, the potential for deeper gaming-streetwear tie-ups looks bright.
The next stage
So what could the future hold?
The most likely answer is more and bigger collaborations. Gaming giants like EA aren’t set up to run a clothing business, plus clothing brands have a lot to gain by tapping into a game or esports team’s fanbase the same as they might a traditional sport.
The key for any would-be streetwear entrants: understanding the nuances of what makes gaming so special.
“I think the problem is that brands are treating it almost like traditional sport, which means most of the efforts look traditional,” says Thijs van de Wouw, Strategy Director at Wieden+Kennedy Tokyo. Van de Wouw has worked on creative strategy for brands like Activision and Nike.
“Esports is an incredibly passionate yet vocal community, but there aren’t many non-endemic brands with the courage to create meaningful partnerships that resonate with gamers.”
At the same time, that courage may still be a few years out.
While retro games can make a dent in streetwear through the same nostalgia that powers brands like FILA, for gaming to make a basketball-sized dent on culture, the “it’s not real sports” argument against more contemporary games and esports will have to be circumvented.
That might take another generational shift. Or it might just take a YEEZY-sized collab. Rockstar’s Red Dead Redemption 2 released an apparel collection with NYC-based Barking Irons on its path to becoming a billion-dollar game. Imagine RDR3 launching with a RRL collab curated by Lil Nas X.
Drake x Ninja happened. The sky’s the limit.
The interviews above have been edited for clarity.