It’s funny how some things come to you. I’ve got a good 1500+ hours playing Team Fortress 2, and it took me a good part of them to realise that cosmetics are actually almost completely pointless since you never actually see them. They are only ever seen by other people, unless you use that weird console command that shows your body. But even then, your head isn’t visible and you don’t even get to always see unusual effects.
Aside from one obscure console command though, you’re dressing yourself up so you can look at yourself in menus. Any cosmetics you wear are normally only ever seen by team mates while waiting during setup time, or briefly by enemies who are trying to kill you and don’t really care what you are wearing. You may catch a glimpse of your awesome looks when you die, but that’s assuming you don’t explode into various body parts. Sure, you can taunt, but who does that outside of setup time or trying to get taunt kills? These days, the only cosmetics you see all the time are weapon skins.
So most of the time, in Team Fortress 2, you’re wearing cosmetics you never see. On its own, that doesn’t sound too strange, but Team Fortress 2 was the catalyst that made loot boxes popular and spawned the craze of cosmetics in crates that you unlock. Really, TF2 cosmetics are some of the more pointless cosmetics out there, especially when you can have some insanely small and tiny cosmetics, things like the Pocket Medic/Heavy items, competitive badges and the original Soldier medals that are almost unnoticeable these days.
But other games aren’t much better. Dota 2 has a lot of small cosmetics as well, that change the appearances of weapons and things like that. Dota 2 though goes a lot further with its cosmetics, having everything from complete sets of cosmetics to individual items, and your player character is seen most of the time due to the game’s top-down layout. Dota 2 also has non-character-based cosmetics though, like changing parts of the map, changing music, new announcers and more. Dota 2 goes completely ham with customizables.
I’m not saying that TF2 has the most pointless cosmetics, not by a long shot. There are more pointless cosmetics out there. If you go through the Steam Market, you’ll find all sorts of weird cosmetics. Heck, there are Counter-Strike: Global Offensive cosmetics that are stickers that go on your guns. Little tiny things. Borderlands 3 has little weapon trinkets as well but you find those in-game or buy them for Eridium. Then again, the Borderlands series has sold multiple DLCs that only really reward you with some new enemies to kill and maybe a hat or colour scheme for your rewards, but Borderlands 3 did change the character cosmetic systems to actually have separate skins and colours.
I suppose the most useless cosmetics are ones that are completely useless and not even visible. You can still find Salien costumes and items, cosmetic items for avatars that no longer exist in any way outside of an old Steam Summer Sale gimmick.
Maybe this is why most cosmetics these days, at least in FPS games, tend to be either weapon cosmetics or complete skins – makeovers that change the whole character rather than just a small part, like adding a hat or something. These are much more noticeable to both the person wearing the cosmetic and other people, which is more likely to make people want to buy cosmetics in the first place. After all, if you’re going to buy a cosmetic, you want it to be obvious, right?
Then again, Team Fortress 2 is still selling cosmetics, mostly hats and coats these days, and people are still buying them, even if there isn’t as much money in TF2 as there used to be. For items that you can only see in menus or when you’re dead, maybe all these cosmetics aren’t pointless after all.