It was the world’s largest gathering of internet celebrities. While waiting to meet Twitch streamer Code Miko in a hotel lobby at VidCon, I spotted a certain husky on Instagram, fan-favorite contestant on Netflix’s “The Circle” and controversial beauty blogger. But when a hip Korean-American woman approached me, I realized I was half expecting to see a 3D, hyper-realistic animation in front of me, not a real person. Maybe it was the near-hallucinatory exhaustion of the third day of a massive online video conference, but unlike many of the social media stars in the echoing hotel lobby, VTubers like Code Miko are sometimes unrecognizable in person.
A movement originating in Japan, “VTuber” stands for “virtual YouTuber,” but the culture has spread to 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 for embodying a virtual avatar and weaving backstory and myths around the character.
“I thought it would be really fun to be another character,” the streamer told TechCrunch. “I just felt like I had this vision. I wanted to take control of a virtual character and have the audience interact with them live in a stream. I’m a big fan of ‘Ready Player One,’ so when I felt like I could earn a small percentage of it, I was really excited.”
Code Miko’s character, for example, is an NPC (Non-Player Character) who dreams of being in a big video game, but it’s too inconvenient, so he 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 laid off due to the pandemic and created Code Miko — which is now her full-time job — her avatar is much more realistic than most VTubers. Also, most VTubers would never dare meet a journalist in person, let alone show their face on a stream. But Yuna sometimes shows her face to offer viewers a behind-the-scenes look at her mocap technology.
VTuber avatars tend to resemble anime characters since the genre first appeared in Japan. Fans disagree on who the first VTuber was — some say the culture was sparked by Hatsune Mikuthe Vocaloid music production software avatar that has open for lady gaga, appear on David Letterman and performs live for the size of a stadium audience. Other credits Kizuna AIa project of Japanese tech company Activ8, which launched 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 culturewhich holds its real-world celebrities to incredibly high standards, VTubers are freer to be themselves even though they’re portraying themselves as a virtual character.
“They exist in this space between an anime character and a real person,” anime YouTuber Gigguk said in video. “But they can explore original ideas or get away with things that other people who exist in the same space can’t.”
VTubers flourished for years in Japan, but the genre gained worldwide attention during the pandemic. As much of the world went into lockdown, massively popular VTuber agency HoloLive launched its English division, courting a new audience of Western viewers.
The plan didn’t just work. It changed the streaming landscape forever.
In just two years HoloLive English the most popular VTuber Gavre Goura amassed over 4 million subscribers on YouTube. The white haired anime girl wears a huge blue shark hood, her face framed by the hood’s shark teeth. Of course, her bright blue eyes are the same color as her blonde hair, and when she smiles, her adorable shark-like teeth peek out. She is a music artist like many VTubers and streams games like MinecraftMario Kart and even Japanese Duolingo. According to her channel description, she’s a “descendant of the Lost City of Atlantis who floats to Earth while saying, ‘It’s so boring down there, LOLOLOL!'”
At the same time, HoloLive also introduced talent such as Mori Calliope (2 million subscribers), who claims to be “the first apprentice of the Grim Reaper” and became a VTuber to “collect souls” from her viewers. Calliope is a red-eyed rebel, adorning her pastel pink hair with a black crown and veil.
We can’t attest to her soul collecting progress, but when it comes to money, Calliope sure does. According to Playboardan independent YouTube analytics site, Calliope earned $854,595 in 2021 from SuperChats alone (YouTube Live Streaming monetization feature), making it the seventh most YouTube Superchat in the world.
Who were the six streamers who beat Calliope’s superchats? Also VTubers of course.
Why become a VTuber anyway?
It’s rare for a VTuber to reveal his human body like Code Miko — for many of these streamers, anonymity is the whole point.
You don’t need to sign a contract with a big agency like HoloLive to become a VTuber. Although Code Miko’s technology is extremely advanced and puts Mark Zuckerberg’s Metaverse for shame, this is not the norm. with iPhone onlya new streamer can create a 2D virtual persona with face tracking.
Now there is a growing community of trans VTubers, some of whom say adopting an avatar has helped them deal with gender dysphoria. Unlike the TikTok side of social media, where showing your face is almost non-negotiable, VTubers can show another side of their screen. VTuber Ironmousefor example, is most subscribed female streamer on Twitch. But in real life, the Puerto Rican gamer is like that chronically ill and sometimes bedridden, so VTubing helps her have fun and socialize, especially as she isolates herself from the coronavirus.
For some streamers, these avatars are also barriers to harassment.
“I don’t get the same amount of bad treatment online as my female colleagues,” Yuna told TechCrunch. “It’s harder to troll someone who’s a caricature.”
Then again, in a recent stream where she showed off her state of the art mockup suit, she called out a viewer for commenting that her technology was “the future of pornography.” While some VTubers do get a little saucy—it’s the Internet after all—there’s more to these digital personas than sex appeal.
“I think for people who watch VTubers, many of them don’t even care who is behind the avatar, who is the voice actor,” explained Zhicong Lu, an assistant professor at City University of Hong Kong who has studied VTubers. “It’s more about the personality, about the avatar, and they know very little about the real life of that voice actor.”
However, anonymity creates its own set of new challenges.
“Especially for VTubers run by companies, voice actors can be replaced and their labor can be exploited,” Lu said. Many of the most popular VTubers are created or managed by agencies such as HoloLive, Nijisanji, and VShojo. VTubers have different personalities informed by their voice actors, but it’s possible for agencies to bring in a new voice actor without fans noticing. Also, it is not publicly known what percentage of the pay the talent receives from the agency.
“The tricky thing is that people can’t actually see anything,” Lu told TechCrunch. “It is completely opaque. It’s not transparent because of the avatar.”
Of course, corporations want to make a profit
In mid-August, Tiger’s VTuber Tony made his streaming debut as part of a partnership with Twitch. Yes, that Tony the Tiger, the Kellogg’s Frosted Flakes mascot that has appeared on cereal boxes since 1952.
Marketing and VTubing expert Teddy Camboza told TechCrunch that brands love it Netflix, SEGA and AirAsia have used VTubers in their marketing. But activating the huge fanbase around VTubers isn’t as easy as just participating.
“Brands need to better understand that entering the VTuber space they need to understand that the demographic is not just for the short term,” Kambosa said. “Once they understand the culture and behavior of these fans, they can leverage their loyalty to acquire them as potential customers and retain them for the long 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 long periods of time, prompting thousands of viewers to demand Tony’s return in Twitch chat. However, he made up for his absence a bit – Tony the Tiger told his 13,000 viewers that they were his “pog champions.”
Beyond the VTuber space, brands like Pacsun and Calvin Klein have partnered with Lil Michelaa completely fictional Instagram influencer that is run by a venture-backed company called Brood. But these ad campaigns are common reverse reaction — why not partner with a real, non-CGI woman to model those clothes? Social media has already been criticized for harming teenage girls, in part by promoting unrealistic standards of beauty. But no standard of beauty 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-promoted, but VTubers need to be authentic to connect with fans. Even for VTubers who only connect with audiences through their avatars, the phenomenon is ultimately about human connection. After all, there’s still a real person behind those big anime eyes—even if you’ll never see their face.