Convergence Story: Anime and eSports
Licensing deals that esports team Team Liquid has executed with anime publisher Viz Media (for Naruto Shippuden) and anime distribution/streaming service Crunchyroll (Mob Psycho 100) mark both a further strengthening of long-standing bonds between anime and eSports and a confirmation of esports players as celebrities in their own right.
The crossover has spilled over into co-branded apparel relatively recently as some esports players gained celebrity status with their fans and, in conjunction with teams, have become brands.
Support from Stars
“We are testing the water to see where it makes sense and, in some respects, it is both reinforcing the fan base and the relationship between gaming and anime,” says John Leonhardt, Head of Consumer Products at Crunchyroll, the anime distribution/streaming service. “These emerging stars in esports aren’t unlike athletes in other sports in that if they love something, they know they have the cult of personality to make it happen, so they go after it. They are not doing it as much for upside as embracing their passion. For us, any IP they pick is going to bring us new fans because of the platform they have.”
A good eSports battle has many of same elements of successful anime: heroes, villains, tense duels and twists. And while anime characters have increasingly made cameos in videogames, and many properties have strong licensing programs on their own; the quick sell-out of limited edition co-branded Team Liquid/Naruto hoodies, t-shirts, sweats, hats parkas and other apparel in February points to a further convergence of those entertainment businesses.
Defining the Crossover
Half of Crunchyroll’s users identify themselves as hardcore gamers, while 40% say they watch eSports, according to a Crunchyroll survey of more than 10,0000 users. Looking to leverage the connection, Crunchyroll previously has offered free trial subscriptions to its service to fans of the Cloud9 and Team Liquid esports teams.
“There’s a very high correlation between anime and eSports,” says Alexander Lee, Senior Manager Licensing and Business Strategy at Viz Media, noting that many gamers choose anime characters as their avatars. “Both are early adopters of technology and they know where to find the content that they want. They also are more apt to try out new content compared to those that stick to TV media. That type of curiosity translates well with anime.”
The design and style for team collaborations is often set by their top players, who often choose their favorite anime IP to work with. Larger, better-funded esports teams typically design and source the apparel themselves, keeping the collections small – 4-6 pieces in 2-3 styles in the case of Team Liquid/Mob Psycho 100 and 15 pieces with Team Liquid/Naruto – and prices premium. The Naruto collection ranges from $35-$100 for Liquid X Ninja custom t-shirt and Leaf Village parka, respectively. ((The Mob Psycho 100 collection is due later this year.)
Deals are generally short term – 6 months to a year in many cases – and payment terms can vary. For example, the royalty rate for a direct-to-consumer collection – the Naruto line is sold from the Team Liquid web site – is typically 10-12% versus 14-16% for a wholesale agreement, says Lee. Minimum guarantees also are lower than for a larger, longer-term deal. The lower royalty rate and MG also are tied to Team Liquid’s expected use of marketing to promote the products, says Lee.
“It’s an in and out collection with a capped volume on pre-sale or inventory basis,” says Leonhardt. “We want them (the teams or players) to put their own spin on the collection because they have design aesthetics they want to see. Plus we want it to be unique and not competitive with our [wholesale] licensees, so our licensees support it because it’s another way of shining a light on” the property.
Esports teams, having worked around the edges of licensing for the past several years with celebrity-based collaborations — an actor Michael B. Jordan/Naruto/Coach combination comes to mind –increasingly are focusing on the co-branded business.
For example, Team Liquid’s Michael Artress shifted in 2020 from manager of its team for the League of Legends game to Licensing Manager as Liquid launched a co-branded deal with Marvel. ESports team/gaming apparel brand 100 Thieves’ owner and player Michael “Nadeshot” Haag, owner of (and a player for) team/gaming apparel brand 100 Thieves, frequently posts artwork featuring concept designs/mashups of anime characters clad in team apparel. The team also has a retail store in Los Angeles. And eSports team Faze Clan has worked with streetwear brand Siberia Hills on collections that feature non-branded anime-themed Call of Duty-themed apparel.
“I am not sure there is a Team Liquid/Mob Psycho fan out there, but I am sure that a Mob Psycho fan might hear about the collaboration and look into it and vice versa,” says Leonhardt.