Level up: Sneaker brands must realize gaming isn't only a boys' club

The faces of gaming have changed. Video game-themed sneakers need to change, too.

The world of gaming is notoriously unwelcoming to women.

Gamergate, a controversy that endures some six years after it began, has shown that while the world has moved forward, it still has a long way to go before it’s going to be an actually inclusive place for everyone. Gaming’s sexism problem goes far beyond the online community itself, extending even to the fashion it inspires.

While men have multitudes of options when it comes to gaming apparel — sneakers, in particular — women and non-binary gamers have nowhere near the same level of choice. Sneaker launches geared toward non-male gamers often seem like an afterthought, with options that are just slightly different and follow gender stereotypes. The debatably best designs are reserved for men or folks who can fit larger shoe sizes. Silhouettes with popular female characters are not made in sizes that fit actual women, while others only have such designs available for kids. So, why can't gaming and shoe companies figure this out?

In 2016, there was a highly anticipated Nintendo collab with Vans. The retro-inspired aesthetic stylings of old school NES pixelated art and designs from Nintendo’s wildly popular Super Mario Bros. franchise. Sadly, many of the styles from this collection were offered only in men’s sizes. Other designs, such as one featuring Princess Peach, were only offered in kids’ sizes. It was disappointing because some people couldn’t get what they wanted due to lack of size choices.

Options (Or Lack Thereof)

Puma Future Rider “Nintendo Entertainment System."Puma

With Nintendo’s Super Mario Bros. approaching its 35th anniversary, there are more of these types of collaborations coming from different shoe companies, which look to capitalize on the event with their rendition of retro designs. Puma recently dropped a collab to celebrate Super Mario with a selection of styles that, like the Vans collab with Nintendo, are a throwback to the NES golden era. It is one space that gamers of varied backgrounds, not just men, are eager to remember fondly.

Mandie Roman is a mid-thirties Twitch video game streamer also known as Geeky Glamorous and consumer products consultant living in Los Angeles. Like her moniker, she prides herself on her fashion. Sneakers are part of that fashion expression. While she knew about the Vans x Nintendo collab, she didn’t personally care for it. “I’m currently eyeing the Cyberpunk Adidas," Roman said. "But they were only released in Asia, so we’ll see if I can find them for a reasonable price.”

“I feel like I’ve had to alter my aesthetic because there are no options for me.”

Drop culture releases are basically impossible for average consumers to obtain. Folks who want to get limited-edition pairs use in-company connections, resale apps such as GOAT, or browser extension tricks to assist buy them before they sell out on launch date. Roman knows this all too well. “Releases have the really cool type of appeal that caters to influencers and tastemakers,” she said. “If you want to get one, you’re going to have to really go hard on the paint to get them as they are out of reach for people who are not meticulously following them to scoop them up when they’re announced.”

In addition to scarcity, price point also hinders access to these collaborations. Sneaker hype is often amplified in echoing waves. First, the already expensive, limited quantity sneakers are released in tiny windows with folks clamouring at the opportunity of being able to grab what's available. This then falls into the resell market, where folks sell those shoes for hundreds to thousands of dollars more than they originally cost. “I really wanted the Nike PG 2.5 x PlayStation sneakers, but I couldn’t get them because as soon as they were announced, they were gone.” Roman expressed frustration that an influencer and video Game Awards personality counterpart, Geoff Keighley, was able to acquire them because of his connections at PlayStation.


Mandie Roman.

“Most brands doing collabs are not about the shoes,” said Roman, who has experience working as a consultant specializing in licensing consumer product in the pop culture space. These skills have given her perspective about the relationship of licensing with various gaming products. “Vans, being a sneaker company, is about the shoes so [it] does better but scarcity is part of what special collabs are about. They are about hype and marketing vs. consumer-centric.” Roman is still luckier than some, though. She wears a men’s size 8 and a women’s size 10, two sizes easily accessible. Others with smaller feet are not as fortunate.

Because of the limited availability of certain designs, particularly with licensed franchises and partnerships, gamers are forced to be flexible. Celeste Kitsune Lace, who lives in North Carolina, wears a women’s size 7 and 5.5 in kids, which translates to significantly fewer pairs available during most sneaker drops. Lace has had such terrible luck getting the pairs she wants that she's now moved on to buying custom sneakers.

"Care to female audiences isn't part of sneaker companies' marketing strategy."

“I feel like I’ve had to alter my aesthetic because there are no options for me, which honestly bullshit,” Lace said with a frustrated laugh. “Like WHY CAN’T I HAVE A PAIR OF DIABLO 2 AF1s off the rack? Or why does every attire I want that’s marketed to women have to have boobs the size of my head on it or some diminutive pixie?”

She added that she felt gaming and sneaker companies would benefit from listening to the voices of their consumers. "A lot of the gaming community is made up of women, non-binary and queer folks,” Lace said. She is frustrated companies continue to ignore the real gamers and, as a result, they often seem to come off as tone-deaf with their collabs: "It’s not that hard to just have a gaming/[sneaker] Discord and ask the audience what they want."

Mindset Change

Celeste Kitsune Lace.

The problem with drop culture and hype is that it seems as if brands simply don't care about the consumer experience, since they sell their product regardless. When it comes to gaming, the lack of style options are also making people feel like the collabs are just a method of exploiting the consumer — and creating further barriers among titles in gaming.

Keisha Howard, a Black female gamer and marketer, also expressed disdain about gaming sneakers. Like others who relate to this issue, Howard mentioned concerns with how the attention and care to female audiences isn't part of sneaker companies' marketing strategy. She said other areas of gaming-inspired fashion, such as clothing and accessories, are slightly better about catering to a wider spectrum of gamers. As such, she doesn’t indulge in gaming sneakers. ”I usually find sneaks that go with my gamer apparel, which is easier to find,” Howard said.

While she knew others were excited about the Vans' and Puma's Super Mario collabs, she wanted more diverse options and styles so folks like her could feel included in the conversation. “Inclusivity is a deep and nuanced issue within the gaming industry in general which would need discussion before you would even get to the sneakers. The design can be more thematic than a character’s face,” Howard said, an issue which she feels has a major presence when it comes to sneakers marketed to women.

Ultimately, if sneaker brands truly want the market of female gamers and audiences beyond cis males, they have to start listening. A great start would be to ensure they offer inclusive sizing and style options that go beyond gender and age stereotypes. One company that's taking steps in the right direction is ULT, which launched a gaming-inspired collab with DC featuring sneakers designed to be unisex and not overpriced. The industry needs more of that, and it needs it now. Because the old way of thinking — about how video games are only for men or kids — is the old way of thinking, and it's time for sneaker brands to realize that.

Keisha Howard.