It was the the world’s largest gathering of internet celebrities. While waiting to meet Twitch streamer Code Miko in a hotel lobby at VidCon, I spotted an Instagram-famous husky, a fan-favorite contestant from Netflix’s “The Circle,” and a controversial beauty blogger. But when a fashionable Korean-American woman approached me, I realized that I half expected to see a 3D, hyper-realistic animation in front of me, rather than a real human being. Maybe it was the almost hallucinatory exhaustion of day three of a massive online video convention, but unlike so many of the social media stars in the reverberating hotel lobby, VTubers like Code Miko are sometimes unrecognizable in person.
A movement originating in Japan, “VTuber” means “virtual YouTuber,” but the culture is also common on other streaming sites like Twitch, where Code Miko has nearly a million followers. To build their virtual personas, streamers use motion-capture (or even just AR face-tracking) technology to embody a virtual avatar and weave a backstory and mythos around the character.
“I thought it would be really fun to be a different character,” the streamer told londonbusinessblog.com. “I just felt like I had this vision. I wanted to take control of a virtual character and let the audience interact with her live via stream. I’m a big fan of ‘Ready Player One’ so when I felt like that I could only make a small percentage of it, I was very excited.”
For example, the Code Miko character is an NPC (non-playable character) who dreams of playing in a big video game, but she’s too glitchy, so she resorts to streaming instead. Fans call the real person behind the avatar “the technician,” but her first name is Yuna. Since Yuna was a VR animator before she was fired during the pandemic and created Code Miko – which is now her full-time job – her avatar is much more realistic than most VTubers. Plus, most VTubers would never dare to meet a journalist in person, let alone show their face on stream. But Yuna sometimes shows her face to give viewers a behind-the-scenes look at her mocap technology.
VTuber avatars tend to resemble anime characters as the genre first emerged in Japan. Fans disagree on who the first VTuber was – some say the culture was fueled by Hatsune Mikussthe avatar of a Vocaloid music production software that has: open for Lady Gaga, popped up on David Letterman, performing live for stadium size audience. Credit others Kizuna AIa project by the Japanese tech company Activ8, which started its channel in 2016 and coined the term ‘VTuber’.
The popularity of Kizuna AI has spawned a new generation of online stars in Japan. Unlike Japanese idol culturethat sets its real-life celebrities to impossibly high standards, VTubers are freer to be themselves, even though they act as a virtual character.
“They exist in this space between anime character and real person,” anime YouTuber Gigguk said in a video. “But they can explore original ideas or get away with things that other people can’t that exist in the same space.”
VTubers thrived in Japan for years, but the genre caught the eye all over the world during the pandemic. While much of the world went into lockdown, the hugely popular VTuber agency HoloLive launched its English-language division, attracting a new audience of Western viewers.
The plan didn’t work alone. It changed the streaming landscape forever.
In just two years, HoloLive has become English’s most popular VTuber Gawr Gura has accumulated over 4 million YouTube subscribers. The white-haired anime girl is wearing an oversized, blue shark hoodie, her face framed by the hoodie’s shark teeth. Of course, her bright blue eyes are the same color as the highlights in her hair, and when she smiles, her cute shark teeth pop out. She is a musical artist, as many VTubers are, and she streams games like Minecraft, Mario Kart and even the Japanese Duolingo. According to her channel description, she is “a descendant of the lost city of Atlantis, who swam to Earth saying, ‘It’s so boring down there LOLOLOL!'”
At the same time, HoloLive also introduced talent like Mori Calliopea (2 million subscribers), who claims to be “the Grim Reaper’s first apprentice” and became a VTuber to “gather souls” from her viewers. Calliope is a red-eyed rebel and adorns her pastel pink hair with a black crown and veil.
We can’t confirm the progress of her soul harvest, but when it comes to money, Calliope certainly succeeds. According to game boardan independent YouTube analytics site, Calliope made $854,595 in 2021 from super chats alone (a YouTube livestream monetization feature), making her the seventh highest-grossing YouTuber in the world.
Who were the six streamers that topped Calliope’s super chats? Also VTubers of course.
Why become a VTuber anyway?
It’s rare for a VTuber to reveal their human bodies like Code Miko – for many of these streamers, anonymity is the whole point.
You don’t have to sign with a big agency like HoloLive to become a VTuber. While Code Miko’s technology is ultra-sophisticated and puts Mark Zuckerberg’s metaverse to shame, it’s not the norm. Of only an iPhonea new streamer can create a face-tracked, 2D virtual character.
Now there is a growing community of trans VTubers, who some say adopting an avatar has helped them navigate gender dysphoria. Unlike the TikTok side of social media where showing your face is almost non-negotiable, VTubers can show a different side of themselves. VTuber iron mouseis for example the most subscribed female streamer on Twitch. But in real life, the Puerto Rican gamer chronically ill and sometimes bedridden, so VTubing helps her to have fun and socialize, especially when she is secluded from the coronavirus.
For some streamers, these avatars are also a barrier to harassment.
“I don’t get the same amount of bad treatment online as my female colleagues,” Yuna told londonbusinessblog.com. “It’s harder to troll someone who’s a cartoon.”
On the other hand, in a recent stream showing off her state-of-the-art mocap suit, she called out a viewer for saying her technology was “the future of porn.” While some VTubers get a little spicy – it’s the internet after all – these digital personas are more than sex appeal.
“I think for people watching VTubers, a lot of them don’t even care who is behind the avatar, who is the voice actor,” explains Zhicong Lu, an assistant professor at the City University of Hong Kong who teaches VTubers. has studied . “It’s more about the persona, the avatar, and they know very little about that voice actor’s real life.”
However, anonymity creates its own set of new challenges.
“Especially for corporate-run VTubers, the voice actors can be replaced and their labor can be exploited,” said Lu. Many of the most popular VTubers are created or managed by agencies such as HoloLive, Nijisanji, and VShojo. VTubers have different personalities who are informed by their voice actors, but it is possible for agencies to recruit a new voice actor without fans noticing. In addition, it is not widely known what percentage of the remuneration the talent gets from the agency.
“The tricky part is that people can’t actually see anything,” Lu told londonbusinessblog.com. “It’s totally opaque. It’s not transparent, because of the avatar.”
Of course companies want to cash in
In mid-August a VTuber turned Tony the Tiger into his streaming debut as part of a partnership with Twitch. Yes, that Tony the Tiger, the Kellogg’s Frosted Flakes mascot who has appeared on cereal boxes since 1952.
Teddy Cambosa, a marketing and VTubing expert, told londonbusinessblog.com that brands such as: Netflix, SEGA and AirAsia have used VTubers in their marketing. But activating the huge fan base around VTubers isn’t as easy as just getting involved.
“Brands need to better understand that tapping into the VTuber space needs to understand that demographics aren’t just for the short term,” Cambosa said. “Once they understand the culture and behavior of these fans, they can tap into the fan’s loyalty to acquire them as potential customers and retain them in the longer term.”
Tony the Tiger’s VTuber debut was awkward. The mascot didn’t actually play “Fall Guys” along with the four IRL streamers who joined him, and he left the stream for a long time, leaving thousands of viewers demanding Tony’s return in Twitch chat. However, he kind of made up for his absence – Tony the Tiger told his 13,000 viewers that they are “pog champions.”
Outside of the VTuber space, brands like Pacsun and Calvin Klein are partnering with Lil Miquela, an entirely fictional Instagram influencer operated by a venture-backed company called Brud. But these advertising campaigns are often met recoil – why not team up with a real, non-CGI woman to model these clothes? Social media has already been criticized for harming teenage girls, in part by promoting unrealistic beauty standards. But no beauty standard is as unrealistic as a virtual ideal of a female body.
Tony the Tiger and Lil Miquela have the technology and financial backing to be technically impressive and well marketed, but VTubers need to be authentic to connect with fans. Even for VTubers who connect with the audience only through their avatars, the phenomenon is ultimately about the human connection. After all, there’s still a real human behind those big anime eyes – even if you’ll never see their face.