A V-what? VTuber? What in the world is that? Some sort of cream? If you're asking these questions then it means you haven't already fallen down the VTuber rabbit hole. In short, VTubers are virtual personalities, usually anime inspired, portrayed by typically unknown YouTubers and streamers. Many VTubers keep their real identity hidden in order to enhance the audience's immersion of their character. Some VTubers even have contract stipulations that prevent them from revealing their real identities.
While typically Japanese speaking, English VTubers are becoming increasingly more common. VTubers aren't constrained by identity issues and allow for fantastical appearances, immersive audience engagements, and non-physical limitations. VTubers also subvert viewers expectations by swearing, raging, and engaging in other behavior that one wouldn't expect from such seemingly bubbly personas (cough Inugami Korone cough).
The first generally accepted instance of a VTuber was when the visual novel company Nitroplus used their mascot, Super Sonico, to update their fans about company news on their YouTube channel. There were several other small instances of companies or influencers creating virtual personas to engage with online audiences, but none of them resulted in a large following. The first instance of true VTuber popularity occurred in 2016 with Kizuna AI's debut.
The Popularity Explosion
Kizuna AI was the first personality to refer to herself as a virtual YouTuber, later shortened to VTuber. After Kizuna AI's debut, her popularity skyrocketed, as she was the first virtual personality to truly interact with fans during broadcasts by uploading Q&A videos. Accumulating more than 2 million subscribers in a little less than a year, Kizuna AI eventually became a culture ambassador of the Japan National Tourism Organization. This event caused an influx of popularity and exposure for not only Kizuna AI, but the VTuber brand in general.
Kaguya Luna and Mirai Akari both followed Kizuna AI as the 2nd and 3rd most popular VTubers, both achieving 500,000+ subscribers after Kizuna AI's popularity explosion. Soon after, corporations started founding VTuber agencies, such as Nijisanji, VShojo, and Hololive, which would help spur the VTuber livestreaming sensation. These agencies started to sign both unknown and popular independent VTubers alike, rebranding them into different, more marketable personas. Unlike Kizuna AI, who would mostly prerecord clips, these new personas would livestream themselves, usually playing video games, for hours to thousands of live viewers. This model allowed extensive interactivity between the streamer and the chat, and further propelled the VTuber trend to extreme popularity. Kizuna AI eventually also adopted this trend and now streams games semi-regularly. By early 2020, there were over 10,000 VTuber channels on YouTube.
Unsuprisingly, VTubers experienced another massive surge in popularity during the Covid-19 lockdown. With many indoor activities like concerts and conventions cancelled, droves of people started to discover VTubers in their newfound free time. The top 5 VTubers on YouTube went from gaining 5,000-10,000 subscriptions a week in late 2019 to 50,000-100,000 subscriptions a week during peak lockdown in August and September 2020 (data from Socialblade). Watching these streamers was akin to a straight shot of dopamine during such tumultuous times. The solid foundation laid by previous generations of VTubers at this point also made it a lot easier for new VTubers to make their debut, allowing for massive subscription counts.
One such debut was that of Gawr Gura of the Hololive agency, who reached over 2 million subscriptions just 4 months after her debut, and eventually beat out Kizuna AI for most subscribed VTuber with 2.97 million subscriptions on June 30th 2021. To date, Gawr Gura has earned $738,000 dollars through her Super Chat (much like Twitch donations) and is currently in the top 30 highest revenue earners on YouTube. Hololive has become the cornerstone of the VTuber experience, with 22 out of the top 25 most subscribed VTubers being apart of their agency. This success has started to leak from YouTube onto Twitch, which is also seeing significant VTuber growth on it's platform.
As you can see, VTuber viewer hours on Twitch started to take off during the pandemic, outpacing the rest of the platform in relative viewer hour growth. Additionally, the total number of streamers on Twitch has increased from .25% in early 2019 to nearly 1% as of writing this post. While Twitch VTubers aren't nearly as popular as the streaming giants on YouTube, the growth rate is still heading in a positive direction. While both platforms offer fantastic streaming services, Twitch's user interface was built with streams in mind, which offers greater room for growth in the future compared to YouTube. The biggest obstacle that Twitch faces in gaining more VTuber popularity is the sheer clout that Hololive carries on YouTube. VTuber audiences tend to be very loyal to either a singular streamer or a small group of them, being unable to devote their viewing time to the plethora of VTuber choices out there. Despite these challenges, several VTubers, such as AdmiralBahroo, nyanners, and ironmouse, have had large success on Twitch.
The Future of VTubers
Even though Covid-19 lockdown restrictions are laxing (for now), and less people are stuck inside with ample amounts of free time, the VTuber scene is still on a positive uptrend. Such massive popularity also lends it's hand to marketing opportunities. Games that VTubers play often gain much needed exposure, especially smaller titles. One example is when Inugami Korone cleared the game Hidden Folks, which caught the attention of the developers. After a subsequent twitter exchange between the two (which was very wholesome), the developer sent over an audio file with Korone's favorite noise from the game.
Anime, JRPGs, and manga are far more socially acceptable and popular in the west now than they were just 10 years ago. The average western consumer is generally more willing to consume eastern media openly now, lending the VTuber scene an entirely new market outside of Japan. In fact, Gawr Gura, the #1 most subscribed VTuber, is a western based English speaking personality. Additionally, the #5 most subscribed VTuber, Mori Calliope, is also western based and English speaking.
With massive English speaking streaming behemoths like Gura and Mori skyrocketing in popularity, the VTuber trend is becoming less niche and more mainstream. With hundreds of new personalities making their debuts every month and established streamers generating massive revenues, VTubers look like they're here to stay.
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