Streaming was already a trend before COVID-19 hit, but when the lockdowns started, more and more people took to Twitch for extra income. The economic fallout from the coronavirus pandemic resulted in layoffs, furloughs, and bankruptcy declarations that left many workers scrambling to keep a roof over their heads. Data from Twitchtracker.com noted a 155% increase of streamers signing up to Twitch to try and make their fortune.
But streaming isn’t the easy money many people think it is. While big name streamers like PewDiePie and Markiplier make upwards of $10 million a year, the truth is that most streamers never make it. In fact, a good chunk of streamers have shared on Reddit that they’ve experienced months and even years of zero viewers watching their streams.
But while conventional streamers are struggling, VTubers have had a lot more luck. Instead of their real faces, these online entertainers use virtual avatars, typically made with Blender, an open-source software program that lets users render 3D images.
VTubers often use anime-inspired aesthetics with big doe eyes and exaggerated expressions. Blender also allows them to incorporate non-human design elements like animal ears, tails, or even fairy and bat wings. This leads to a very diverse range of faces that look alike while being vastly different from each other.
The use of avatars gives VTubers a degree of creative freedom that makes streaming more fun for them and their viewers. But it isn’t the only reason why VTubers don’t use their real faces.
Last year, a VTuber by the name of Mano Aloe quit within a month of joining the VTuber community after being doxxed. For innocent people on the internet, doxxing is when your personal information is publicly revealed on the web without your consent or knowledge. This opened up Mano Aloe to harassment targeted at her and her family members. It came as no surprise that she eventually terminated her contract with her agency and left the VTubing scene permanently.
With the risk that’s already present in streaming, hiding behind a virtual avatar helps VTubers reduce the risk of harassment and stalking. It’s less likely you’ll be stalked when none of the audience knows your name, a valid safety measure given that other online celebs have ended up decapitated by obsessed fans.
But if online fame can kill, why do VTubers risk it?
The Million Dollar Reason
Much like other popular YouTubers, VTubers make their money through the YouTube Partner Program which gives them access to ad revenue. But this is just a drop in the bucket since VTubers have other streams of income. Among these are merchandise sales, Patreon and Twitch donations, and affiliate marketing, where they advertise products and services.
And then there’s YouTube Super Chat.
Super Chat lets viewers send their favorite VTubers money during a livestream. So, while a cat-eared anime girl squeals while playing Little Nightmares, her fans can give her a certain amount that lets their comments be pinned to the top of the chat. This helps viewers catch the attention of their VTuber of choice and leverages the parasocial relationships that viewers form with virtual entertainers for profit.
As of 2020, there are now more than 10,000 active VTubers looking for their shot at fame and fortune. And while not all of these virtual streamers make millions, a good number of them do.
According to Playboard, the most Super Chatted channels worldwide are VTuber channels. At the very top of the list is Kiryu Coco, who was the first YouTuber to make $1 million USD off of Super Chat.
But even from that million, Kiryu Coco only took home half, and the reason why brings us to this next part.
VTuber Agencies, Not Individual Creators
There’s one major factor that sets VTubers apart from PewDiePie and other non-virtual avatar streamers: VTubers don’t own themselves.
To understand this, we need to understand that VTubers are 3D models rigged to a person’s body. While fans interact with and donate their money to VTubers, the real people behind these animated faces are not associated with the fame of their avatar. Secondly, these avatars are intellectual property that belong to VTubing agencies. This means that a VTuber’s actor can’t make money off of their VTubing fame in a way that isn’t associated with the agency that owns their avatar.
The resources that go into making these virtual star requires massive backing from corporate machinery that takes care of promotions, models, merchandise production, and even distribution of their performances.
So, while independent YouTubers (which is what even the most popular Western YouTubers tend to be) are free to take breaks and publish the content they want, the biggest VTubers don’t get that luxury.
This was made clear in September 2020, when two VTubers found themselves in an international controversy over a “mistake”: Kiryu Coco and Akai Haato called Taiwan a country.
Taiwan, which has its own democratically elected government, has long been embroiled in a politically sticky situation with China and its One China Policy. The two VTubers had included Taiwan in their list of countries where they have the highest number of subscribers. The resulting backlash from Mainland Chinese fans resulted in Hololive, a Japanese VTuber agency, issuing a temporary operations ban on both Kiryu Coco and Akai Haato. Hololive immediately issued an apology for the “mistake.”
Though both Haato and Kiryu are still streaming as of the time of writing this article, their counterparts in HoloCN weren’t so lucky. Following death threats and harassment towards Hololive and their talents, all five of HoloCN’s VTubers were forced to “graduate,” an industry term that meant they were either retiring or fired.
Despite the fame of their talents and their massive influence and reach, Hololive isn’t the only agency in the VTuber market. There are actually three major agencies backing the big names in VTubing, but since we’ve started with Hololive, let’s talk about them for a bit.
Hololive Production is a company under Cover Corporation that keeps a roster of talents that are structured, presented, and marketed in a way that is intentionally similar to Japanese idol groups like AKB48. The company’s “Hololive” group is all female while the male VTubers are under the “Holostars” group. In the spirit of Japanese idol culture, the company also has its own music label, INoNaKa Music. Even with the closure of HoloCN, Hololive operates in Indonesia and has a HoloEN branch targeted at English-speaking countries.
There’s also Nijisanji which, unlike other agencies, is mostly comprised of 2D VTubers who post on YouTube and its Chinese and Japanese counterparts, NicoNico Douga and Bilibili. There are currently over 100 active VTubers signed under Nijisanji.
Even Western companies are getting in on the Hololive scene (and revenue). Vshojo was co-founded by Justin Ignacio, also known as theGunrun, who is also part of Twitch’s founding team. Since the majority of big-name VTubers are notably not English speakers, you can expect to see Vshojo dominate the English-speaking scene in the years to come.
While we wait for that to happen, these VTubers will continue to dominate the industry.
Kizuna Ai is a giant in the VTubing scene for the simple reason that she is the first VTuber. But there’s a bit of a dispute in Ai’s legacy: a British YouTuber did it first.
In 2013, a YouTuber by the name of Ami Yamato uploaded this video where she uses a 3D model with a Disney Pixar-esque aesthetic. Since it predates Ai’s debut video, some claim that VTubing history started with her. But Ai has a stronger claim to the title of Founding VTuber because VTubing didn’t exist before her.
Kizuna Ai’s first video had all the hallmarks of what VTubing is today. Aside from the use of a model, Kizuna Ai had an anime aesthetic and a character concept that made it clear that she was just a persona. Plus, she was backed by an agency.
Ai wasn’t just a founder of the genre, she was also the one to give it a name. In that same debut video, she introduces herself as a “virtual YouTuber.” In short, a VTuber.
Her legacy is matched by meteoric fame. Ai is the most popular of all the active VTubers and has over 4 million subscribers on YouTube and Bilibili in addition to 10 million social media followers.
Ai’s agency seems aware of her impact and has maintained a full historical timeline of the VTuber at her official website.
While Kizuna Ai’s concept was that she was an artificial intelligence, Gawr Gura has a more natural theme. This pint-sized VTuber claims to be a shark girl from Atlantis with a love of horror and a talent for rhythm games.
She is part of the first generation of VTubers under the HoloEN branch. She’s relatively new to the scene, having started just September last year, but she’s quickly become one of the fastest growing VTubers and ranks second among the most-subscribed VTubing talents. The achievement made her the second to have reached 1 million subs, just after Kizuna Ai. Gura calls her legion of fans her “Chumbuds.”
Usada Pekora is another fantasy-themed animal-girl from HoloLive. Pekora’s character is that of a rabbit-eared bunny-girl that comes from Pekoland, a fantasy realm where she’s a royal. This carrot-loving streamer is part of the third generation of Hololive Japan, Hololive Fantasy.
She is currently one of the top five most viewed female streamers in 2020. She comes in at fourth place, under first placer Valkyrae who started streaming on Twitch in 2015. In contrast, Pekora began her career in July 2019 and is already sitting at 14.6 million views.
With Hololive’s support and the growing fame of VTubers in general, it wouldn’t be too far-fetched for Pekora to overtake other female YouTubers on the list when it comes to fame.
Though she’s set to leave VTubing this year, Kiryu Coco remains one of the most famous VTubers. Another one of Hololive’s talents, this 3,500-year-old dragon sets herself apart as one of the few bilingual VTubers. Her ability to speak English drew thousands of English-speaking fans to her streams, making her a major figure in VTubing.
One of her channel’s staples is a Reddit Meme Review, a copy of PewDiePie’s Meme Review, where she goes over Reddit threads with other VTubers, cracking jokes for their fans. Just how good is Kiryu Coco’s content? Good enough to make her the number one Super Chat earner on YouTube.
With the popularity and money to be gained from VTubing, it wouldn’t be weird at all if you wanted to give it a shot too. Before you jump in without a clue, let’s get a quick overview of what it takes to be a VTuber.
Getting in on the Game
We already know there’s serious money to be made in VTubing but wherever there’s opportunity, there’s the need for investment. Like any money-making endeavor, you’re going to need the right tools and equipment.
1. Get a Good PC
Before you can get started as a VTuber, you’re going to need a PC that can handle hours of streaming as well as creating your avatars. There’s a GPU shortage right now, but try to get a PC with a good graphics card. The folks over at r/PCGaming and r/Twitch have an active community with helpful members who know their stuff. If there’s any place to get help when picking out your PC, it’s there.
2. Get a Quality Mic
Your audience is not going to see your actual face, so invest in a quality mic that lets them hear your beautiful voice. While professional-grade microphones do make you sound amazing, you don’t need to cough up money for it right off the bat. There are plenty of affordable options that give you decent performance. There are decent microphones out there for under $25!
3. Create a Character
You can’t be a VTuber without an avatar, so before you get on Blender, take a moment to think of what you would like to present yourself as. Though VTubers appear to be individuals, it’s better to think of their personas as brands. So, think of your VTuber avatar as if it were a brand as well. What do you want it to represent? What sets your brand apart?
With thousands of VTubers being made each day, you’ll need a strategy to make sure yours is appealing and unique enough to stand out.
Once you have your concept, download a rendering program like Blender or VRoid and start working on your virtual face. It’s surprisingly easy to learn with just a few YouTube tutorials. The best part is that both of them are free.
4. Get an Okay Webcam
Since you won’t be using your real face for streaming, you can get away with using a fairly decent webcam instead. As long as you can clearly be seen on camera, it will do the job.
Maybe you’re wondering, Why do I need a camera if I don’t even show my real face? This is because after rendering and rigging, you need to use face-tracking software to animate your 3D avatar. You can’t exactly make use of face-tracking software if you don’t have something to track your face with. Without a webcam, your virtual model won’t be moving on screen at all, so make sure you don’t skimp out too much.
5. Have a Lot of Patience
This funny comic from @lolcomicstime perfectly visualizes the struggle of getting viewers. Many VTubers stream for hours in hopes of capturing an audience but until that day comes, they’re putting in the time and effort to stream without any of the financial rewards.
The sad truth is that, like any industry, it’s hard to make it big in VTubing. Its popularity means that the VTuber scene is starting to get a little saturated and getting a slice of the pie is difficult when Kizuna Ai and her fellow Hololive streamers have the biggest slice.
That said, hard doesn’t mean impossible. So, if you do start VTubing, good luck!
If you need ideas for games you would like to stream, you can check out our list of 5 Best Visual Novels on Steam You Should Play. Or maybe you’d like to cozy up to the Avatar: The Last Airbender fandom by playing Pai Sho From Avatar: The Last Airbender.