Louis Vuitton has branded a lethal weapon with its signature monogram pattern. But the item in question is strictly virtual: the circular blade belongs to Qiyana, one of the heroes in PC gaming behemoth League of Legends.
The weapon is part of a bespoke outfit the fashion house created for the game, and is just one example in a growing trend of luxury brands, including watch brands, attempting to reach new audiences by creating virtual items for video games.
League of Legends, which was launched by American company Riot Games in 2009, is one of the most-played PC games in the world, with 8m players online at peak times. To make their heroes stand out, players can select different costumes or “skins”, which they win by completing in-game challenges or buy with real money.
The Louis Vuitton partnership plays out in both the virtual and physical world. Nicolas Ghesquière, the fashion house’s artistic director of women’s collections, designed custom skins for two League of Legends heroes and followed it with a real-world collection inspired by the game. These products range from coats to bracelets to a digital face for the brand’s Tambour Horizon watch, emblazoned with an animation of Qiyana’s annular weapon.
Number of in-game virtual Tissot watches sold up until November 2019
In a similar move, Tissot has expanded its five-year partnership with the American NBA into the NBA 2K game series. In the latest edition, NBA 2K20, players can spend virtual currency on clothing for their players, which includes virtual Tissot watches. Up until November, 113,309 Tissot watches had been “purchased” virtually according to Swatch, owner of the brand. Louis Vuitton declined to provide any figures for its own collaborations.
Francesca Muston, fashion director at trend forecasting company WGSN, says that spending real money on virtual fashion may appear to many as “counterintuitive” at first. However, she adds: “The amount of hours spent gaming along with the social visibility in online gaming communities means virtual purchases can feel like money well spent.” As younger generations spend ever more time playing games, it is becoming increasingly important for brands to establish a presence in these virtual spaces.
The increase in video game advertising is partly a reaction to changes in how ads reach young people. The significance of television advertising is in slow decline, partly due to the rise of platforms like Netflix and Amazon Prime which do not serve ads. The impact of online ads, meanwhile, is diminished by tech-savvy users who install ad-blockers on their browsers. This has left many industries looking for new avenues to reach target markets.
Games present a good opportunity, says Ms Muston, because they “allow for more interactivity with the product than many forms of traditional advertising”, and so provide “great positioning for luxury, aspirational lifestyle products”. A player is not just looking at the product passively; they are picking it out and trying it on with their avatar, a digital proxy of themselves.
Industry analyst Newzoo estimates there are more than 2.5bn gamers globally. While the gender and age range of gamers are far broader than most people realise, this pool contains significant cohorts from younger demographics and Asian markets.
Value of in-game asset market
Both League of Legends and Louis Vuitton are particularly popular in China: the country is by far the game’s biggest market. Indeed, competitive play of League is the country’s third-biggest sport, according to Riot Games, following football and basketball. And Louis Vuitton has announced plans to hire 1,500 new manufacturing staff by 2022 to meet growing demand in China.
It is crucial for a brand to pick a game where its products make sense. The collaboration between toy company Hot Wheels and car game Rocket League is a natural fit. The Sims 4 has a dollhouse element that lends itself to fashion partnerships: in 2019 Moschino created outfits for the game and launched Sims-inspired clothing.
These deals point to shifts in the gaming world which make successful brand partnerships more appealing. Games are frequently updated with new content, so brands can introduce fresh products swiftly rather than planning for a game’s multiyear development cycle. Meanwhile, the purchase of skins is becoming widespread as gamers use cosmetic upgrades as a form of digital self-expression.
While these tie-ups are appealing as advertising, virtual fashion may become a significant sales opportunity in itself. Digital asset marketplace Wax estimates the in-game asset market is worth more than $50bn. Tom Singlehurst, head of European education and media research at Citi Research, suggests the value to players of certain skins derives from both in-game prestige and the fact that, in some games, these objects are tradeable. Riffing on one watch brand’s slogan, he adds that, perhaps one day, “we might treat them like a Patek Philippe: you never actually own a Fortnite skin, you merely look after it for the next generation”.
Several analysts expect luxury brands to expand further into games. “There will be an adoption curve in the same way there was a gradual adoption of buying fashion online, especially for the luxury market,” says Ms Muston. “Any brand or retailer with an eye on the future will absolutely be thinking about their relevance in the gaming space.”