Virtual YouTubers, or VTubers for short, are a type of online performer that have gained immense popularity on various streaming sites since 2016. The phenomenon originated on YouTube, hence the name; however, a large number of VTubers can be found on Twitch as well, and a few can be found on smaller services such as NicoNicoDouga in Japan and bilibili in China. Regardless of the streaming service used, however, "VTuber" has become the default term for this type of performer.note
Unlike virtual celebrities such as Hatsune Miku, the performer behind the VTuber is a real person, but they utilize an animated avatar to represent the character they are portraying. The avatar is "rigged" to move and react as the performer does, utilizing various forms of motion capture software. Both 2D and 3D avatars are used, depending on performer preference and available resourcesnote .
The major appeal of using an animated avatar is that the performer is not constrained by real-world considerations (such as gender or appearance) and they can design their character to be just about anything, although most avatars are still generally humanoid in shape. Also, considering the first VTubers were Japanese and heavily anime-inspired, most who have followed utilize similar elements in their avatars, to varying degrees. Many VTubers also appreciate the level of anonymity using an avatar provides.
While some early takes on the concept were seen as early as 2011, such as UK-based 'animated' blogger Ami Yamato, most fans consider the first "true" VTuber to be Kizuna Ai, who debuted on YouTube in 2016. Ai was the first to coin the term "Virtual YouTuber" as part of her greeting. The early VTubers used 3D avatars, and released pre-recorded videos on a regular basis. Following the lead of Nijisanji and hololive, which were established in 2018, later VTubers moved more toward using 2D avatars, as well as shifting toward a live-streaming model.
The VTuber phenomenon came to the attention of western audiences thanks to individuals and groups on YouTube creating translated videos of the Japanese content, several of which went viral. Western fans started supporting their favorite Japanese streamers, as well as creating their own characters on both YouTube and Twitch. In turn, many Japanese VTubers embraced their overseas fans, some studying English so they could communicate with them more readily. hololive established an English-speaking unit in 2020, with Nijisanji following suit in 2021note .
In Japan, Virtual YouTubers have also helped to increase interest in PC gaming in general, and introduce western gaming genres such as First-Person Shooters and Survival Sandbox to a new audience. Besides the fact that it's easier to play games on the same system being used to stream fromnote , the competitiveness, cooperativeness, and high creativity potential found in these types of games has made for some very entertaining Let's Play content.
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Tropes Common to Virtual YouTubers
- Adoptive Peer Parent: It's common for VTubers to call their character designer "papa" or "mama", even if the designer's own avatar looks roughly the same age as their "children". Some of these pairs play up the parent-child aspect for laughs.
- Alter-Ego Acting: Most VTubers are playing a character, although to what extent they stay in character varies.
- As Himself: While the vast majority of VTubers play a character that's separate from their real selves, there are a few who just play as themselves. These are often people with an existing fanbase who find being a VTuber as a fun way to interact with their fans, with several being artists since they could just illustrate their own digital avatars. Some of the more active ones in VTuber circles include freelance illustrator Shigure Ui, hentai artist Itou Life, and The Elder Sister-like One mangaka Iida Pochi.
- Badass Adorable: Most VTubers are going for some variation on "cute" with their designs and presentation, but this does nothing to stop them wading into very tough and/or violent games and frequently triumphing.
- Bland-Name Product: Twitch prefers to used the more generic "virtual streamer" to describe these performers.
- Cross-Dressing Voices:
- Babiniku, short for "Virtual Bishoujo Juniku" (Virtual Girl Incarnation), are Vtubers with a female avatar and a male voice actor. While some, like Tomari Mari, use a voice changer or increase the pitch of their voice to match their avatar, others, like Nojaloli who first popularised the concept, just stick with their normal voice for the full Vocal Dissonance.
- On the Recursive Crossdressing end, there is Inuyama Tamaki, a male cross-dressing as a female who is voiced by Norio Tsukudani, the female mangaka of Himegoto.
- Crossover: VTubers often collaborate with one another, especially for multi-player games such as Minecraft, Among Us, Ark, Apex or Fall Guys.
- Descended Creator: Once in a while, a VTuber character designer can become a VTuber themselves, if they weren't already one before then. This is the case for Ui Shigure, who became a VTuber at Subaru Oozora's request, and Nabi Aoi, who got enough encouragement from her "daughters" Amelia Watson and Uto Amatsuka to start a Youtube herself.
- Digital Avatar: The type and design of these vary.
- Elite Four: The "Four Heavenly Kings" OGs: Kizuna Ai, Kaguya Luna, Mirai Akari, Dennou Shojo Siro and Nojaloli (Siro being added to the group slightly later than the others).
- Most people don't have an issue with there being five "Four Heavenly Kings" but due to the gap in subscriber counts between Ai and the others, some Japanese fans set her apart from the "Four Heavenly Kings", referring to her as "Oyabun" ("boss").
- Fan Sub: A staple for western fans of Japanese VTubers, since official translations are few and far between.
- Fantasy Kitchen Sink: An avatar can be just about any sort of character, as long as it can be rigged to follow the performer's movements. This leads to a wide variety of characters and concepts across the board.
- Gratuitous English: Often used by Japanese VTubers to better communicate with overseas fans.
- Gratuitous Japanese: Lots of Japanese lingo, both from Japanese VTuber/general idol culture and particular verbal tics of specific characters, is a mainstay of the fans' vocabulary, such as oshi, DD (short "daredemo daisuki", fan with no dedication to specific stars) and so on.
- Idol Singer: Subverted, if not averted entirely. There are some similarities between certain VTubers (especially Japanese performers with a focus on singing) and more traditional idols, and some shared terms (such as "graduation" for when a VTuber discontinues performing, whether their choice or not), but for the most part, most idol traits do not apply.
- Even hololive, which started out advertising itself as a group of "virtual idols" and expected talent to behave accordingly, backed off this stance when they realized their talent are more successful when allowed to perform as they see fit, within reason.note
- One thing that is influenced by idol culture, amongst Japanese VTubers at least, is a reticence by female performers to do collabs with their male counterparts. Most fans couldn't care less, but there have been times where such a collab has resulted in some backlash from certain fans.
- Improbably Female Cast: The majority of VTubers you will likely run across are female. There are a steadily growing number of male VTubers, but they're still vastly outnumbered by the massive assortment of females. It seems as though Hololive was aware of this when establishing their male branch of Vtubers.
- Kayfabe: Virtual YouTubing establishes an environment where the audience believes that fictional characters are chatting, performing, or making Let's Play streams. To create this environment, a strong Kayfabe is maintained over the identity of the streamers; the streamers are treated as their avatars, and never break from their identity in official communications or reveal their alternate identities (no matter how big an Open Secret their alternate identities are).
- Let's Play: A popular category of content, especially for VTubers on Twitch.
- Loads and Loads of Characters: One estimate has the number of active VTubers at the end of 2020 at around 10,000 streamers.
- Romantic Two-Girl Friendship: Several, especially in the agencies. Unsurprising, given the Improbably Female Cast.
- Secret Identity: The official communications from the VTubers take great care to prevent possible leaks on the alternate online identities or real life identities of the people who play the characters. That said, reliable and well-sourced speculations on the alternate identities of the people behind the avatars do exist online, but the entire fandom strongly respects the identity kayfabe and actively avoids bringing up these speculations in front of the VTubers. The exceptions are the few who appeared on camera before becoming VTubers without taking on a different name/identity.
- Surprisingly Good English:
- Some Japanese VTubers speak English very well; agency examples include hololive's Kiryu Coco and Akai Haato, Nijisanji's Hoshikawa Sara, Yumeoi Kakeru, and Genzuki Tojiro, and VOMS's Amano Pikamee.
- Outside Japan pretty much all Indonesian VTubers (Hololive, Nijisanji and otherwise) are fluent or close to it in English, the language being a very common second language in the country.