Selling Virtual Jerseys for Real Dollars

Disruptive Publishers saw retail revenue jump to more than $11 million in 2012 from $1 million in 2009.

Vancouver firm makes real dollars selling custom virtual apparel by tapping into the consumer drive to stand out

Hunting for the perfect getup for your avatar to wear while you peruse the menu on your video gaming console can be a frustrating first world problem, but a Vancouver-based company is here to help—and make a good living in the curious business of personalizing virtual spaces.

Disruptive Publishers can get the digital you a new pair of high-top sneakers or that Chicago Blackhawks jersey you’ve been eyeing. They can sell you a canine sidekick for three dollars. They’ll even dress you up as Superman, but a full costume might cost you a fiver. None of it is real, of course, except the bill.
The company’s creations exist strictly online, amid the colossal collection of original designs and licensed apparel from real-life brands such as Puma and Billabong on sale for real-life dollars on the Xbox Avatar Marketplace and the Sony PlayStation Network, the gift shops of the two entertainment houses long at war for dominion over legions of gamers that are no longer just men aged 18 to 40.

Gaming is just exploding these days and women are definitely a big part of it. We make sure all of our stores have female apparel,” said Julia O’Hara, director of business development at Disruptive Publishers, which now employs 20 staff, many of them animators and modellers, and saw retail revenue jump to more than $11 million in 2012 from $1 million in 2009. “I don’t think anyone anticipated that purchasing virtual apparel for their avatar was what people would really love about their Xbox, but in time that’s sort of what it became,” O’Hara said.
Changes are afoot, as Playstation 4, the latest Sony gaming offering, doesn’t offer customizability out of the box, but O’Hara said that’s also been the case with previous platforms: push the newest games out first, then when that market is saturated, break out the custom add-ons.
And research into the consumer psychology of Millennials—young folks with custom dubstep ringers and Hello Kitty cases on their smartphones—suggests personalization of the digital space isn’t going away anytime soon, said Katherine White, chair of marketing and behavioural science at the University of British Columbia’s Sauder School of Business.

“I see the psychological motive. It’s just this drive to express one’s distinctiveness, even if it’s in a virtual setting there’s still that desire to be different,” White said. “It’s hedonic enjoyment and a little bit of a need for distinctiveness.”