If you were to ask most people a few years ago if they would be willing to spend actual money to donate to fictional characters so that they could support them playing video games on YouTube behind 2D avatars, the responses probably would not have been particularly positive.
If anything, you would be met with confusion as to why anybody would even consider taking part in such a pointless activity. However, this year, that particular subgenre of entertainment has undergone massive growth, and Vtubers are suddenly the most prominent thing on the biggest video sharing site on the planet. But what exactly does that mean? What are Vtubers, why do people like them and what makes them so profitable?
While the exact defining features of what makes someone a “Vtuber” vary from person to person, the one that most point to as the herald of the term’s widespread usage would be Kizuna AI. Starting in 2016, Kizuna AI began uploading daily short scripted videos, introducing herself as “Virtual YouTuber, Kizuna AI!” While her channel saw a lot of traffic in her early career, many people outside of her country of origin, Japan, did not see the appeal of the videos, and thus she amassed a very niche audience overseas. However, the precedents that she set in place would go on to be the basic set of requirements for a career path she had unknowingly created.
Firstly, the cutesy anime-style avatar. Never was AI’s voice actress shown on screen, and she would always refer to herself in character, even when interacting with real people. Secondly, her movements were fluid. The person behind Kizuna AI was being rendered in real time, so her avatar matched her real-world movements. And finally, she interacted with fans. Her content bridged the gap between reality and fiction, with a fictional character talking to real people, a bit like mascot characters at theme parks or reenactors at historical attractions. These would be the things all Vtubers had in common moving forward, but one particular aspect would change the game heavily.
With the advent of Twitch and YouTube’s live streaming services becoming easily accessible and recording equipment becoming cheaper, a Japanese agency called ‘Hololive’, featuring six Vtubers who would stream periodically, launched in 2017. Over the course of the next three years, they would systematically add new talents and characters to their roster of virtual idols, referred to as ‘generations’, and these would go on to be some of the most successful entertainers on YouTube. As of today, 7 of the top 10 earners on YouTube are Vtubers, with the No. 1 spot being held by Kiryu Coco, a 5th Gen Hololive member who started last year.
From YouTube’s superchat donation system alone, she makes approximately $134,000 a month, and other members of Hololive make significant sums as well. However, while they were the first and remain the largest, they are not the only virtual idol agency on YouTube by a long shot. Nijisanji, Tsunderia, VOMS Project, and several others make up hundreds and hundreds of virtual streamers, not to mention any streamers that primarily exist on Twitch instead of YouTube.
Twitch is home to several of the most prominent English-speaking Vtubers, from the impish Ironmouse to the virtual camgirl-turned-gamer Projekt Melody. Now that Western audiences have begun to accept this as mainstream, several big-name streamers that already did IRL streams have begun to make Vtuber content as well.
People like Pokimane, RubberNinja, LilyPichu, Wolfychu, WoolieVS and Bunny_Gif have each launched their own series of videos and/or streams in which they represent themselves with a custom avatar set to mirror their movements. Hololive, never to be overshadowed, also recently launched a subsection of English-speaking Vtubers called Hololive Myth, and within a month of launching, each of their members has amassed more than 350,000 subscribers, with shark girl Gawr Gura actually reaching 978K as of writing this article.
Seeing as how this new industry is going through such huge growth, you would expect there to be some backlash, but because of how affordable, accessible, and easy it is to start producing your own Vtuber-style content using programs like Live2D, the new wave of Vtubers have managed to shake the internet without causing too much fuss.
The communities built around entertainers are tighter bound than fans of traditional celebrities, but with the difference being that everyone being followed are fictional. Sure, the streamers do not fake their personalities―the appeal is how genuine they are, after all―but nobody knows their real names, their faces, or their identities. They are, in most aspects of the term, fictional. They have become a force to be reckoned with in the gaming community, but I would argue that the reason for that has little to do with gaming itself and more to do with the relationships they build with their fan bases every stream.
These entertainers speak with their fans every day, and they listen and show genuine care for those who support them. For people in a world where going outside or hanging out with friends is a risk, this is the perfect blend of escapism and human interaction that a lot of people craved, and in a format which makes it easy to jump in at any point in time without needing context or precursor experience. If nothing else, virtual YouTubers have shown themselves as a new method through which to entertain others, and I fully expect them to only grow more in the near future.
The Wheel of Fate is Turning,