Do you game, bro? Do you know what it feels like to be in a multiplayer online battle with some other bros that you’ve probably never met but would put your life on the line for, without a second thought, on the virtual battlefield? And then do you know what it feels like to slide off your chair because you don’t have enough grip on your shoes to maintain your gaming stance during a raid?
Apparel brands like Puma are betting that you do. Late last year, the company released its first-ever active gaming footwear, “designed for indoor and in-arena use.” These $105 shoes that look like socks are part of a burgeoning trend of apparel developed specifically around esports: Earlier in 2019, Fortnite star Ninja signed a multiyear apparel deal with Adidas, while Nike released its first esports jerseys.
But again, jerseys are one thing — esports does, in fact, include a variety of professional teams, so it makes sense. But shoes? Why do gamers — who specialize in a sport that’s played primarily using the person’s hands, almost exclusively while sitting down — even need shoes?
It’s a question that I’m not alone in asking, and witheringly sarcastic reviews litter the product’s reviews pages, all making fun of both the idea of gamer shoes and gamer culture (or rather, gamer stereotypes) writ large. “I have never been very good at Dota [a multiplayer mod for the video game Warcraft III: Reign of Chaos],” writes PETERBOAT. “Unfortunately, I often slid off of my computer while playing which resulted in many deaths and a low MMR. However, since I bought these socks I have found many formidable gaming stances which allow me to carry my teams. The other day, Dendi [professional Dota player] himself tried to add me as a Steam friend. However, I was so excited that I slid right off my PC once again and broke both of my legs and tail bone. This is why I have only given four stars.”
Even gamers themselves admit, in their more sincere reviews, that, well, they’re sort of a joke. As Will Judd, of EuroGamer, writes, “One of the most enticing parts of the Active Gaming Footwear proposition came on its product page, which promises four different all-caps ‘modes’: SEEK, ATTACK, CRUISE and DEFENSE, each providing a different element of grip, support and stability. Unfortunately, these modes are just marketing nonsense; the shoes can only be worn one way and there’s not even a useless mode selector switch or something to pay lip service to the product description. I didn’t expect that the shoes would start driving around on their own in SEEK mode, but even an RGB light with different effects would have been nice!”
When testing the shoes during an online match, Judd “felt no better prepared with the Pumas on as with any other foot covering — or even none at all.”
So what gives? If these overpriced shoes that look like they belong on a smart-casual ninja aren’t actually helping gamers game the system, what’s their purpose?
The most straightforward answer, of course, is that there’s serious money to be made in the gaming industry. According to Statista.com, the esports market is expected to generate close to $1.8 billion in revenue by 2022. That means that anyone with a solid marketing department will be looking to stamp their initials on the leaderboard of gaming-adjacent products. “All of this blows my mind, because we’re talking about making a performance shoe for an esports player,” Patrick Buchanan, K-Swiss’ global marketing director, told GQ last year. “We’re in uncharted territory.” Per the same GQ article, “K-Swiss and Buchanan are in the process of developing a sneaker with collapsible heels, like those Gucci loafers, because players like to slip their shoes on and off during play. There’s a vent to let air flow through the shoe, too, because gamers’ feet get sweaty.”
And while that all sounds super fancy, it’s hard not to think that the simplest solution for a — again, seated — gamer to keep their feet dry is to not wear any shoes at all. But this misses the point: Only the most naive basketball fan truly believes that pair of Jordans is going to make them better on the court — instead, it’s all about presenting yourself as both a fan, and a person of means. In his review of the aforementioned K-Swiss version of active gamer footwear for VICE, Matthew Gault explains, “These shoes let me be lazy in style. They announce to the world that I’m the kind of person who can afford fancy sneakers — these run $125 — but provide the comfort of a house shoe. And these are house shoes; besides gaming, they’re suitable for leisure and social flexing during a house party or at a gaming event.”
In other words, the “gaming shoes” are mostly for looks, but the fact that they’re selling at all has the attention of the fashion world. Just last year, Vogue reported that the entire industry was taking cues from gaming. “The fashion industry — wise to the opportunity to connect with younger, as well as female customers — wants a slice of the gaming pie,” it explained. “Two new apps launching this autumn are aimed squarely at women who love trying and buying clothes. Drest is a new app from Lucy Yeomans, the former magazine editor and Net-a-Porter.com alumnus, that allows the user to dress up an avatar using in-game currency and complete a series of style challenges.”
Really, this is all part of the same old cycle: Amateurs, particularly fans, like buying shit that helps them feel like their professional heroes. Sure, they’ll never make it to the heights of a professional esports player, but that doesn’t mean their wanting to feel like a pro is any less viable than that person wearing their Jordans. And remember — Michael Jordan himself is investing in esports teams these days, too.
At the end of the day, gamers are, if nothing else, passionate, so of course they want to feel like they’re taking every advantage to better their game — even if it’s utterly bullshit.