We undoubtedly live in a space-age of internet phenomenons. On one hand, there are internet aesthetics and subcultures continuously churning out as we speak. On the other, we spot the rise of anonymous influencers, charming the internet with their hands, voice and gameplays. Among the latter are Virtual YouTubers, the online entertainers disguising their appearance by using customised digital avatars. While secondary research glorifies a third-party perspective to these creators, we spoke to two VTubers to dive behind the scenes of the coveted phenomenon—breaking down their struggles and learnings to guide other creators on the rise.
“When I first heard about VTubers, I didn’t really understand them,” started Monty Seelana, a VTuber with a ‘fairy scholar’ avatar streaming on YouTube for the past three months. Having come across the term in October 2020, the now-converted creator admitted to wondering if there were real people behind the avatar or computer-generated ones like Vocaloid. “How authentic were the people’s personalities, or was it all an act? What was the difference between VTubers and regular Twitch streamers?” were both questions that Monty was curious about until the creator stumbled across two specific clips by Minato Aqua and Usada Pekora.
“They discussed how bad their social anxiety was—in stark contrast to how energetic and bombastic they were while streaming to thousands of people,” Monty said. “That was when I realised that having a virtual avatar as a mask can empower you to be your true self without judgement.” Monty admitted to having fallen down the rabbit hole over time, currently streaming a wide variety of games, hosting interviews with fellow VTubers and curating dedicated tutorials with the intention of helping other creators overcome the large skill and financial barriers to becoming successful VTubers.
For Murazrai, however, the decision to try out VTubing was not influenced by actual VTubers. “It was because I wanted an escape from my current workplace,” the creator admitted. “While I’m unhappy with how my current workplace is, I realise that changing jobs is not the solution and that I would face the same problems in a new workplace.” Seeking to work outside of traditional careers, the three month old VTuber initially tried becoming a YouTuber with a mask and hat on. “But my sister called my streaming getup weird so I abandoned that,” Murazrai said. “A few months later, after a bad day at work, I chose to become a VTuber.”
Murazrai is an autistic VTuber based in Malaysia whose VTubing activities revolve around streaming Japanese freeware games and composing recorder music with the occasional first-person shooter games. The creator lists VTubers like Mori Calliope and Oda Ricoru influencing personal recorder compositions along with Oshaberi Daisy and Niwarin rekindling Murazrai’s interest in Japanese freeware games. “Niwarin is most supportive of me. He gave me advice on being a Japanese freeware VTuber and sometimes comes to watch my livestreams. In turn, I also watch his livestreams even if he’s drawing instead of streaming.”
What better way to start breaking down these motion-tracked personalities than with their digital avatars? When asked about Monty’s inspiration behind the ‘fairy scholar’ avatar, the creator reminisced, “Before I was Monty, I was a huge nerd—a big reader that enjoyed writing and I loved fantasy themes and Dungeons and Dragons.” Monty admitted to always wanting a scholar or librarian character to represent that core interest. “Me being a fairy came from my personality—I swing wildly between being a wholesome and helpful person and being a chaotic prankster.”
The VTuber further admits that the family name ‘Seelana’ comes from the historical Scottish fairy lore which splits fairies into two classifications—the nice-but-still-dangerous fairies in the Seelie Court, and the more malicious ones in the Unseelie Court. “My given name, Monty, I think I just picked it because it sounded good and I respected Monty Oum. Once I had the name in my head, it just clicked and that was that.”
For Murazrai, the current avatar is literally the Live2D version of the creator. “I did this to avoid autism masking issues that come with playing a character,” Murazrai admitted. “I have commissioned Reem for my L2D model which went smoothly. However, I have only a half-body model rather than a full-body model that most—if not all—VTubers are using.”
When asked about the technical and thought process that goes behind Murazrai’s livestreams, the creator differentiated FPS livestreams from that of Japanese freeware games. “For FPS, since I currently stream only CS:GO (with Apex Legends and Eximius: Seize The Frontline being considered in the future) I chose to seek out community hostage maps and stream them since I don’t see any online personalities do it, VTubers or otherwise.”
When it comes to Japanese freeware games, however, “things are a bit more complicated.” “First, I check for games to stream in Japanese freeware repositories. I check on three websites: Freem, Freeware-Mugen and Vector. But I end up choosing Freem since it has a lot of games with openly stated permissions for streaming—something that Freeware-Mugen and Vector lack.”
If the permission statement is missing, however, the VTuber will try to obtain the same before streaming by tracking down the developer on Twitter. “Once I have obtained permission, I will include them in an Excel sheet to manage them,” Murazrai continued. “For both the FPS and freeware games, once I have the schedule down, I will set up the stream a day before and announce the stream content on my Twitter. On the streaming day, I will have my streaming software ready 5 minutes before the scheduled stream while setting up Twitter and Discord posts. Once the stream starts, I submit the posts.”
Most comfortable with gaming, Monty admitted that streaming isn’t too difficult for the creator from a technical standpoint. “I’ve quickly gotten into a good swing where I can stream most games without much setup, but before I started publically streaming, I did do private practice streams for a month just to be comfortable.”
In terms of thought processes before streaming, Monty streams what interests the creator at the moment. “My own taste in games is all over the place and I know I’m not good enough at games for anyone to watch me for a display of skill, so I figured the reason people watch me will be because I’m enjoying myself—and I prioritise that when picking what games to play.” This process has essentially helped the VTuber during massive Steam backlogs.
When asked about the factors Monty took into consideration when choosing the content niche in which to specialise in, the VTuber enlightened, “I settled on games just because that was what I did anyways, but I picked interviews and tutorials because they weren’t something that I saw too much of, and I wanted to give back to the community.” For Monty, the interviews series started off as a dream, “I wanted to be a guest of big VTuber interviewers like Domoarigathanks and Laprio Arcaena but I figured I barely stood a chance because of how small I was.” This thought, however, didn’t deter the creator.
“If all of us small VTubers couldn’t make it to the interviews, then I’d bring the interviews to us. I made my own interview format to try to knit the VTuber scene together—group interviews where the questions were determined ahead of time, hoping to hit a good balance between being interesting and conversation-provoking, while making sure everyone is comfortable.” Monty currently hopes that the VTuber’s interview series will be something that people want to join—a series that self-advertises and spreads through word of mouth.
Various multi-disciplinary artists we spoke to here at Screen Shot were huge advocates of collaborations in the present world of hyper-connectedness. It essentially fosters “a space for artistic growth, inspiration and playfulness” while sharing the workload. So how do collaborations work for VTubers? And if so, are there any inhibitions these online personalities face?
“So far my only collaboration was with Laz, a virtual flutist from Japan,” said Murazrai. “I composed Breeze Over Sunset, a flute solo for him and as part of the collaboration I released its recorder arrangement on my channel.” The VTuber admitted to having chatted with Laz in English over DMs hence not experiencing much of a language barrier except for the fact that Murazrai was “unable to proofread his Japanese video description.” The creator also doesn’t perceive his autism as a deterrent from collaborations. “No one cares if I am autistic or not. When it comes to collaborations, my gender and the content of collaboration matters more,” Murazrai added.
Over to Monty, the VTuber admitted to collaborating more frequently for weekly interviews compared to gaming streams. “I haven’t experienced a language barrier yet, but this is an effect of how large the VTuber scene is and how different language scenes can be rather insulated from one another.”
VTubers have undoubtedly redefined the scene for anonymous influencers. Introduced to the motion-tracked world of VTubing with videos of creators discussing their social anxiety, Monty admitted to using the ‘fairy scholar’ avatar to push through the creator’s own social anxiety.
“I often say that the VTuber scene is a huge boon to anyone looking to redefine themselves and take control of what parts of themselves they want to portray, and I can definitely see these aspects being used in the realm of anonymous influencers,” Monty stated. The creator highlighted the fact that both VTubers and their fans “respect the difference between a VTuber’s identity and the person behind the voice acting and face-capture.” Monty further outlined the potential the VTuber scene has in helping keep up your brand while staying anonymous.
“I know many VTubers who have taken on identities specifically for anonymity. Some others use it as they wrestle with gender identity or body dysphoria. Of course, others might just want to be cute anime characters.”
The VTuber scene, like Monty mentioned, is not free of barriers. Many of these creators experience skill and financial hurdles in hopes of paving their way to a favourable future. When asked about the struggles, learnings and consequent achievements, Murazrai listed five major ones starting with ‘streams running late’ due to juggling a day job, household responsibilities and everyday life. The VTuber has hence, understandably, made the decision to delay night streaming during work days.
“For almost 3 months, I also had to stream using a 4G LTE router as a compromise when my sister was unable to sign up for a fibre broadband internet plan due to infrastructure issues,” Murazrai continued. “The upload speeds sucked to the point that I could only stream Japanese freeware games at questionable video qualities.” The creator further lists ‘lack of correspondence’ as a frequent hindrance to the content plan. “There are moments when I tried to reach out to developers and ask for permission to stream their games but there’s no reply,” Murazrai added.
Language barrier is yet another one on the list. “My Japanese sucks so my applications to appear in a few talk streams by other VTubers were denied. This has become a paradox for me because the main reason why I like a lot of Japanese things is because of not having the knowledge of the language. This allows me to focus on the actual content rather than getting distracted by trying to understand the language.” The VTuber wishes for the invention of virtual translators which can appear alongside streams to overcome this particular issue.
A struggle both Murazrai and Monty seem to share is that of ‘lack of viewers and audience’. “Most of the time when I will be streaming, no one would be watching,” Murazrai admitted. Monty equated the struggle of getting an audience to that faced by “just about every small entertainer.” “I do what I can to stand out and give people a reason to watch me over others, but I’m still just a drop of water in an ocean of VTubers—with that ocean constantly growing.”
Despite these issues, however, Murazrai notes a recent spike in the VTuber’s stream archives, getting “a small but consistent number of viewers.” Monty, on the other hand, hinges growth on the interview and tutorial series “because they’re relatively unique amongst VTubers.”
“The interviews are always fun and they’re a sneaky bit of marketing,” Monty said. “By doing group interviews, the combined fanbases of all the VTubers come together and find reasons to support other VTuber guests. It’s a good bit of growth while being something that people genuinely look forward to.” This has essentially led Monty towards one of the greatest achievements in the VTuber scene.
“When I first started VTubing, I looked up to an indie VTuber named Fuwako Yuni, and I reached out to her early on for advice. Several months later, she DMed me saying she’d been watching my interviews, and was interested in appearing in one of them!” Monty has also witnessed a surge of interest from other VTubers to the creator’s interview callouts. Interests have in fact spiked to the point where Monty can’t “reasonably interview everyone who’s interested.”
In comparison, however, Monty’s tutorial videos are tough to create. “I didn’t know a lot about making concise learning material or video editing at first, so they started off quite rough. I’m getting better at making them now – I can record and edit more efficiently and I’m happier with the quality – but they still aren’t getting the traction I was hoping for, and they’re still quite an ordeal to make.”
Monty’s latest tutorial, focusing on debunking the lofty expectations of what was required to be a VTuber, took the creator almost five days to make. “I have a lot to learn in this regard, to streamline my process and just overall be better at managing my time. I want my tutorial series to be something I’m really proud of, but that doesn’t happen if I struggle to put out a short video every other week,” Monty added.
Monty didn’t have a lot of technical knowledge before entering the two-dimensional realm of VTubing. “I had no prior streaming knowledge, no video/audio editing knowledge, just other people to compare myself to,” Monty stated. Every time the VTuber tripped, lessons learned were noted down and compiled to “teach others so they didn’t have to go through the same.”
“Every time I make a tutorial, I learn a bit more about audio/video editing, and it makes me cringe at some of my older work where some of the editing wasn’t too great.” When it comes to VTubing, Monty admitted to being a bit of a perfectionist. “I’ll often record and re-record lines for hours until I get it right, and even then I’ll feel like it wasn’t the best work I could’ve put out. I want my tutorial series to be a huge help to the community, something I’m proud of that persists.”
With that being said, here’s Monty’s live tutorial for other aspirational VTubers out there: “Take it slow. In the end, VTubing is just regular streaming with tons of extra steps, and you can apply each of those steps one at a time. You don’t have to get it all right on your very first stream or video.”
The creator recommends tutorials to get one started with a basic recording/streaming setup via Open Broadcaster Software (OBS), helping take the VTubing half step-by-step. “The process of getting your own virtual avatar, fully rigged and ready for face capturing, requires climbing either a steep financial commitment or a steep learning curve as you try to figure it out on your own—so don’t feel like you need to do all of that right away, especially if you aren’t even sure if VTubing is right for you.”
“Join VTubing communities and reach out to other people who have walked the same path—they can tell you what to be aware of, or provide tips and tricks.” Monty personally suggests joining the Aspiring VTubers Discord server for the same. “As for your VTuber identity, I suggest looking up Argama Witch’s tutorials on using VRoid Studio. It’s not easy by any stretch of the imagination, but she does wonders in making it look accessible.”
Next up is a one-on-one advice session with Murazrai. “VTubing is a very expensive and time-consuming endeavour that not everyone should be trying.” The creator suggests trying out no-cam streams initially while seeking artists to make a PNG art for your eventual model. “At least if you feel that you are not up for it you didn’t spend too much money,” Murazrai added.
Secondly, be very clear about what you will be doing. “You don’t have to focus on a single niche (and I strongly advise against it unless you know exactly what you’re doing), but you need to know the essentials you want to incorporate into your VTubing activities and learn them.” The VTuber stresses the need for networking like Monty. “Networking threads are good to know other VTubers but don’t stop there. Go and seek out VTubers with the same niche of yours and build up a long-term rapport by commenting on their videos/streams and replying to their Twitter posts.”
One thing to keep in mind here is to avoid isolating yourself within such VTubing circles. “Connect with people outside of these circles related to your niche too. If you can get their support, that’s even better.” “While taking opportunities are important, there are times that you need to create the opportunity on your own. This is how I get to collaborate with Laz,” Murazrai concluded.
From a third-party perspective, VTubing has immense potential to redefine content creation in a digital-first age. But what do VTubers themselves think of the future of VTubing? Murazrai predicts VTubing to become part of the mainstream’s awareness soon, just like real-life YouTubers and streamers a few years back. “It’ll be seen as a regular form of entertainment rather than something totally radical,” the creator added.
Monty, however, is not all quite sure. “It’s safe to say that the VTuber phenomenon really only caught wind outside of Japan in the past year or so with the explosive rise of Hololive over 2020—but that means the VTubing scene outside of Japan is really only a year old.” Although Monty is optimistic about the future of VTubing, the creator stresses on the “need to be aware of just how young the scene is so far.”
“We’ve not really hit the growing pains that every popular trend has,” Monty continued. “There hasn’t been any major drama or notable jerks on the scene. That’ll change, and I think we’ll all be able to get around it when it does happen, but right now the scene is in a honeymoon phase with lots of growth.”
Monty hopes to take up VTubing as a full-blown career soon. “But for right now I’m trying to keep myself grounded with treating this as a hobby that I’m taking rather seriously, alongside a full-time job.” Monty also pointed out the fact that the creator has not made a single cent three months in.
“I’m not in it for the money,” Monty stated. “I want to make content and grow popular because of it. My biggest aspiration is to join one of the famous VTuber agencies, like Hololive or Nijisanji, and I’m constantly trying to improve my entertainer and technical skills to earn a spot. You could say I’m shooting for the stars while having a safety net and realistic expectations at the same time.”
Murazrai and Monty want to travel to Japan and Scandinavian countries respectively if they get the chance. Be it with the purpose of visiting the Comiket and Music Media-mix Market to meet their favorite doujin singers or exploring the place at their own pace, these two VTubers have one thing set straight: their belief in the power of VTubing along with the determination to keep going—spreading their wings as far and wide as they can along the way.
Anonymous influencers are not a new phenomenon. Think of Marshmello basing his success entirely around his music in an iconic helmet or Corpse Husband continually charming the internet with his deep voice and veiny hands. Bygone is the era of a public figure’s influence centered solely around their physical existence. So what’s up with virtual, anime-inspired avatars popping up on the YouTube sphere lately? How do these motion-tracked personalities work? And why are YouTube stars like PewDiePie and Pokimane so eager to jump on the trend?
Virtual YouTubers (shortened VTubers) are online entertainers disguising their appearance using a customised digital avatar. These avatars are typically two-dimensional or three-dimensional creations that resemble anime characters with large eyes and boisterous personalities.
Animated with voices provided by the creator themselves, some of these avatars have complex and mythical backstories whereas others are presented as average creators who sing, dance and live-stream video games.
VTubing is a movement which took years to achieve the phenomenal status it has today. The community began back in 2011 with Ami Yamato, a virtual vlogger based in London who has a penchant for Starbucks and strolls around a seemingly-real world. Harbouring a mix of vlogs, movie parodies and sketches on her channel, the pioneer was quick to be followed up by a well-known character that is almost 60 years old: Barbie.
In 2015, the California-based toy company Mattel jumped on the concept of virtual vlogging as a marketing stunt to appeal to an increasing digital audience. Actively posting two vlogs a month, which takes over four weeks to produce, the teen vlogger tackles various cultural conversations and YouTube challenges on her channel.
Though virtual vlogging hatched into existence in 2011, the trend really took off with Kizuna AI’s debut in 2016. Credited with coining the term ‘VTuber’ herself, the virtual creator is hailed as the pioneer of the peculiar genre. Kizuna’s avatar plays on Japan’s famous anime tropes, featuring a bubbly girl donned head-to-toe in a white sailor’s uniform with giant bows and opera gloves. The VTuber runs two accounts—her main channel includes music covers, internet challenges and even a virtual bar where you can sit back and just hear Kizuna talk for minutes at a stretch. Her other account, AI Games, is dedicated to gameplay videos such as Fall Guys, Minecraft and Beat Saber.
Close to 3 million subscribers on her channels, Kizuna AI became the first VTuber to reach a global audience. Her large-scale impact even secured her the position as a cultural ambassador for the Japan National Tourism Organisation. Other virtual content creators were quick to witness a boost in following ever since Kizuna’s game-changing success. The OG VTuber ultimately paved the way for more creators specialising in all types of content ranging from house tours to mukbangs and ASMRs.
One thing to note before we dive into all of the technical aspects of the genre is that VTubers aren’t complete AI creations. There is a human behind their actions, controlling the avatar majorly through motion capture.
The process usually features creators fitted with motion trackers to record their movement and recreate various actions. These actions are then mapped over a shape and proportions of an animated character which is then rendered onto a background or live-streamed. This technology is what Kizuna operates on, thereby allowing the creator to interact with fans in real time at exhibitions, give interviews on live TV and even perform in concerts with the avatar at the forefront. VTubers are also responsible for voicing their own characters—although some of them use audio distortions to morph their speech in order to maintain complete anonymity.
But all of this sounds a bit labour-intensive and time-consuming, doesn’t it? While VTuber-dedicated agencies like Hololive Productions and Activ8 use Hollywood-grade equipment to crank out music videos, skits and game streams just about every day, smaller creators often rely on various animation and avatar creation software like Steam’s VRoid Studio, VTuber Maker and FaceRig to keep up with the fast-paced world of YouTube content.
“You don’t need to be artistic to use the program,” a top review on the Steam store reads. “You can use the tools provided to make accessories like horns, wings, tails, glasses and earrings.” Frequent users of these software back up the fact that “with enough practice and skill you can make top-notch creative models.”
After their initial resounding success in Japan, VTubers have found western integrations in the recent past. Canadian YouTuber Pokimane debuted a pastel-coloured 3D anime model of herself last year during one of her Twitch streams. PewDiePie is also among other famous YouTubers who have dipped their toes into the wonderful world of VTubing.
Global fans, when interviewed by the BBC, stated that the biggest contributor to the rise of virtual YouTuber is “the huge audience outside Japan who normally have interests in Japanese media and culture such as anime.” In the same interview, Takeshi Osaka, founder of the company behind Kizuna AI stressed that a VTuber’s pseudo-realistic presence is what makes them so appealing. “What separates VTubers from regular anime characters is that you can believe they actually exist,” he added.
In a report released by YouTube, the platform highlighted the fact that 47 per cent of its viewers are open to “watching content from creators or characters who are fictional or virtual.” “We saw VTubers start to take off right at the end of 2017…and it’s continued to grow ever since,” said Kevin Allocca, head of culture and trends at YouTube to the BBC. He further pointed to Kizuna AI as a major influence on the spike in VTubers’ global popularity.
VTubing essentially blurs the line between AI and reality, opening up a realm of endless possibilities for online creators. “No-cam streams are so comfy,” Pokimane said during her viral ‘VTube-worthy’ livestream. “Especially because it gets tiring to get people to stop commenting on you. I’d rather have people comment on this cute little anime drawing of me, you know?”
In the past, the YouTube star has been criticised for her ‘daring’ livestreams without any makeup—an expectation that pressurises streamers when it comes to their looks. Influencers on Twitch, especially women, are expected to show their faces and look good while streaming gameplays.
“I have noticed a decrease in viewership on days I don’t use a face cam, sometimes as much as 15 to 20 per cent,” admitted Twitch streamer Nikatine in an interview with Polygon. The streamer further listed out the fact that it’s not always feasible for a livestreamer to show up on-stream. “It’s challenging when there’s a heat wave to use the lights and makeup,” Nikatine continued. “There are plenty of days I just want to relax, not wear any makeup and just stream. When I don’t use a face cam, I get messages all the time in chat like, ‘why no cam, streamer?’ and ‘streamer, use cam’ and it makes me not want to do it even more.”
This is the perfect breeding ground for VTubers. A digital avatar proves useful for online personalities who want to stream when they’re not “feeling their best” or for a whole new generation of influencers who want to maintain their anonymity yet build an intimate relationship with their audience.
In less than three years, VTubers have essentially morphed from a subculture to big business. Kizuna AI can now be found in ads for instant cup noodles and eye drops. Dedicated VTuber talent agencies like Hololive—where VTubers undergo idol-level training via interviews and auditions—further give the trend some well-deserved PR. GREE, one of Japan’s biggest mobile app developers plans to invest $88 million over the next two years into developing virtual talents.
“We believe that human beings need avatars beyond nicknames and profile pictures,” said GREE spokesman Kensuke Sugiyama to the BBC. “Although virtual talent is currently a niche area of entertainment, we believe that attractive 3D avatar characters and their activities in virtual worlds will take people to the next stage of the internet.”
With #VTuber gathering over 614 thousand videos from over 21 thousand channels on YouTube, there is no doubt that these digital influencers will change the future of entertainment. They could change how brands market their products and how we interact with technology. And as we shift into a digital-first era, the concept of a VTuber is becoming increasingly relevant and feasible.