VTubers earn millions on YouTube and Twitch – TechCrunch

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, fan-favorite contestant from Netflix’s “The Circle,” and controversial beauty blogger. But when a fashionable Korean woman approached me, I realized that I was half-expecting to see a hyper-realistic 3D animation in front of me, rather than a real human. It may have been the near-hallucinatory exhaustion of the third day of a massive online video convention, but unlike so many 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 is also prevalent on other streaming sites like Twitch, where Code Miko has nearly a million subscribers. To create their virtual characters, streamers use motion capture technology (or even just AR face tracking) to embody a virtual avatar and weave a backstory and mythos 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 allow the audience to interact with her live streaming. I’m a big fan of ‘Ready Player One’, so when I felt like I could make a small percentage of it, I was really excited.

Code character Miko, for example, is an NPC (non-playable character) who dreams of starring in a major video game, but she’s too glitchy, so she resorted to streaming instead. Fans call the actual human behind the avatar “the technician”, but her first name is Yuna. Since Yuna was a VR animator before being laid off in the pandemic and creating Code Miko – which is now her full-time job – her avatar is much more realistic than most VTubers. Also, most VTubers would never dare to meet a reporter in person, let alone show their face live. But Yuna occasionally shows her face to give viewers a behind-the-scenes look at her mocap tech.

VTuber avatars usually resemble anime characters, since the genre first appeared in Japan. Fans disagree on who was the first VTuber – some say the culture was sparked by Hatsune Miku, the avatar of Vocaloid music production software that opened for Lady Gaga, appeared on David Letterman and performs live for a stadium-sized audience. Others credit Kizuna AI, a project by 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 culture, which maintains its real-world celebrities to incredibly high standards, VTubers are more free to be themselves, even when playing as a virtual character.


“They exist in that space between the anime character and the 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 exist in the same space.”

VTubers thrived for years in Japan, but the genre has been turning heads around the world during the pandemic. As much of the world went into lockdown, hugely popular VTuber agency HoloLive launched its English-language division, courting a new audience of Western viewers.

The plan didn’t work. It changed the streaming landscape forever.

In just two years, HoloLive English’s most popular VTuber Gawr Gura has amassed over 4 million YouTube subscribers. The white-haired anime girl wears an oversized shark blue hoodie, her face framed by the hoodie’s shark teeth. Of course, her bright blue eyes are the same color as the locks of her hair, and when she smiles, her adorable shark-shaped teeth pop. She’s a music artist, as are many VTubers, and she streams games like Minecraft, Mario Kart, and even Japanese Duolingo. According to her channel’s description, she’s “a descendant of the lost city of Atlantis, who swam to Earth saying, ‘It’s so boring out there LOLOLOL!'”

At the same time, HoloLive also introduced talents like Mori Calliope (2 million subscribers), who claims to be “the Grim Reaper’s first apprentice” and became a VTuber to “collect the souls” of his viewers. Calliope is a red-eyed rebel, adorning her pastel pink hair with a black crown and veil.

We can’t confirm the progress of her soul harvesting, but when it comes to money, Calliope is certainly succeeding. According to Playboard, an independent YouTube analytics site, Calliope earned $854,595 in 2021 from superchats alone (a YouTube live monetization feature), making her the seventh most superchatted YouTuber in the world.

Who were the six streamers who topped Calliope’s supercats? Also VTubers, of course.

Why become a VTuber anyway?

It’s rare for a VTuber to reveal their human body like Code Miko – for many of these streamers, anonymity is the whole point.

You don’t need to sign with a big agency like HoloLive to become a VTuber. While Code Miko’s technology is ultra-advanced and puts Mark Zuckerberg’s Metaverse to shame, it’s not the norm. With just an iPhone, a new streamer can create a face-tracked 2D virtual character.

Now, there’s a growing community of trans VTubers, some of whom 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 another side of themselves on screen. VTuber Ironmouse, for example, is the most subscribed female streamer on Twitch. But in real life, the Puerto Rican player is 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 against harassment.

“I don’t get as much abuse online as my female colleagues,” Yuna told TechCrunch. “It’s harder to troll someone who’s a cartoon.”

Then again, in a recent stream where she showed off her state-of-the-art mocap suit, she called out a viewer for commenting that her tech was “the future of porn.” While some VTubers get a little racy — it’s the internet, after all — there’s more to these digital personas than sexiness.

“I think for people watching VTubers, a lot of them don’t even care who’s behind the avatar, who’s the voice actor,” said Zhicong Lu, an assistant professor at City University of Hong Kong. who studied VTubers. . “It’s more about the character, the avatar, and they know very little about the real life of this voice actor.”

Anonymity, however, creates its own set of new challenges.

“Especially for corporate-run VTubers, voice actors can be replaced and their work can be exploited,” Lu said. Many of the most popular VTubers are created or managed by agencies like HoloLive, Nijisanji, and VShojo. VTubers have distinct personalities informed by their voice actors, but it’s possible for agencies to bring in a new voice actor without fans noticing. Additionally, the percentage of compensation the talent receives from the agency is not publicly known.

“The problem is people can’t see anything,” Lu told TechCrunch. “It’s totally opaque. It’s not transparent, because of the avatar.

Of course, companies want to cash

In mid-August, a Tony the Tiger VTuber made its streaming debut as part of a partnership with Twitch. Yes, that Tony the Tiger, the mascot of Kellogg’s Frosted Flakes that has been appearing on cereal boxes since 1952.

Tony the Tiger in vtuber

Picture credits: Kellogg’s (Opens in a new window)

Marketing and VTube expert Teddy Cambosa told TechCrunch that brands like 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 exploiting the VTuber space needs to understand that demographics aren’t just for the short-term period,” Cambosa said. “Once they understand the culture and behavior of these fans, they can tap into fan loyalty to acquire them as potential customers and retain them for the longer term.”

Tony the Tiger’s debut on VTuber was awkward. The mascot didn’t actually play “Fall Guys” with the four IRL streamers who joined him, and he left the stream for long stretches, prompting thousands of viewers to demand Tony’s return in the Twitch chat. He did make up for his absence a bit, though – 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 Miquela, a completely fictional Instagram influencer who’s operated by a venture-backed company called Brud. But these ad campaigns are often met with backlash – why not partner with a real, non-CGI woman to model these clothes? Social media is already criticized for harming teenage girls, in part by promoting unrealistic beauty standards. But no standard of beauty is as unrealistic as the virtual ideal of a female body.

Tony the Tiger and Lil Miquela have the technology and financial backing to be technically impressive and marketed well, but VTubers need to be authentic to connect with fans. Even for VTubers who only connect to audiences through their avatars, the phenomenon is ultimately about human connection. After all, there’s always a real human behind those big anime eyes, even if you’ll never see their faces.

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