Virtual YouTubers, or simply VTubers, are a popular emerging trend of live streamers using virtual CG avatars. These digital avatars, commonly powered by real-time motion capture technology, allow many online creators to maintain a degree of anonymity while presenting a visually engaging online persona.
Originating in Japan, the concept has since exploded into a full-blown online phenomenon in the 2020s, creating niche but dedicated international communities across popular streaming platforms like YouTube, Twitch, and NicoNicoDouga.
Most, though not all, VTubers utilize motion capture systems to map their facial expressions, gestures, and movements onto their virtual avatars in real time. The virtual avatars are created using animation software like Live2D and are designed by artists, generally in an anime-inspired aesthetic.
2D and 3D
These avatars can come in both 2D and 3D, depending on what creators prefer or can afford. This technology is publicly available and can be set up with minimal resources, though more sophisticated technology can be costly, and more detailed avatars can cost thousands of dollars to commission. Alternatively, some creators, called PNGTubers, opt to use static images as avatars instead.
Typical VTuber content is deeply rooted in Japanese streaming culture and includes popular formats like karaoke streams (called utawaku or song stream) and free talk streams (zatsudan). The influence of karaoke and utaite culture has led to a subset known as Virtual Singers or VSingers, who prioritize original or cover songs over gaming content.
One of the defining features of the Virtual YouTuber community is its diversity. Unbound by real-world constraints, VTubers can design characters that transcend traditional notions of gender and appearance. They can appear in various shapes, sizes, and personalities, catering to a wide range of interests and preferences.
Some VTubers adopt a kayfabe, portraying a fantasy persona, while others embrace more grounded identities. Many VTubers value the anonymity that this allows, though this differs from creator to creator. Some creators switch openly between their real-world identity and their virtual avatar, and for others, it’s treated as an open secret that is impolite to bring up in their community.
Though VTubers didn’t get truly popular until recently, the concept and technology for virtual avatars have been around for decades. Visual novel developer Nitroplus, ran a YouTube channel in early 2010 for its mascot character, Super Sonico, who would represent the company through videos.
The UK-based Japanese vlogger Ami Yamato used a 3D animated avatar in her videos. The first real breakout success in VTubing was with Kizuna AI, being the first to coin the term ‘virtual YouTuber.’ Her content was that of a regular YouTuber, with discussion videos, let’s plays, and live streams, but she stood out from other traditional creators with her endearing appearance and personality contrasted with a surprisingly foul mouth.
While early VTubers predominantly used 3D avatars and released pre-recorded content, the landscape shifted with the establishment of platforms like Nijisanji and Hololive in 2018. This ushered in a move toward 2D avatars and live-streaming models. Various tools like FaceRig and Live2D Cubism enable syncing avatars to camera movements, offering a diverse range of options for VTubers.
Around 2020, during the pandemic, the VTuber phenomenon gained global attention through video clips on YouTube, introducing Western audiences to Japanese VTuber content, translated by their fan communities.
Western fans started supporting Japanese VTubers and creating their own characters on platforms like YouTube and Twitch. This cross-cultural exchange prompted Japanese VTubers to embrace their international audience, with some even learning English to facilitate communication.
Big-name Japanese VTuber agencies like Hololive and Nijisanji would go on to introduce English-speaking branches of VTubers, to great success.