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The rise of Vtubers: The wave of the future or a flash in the pan?

The history, business, and culture of vtubing
HoloLive EN
Posted at 6:13 AM, Oct 27, 2020
and last updated 2020-11-04 15:52:54-05

It is early September 2020. From seemingly nowhere the English-speaking Youtube community is introduced to five computer-animated anime girls that sit in the corner of the screen while playing video games, drawing, singing, or reading chat messages.

This was production company Hololive's first wave of English vtubers. They burst onto the scene, introducing hundreds of thousands of people to an enigmatic world that was becoming more and more popular in Asia but had yet to see much success overseas. And as these five vtubers grew in popularity exponentially over only a few weeks, the wallets of viewers opened and these streamers, who have never shown who they really are behind the anime facade, began making exorbitant amounts of money.

But again, this wasn't anything new in Japan, where using a 3D model's visage to replace that of a human being was already somewhat mainstream and had been for years. These virtual characters had tickled the fringes of American pop culture but never caught on in the way we're seeing with the English vtuber quintet. In fact, the very idea of a virtual entertainer was introduced to thousands of viewers during what may be considered one of the strangest cultural exchanges ever to happen on American television.

The following is the story of virtual entertainment as it relates to Hololive, vtubing, and what the future could hold for entertainment. It's based on personal experiences and research. I don't deign to pretend I'm some authority on this subject, I'm merely a fan with an embarrassing amount of knowledge to pass along on the subject.

Part I: What Came Before

In 2007 Crypton Future Media, a Japanese software company, released the first Vocaloid voicebank, a program with a blue-haired school girl as the mascot. Hatsune Miku would become a worldwide pop culture phenomenon. The character design combined with the fact the software allowed anyone to create music using her voice (an autotuned, robotic sound that only got better with future iterations) led to a creative frenzy. As more software was released with new characters and voices, the catalog of Vocaloid grew and so too did the popularity. This “virtual idol” was given a full 3D model, put into rhythm video games, and started to be projected onto the stage in massive concerts utilizing the very best of the community’s musical creations.

Jump ahead to 2014. The character is at the height of her popularity. Video games, comic books, even an anime have been made based on Miku. And at this height came Miku’s great break into the United States with two major events:

She opened for Lady Gaga in what can only be described as one of the singer’s least weird decisions.

And then... the infamous David Letterman performance.

Across America, people who had no idea what a Vocaloid was, let alone what anime was, were subjected to watching a superstar of late-night awkwardly interact with a projection of a teenaged anime girl who then went on to perform a dubious quality that amply accentuated the artificial quality of Miku's voice program. As a longtime fan of Vocaloid at the time, even I was cringing.

What does this have to do with vtubers?

Quite simply, Vocaloid was the genesis of a move toward making anime characters more realistic and having them interact with actual people in a monetized way. And if the inception of Vocaloid was the Genesis, that David Letterman performance was Phil Collins breaking away to sing 'SuSuSudio'. You can’t come back from that.

The western world’s next real taste of what would become vtubing came in 2016 with virtual Youtuber Kizuna Ai. The character would star in preproduced comedy videos as well as “let’s plays” in which she screamed a lot at horror video games while showing the bare necessity of competence to make it through said games. The entertainment value of these videos came from the personality of Ai combined with the adorable characteristics of the character. While there were “vtubers” before Ai, she was the first of the really popular ones who translated overseas.

But her content was preproduced (sometimes using technology associated with Vocaloids).

We’re in the late 2010s now – Twitch streaming is huge. Patreon is huge. And in Japan, the idol talent agency model has been generating boatloads of yen.

In 2017 a man with the nickname “Yagoo” starts a production company -- one that is currently changing the face of the Youtube gaming scene.

Part II: Redefining Video Game Streaming

Cover Corp. CEO Motoaki “Yagoo” Tanigo oversees Hololive, the female branch of his vtuber empire, and Holostars, the male branch. Over the past few years, the company has primarily focused on Japan and China, recruiting talent who are then given a virtual model (the character models are created by popular artists, the concepts are likely pitched by the streamer). From what I’ve gleaned from mostly second-hand sources the talent are under contract to perform a certain number of hours worth of streams each week. During these streams, the talent will play video games, do karaoke, draw, learn another language, collaborate with other vtubers, or just hang out with the chat. Through it all, they act out their characters (though this is where the delineation between what is character and what is the actual person comes into play).

The business model is based almost entirely on the patronage of viewers. Tanigo told Anime News Network in September that a number of factors are playing into the internal stabilization of the company. 2020’s rapid growth in the popularity of the talent working for Cover Corp. has created a cash cow but Tanigo says explaining the concept of the business to investors can be difficult.

Related: A decade on and Angel Beats has earned its place as an anime classic

Explaining why vtubers are making so much money is just as hard. Of course, part of the money made is through advertising before and during videos on Youtube. But live streaming is when the real money is made. Viewers can subscribe to their favorite streamers for anywhere from 5 to 25 dollars, with multiple subscription tiers including various perks like exclusive streams or emotes for chat. Viewers are also able to send “super chats”, essentially paying whatever amount they like to send the streamer a highlighted chat message that they will read (unlike regular chats which they may read, but will mostly ignore because you aren’t tossing money their way).

How much of that money is going to the talent and how much goes to Cover Corp. has not been disclosed. There's a ballpark estimate that the streamer makes 35 percent -- but again, there's no confirmation. That may seem a small amount if true, but consider just how much vtubers can make.

Example: since her debut in December of 2019 to late August of this year, vtuber Coco Kiryu has earned over $800,000 in super chats alone. That’s not counting subscriptions or ad money. She’s Youtube's top super chat earner. And other vtubers aren't far behind, earning hundreds of thousands in short amounts of time.

Why are people giving exorbitant amounts of money to have their chat read by a streamer disguised as an anime girl? In many ways, it is an appreciation for the art of what the streamer does, or simply enjoying the content. In other ways, it goes into the “waifu” culture that is in and of itself another article.

With Japanese vtubers like Nekomata Okayu and Korone Inugami becoming more and more popular globally, Cover Corp. began auditioning English speaking talent in April of this year and in September – a quintet of English speaking anime girls, like Pennywise lurking in the storm drain, beckoned viewers down a rabbit hole.

Part III: The Inexorable Draw of HoloEN

As with most Youtube rabbit holes, my sudden obsession with Hololive’s English streamers began as a joking curiosity that turned into hours of watching streams, highlight reels, retweeting memes, and following the fan art community.

The five English Hololive streamers each come with a unique personality, a bevy of quirks and inside jokes, and a following of rabid fans who love them unquestioningly.

My first taste, as was and is the case with most, was Gawr Gura, a tiny shark girl who claims to be from Atlantis mainly known for playing Minecraft and horror games. In just over a month, Gura has amassed one million subscribers – making her the most subscribed Hololive character. Her generally unabrasive and some might say “pure” personality shines. She plays her character extremely well, and she’s also the most mainstream insofar as what she streams. Though the anime persona may be bizarre to the outside viewer, it’s hard to deny the appeal of watching Gura.

From Gura, we go to Calliope Mori, the first apprentice of the Grim Reaper, and a unique character in HoloEN in that she uses the platform of vtubing mainly for music. She’s a rapper, tossing out beats inspired by her persona. She streams video games, but also her musical experimentation. And if you’re still wondering just how popular these characters are – her first album, 'Dead Beats', has been charting on iTunes worldwide (as you can see above). Yes, there’s a real woman behind the anime façade, but think about the fact that a character that came out of nowhere only a month and a half ago is topping a music chart. It’s the kind of thing that seems like it could only happen in 2020.

Related: Attack on Titan Season 2 drags its heels, but builds to an epic finale

The other three characters of HoloEN include Ninomae Ina’nis, a Lovecraftian Eldritch terror in the guise of an adorable girl with writhing tentacles squirming on her back; Kiara, a German/English/Japanese speaking phoenix in love with Mori; and my personal favorite, Amelia Watson, a time-traveling detective who spends many of her gameplay streams being extremely salty as she dies and loses constantly.

A vtuber has to play a game (or whatever they are streaming), voice act, and perform their character. That multi-faceted approach to what it means to stream a video game combined with the obvious fact that cute anime girls sell makes for a business model that promotes talented individuals generates a ton of revenue (after the initial investment of commissioning the art and model and getting all the necessary tech to the talent), and offers the rabid fanbase a variety of means to dish out cash to support their favorite character(s).

I haven’t paid a cent to any of the vtubers -- in that regard, I’m on the outside looking in. But in a time when new entertainment is scarce and finding little bits of happiness in life can be hard – it's obvious why others would pay so much to support these streamers. In fact, Hololive’s English group couldn’t have come out at a better time. There’s an idea that streamers and other content creators offer “friendship simulators”, an illusory third-person companionship with the people on the screen. By letting them into your life in huge chunks, by following their videos whether they be movie reviews, video game playthroughs, or whatever else – they become friends.

Offering friendship simulation through role played anime girls definitely opens the doors to weirdness and I’ve skated around a lot of that. It exists, as with everything, but I feel like from what I’ve seen, the fandom tends to be more pure-hearted. It’s about having fun, supporting these little pieces of entertainment and joy, and appreciating the talent that goes into everything the streamers do.

Part IV: Where Do We Go From Here?

Hololive could be well on its way to taking over the world. Vtubers outside of Cover Corp.’s umbrella are cropping up everywhere. The popularity of games like VRChat and the slow but steady growth of the virtual reality field is making the science fiction ideas of William Gibson and Neal Stephenson a reality. Many people are losing themselves in virtual worlds as avatars of their own creation and the divide between reality and virtual reality is being breached.

Vtubing offers all the benefits of internet personas while also giving those personas a face. We can be anyone we want on the internet, hiding behind a username and profile picture while role-playing whosoever we desire. The advent of virtual reality and accessible 3D modeling programs, programmers, and artists is the logical next step in that process of the physical self-being allowed to reflect the mental self.

Who is Gawr Gura or Amelia Watson? What do they look like, what are they actually like in the real world? Part of the appeal of vtubers is that mystery -- and the fact we will likely never know. And in my opinion, that has a huge silver lining. People who may lack the confidence to go on camera, to flaunt their talents, who may feel self-conscious – this allows them to be outgoing and showcase themselves without being afraid of any nastiness from internet trolls. It opens up being an entertainer to anyone regardless of phobias or confidence.

Hololive and vtubers are not a rabbit hole I’d recommend for everyone, but they’re an interesting peek into the future of entertainment and gaming. Whether a flash in the pan that I’m overestimating or a real trend everyone is underestimating, right now, they’re a phenomenon that can’t be ignored.

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