One particular breed of gamers has been popping in my YouTube recommendation feed lately. VTubers. Either because their PPC presence is strong or YouTube’s algorithm is messing with me again. But I’m seeing a lot more of them. On a daily basis no less, and I’m not even a gamer. I’m what you’d call a late bloomer. A rookie. And let me tell you… Plastic Love had a strong presence in my feed for a long time indeed, but I’m experiencing something else now. A very different surge of YouTube personalities. And those are not coming from the year 1985 either.
Long story short, it paid off, to be perfectly honest. They really got me intrigued and well, now I need to write about them. You see… As my interest in gaming has grown, my YouTube feed is now largely occupied by individual gaming channels, and the YouTube channels of the most prominent gaming companies. Think Ubisoft, Konami and more. And yes, a fair amount of movie channels, but hey… That goes without saying. Sure there are one or two cooking channels but who’s counting. And with that, Joshua Weissman, Binging With Babish and Adam Ragusea hang out with PewDiePie, Cinemascare and the Nostalgia Critic, but I digress.
But back to the topic at hand… VTubers.
Going Back To The VTuber’s Origins
One might say that the VTubers or the Virtual YouTubers are living in the Golden Age of gaming right now. Perpetuated by the current global pandemic, there’s a steady rise of VTubers on YouTube and their presence cannot be ignored. But when did it all start? Well, my sources say that the inception of the VTubers can be traced all the way back to 2016. However, the biggest momentum of this particular niche is measured in early 2018. Less than 2 years ago but it’s growing constantly.
And when I mentioned that rise earlier, I meant it. But in fact it wasn’t so steady. Kizuna AI first used the term ‘Virtual YouTuber’ and thus started the trend that we all know today. So, understandably, since early 2018, a lot more VTuber channels have started to pop up. I do mean A LOT. Out of 112 virtual celebrities with over 100k subscribers, 85 of those channels are created after January 2018. This means that most of the current influential channels were built after witnessing Kizuna AI’s success.
Oh, and the influential data tech company User Local Co., Ltd announced that the number of VTuber exceeded 8,000 on May 6 of this year. So, now several months later there might be more than 10,000 VTubers out there. And on several other streaming platforms too. Not just YouTube. They also use Bilibili, Niconico, Weido, or Twitch to gain popularity, so you can say that they’re really expanding the market.
The Appeal Is In The Fake Persona
Or the avatar if you will. This is my theory on the appeal of these virtual YouTubers. If you take a closer look at the avatars most used by these VTubers, you’ll notice that most of them are sexy, provocative and suggestive. Mimicking the appearances of young girls. And with the sultry, yet fake look, they’re selling you a certain fantasy. Who knows, there can be a 70-year-old grandma behind the avatars, but all the viewer sees the sexy schoolgirl look. It’s the mirage that the fans are after. Not the reality, and these virtual reality YouTubers use that to their full advantage. And I applaud that to be honest. I really do.
Of course, not all necessarily aim for that. Many simply focus on the “moe” aspect. Meaning cute girls doing cute things while staying in character. It might be even considered a kind of performing art, in the form of acting, while also maintaining a sort of genuineness, something resembling Japanese idols.
And we can’t exclude from the equation the possibility of people simply seeking for a sense of belonging. VTubers often interact with their audience, making them feel more accessible and familiar compared to major celebrities. As a result, some people may feel less lonely when receiving attention from their favorite VTubers, or for the simple fact that they belong to a dedicated fanbase.
The Culture Plays A Big Part Too
Speaking of dedicated fanbases, their cultural impact is palpable. From simple, silly memes to complex animations, detailed drawings and other various creations, VTubers often inspire their fanbase and bring out the best of them in the form of art. And having a well defined character really helps.
As you can probably notice, the distinct difference between VTubers and regular gaming YouTubers is that VTubers do not show their identity. They use anime (in most cases) 3D avatars that mimic their movements, expressions and pretty much everything else. Some of them dance, some of them sing as well, but most of them either play games or just interact with the fans. And according to my research, the use of avatars is ubiquitous in most Asian countries. Especially in Japan. There’s a huge emphasis on anonymity there. So what is now viewed as a trend in most western countries, is just a common practice in countries like Japan for instance. Or a common sense if you will.
Now Available In English
But one side effect from all of this, is the increase of popularity of the many Asian cultures. Because of the international fan base that’s creating the demand, the VTubers are what you call a supply. And along the way with this basic economic concept, they’re also viewed as promoters of the culture in the given country. By coincidence or not, they are. Whether it’s Japan, or China, or some other country in Asia. There’s always an interest for more. Demand and supply. Not to mention, that just recently the virtual YouTuber agency Hololive announced that they already stared activities for a new sub-project, HoloLive English. 5 brand new female avatars who now broadcast content in English. In most cases, the VTubers have subtitles for the English-speaking fans. However with this addition, the English language will broaden the market even more undoubtedly.
But don’t dismiss this novelty. Nor underestimate the instant rise of the English-speaking YouTubers. From her debut on Sep. 12th to the 16th, Gura (one of the 5 avatars I mentioned) has amassed over 300k subscribers in less than a week. Truly unprecedented in all of Hololive’s history indeed, but not unrealistic. For some it’s a logical progression of the trend that’s currently on the rise. And again…. When almost everyone is stuck at home because of the pandemic, it’s almost expected really.
The Big VTubers Names Are Rising
As I previously mentioned, there are a total of 112 virtual celebrities with over 100K subscribers. And of course, the big ones are Kizuna Ai, Lil Miquela, Ai Games, KFC and Luo Tianyi. Those are the ones with over 1 Million subscribers. But you have to understand, the VTubers are not just making income just by gaming. Oh no.
Far from it. No, their subscribers and views are just the chasers for bigger projects. Such as endorsements, sponsorship deals and partnerships with big companies. For instance, Lil Miquela regularly posts photos of herself wearing Prada merchandise. And you need to cash in a lot of $$$$$ to afford Prada that’s for sure. Or she’s promoting the high end brand so she get the stuff for tree. Either way, it’s a win-win for her. She also attends Coachella and just recently had a paid partnership with Samsung. Trashy Muse put on the world’s first virtual avatar fashion show even. But unlike some of the regular YouTubers, they’re not alone in all of this. No, they’re not doing this unattended.
Among 112 virtual celebrities with over 100K followers, over 64 are part of specialized talent agencies. They manage all their assets, creative decisions and lucrative deals. So, you can safely say they’re in good hands.
Games, Controversies And Backlash Among The VTubers
But you have to understand. Anonymous or not, most of the VTubers are not immune to backlash or controversy. As far as I can tell, there’s no in-between space allowed. There’s no grey area between regular streamers and VTubers, any sign of mixing these two areas is a big NO-NO. Playing for both teams, as the expression goes is strictly forbidden. And streamer Lily “LilyPichu” Ki knows all too well. She got a lot of bad rep when she Tweeted:
“I’m going to use a cute anime avatar to represent me on no-cam days,” she says, adding that she’s “not really a ‘vtuber.’ I’m still me! IDK what to call that.”
The same happened to the popular streamer Pokimane. After a month-long hiatus, she came back to Twitch with an avatar, and it did not sit well with the fans. Some applauded the decision, but some accused her of just cashing in on a popular trend.
What Do VTubers Actually Play?
Sure, they’re making money by gaming. But what are they’re playing exactly? Well, according to my research (thanks to Reddit) Subnautica, Hollow Knight, or the Untitled Goose Game are some of the most popular games. But I have seen the presence of GTA as well. For instance, A.I.Games is a channel born out of a partnership between Kizuna Ai and game development company Asobimo. A.I. Games channel contains her play videos with games such as Resident Evil 2, PUBG as well as other Battle Royale games such as Spellbreak and Mordhau.
Furthermore, Maya Putri is an Indonesian VTuber that regularly plays games like PUBG, Fortnite, and Apex Legends. And of course horror games like Pacify and Visage as well. But the thing is… The gameplay is just one fraction of the appeal. Most of the VTubers have a great repartee with the fans, they do a little dance, they sing from time to time. Anything that keeps the allure of their persona is good. That’s what the fans are coming to see. Sure some come for the gaming, but a decent and entertaining performance doesn’t hurt either.
What’s The Endgame?
And after all, is said and done, I have to ask. What’s the endgame of these VTubers? Is it just a fad that will go away just like any other trend? Or is it a new wave of gaming? Does it represent the future of gaming?
Frankly, I don’t know. Anime characters have always been considered a niche, and it remains to be seen how their incorporation into the gaming experience will result. In a long run that is. I can’t really safely say that they’re going to represent the future of gaming. But they’re currently living in the renaissance of the gaming era. So, yeah. I’m curious too. What do you think? Tell us in the comment section. We’d love to know all about this.