The Perfect Storm of Virtual Youtubers

As the days go by, I increasingly find myself looking into the world of Virtual Youtubers. I watch the clips and highlights that go around, and I sometimes tune into the live streams of my favorites. I wouldn’t consider myself a devotee of the whole concept, but I’m entertained. I know I’m not alone, as the increasing success of VTubers is a sight to behold—Gawr Gura, one of the first members of the Hololive agency’s push into English-language streaming, hit one million subscribers in just a little over a month and has since surpassed two million.

The more I think about it, however, the more I realize that the success of Virtual Youtubers shouldn’t come as a surprise. They’re in many ways a perfect storm of things that appeal to people on the internet, bringing together different groups who tend towards obsession and converging them onto this amalgam of elements.

The first group is weebs. I generally avoid the term, preferring things like “anime and manga fans,” but I feel that its usage is accurate here—it’s not just about being into the media but being into that strain of Japanese pop culture. With few exceptions, Virtual Youtubers go for that anime aesthetic, recruiting famous artists and character designers to create these avatars. In a sense, they’re anime characters come to life, and that gives them a certain charm and universality that comes with being less realistic in terms of appearance. And while VTubers now exist across the world, they’re firmly rooted in that anime/manga/light novel realm, and expectations derive from the tropes found there. 

The second group is gamers. While streaming has had some presence on the internet for decades now, gaming has become one of its absolute pillars. Between the transformation of Justin.tv into Twitch, the prevalence of esports, the enduring popularity of Youtube channels like Game Grumps, and the rise of speedrunning as a spectator activity, there’s no denying the draw. Live streaming your play session is just an easy and reliable way to connect with potential fans, and while streamers usually need some kind of physical or personal charisma to get things going, the sleek designs of VTubers help bridge that gap.

The third group is idol fans. While it’s like every one of them eventually gets their own original songs, what attracts people to idols is that they feel somehow distant yet accessible, and Virtual Youtubers greatly exaggerate both sides of the fantasy by their very nature. The use of character avatars means there’s no mistaking their visual appearances for being the “real” individuals, but that also means being able to project onto them an idealized version. At the same time, unlike Hatsune Miku, they’re real people interacting from behind the curtain. Depending on what level of performativity vs. seeming authenticity a viewer wants, or popularity vs. obscurity (what’s more exciting than seeing your favorite personality grow from small-time to wild success?) there’s probably a VTuber for them. What’s more, the concept of superchats on YouTube allows fans to get instant gratification by giving money to have their messages read and acknowledged.

The fourth group, and there’s plenty of overlap with the other three, is those who are into celebrities. This is a more vague and generalized group, but it’s the same energy that fuels people to follow the goings-on of their favorite movie stars and singers.

A weeb might love all things anime-adjacent but dismiss Western-style game aesthetics. A fan of first-person shooters might love watching anything and everything related to their favorite games but think anime stuff looks weird as hell. But then a Virtual Youtuber who looks like an anime character come-to-life might play Apex Legends, and so now the weebs get their real-life anime girl and the Western-focused gamers get to connect to her through their favorite game. At the same time, even if she isn’t particularly good at what she’s playing, that gives her a kind of element of relatability that an idol fan might be drawn to. And even if someone isn’t an idol fan, seeing someone suffer through a game has an established history of bringing in eyeballs. The crossover appeal is hard to deny.

Thus, when the VTubers branch into areas other than gaming, they can bring all those different groups together. It’s why they can karaoke Japanese, English, and even German songs, all to praise and fanfare. When they do something completely out of the realm of entertainment, like cook, it doesn’t seem out of the ordinary even if the results can range from bizarre to horrifying. The fact that their fans don’t just come from one place also gives the VTubers the flexibility to try new things and see what sticks. Non-virtual streamers who get popular because of one game can sometimes have a hard time playing others because they might not get the viewer counts they normally would, but what makes people want to see Virtual Youtubers goes beyond specific games or titles. 

I think the concept of the VTuber allows it a certain degree of freedom that flesh-and-blood streamers do not. By virtue of their virtual natures (pun intended), they invite viewers into a kind of alternate reality. From there, the ability to take that anime character identity and apply it to various domains or interests means that even activities that normally might not appeal to a person can suddenly seem interesting. It’s a lot like how manga can make certain topics more appealing to those who are unfamiliar, but with Virtual Youtubers you get both the slice-of-life hobbyism and the gutsy competition at the same time. And unlike in manga, the wins and losses are real—even if everything is ultimately made up and the points don’t matter.

Anime Faces: VTuber vs. Horror Games

Horror games are a staple of the Youtuber. Between the sense of anticipation and the payoff of screams of terror, it’s been a classic stepping stone for many of the most popular online celebrities such as Markiplier. So, it comes as no surprise that the horror genre would find a home among Virtual Youtubers as well. Why mess with a reliable formula? But I do notice a difference when a VTuber goes this route: their inherently limited and artificially generated facial expressions transform the experience to a subtle yet noticeable degree.

When it comes to flesh-and-blood streamers, horror games are an opportunity for wild and exaggerated reactions. In some cases, they’re authentic, in others they’re choreographed, and there are surely plenty that fall somewhere in the middle. In essence, it doesn’t really matter too much whether they’re real freak-outs or not, provided they’re convincing enough to make it difficult to distinguish. Either you’re being genuine or you’re a skilled enough performer to seem genuine—or the viewers just want to see someone bouncing off the walls regardless of intent. The line blurs further when it comes to Virtual Youtubers. Which ones use their VTuber image as a disguise to protect their identity? Who embraces their character to be someone they’re not? These mysteries are rife with potential for speculation.

But whether or not the VTubers are being “real,” there is still an additional layer between them and us in the form of their CG avatars. Even if the shouts and shudders are authentic, they’re still being filtered through and limited by software that (as of 2020) does not capture the full range of human emotions that are communicated through our faces. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, though. The relative simplicity of these avatars begins to take on an element of iconography by acting in the abstract and symbolic, which in turn makes it easy to read into VTubers’ expressions what we desire. 

Though this doesn’t count as horror (unless you have a fear of 1990s boy bands), I’m reminded of that video featuring three different Kizuna AI models “singing” “Everybody” by the Backstreet Boys. It’s based on a video of three real-life guys lip-syncing the song, but despite the obvious and intentional similarities, it still feels different. The fact that AI-chan’s “wide-eyed smirk” is more or less the same as her “angry screaming” in other videos is part of the amusement of the character. 

Other VTubers often have fewer facial expressions than AI-chan, and often barely any at all when it comes to VTubers who are just starting out. Still, that’s fine. While having a static image as an avatar is far from ideal, I would argue that the opposite might be even more off-putting. In other words, if a Virtual Youtubers’ facial expressions were too human, it would start to approach the uncanny valley, and I think the whole enterprise would lose some of its appeal.

Or maybe that would be perfect for Halloween and the horror game spirit…

This post is sponsored by Ogiue Maniax patron Johnny Trovato. You can request topics through the Patreon or by tipping $30 via ko-fi.