You may want to customize your arcade stick’s artwork for many reasons. One reason is that you do not like the original artwork of a certain arcade stick. Another reason could be that, although you like the original artwork, you would still like something different, such as something that represents your personality and the games you play. You may even be a sponsored player who would like to represent his or her sponsor through arcade stick art!

Isla, Kula, and Iori artwork
Isla, Kula, and Iori artwork
King of Fighters art by Carlos Rios

The Two Main Methods

Whichever motive you may have, know that you can customize your arcade stick, hitbox, mixbox, or any similar controller through two main ways:

  1. By uploading an image file, usually in PSD format, to an online seller’s website when buying a controller
  2. By inserting the artwork manually yourself

You can either obtain artwork by hiring a professional or put together the artwork yourself. First, you have to come up with the design. Then, you need to make sure that it fits the template of the controller you have in mind. Many templates are available on manufacturer’s sites or even fightstick-oriented sites.

Needless to say, make sure the joystick, buttons, and so on do not cover crucial elements of your art. For example, you do not want the joystick to cover a character’s beautiful face!

Now, uploading an image file is fairly simple, so there are no intricacies for us to go into, which is why we will simply delve into how you would insert artwork into an arcade stick yourself.

Spiderman & Venom artwork
Spiderman & Venom artwork
Marvel art by Gilbert Han

Inserting Artwork Manually

Question 1: Can your arcade stick handle custom artwork?

You can usually tell by seeing if there already is default artwork and by checking if the top panel is plexiglass or something similar with removable screws holding it down. Artwork is usually just a simple sheet.

An even easier indicator is if the manufacturer’s site has a template available to download or, again, you may be able to find a template offsite. Finally, you may have seen your same arcade stick modded by someone else online, hinting that you can probably do the same!

The above was the best case scenario. The worst case scenario is that you have to simply stick your new artwork up top without any unscrewing. However, that does not always have to lead to a low quality result…

Baiken artwork
Baiken artwork
Guilty Gear art by Marques West

Question 2: Will you or someone else design the artwork?

If you want to do it yourself, the simplest thing you can do is use your favorite image editing software to put together a design out of hi-res pictures you have found online. Just make sure you avoid copyright infringement if you are looking to make a living out of this. Otherwise, for personal use, you should be fine!

Photoshop and GIMP are the best software options. Both software are similar and highly compatible, and guides are available for both software, such as for:

  • Color changing
  • Masking
  • Clipping masks
  • Blending modes
  • Gradients
  • Halftones
  • Abstract shapes
  • Textured backgrounds

Templates are often in PSD format, allowing them to contain multiple layers. PSD files are Photoshop files, and GIMP can also open them. Out of the two software, we recommend Photoshop because GIMP may have issues with CMYK (cyan, magenta, yellow, and key), which Arcade Shock uses for templates, for instance. Any other software may present unwanted issues that do not exist within Photoshop and GIMP.

The best source for templates is Focus Attack, which also happens to be the best option for US-based artists. If your arcade stick is by a major brand and has swappable artwork, odds are that Focus Attack carries the template. All of Focus Attack’s templates are in RGB (red, green, and blue), which is an image mode with no restrictions in color. The icing on the cake is that the templates clearly indicate the layers for printing.

Arcade Shock, which we mentioned earlier, is the second best option. Although the templates are similar in quality to Focus Attack, Arcade Shock does not carry an amount of templates to the sheer extent of Focus Attack. Furthermore, since they are made with CMYK, the color palette is restricted somewhat due to their printing system.

Your final primary source for templates is individual brand sites, but the templates can vary wildly in quality, so take heed. Sometimes, you may have to contact a site to check if a certain template is not displayed directly on that site. That said, do not hesitate to run your own search for a template you may have initially struggled to find.

Simon Belmont artwork
Simon Belmont artwork
Castlevania art by Felipe Fernandez

Question 3: Does the artwork actually fit your arcade stick?

Make sure you layer the template on top of your artwork and turn colors from RGB to CMYK, which is a color scheme suitable for printing. Be aware that you may have to retweak the artwork’s colors to make them look like your original vision again. Disclaimer: you have to use the provided color mode, whether it is RGB or CMYK. Changing the color mode could mean that your art is not printed!

Optimally, your file should be a vector file that does not lose resolution as you zoom into it, but it is understandable that it is not always possible to produce a vector file as you may have incorporated fighting game or anime characters into your artwork that have large but finite resolutions.

If needed, you can use waifu2x to upscale images while reducing compression, but as you may have imagined, this is not a perfect process. More specifically, smaller details may disappear or at least appear smudged.

Now, if your artwork is sprite-based, you can use something like Lospec to upscale the sprites, but if you are using preexisting media like character renders or backgrounds, opt for a PNG. PNGs are near lossless in quality and rarely feature any type of compression, whereas JPEGs require the utmost care about aspects like image size.

Moving on, print out a cheap black-and-white version with your regular printer, cut out the joystick and button areas, and put the paper on top of your arcade stick to see if the artwork fits. Do a couple of practice sessions with a specialized knife and any hole puncher for joystick/buttons and screws respectively.

Take into consideration the overprint layer, which is a border around the main layout that is there to guide you. Always aim to extend your artwork to the overprint layer. That is primarily because the art may shift in a certain direction when printed, potentially causing visual issues if your artwork has a cutoff point where it would not be visible on the template.

If everything is good, it is time to take your file to a professional printing shop or do it yourself if you have the proper equipment. Shops may set you back a couple of dollars, well, depending on where you live. That is why you have to make sure you follow any potential requirements:

  • Some places may want you to merge all layers.
  • Some places may want it as a PNG.
  • Some places may want it without the template.

Keep in mind that templates are not necessary but still recommended when creating custom artwork. If a template does not exist, search for the dimensions of an arcade stick or measure it yourself to then create an appropriately sized canvas (if not slightly bigger). You can even try to copy parts of layouts from different templates, such as the buttons, if you are unsure how to make them yourself.

Continuing onwards, experiment with different types of paper, such as matte, to see how it looks under plexiglass. You do not want to overdo the glossiness as plexiglass already takes care of that for you. The average recommended paperweight is about 225 grams per square meter (gsm), which is much thicker than what the basic home printer usually works with. Clean your artwork and plexiglass before application to make sure there are no smudges, dust, and so on.

Eiji & Ankh artwork
Eiji & Ankh artwork
Kamen Rider art by Carlos Martinez

The Easiest Way Out

While we encourage players to take the plunge and try to go through the gritty process of applying custom artwork themselves, we also recommend starting out by simply ordering digital artwork and uploading it to an online seller upon checkout when buying an arcade stick. For that, you can hire one of our artists through our custom artwork service!

This tutorial was cowritten with Squanuu.