When Damian Estrada requested to make the transition from 1UP Studios to Team Liquid's creative director for the 2019 competitive esports season, he set specific goals for his new position. He described pitching these ideas to Team Liquid founder, co-owner and co-CEO Victor "Nazgul" Goossens as nerve-wracking but hopeful. When Goossens was silent for most of Estrada's pitch, Estrada's hopes fell. "I thought I was doomed," he wrote in the blog post announcing his new position in the company.
Yet Goossens was on board and gave Estrada the green light to assume the title of creative director alongside creating a unifying vision for Team Liquid. Before he took on the role, Team Liquid's branding varied depending on esport. The League of Legends team alone had already gone through several iterations, with the only unifying brand concept the memetic "Paid for by Steve" phrase, referencing Team Liquid co-owner and co-CEO Steve "LiQuiD112" Arhancet. Despite being an established brand in content, particularly the Team Liquid series of websites, and strong roots in Starcraft and Dota 2, the organization lacked a clear branding direction.
"The initial goal with transitioning from creative director of 1UP Studios to creative director of Team Liquid was to help bring the brand together," Estrada said. "We needed to build a new department that focused on developing brand continuity and a single visual direction and aesthetic."
Estrada's vision for where the Team Liquid brand and merchandise development would go eventually took him down the road of childhood nostalgia. Growing up watching the X-Men and Spider-Man animated series, Estrada was still a massive comic book fan by the time he started his esports career.
"As I grew into my teens I spent time reading comics and playing the [trading card game] 'Vs' which highly featured Marvel characters," Estrada said. "My fandom deepened when the first [Marvel Cinematic Universe] film 'Iron Man' was released. I was already invested in the Marvel brand, but seeing Robert Downey Jr. bring Tony Stark to life was incredible."
Outside of Team Liquid, the Marvel extended universe was the one brand to which Estrada paid close attention, consuming a variety of content from the comics and films themselves to film analysis and narrative theories. When tasked with coming up with the "craziest thing they could do for the next year" at the end of 2018, Estrada immediately turned to Marvel.
"I spent most of that year thinking about how to make us relevant to the comic-con audience. I kept asking myself, 'If I was not into esports in a deep way, what would make me go all-in with a team?' Then the obvious hit me! We needed to build a relationship with Marvel that was more than an ad buy or movie review," Estrada said. "So, we threw together some really rough visuals and pitched it!"
The two largest tasks ahead for Estrada and his team were coming up with something that Marvel would also want to be a part of, and marrying the two brands in a way that made narrative sense.
"We knew the more obviously hero-inspired jerseys would grab attention," Team Liquid productions and logistics manager Logan Leavitt said. "If we win a tournament looking like Captain America, for example, it's almost impossible to not talk about the collaboration. In this way the brand combination was Team Liquid competitive prowess with a Marvel paint job. The result is our players becoming heroes in their own right."
Estrada said the previous branding iterations of Team Liquid were more buttoned-up and serious, which didn't portray an interesting brand or a consistent vision outside of the fact that Team Liquid owned professional teams who took esports seriously. Any pitch to Marvel and eventual collaboration would have to be bolder, louder and say something about Team Liquid overall. Instead of looking outward, he again drew on his own graphics skills to design several mock jerseys around Team Liquid and Quantum Realm, Captain America and Iron Man.
"Needless to say, they looked super wonky," Estrada said. "There was no elegance when it came to how pieces laid out in the first rounds. After 60-plus hours in Photoshop and three to four physical samples, I unlocked a part of my brain that understood what would and what would not look good on a human body. We went with the Captain America jersey as the lead design."
The jersey concepts went to Team Liquid COO Mike Milanov, Arhancet, and Goossens. They were then shown to aXiomatic CEO Bruce Stein, who helped get them in front of Marvel. The Liquid x Marvel collaboration was underway.
"Marvel is very willing to accept pitches and concepts. The main thing they were interested in was seeing our players as heroes on stage, lifting trophies -- in videos," Estrada said. "The focus was on the players because to some fans they are larger-than-life heroes. It is part of what inspired the on-the-nose custom style direction of the Year 1 jerseys."
ESPN Daily newsletter: Sign up now!
During the journey from concept to the physical launch of the first collection pieces, Estrada stressed that the most important focus was ensuring that the two brands made sense together. There are reasons why Captain America fits conceptually and Wolverine doesn't.
"Some of the most flattering feedback we received was that the collab 'made sense,'" Leavitt added. "For a lot of people their first reaction was to turn their head, but after thinking for a bit they understood. This was the why that we pushed through our marketing and the way we positioned the collab. It was all born of passion and genuine fandom, so it felt great when that clicked and we received praise."
The fan response was immediate and positive. What surprised Estrada and his team more was how receptive players were to the collaboration as well. By partnering with a beloved IP whose popularity transcended many boundaries, Team Liquid had found something that excited its players more than usual. Although Team Liquid was known for winning onstage, Leavitt remarked that the Marvel collaboration unified teams and players within the organization offstage.
"Let's be honest with ourselves. Most players only care deeply about the games they are playing professionally," Estrada said. "Shockingly, many of our players were really excited about our collaboration. One that stands out in my memory was the CS:GO team was surprisingly really about it. [Jacky] "Stewie" [Yip] asked to be Spider-Man, [Russel] "Twistzz" [Van Dulken] mentioned many times that his favorite was Hawkeye and [Nicholas] "nitr0" [Cannella] was very interested in representing Captain America."
As Team Liquid continues to grow and evolve on- and offstage, the challenge for Estrada, Leavitt and the entire merchandising and branding team will be continuing this success and using the feedback they received for the rest of 2020. More recently, that meant a new Black Widow collaboration as part of the Marvel x Team Liquid branding. Estrada described it as a way to set expectations for future capsules and collections.