Interview with TSM | ZeRo: Selling Personal Merch

persistent blade

Surprising almost no one, Super Smash Con was amazing once again. Even from the comfort of my office, I had a blast watching panels, seeing amazing feats of combo goodness, and watching some intense matches. We got to see a new karate frog for Rivals of Aether, Icons is looking better than ever, and Nairo defended his crown.

That all being said, none of these incredible story lines interested me half as much as what ZeRo was doing all weekend. Sure, he tore through the bracket all the way until the end, but what really caught my eye was the fact that he had purchased booth space at the convention. This was not a TSM merch table, or a corner of someone else’s booth. ZeRo and his crew had brought piles of ZeRo-branded merchandise to sell at the convention. The implications of this were incredibly exciting to me, and my head was swirling with thoughts of how to build a lesson for the Smash community as a whole from this. To that end, earlier this week I reached out to ZeRo to pick his brain about his experience running a merch booth at a convention. Because he’s among the better humans out there, he graciously took the time to answer my questions. Huge thanks to ZeRo for this interview, let’s get into it!

Making Bank

First of all, let’s set the table a bit. For those who weren’t at Smash Con, or have never attended a convention, there’s usually a section completely dedicated to buying stuff. Vendors come to sell hand-crafted hats, content creators bring their t-shirts and posters, and there are usually even a few booths selling retro video games. Nestled among all of those traditional vendors was the ZeRo booth. Scarves, t-shirts, and posters were all on display. Fans could walk up to the booth at any time during the Con and buy gear from the best player in the world. When he wasn’t playing or fulfilling other obligations, ZeRo was seated at the booth ready to meet the fans buying his gear, and to sign their purchases upon request.

While it seems like a brilliant plan, setting up a merch booth at a con is a risky proposition. There are significant up-front costs to consider. You have to have all of your gear shipped to the convention, you have to pay the con for floor space, and you have to have products that people will actually want to buy. Further, there’s a tough guessing game involved in how much merch you bring. You want to bring exactly enough to sell out on the last day of the convention; bring too much and you have to pay to ship the leftovers back home, bring too little and you lose out on potential revenue and piss off customers. ZeRo could have easily come to this convention, discovered there weren’t a ton of people who wanted to buy a scarf, and lost a ton of money at the end of the weekend. Fortunately, this was not the case.

“The booth did phenomenal,” ZeRo said. “I completely covered all expenses I did and went into the green. I was a little worried because I would have to manage the tournament, and oversee the booth (though I did have two people running it) so I wasn’t sure what to expect. In the end, the response was amazing. Many friends and people I know from the community visited and bought things, and a lot of fans also came through. There was also potential for me to do better if I had the time to be there all weekend at the booth, since every time I was there sales did better, but obviously I don’t have a clone ninjutsu…for now.”

Ancient ninja arts aside, ZeRo’s comments are encouraging. Not only did avoid a loss, but actually walked away from the weekend with a net profit from the booth. Even if he had bustered out in pools, he would have made money on the weekend. In fact, he may have made more money had he been knocked out of the tournament since sales spiked when he was at the booth. There are a number of implications from these thoughts which we’ll explore in a bit. For now, let’s hear a bit more from ZeRo.

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A One Time Thing?

Super Smash Con is a unique experience that lends itself perfectly to this experiment. “It may work at another tournament,” said ZeRo, “but it definitely helped that SSC had SO MANY PEOPLE THERE. Not just competing, but also there to meet their favorite players, or to enjoy the con.” He added, “I think it’s best at the moment, at SSC, which is why I did it.” So if another player wants to try this experiment, can it only work at Smash Con? As ZeRo explains, having a higher volume of foot traffic increases your odds of making sales. Most tournaments don’t draw lots of attendees who aren’t also focused on the tournament, so can you be as successful only selling to competitors?

Again, I think the implications here are staggering and provide some lessons for the community as a whole. Either way, ZeRo is encouraged to try again. “I’m not sure how it would do at other tournaments, but this isn’t the [last] time my booth is gonna be at an event I’m playing at, for sure.”

Tight Tournament, Better Booth

While the booth was an unquestionable success, there were still struggles and lessons to learn. According to ZeRo, issues with the tournament can dramatically impact the booth’s operation.

“The biggest issue was scheduling. SSC had crazy schedule issues with the tournament running late, certain rules changing such as [best of five] happening later due to time constraints and stuff like that. What this meant was that I had to miss some meets at my booth which definitely hurt things a bit in the end. Unfortunately my schedule was super tight all weekend, so a few hours of a difference was a game changer. Maybe for some other event where I’m less overworked I can manage the schedule better, so we’ll see.”

This is the biggest hurdle in front of any player looking to sell their own merch. As ZeRo explained, the success of the booth hinged on his ability to physically be there to meet fans and customers. A fan who came up just to meet their favorite player may make an impulse purchase just to have something cooler to get signed. That foot traffic doesn’t happen if someone else is watching the booth. When deciding to set up a booth, it seems that much of your ability to turn a profit could depend on the capability of the TOs running the event.

What Did We Learn Today

So, the most important takeaway from my discussion with ZeRo is this: Smash fans want to buy stuff. People come to a convention with the intent to spend money on swag. While we need more data to determine how successful this strategy can be outside of Smash Con, the first test run was an unmitigated success. However, there are a few specific takeaways which I think will inform the success of a merch booth moving forward. I want to talk about how these lessons apply to players interested in doing the same, but also how this interview should inform event organizers moving forward.

Players

First, ZeRo’s booth was not just successful because he’s one of the most popular players. Obviously that helped, but if his merch had sucked, no one would have bought it. The booth would have done way worse if he just had a bunch of black t-shirts with “ZeRo” written on them. Instead, ZeRo leaned on his personal brand. He used the things that are distinct about him as a persona in the community. Specifically, he had scarves, something entirely unique to him in the community, and he had PersistentBlade merch. Both the scarf and PersistentBlade are things which ZeRo has been using as a part of his brand for a long time. He is closely associated with both, and the community as a whole has an affinity these parts of his personal brand. With PersistentBlade there’s the risk of potential copyright infringement now that he’s selling merch online, but that’s a conversation for another time. The takeaway for any player looking to run their own booth is this: make sure you have a brand, and sell merch consistent with your brand.

Mr. R would do best selling Milk First swag, ANTi would kill with gear that says “lavish” or “respect women”, Locus could sell a daily calendar full of inspirational quotes and dad jokes. Look me dead in the eye and tell me you wouldn’t buy an Ally bobblehead if Ally himself was standing there nodding as he counted out your change.

If you’re a player looking to diversify your income, you have to first build yourself a marketable brand within the community. If you’re unsure how to do that, talk with your team, I guarantee they have someone with a marketing background on staff, or know who to contact. Failing that, hi there, I’m Trent–esports consultant. My rates are super reasonable.  Seriously though, DM me and I’ll be glad to help out.

The other lesson here is the challenge of running a booth yourself. Meeting the player has a direct correlation to profit in this instance, but you cannot be at your booth 100% of the time. You need to focus and prepare for matches, play money matches, get mobbed by fans on the floor to sign stuff, participate in awkwardly shoehorned crew battles–your plate is full!

My suggestion to this would be to team up. Split the booth fee between three players, and you can take shifts manning the booth. You can draw from each other’s fanbase, and keep the flow of foot traffic even while some of you are playing your pools matches. There are obviously some logistics to work out, but I genuinely think this could represent a massive influx in income for top players, and a way for some players to come out of  a tournament ahead on cash even if they don’t make it far in bracket.

Organizers

I’ve been beating this drum for a year now, but organizers HAVE to make their events more of an experience. Merch booths are a part of that process. You increase your local traffic because people know that even if they aren’t competing, they’ll get a cool experience if they show up. Top players can attend more events because they can make more money from their attendance. You can recoup your venue cost, and even afford larger venues because you are selling real estate in the venue.

You could even partner with a few players to increase traffic to your own merch booth. Set a rotation where a few players will be selling their own gear at your booth. If I went to the 2GG merch table so I could buy a Captain Zack face mask, you think I’m not going to also pick up an SRC saga charm, or a Team ZeRo wristband?

To me, this is the future of FGC event organization. Diversify your revenue sources, increase attendance beyond just tournament attendees, and make more money per person. This represents a symbiotic relationship between player and TO, the potential here is staggering.

 

I want to give another huge thanks to ZeRo for taking the time. Compared to other outlets asking for interviews, I’m nobody and he still put a ton of thought into his answers to my questions. Let me know your thoughts on player merchandise! Who’s swag would you want? What would get you to shell out 20 bucks? Where should ZeRo bring his merch booth next?

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