Cat ear headphones, customized keyboards, and colorful gaming consoles are the markers of Gen Z’s latest craze: the gamer girl aesthetic.
Popularized on TikTok – related posts have clocked up over 50 billion views – the Japanese school girl-inspired look has unsurprisingly made its way to China, the world’s largest gaming market. On social media platform Xiaohongshu, the hashtag “esports girl” (#电竞少女) has racked up over 72 million views, with users sharing their cute outfits and dedicated gaming stations.
Fashion and gaming have long had a close-knit relationship. Launching character skins, creating trophies for competitions, and collaborating with esports professionals are just a few ways brands have cashed in over the years.
But when it comes to physical apparel collections, branded merchandise tends to lean into masculine or unisex styles, despite women making up almost half of the country’s gamers. For example, Diesel’s capsule collection with Chinese League of Legends esports club WBG features women’s items that are identical to the men’s, just cropped, while Ralph Lauren’s Fortnite line comprises gender-neutral polos and jogger pants.
Yet, as the gamer girl trend shows, women are not afraid to make their presence known in this male-dominated space. Below, we take a look at how the hyper-feminine aesthetic has taken off in China and the opportunities brands have to power up in the market.
Cyber fashion is all the rage as anime, comics and games culture booms
One of the biggest trends to look out for in 2023 is “sci-fi” fits, according to a Pinterest report. From 2020 to 2022, searches for “gamer girl look” on the platform skyrocketed 3,370 percent, while searches for “cyber streetwear” and “futuristic glasses” both increased 70 percent.
Alizila, Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba’s media outlet, echoes this prediction, listing esports as one of the top trends among young Chinese consumers this year. In 2022, esports-related consumer goods, such as gaming chairs and keyboards, generated gross merchandise value of $1.4 billion (10 billion RMB) on Tmall, with 44 percent of purchases driven by women.
The boom in gamer fashion naturally follows a surge in the activity itself. Gaming’s popularity as a pastime increased when people were stuck at home during the pandemic; in 2020, China’s local mobile gaming revenue grew 31 percent year-on-year to $29.2 billion, its highest annual growth rate since 2017, according to Niko Partners. The consulting firm predicts that the number of gamers will climb from 702 million in 2022 to 754.5 million in 2026.
“[Virtual reality] games have become an increasingly popular option for fashion brands and a key marketing channel for special launches,” explains Aurore Legentil, a marketing manager at consumer intelligence platform Ipsos Synthesio, which recently published a report on TikTok fashion aesthetics. “So it’s not just the consumers, but also the fashion industry that is seeking to combine virtual technology with the presence of fashion and thus creating these new aesthetics.”
Alongside gaming, the broader the ACG (anime, comics, games) community has developed massively over the past five years or so and has long since been accepted in China, says Hanyu Liu, a project manager at Daxue Consulting.
“In regards to gamer fashion, trends are mostly being set by streamers,” Liu tells Jing Daily. “While this type of fashion is not necessarily taboo, it is by no means mainstream. However, there are more and more people, especially females in Tier-1 cities, who feel comfortable sporting anime or esports-inspired attire on the streets.”
Gamer girl with Chinese characteristics
A version of kawaii, or Japanese cuteness, the gamer girl aesthetic often features cat ear headphones, Japanese school uniforms, and anime or Sanio accessories that create a playful, feminine vibe. Although in China, some girls incorporate streetwear apparel or heavier makeup to give it an edgier spin.
“In China, the terms ‘e-girl’ and ‘gamer girl’ are often used interchangeably on social media,” says Sherry He, a cultural and marketing consultant at Cherry Blossoms Intercultural Marketing. “Different from the typical makeup styles popular in society, which focuses on the natural and reserved look, ‘e-girl’ style allows young Chinese to create a unique, unconventional and striking look that reflects their personality and interests.”
But just as important as the outfits and makeup is the home setup; this includes computer monitors, tech gadgets, gaming chairs, headphones, mouse pads, and LED lights. In fact, “esports room” (#电竞房) has triple the views, 230 million, that the “gamer girl” hashtag has on Xiaohongshu.
Because the aesthetic encompasses more than just clothing, it has paved the way for niche brands to enter the spotlight. Take Yowu, a Chinese electronics brand designed for Gen Z consumers who are strongly influenced by gaming and cyberspace, for instance.
Yowu has gained a reputation in China for turning tech accessories into fashion statements. Signature products include headphones in the shape of cat ears — marketed “for magical girls” — and earphones that resemble elven ears, retailing at over $100 each on Amazon. Since its launch in 2018, the brand has sold half a million pairs of headphones, mostly to consumers aged between 16 and 25, reports Alizila.
“Yowu is a bit of a special case, as headphones are a combination of fashion and utility,” says Liu. “They’re not something you can wear outdoors, but the unique design is certainly something to show off on social media.”
Marketing to women in gaming
Thanks to the virality of platforms like Douyin, many trends emerge, take hold, and die out faster than many brands can keep up. That said, “trend signals can also be an indicator of emerging consumer preferences and behaviors, which can help brands stay ahead of the curve, better meet consumers’ needs, and identify opportunities for innovation,” Legentil adds.
For luxury brands that want to reach China’s female gamers, there are many approaches they could take. For starters, fashion houses could collaborate with anime or gaming IP to create whimsical collections that fit the gamer girl aesthetic; think Jimmy Choo’s tie-up with schoolgirl crime fighter Sailor Moon, or Chloé’s partnership with the Sanrio rabbit character My Melody.
Brands could also take a cue from Yowu by creating accessories that are both functional and style-forward. “Gaming equipment brands like Razer and Logitech can create product lines that cater to this trend, featuring cute and colorful designs for keyboards, mice, and earphones,” He suggests.
Ultimately, female gamers value high-quality gaming equipment and apparel just as their male counterparts do, meaning that products marketed to them must meet the same standards of functionality, durability and performance. As He cautions, “Don’t compromise on quality in the pursuit of femininity.”
While China’s gamer girl aesthetic refers to a specific TikTok-inspired look, women who game come in all styles. Zeroing in on a specific internet trend can establish relevance in the short term, but focusing on how to better serve these consumers — whether from an aesthetic or functional standpoint — will be how brands unlock the next level.