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Behind the Avatar: VTubers' Role in Modern Gaming

In recent years, VTubers have seen a remarkable surge in popularity, a trend that continues to gain momentum. The VTuber community, which numbered 16,000 in 2021, has now expanded to an estimated 50,000 this year. 

VTubers have become sought-after partners for gaming brands looking to promote their titles. In this article, we take a closer look at VTubers and explore their role in modern video game industry.

Who Are VTubers?

VTubers are anime-inspired characters, who use computer-generated avatars or virtual characters to produce videos and live streams. In contrast to virtual influencers, there’s usually a person behind the avatar who controls their movement via face or motion tracking software. This tracking reflects the person’s expressions or movement in real-time, mimicking the usual movement and reactions that live streamers would have. This allows them to interact with their audience while maintaining a level of anonymity.

While the term "VTuber" might seem synonymous with YouTube, these creators are not confined to a single platform. They can be found on diverse platforms, including Twitch, Facebook, and Nico Nico Douga, catering to specific audiences.

VTubers create a wide range of content, including gaming streams, music performances, cooking shows, and more. They actively engage with their audience through live chats and viewer comments during their streams, fostering a strong sense of community and connection.

VTubers come from all over the world and have fans everywhere. Places like Southeast Asia, including Japan and Indonesia, as well as Eastern Asia, have really taken to VTubers, making them super popular in those regions. This trend can be partly explained by the strong love for anime and manga in Asian cultures, which has given VTubers the perfect stage to shine in these areas.

A Glimpse into VTuber History

VTubers have experienced a remarkable surge in popularity over the past five years. However, their roots go back further than many might think. The concept of using characters to promote entertainment or products isn't a recent innovation; think of brand mascots. Still, it took some time for the idea of animated mascots engaging with their audience in real-time to gain traction.

The journey began with early VTuber endeavors around 2010-2015, primarily aimed at supporting larger projects or personal ventures. For instance, Super Sonico, the mascot of Nitroplus, started her VTuber journey in 2010 to promote Nitroplus activities. In 2011, UK-based video blogger Ami Yamato started her activities, using a virtual avatar tracking her face and voice, and uploading stories about her travels to YouTube.

The foundations of a new industry emerged during 2015-2019, with Kizuna Ai's debut in 2016 marking a pivotal moment. Kizuna Ai coined herself as a "virtual YouTuber," pioneering a new type of entertainer. As more VTubers joined the fray, companies began investing in VTuber technology and talent cultivation. Cover Corporation (manager of Hololive Production) in 2017 and AnyColor Inc. (owner of Nijisanji VTuber agency) in 2018 were at the forefront, cultivating VTuber talent.

VTubing steadily grew through the 2010s but witnessed an explosion in popularity during the COVID-19 pandemic. Stay-at-home mandates brought VTubers to the forefront of entertainment. VTubers, backed by devoted fanbases, boosted by streaming algorithms, and nurtured by their agencies, achieved mainstream status. In 2020, Super Chats, YouTube's paid feature for highlighting viewer comments during streams, saw VTubers from Hololive dominating the rankings. Kiryu Coco, a Hololive VTuber, raked in around $800,000 in Super Chats, underscoring VTubers' financial success.

The Rise of English VTubers

For all the popularity of the earliest VTubers, they were drastically limited by the language barrier from reaching a wider audience outside of Japan. This was changed with the introduction of agencies that specifically cultivated English-speaking talent, helping spread awareness and popularity of VTubers overseas.

One of the most well-known examples of VTubers gaining fame outside Japan is Hololive Production's English VTubing group. Recognizing the growing popularity of VTubers in Japan and understanding the global appeal of anime, manga, and Japanese-inspired content, Cover Corporation, the parent company of Hololive, took a bold step in 2020 by launching its English VTuber talent division.

The first generation of Hololive’s EN VTubers (known as Hololive Myth) catapulted what was still considered a niche type of streamer into video games and entertainment stardom. VTubers gained global prominence, bridging platforms, content types, and language barriers. With the inclusion of English-speaking VTubers in agencies like Hololive, VTubers established themselves as a staple of online entertainment by the end of 2020 and early 2021.

VTubers in Gaming

The content audiences can expect from VTubers spans a wide range of topics and interests. However, the biggest VTubers (and their respective agencies) have their activities firmly rooted in video gaming. Video games make up the majority of a VTuber’s streams, closely followed by music and other variety content. 

VTubers enhance the engaging medium of video games with a dash of their own personality, experiences, and skill—all factors that make for engaging content.

For example, Shishiro Botan and Minato Aqua are well-known for their skill in FPS games like Rainbow Six Siege and Apex Legends, often reaching the highest ranks of players. The juxtaposition of anime-styled streamers keeping pace with the most skilled players of a game makes for entertaining and engrossing content, often attracting both gamers and non-gamers.

The popularity of VTubers hasn’t escaped the attention of many of the already-established gaming content creators. Many YouTube personalities have either collaborated or interacted with VTubers, playing games or engaging with them doing other content. Some notable examples include Connor Colquhoun (known online as CDawgVA) and Ironmouse (one of the founding members of Western VTuber agency VShojo), PewDiePie appearing in Gawr Gura’s stream chat, and the anime/gaming/otaku podcast Trash Taste’s interviews with Calliope Mori.

Some YouTubers have taken this a step further and have commissioned VTuber models of their own. Veteran YouTuber Kwebbelkop, who has amassed 15 million subscribers on the strength of his daily uploads, invested millions of Euros into a new channel that is being fronted by a VTuber named Bloo. Singer Amanda Lee (also known as AmaLee) created her VTuber persona Monarch for streaming video games and doing her regular singing content.

Content creators (both on YouTube and on Twitch) in general have widely embraced VTubers as a welcome partner for collaborations. Not only does it bring the audiences of both parties together, but it also offers a more enriching experience for the viewers.

Why Gaming Brands Should Embrace VTubers

Gaming companies have recognized the marketing potential of VTubers and often collaborate with VTubers to promote their games. VTubers may participate in game launches, exclusive in-game events, or provide early access to games, helping to generate buzz and attract players. 

Japanese companies like Sega, Bandai Namco, and Nexon have been teaming up with VTubers for a while now. Some notable examples include collaboration between SEGA’s open-world title Sonic Frontiers and Hololive VTuber Inugami Korone or Bandai Namco long-term partnership with Takanshi Kiara.

What's particularly intriguing is the growing interest from Western giants like Blizzard Entertainment and Electronic Arts in exploring partnerships and integration with VTubers. For instance, Selen Tatsuki was invited by Apex Legends to take on the role of Team Leader in Reignite Cup #2, an online Japanese Showmatch organized by Reignite.

In another noteworthy example, the Gaiden Event of Apex Legends marked a significant milestone by seamlessly blending gaming with virtual entertainment. This event featured a captivating array of 40 exclusive cosmetics and introduced VTuber avatars for three beloved Legends: Octane, Mirage, and Bangalore. These virtual personas breathed life into the game with their unique expressions, animations, HUD overlays, and emotes, offering players an exciting new way to interact with their fellow gamers.

The Future of VTubers Within the Gaming Space

VTubers may have started as a small space of content creators, but the possibilities that they present to both video game sponsors and the video game industry have grown far bigger than their niche origins. Companies should start seriously considering involving VTubers as an important factor and partner that can contribute much more than just additional entertainment for their audience.

And given that the technology for streaming (and VTubers as a whole) is still developing, the opportunities for content and other collaborations look promising. With support from their fanbases, partnerships with brands, and their own unique flavor of charm and personality, VTubers will remain a significant presence within video gaming for a long time.

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