YouTube erected a platform where commoners could climb the ladder to stardom.
Now, the video-sharing giant is seeing another wave of new talent diving into a glittering entertainment scene.
They aren’t exactly human, though.
These entertainers are called “virtual YouTubers,” or “VTubers,” and are represented by digital avatars that look like anime characters.
Almost exclusively a Japanese phenomenon, at least so far, these virtual talents have proliferated rapidly over the past several months and people in the industry, together with observers, predict the movement will only accelerate.
Following are some questions and answers about virtual YouTubers.
What do virtual YouTubers do?
It’s quite similar to what human YouTubers do, such as recording themselves playing video games, trying new apps, singing, dancing and live streaming their chats with viewers.
They are of course created and managed by humans who set up motion-capture and filming devices so the avatars mirror their real-life movements and voice.
How smoothly the avatars move differs according to each VTuber. Some are 3D characters capable of smooth gestures and changing facial expressions that emulate emotions.
So far, pretty much all popular virtual YouTubers are cute female characters.
Their main playing field is YouTube, but those that have gained popularity there hold live events in the real world and have started appearing on TV programs.
How fast are virtual YouTubers growing?
The Tokyo-based data research firm User Local Inc. announced last week that the number of VTubers had topped 4,000. Only about 2½ months earlier the figure stood at around 2,000.
According to User Local, which also compiles virtual YouTuber rankings, the character called Kizuna Ai has the biggest fan base with more than 2 million followers. Kaguya Luna stands at No. 2 with 750,000 followers, while Mirai Akari has about 625,000.
Compared with the leading Japanese human YouTubers, who have over 6 million followers, the numbers may be still be smaller, but Kizuna Ai already outnumbers some famous YouTubers, such as Tsuyoshi Kusanagi, a former member of the boy band SMAP who has roughly 785,000 fans following his channel.
Why are they becoming so popular?
Minoru Hirota, a journalist who runs a media website called Panora, which specializes in virtual reality-related news, said the movement started picking up steam late last year.
Before then, Kizuna Ai, who is seen as the pioneer of the field, was the only popular VTuber. But several other characters debuted in December and attracted attention.
“People are already familiar with (human) YouTubers, but they have become saturated lately. Then this virtual YouTuber thing popped up and a lot of people found it interesting,” Hirota said.
He explained that one common aspect among popular VTubers is that they show some “gaps” that people may not expect based on the character’s appearance.
For instance, Kizuna Ai, which looks like a teenage girl, plays a mobile game in one video. When it can’t play well, it eventually gets riled up and says, “I’ll never play this s——y game ever again!”
Another YouTuber, Nekomasu, plays a female-looking avatar, but the voice actually sounds like a middle-aged man.
From a technology perspective, Hirota said a big factor behind the bump in popularity is the fact that devices and software necessary to make virtual avatar videos have become significantly cheaper.
How are they different from anime characters?
A critical difference is that virtual YouTubers tend to have more personality than anime characters, whose attributes are locked in by a script.
Unlike anime characters that cannot have a Twitter account to tweet freely, VTubers can and they communicate with their fans in real time as well.
Although virtual YouTubers are played by humans, many fans want to see the characters as if they are acting of their own free will.
Thus, “fans are seeing these characters almost as humans and it’s really a new” way for people to interact with virtual characters, Hirota said.
What kind of people want to become virtual YouTubers?
They tend to have a desire to express themselves to others but are often too shy to do so by showing their face to the public, said Daichi Tsukamoto, CEO of Duo Inc., a Nagoya-based startup that established a virtual YouTuber management agency called Entum in April.
But “they can do it by transforming themselves into these virtual characters,” said Tsukamoto, adding that his startup launched the agency to support such hidden talents.
“We’ve had some auditions and realized that there are really creative people in this world,” said Tsukamoto, whose agency supports popular VTubers like Mirai Akari and Nekomiya Hinata.
For instance, some people are too shy to talk to another person face to face but can express themselves smoothly and be funny over the phone.
“If someone helps them out a little bit, they could become extraordinary talents,” Tsukamoto said. Most people who show up for the auditions are under 25, he said.
Hirota agrees that many are hesitant to go public and show off their talent. Yet the virtual YouTuber trend “kind of shows that it’s possible to live as someone else through a virtual avatar,” he said.
How will these virtual talents evolve? Is it just a short-term boom?
People in the industry and observers say the current trend is only the beginning of the virtual talent movement.
“I am betting on a future where virtual talents will become ubiquitous,” said Tsukamoto.
He said more virtual characters will debut and they will be competing and collaborating with talented humans.
In the meantime, Tsukamoto said, virtual talents themselves will need to become more creative, pointing out that many VTubers are just emulating Kizuna Ai’s path.
And their playing field will be widened to mass media, real events and collaboration with companies, while the variety of characters expand beyond just female avatars.
Some virtual YouTubers have already held real-life events and worked with human celebrities. Kizuna Ai was also named as an ambassador to promote tourism by the Japan National Tourism Organization.
Seeing the huge potential of virtual avatars, some companies are already investing in a big way.
Gree Inc., a Tokyo-based mobile game maker, said in April it plans to invest about ¥10 billion in the VTuber business.
Kensuke Sugiyama, Gree’s PR officer, said the company was initially thinking about breaking into the anime-themed entertainment business, considering that Japan’s anime industry has been blooming, especially overseas, thanks to on-demand video platforms such as Netflix and Crunchyroll.
“Then we realized that virtual YouTubers may have great potential,” Sugiyama said.
He also said VTubers can bring great synergies to the firm’s core businesses — virtual reality and video games. Virtual characters could appear in video games while avatars also go well with VR technology and entertainment.
For now, the main priority is to cultivate new VTuber talent and promote it to the world, Sugiyama added.
Gree is targeting ¥10 billion in sales from its virtual talent business in the 2020 business year.