As streamers and streaming as a profession have grown in popularity over the years, there have been many cases of streamers altering their appearance to look more conventionally attractive and presentable to their target audiences. One such popular case took place last year in China, where a middle-aged woman made use of a filter to appear younger on her stream. A glitch in the filter revealed her true appearance and her followers, feeling that they’d been deceived, began to leave her channel en masse shortly after.
Altering your appearance and giving viewers the wrong idea might not be the most foolproof way to maintain a large following, as the viewers are bound to feel deceived when they get a look at the person behind the filter. But what if you didn’t need to alter your appearance? What if you didn’t need to show your face at all, and had a virtual character to do all the keeping up of appearances for you?
It won’t come as a surprise that the wacky and wonderful country of Japan that gave the world Hatsune Miku, is the same place of origin of the future of streaming: the VTuber. The term, which is short for “Virtual YouTuber”, refers to the relatively new subcategory of streamers who make use of typically anime-style avatars instead of their own faces when appearing on their streams. Over the last few years, the VTuber industry has enjoyed a steady increase in popularity, as more and more viewers are opting to watch their 3D waifu over IRL streamers, and it seems that the trend can only grow bigger as the ever-improving technology for VTubing will eventually allow for more expressive and intelligent character models.
So how did all this anime-girl-streaming come to be? And what does the VTuber community look like today? Let’s take a look at this strange streaming phenomenon in this brief introduction to the world of VTubers.
In 2016, a YouTube channel under the name A.I. Channel uploaded its first-ever video introducing Kizuna AI, who is considered to be the world’s first VTuber. In her introduction video, AI acknowledges that she is a virtual character, and coins the term “virtual YouTuber,” which would later be shortened to VTuber.
Kizuna AI would go on to later become the world’s most popular VTuber with a large following of over 5 million, spread throughout her several YouTube channels and Bilibili account. She claims to be a self-aware artificial intelligence, but many speculate that she is managed by a whole production crew that handles her character model, motion capture, voice acting, and other activities such as gaming.
For having been the originator of the term “virtual YouTuber” and providing the template that many newer VTubers are based upon, Kizuna AI is, for all intents and purposes, the world’s first VTuber, but she’s not the first 3D avatar to ever be used for vlogging. In 2011, Japanese-English YouTuber Ami Yamato uploaded her first video in which she speaks through a virtual, 3D version of herself. This is one of the earliest, if not the earliest example of a 3D avatar taking the place of a real person in a vlog. Another example of a pre-Kizuna AI virtual vlogger is Barbie, whose official YouTube channel began to upload Barbie vlogs in June 2015.
From 2016 onwards with the growth of Kizuna AI’s popularity, several other VTubers followed suit, capitalizing on character archetypes that differed from AI’s. Kizuna AI projected a pleasing and bubbly personality that made her likeable to a large audience, but certain niches were waiting to be filled with every other type of anime girl. It was a VTuber introduced in 2017 named Kaguya Luna who would soon become the #2 to Kizuna AI’s #1.
Kaguya Luna’s popularity can be mainly attributed to her somewhat brash, tsundere (hot and cold) personality. It was clearly different from Kizuna AI’s, and it showed how marketable VTubers can be when they each have their own specific personality type. Kaguya Luna’s success went on to inspire other production teams to create their own VTubers. One of the most popular VTuber “agencies” is Hololive, which boasts a following of over 5 million with their YouTube and Bilibili accounts combined. While Hololive has managed to overtake Kizuna AI’s follower count, it’s mainly because Hololive is made up of dozens and dozens of male and female VTubers, each having a distinct character design and personality.
One of the more famous Hololive VTubers is Shirakami Fubuki, a white-haired, fox-eared moe girl. She also fits a different niche from Kizuna AI and Kaguya Luna, and has a 2D motion-graphics style presentation, unlike the other two’s 3D avatars. While Hololive’s VTubers may not have the same level of quality, being 2D instead of 3D, Hololive’s advantage lies in their quantity. With a large roster of VTubers, they can have their talents collaborate on livestreams and videos, combining audiences from each character’s fandom.
The growing number of VTubers and VTuber agencies has highlighted how they all benefit from doing their own thing, and watching them feels similar to watching Haikyuu!! where each team has their own specialty that makes viewers want to root for all of them. Simply put, they all contribute to the VTuber black hole that you’ll find yourself in once you start watching a few videos.
With each VTuber averaging followers in the hundreds of thousands if not millions, it’s safe to say that they’ve become a local and international craze. Many VTubers are now branching out to become recording artists and CM (television commercial) actors, with the more famous ones being able to hold hologram concerts and big-brand product endorsements. In Japan, VTubers have become such a well-known part of popular media that some of them have been able to appear on national television, and there’s even a hilarious manga about a guy who discovers that his favorite VTuber, “Kizuke Yai” (*wink wink*) is actually his dad.
Alongside their popularity in Japan, VTubers are also considered valuable exports because of their popularity with international fans who have an interest in Japanese culture and media. With more current and flexible content schedules, VTubers are able to deliver content internationally in ways that serialized manga and anime can’t, and their strong fan bases are always quick to provide subtitles for their uploads.
Whether they’re streaming themselves playing games, singing songs, or even just chatting with viewers, VTubers can provide content that uniquely puts together anime and streamer culture. On the surface, it really does seem like a weird fandom to take part in when everything revolves around a virtual anime character, but the mystery of the people behind these VTubers, as well as their worldwide allure make the VTuber industry such a fascinating spectacle that’s hard to look away from. Go on, check out some VTuber channels, I dare you.
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