Top Games

The Bizarre, Complex Rabbithole of Virtual YouTubers, and How They Came to Dominate Livestreaming

In the course of a few years, these virtual personas have taken over their corner of the internet.
In the course of a few years, these virtual personas have taken over their corner of the internet. / Photo by Cover Corp, Hololive

It started innocuously enough, and the same way many obsessions had: with a YouTube recommendation. It was July 2020, right in the heart of my pandemic ennui. Listless, bored, and more scared than I wanted to admit, I, like many others, turned to the internet as a way to cope with something that nobody quite knew how to handle. And so, after scrolling and scrolling, I found something that generated enough intrigue that I chose to click through. The content of the clip was straightforward enough, yet jarring enough that I deemed it noteworthy: an anthropomorphic anime rabbit, streaming herself playing Minecraft, crafting items, and experiencing the misguided and mischievous actions of her viewers, much to her dismay. 

That rabbit’s name is Usada Pekora, and in 2020, despite her being a fictitious character, she was one of the most viewed streamers in the entire world. This year, she’s already totaled 6.8 million hours watched for Q1 of 2021. Pekora is what is called a Virtual Youtuber, a streamer who uses an alternate persona, often an anime avatar, to stream games, art, music, etc. Now that you’ve been introduced to this world-famous rabbit, it’s time to show you just how deep this online rabbit hole goes.

“It’s no use going back to yesterday, because I was a different person then.”

Just like with many things documented by internet historians, the rise in popularity of Virtual YouTubers is something that is still mysterious and enigmatic in a way, but there are key players involved with bringing VTubers to western eyes. The first is Kizuna AI, who was the first Virtual YouTuber to make waves, debuting on her YouTube channel back in 2016. Rather than live streaming, Kizuna AI typically chooses to create shorter, more digestible videos, like responding to fan comments, or more bizarre content, like her swearing in a multitude of different ways. For many Virtual YouTubers, Kizuna AI is the progenitor, the vanguard for this unique style of content creation. 

Terumi Koizumi, one VTuber I talked with, cites her as the first introduction she had to Virtual YouTubers. “I thought she was cute but I didn't think there was much staying power. I assumed it would be yet another 'silly Japanese fad' that would wear out after a few months of novelty.” 

Terumi, like many others, underestimated the power that anime fandom has on the internet. Kizuna became a hit, and soon after, an even bigger entity emerged, the one most responsible for marketing VTubers across the world: the Virtual YouTuber agency Hololive, and their owners, Cover Corporation. Usada Pekora is a member of Hololive, alongside 42 other Virtual Youtubers, each with their own quirks, memes, and fanbase. Of course, a language and even cultural barrier still remains; how can Japanese streamers interact and communicate with their overseas fans, and vice versa? That’s where clip channels enter the fray. These clip channels, or clippers, take segments of streams, translate them, add subtitles, and post them for English viewers to understand and laugh along with. That Minecraft clip that sucked me into this rabbithole was created by one such clip channel, and there are countless others who have been dragged in alongside me. 

Emmy the Witch, a VTuber who is also a Twitch Partner, had the same revelation I had with a clip. “I just remember people grabbing snippets of stuff they were doing, or broken English they were saying, and passing around the Internet. It just passed by my eyes, and I was like, ‘That’s amazing.’” This impact has gone both ways; several Hololive members, such as Noel Shirogane have held Duolingo streams, where they study English with viewers, in hopes they can better communicate with western audiences.

Beyond that, with continued success since they started in 2017, Hololive even launched a branch specifically for their English viewers: Hololive EN. Combine all of that with a yearlong pandemic that prevented most from safely leaving their homes, Virtual YouTubers were given the recipe to grow massively, with Hololive brandishing 20 VTubers with over a million subscribers, as of this article’s writing.

As Terumi puts it, “The pandemic definitely played a big role in the rise of VTubers last year. It's a depressing phenomenon that left many without jobs, some without a home, and others without some of their loved ones. Along with just having much more free time stuck at home, people wanted an escape from hardships. Well-established VTubers know just how much this escapism plays a role and try to give people an outlet. A happy break after a difficult day at work.” From there, the floodgates had been opened, and a metaphorical tsunami washed over the Internet, devouring whatever stood in its way.

You might think that this sudden rise of popularity among western viewers would primarily benefit the larger streamers of Hololive, like the English branch’s Gawr Gura, a pint-sized shark enthusiast, with 3.1 million subscribers, and Mori Calliope, an apprentice of the Grim Reaper, with 1.57 million. However, it also paved the way for aspiring streamers to have a new outlet for their own growth. Indie talents saw the titans ruling high above them, and dreamt of becoming titans in their own right. In some ways, they already have.

“Who in the world am I? Ah, that's the great puzzle.”

I spoke with four Virtual YouTubers for this piece, trying to understand the space as a whole better, as well as its future alongside traditional streaming, and the challenges and rewards of operating as a VTuber. They all had varied and thoughtful answers to provide me with, and in those answers, they all mentioned the same one thing, and it’s something commonly associated with Virtual YouTubers: anonymity. If you were under the impression that those were actually anime girls playing Apex Legends, I’m sorry to burst your bubble, but there’s a real person underneath there.

The anonymity that VTubing provides cannot be understated. Lynn Tsunami, who originally discovered VTubers back in August of 2020, stated, “The anonymity is nice with being a VTuber, one can be as open or as secretive about their personal life as they want or need...It feels like a sort of protection, a nice boundary.” It’s a boundary that many streamers don’t have the luxury of, with many often using face cams, and providing a deeper glimpse into their life off-stream. Being open on stream in front of thousands potentially is something that Emmy found worrying. “That’s the scariest thing there is about streaming. That feeling that if you get a large enough community and someone accuses you of something, or worse, if you fuck up. The amount of vindiction (sic) that random people on the internet have for genuinely sorry people who fucked up-I mean, sometimes they’re okay people, sometimes they’re terrible people, but that doesn’t mean they deserve to be DDOSed or SWATed or anything. Like, that’s scary, that could take someone’s life.” 

Being anonymous, however, doesn’t mean Emmy hasn’t dealt with the more eccentric members of her community. “I had someone ask me how much bits they’d have to give me so that they could send me their spit and I would eat it.” 

But the anonymity of VTubers prompts a number of questions from prodding fans, the most notable of which is plainly, “Who are they behind the persona?” That’s the trick with mysteries; there’s always a desire to try and answer them. Ultimately, after my conversations, I came to a simple conclusion, the same conclusion that anyone would have after talking to them: they’re just regular people. Not frills, no excitement, none of that. At the end of the day, they’re normal folk who want to entertain others, and try to bring joy into the lives of their communities, something that shines through their personas and characters.

Aside from the anonymity, one thing that each mentioned was how becoming a Virtual YouTuber gave them an outlet to become a streamer, something they wouldn’t have otherwise done. As Lynn put it, “I wanted to pursue VTubing when I got a bit self conscious with myself visually, but also as an artist, I saw the unlimited opportunities of being able to design a persona/character that I could be and connect to. I love designing characters, so this felt very up my alley.” 

SaltyDayo, a self-described “Bee-Tuber” came from an artist background as well, and had a similar thought process to Lynn, telling me, “because I wanted to make my art streams more interesting, I felt like having a moving avatar would be a nice addition.” Of course, when discussing the unique qualities of those I interviewed, Salty perhaps stands out the most: as a young child, she was diagnosed with Stargardt’s disease, a retinal disease. It causes the macular degeneration of central vision, but Salty has taken it in stride with her streaming. “While being blind sucks, it makes for a good selling point, I feel as though it might have been harder to garner interest without it,” she told me. “It negatively affects the ‘immersion’ since I often lose tracking, which makes my model freak out. It's not too bad since I've never tried to be that immersive with my streams anyway, but it does make me frustrated since I care a lot about how my streams look. I do worry about the longevity of my streams, since it's a problem that will worsen over time.”

Even with a murky future, right now Salty is still in high spirits, even able to joke about it. “Don't watch me, I'm dreadful at video games.” 

That’s not to say the others don’t have their own unique qualities they bring to their streaming. Terumi, who used to work for the government before trying her hand as a VTuber, hopes she can be a role model for younger viewers in her fanbase. “I'm older than most VTubers. I'd like to be a responsible older figure for my audience, especially for the ones that have never had siblings or friends they could trust. We can drink together, talk about philosophy, computer parts, and the old obscure anime no one else has probably ever heard of. It's always been a dream of mine to connect with others.” She states, “The world is currently experiencing a crisis that's unprecedented in our generation. Everyone needs time to relax, unwind, and forget all about the troubles of life at large.” 

She’s right. Back in July, I felt alone, even if other people were exactly like me, struggling to make sense out of the chaos surrounding us. As corny as it may sound, Virtual Youtubers like Terumi, Lynn, Emmy, and Salty have helped me in more ways than one. They’ve built a community, and in their own words, feel damn proud about it. “The best parts are the connections and close friends one makes along the way and the supportive community you build. I have met some of the sweetest and most inspiring people through VTubing.” Lynn says.

Terumi echoes that thought: “They make every stream so much fun and I enjoy each and every single minute that I spend with them. I've never had friends for most of my life, so it's nice to be heard and to be able to talk to so many friends that I constantly meet. Seeing regulars pop up in chat fills my heart with joy. I finally have people to share my thoughts and feelings with. It gives me a reason to wake up in the morning.” It's the fans of VTubers that shape its community, from dedicated fanart to the absurd and avant-garde animations, a kind of inside joke for people to enjoy and share.

In a time where people were physically isolated from one another, these VTubers gave people a sense of belonging, of understanding in a world that felt as though it would come crumbling down any minute. Maybe that’s the magic of it all. And as the pandemic slowly recedes, and that sense of normalcy settles back in, it’ll be alongside this new genre of entertainment, with these quirky, offbeat, bizarre characters. Some detractors might call them weird or abnormal. Of course, if there is anything I’ve learned throughout this past year, there's nothing normal about being human.