The explosion of Virtual YouTubers, or Vtubers, is the latest in a long line of Japanese cultural phenoms that have gripped the world. Vtubers are mostly regular streamers who use virtual models instead of their real faces, often adopting the guise of anime characters.
Despite the simplicity of their gimmick, the influence they have on both streaming and internet culture cannot be understated. Vtubers are consistently among the most watched streamers on Twitch and YouTube, making up 6 of the top 10 most watched female streamers of 2023, and are some of the most popular across genders as well.
What makes Vtubers so popular, however, is the culture they have created. Corporate Vtubers in particular exist within a fairly unique culture that blends gaming, streamer, and Japanese Idol culture. Corporate Vtubers belong to Vtubing companies that provide character models, managers, organisation, and merchandise for their talents, much like how entertainment agencies manage an Idol.
With this backing, these Vtubers exist within a network of others under the company, establishing a large community. Top companies like Hololive or Nijisanji will often debut Vtubers as part of a "Generation"; a set of Vtubers that will either be thematically linked or just grouped together, reinforcing the sense of comraderie among fans and streamers.
These practices create networks of Corporate Vtubers with their own culture and in-jokes specific to that company, leading fans to become fairly entrenched and passionate about their streamers and companies. Vtubers even have their own terminology, such as "Graduation" to mean a character's retirement – the term adopted from Japanese Idol culture. These cultural notes, combined with the close proximity offered by streaming as a medium, lead to a culture that is quite attached, in both directions.
Vtubing, however, is also deeply tied to gaming culture. Much like how modern streaming grew out of the gaming streams and "Let's Play" content of the early 2000s, many Vtubers owe their success to gaming. An example of one such streamer is Sakura Miko, 5th most popular female streamer of 2023. Created to be the next Kizuna Ai (the most popular Vtuber at the time), her company spent a great deal of money and effort on her. She found little success in her first two years and was overtaken quickly by her younger colleagues. In one story, she held a joint meet and greet with a fellow Hololive Vtuber, and only had one fan come for her.
In 2020, however, she was introduced to Grand Theft Auto (GTA) 5. Her natural comedic tendency, paired with GTA's outrageous setting and gameplay, created many clips and memes that quickly blew up. In particular, her innocent and accidental use of the N-word went extremely viral on Western social media and is credited with causing one of Vtubing's first explosions of popularity in the Western world.
To say that GTA 5 changed her life is not an understatement. She held her 100,000 subscriber celebration it in GTA and thanked the game for her success. Her community, many of them introduced through her GTA content, have also bought her cameos from GTA 5 character Michael de Santa's voice actor, Ned Luke, as well as autographs from all the main character's voice actors.
As Vtubers gained more popularity and influence, they began to return the favour to studios. Using their platform and vast audience, they were a new yet powerful influence on the market. The very process of streaming games technically falls under copyright infringement, and large Vtubers began requiring permission from developers to play their games. This practice means that Vtubers will often request permission only for games that they genuinely want to play, the extra effort not worth it for games they wouldn't like.
The end result is that these creators genuinely cherish and enjoy playing the games they select, often developing a deep relationship with certain titles and franchises that reflect the same bond their audience shares with these games. Hololive CEO Yagoo has mentioned how international fans tend to be more anime fans and Japanese fans are more gaming fans, explaining why Vtubers resonate so thoroughly with their core fans. The audience gets to watch these entertainers fall in love with their favourite games the same way that they did. This phenomenon happened as recently as this year when Hakos Baelz played Yakuza 0 and became enamoured by the series' charm and storytelling.
Dog-themed Vtuber Inugami Korone, known for her love of retro games, is another prominent example of the phenomenon. Her untethered enthusiasm for games she plays has captured the hearts of millions around the world, and also the hearts of multiple game developers. Her list of achievements includes: becoming an official SEGA ambassador for Sonic, receiving a shoutout from legendary game composer Grant Kirkhope specifically for her enthusiasm when playing Banjo Kazooie, being shouted out by Klonoa's creator for her 10-hour stream of it, and receiving an easter egg in DOOM Eternal from Id Software after her playthrough (it was removed the following patch).
While some may consider these just attempts at viral marketing, gestures of reciprocation from game studios also occur in small games with small Vtubers. Indie retro J-horror studio Chilla's Art has similarly included an easter egg in their new game for Nijisanji Vtuber Scarle – a nod to the boost in popularity their short games have received from Vtubers.
This sense of community and mutual appreciation is precisely what makes gaming the medium of choice for fans to interact with Vtubers. Given the deep connection between Vtubers, gaming, and Vtubing's origins in Japanese internet culture, it's no surprise that this community has become a hotbed for game creation.
Fans will make games for their favourite Vtubers or companies, in hopes of seeing them played. These fangames range from simple tributes to their idols, like the Korone DOOM clone, to full-blown collaborative projects that have reached outside of the Vtuber community, like Idol Showdown and Holocure. The list below puts the total current number of fangames for Hololive, Vtubing's largest agency, at nearly 1000.
What is particularly impressive about these fangames is their substantial effort and quality, while still being largely banterous with the Vtuber. Nijisanji star Selen Tatsuki's platformer Rocksuki by Gioba Games is a riff on the timed platforms in early Megaman games. They frustrated her to no end during her playthrough, so her viewers decided to make an hour-long platformer based entirely around them. Despite the comedic premise, the game still involved great pixel art, music and levels that makes it an independently enjoyable platformer in its own right.
Similarly, Amelia Watson's platformer Smol Ame has its own entry on Speedrun.com due to the game's interesting physics. Despite being a short project for Vtubers to laugh at her goofy animations and sounds, it's also fun enough that people are willing to put time and effort into mastering the movement.
Other Vtuber fangames primarily focus more on multiple Vtubers, especially Hololive. They have the largest community and collaborative efforts from these fans have made some ensemble games with incredible polish.
One such title is Idol Showdown, a fighting game. After two years of development by Besto Games, it was unveiled in 2023 with better Rollback Netcode than Capcom's multi-million dollar Street Fighter 5. Idol Showndown received universal praise on release and holds a 9/10 on Steam, even being included as a side tournament at EVO 2023. The game is full of content; possessing a single player perk drafting roguelike mode, and still receiving new updates and new characters. The animations are stylish and fun, and more importantly, the game is chock full of references.
These community jokes don't break the flow of the game but only serve to elevate it for those who enjoy Vtuber culture. The game was streamed by many of the very same Vtubers featured in the game, who have offered to provide original voice lines for their characters, further demonstrating the mutual respect and affection between fans, streamers, and the community. As stated in Besto Games' Twitter(X?) bio: "...created by Fans for Fans."
The other game that has received major attention is Holocure, a Vampire Survivors clone. Developed by Kay Yu and his team, the game has been emphatically stated to be a passion project, with Kay Yu refusing to even credit himself in the credits and ensuring the game will always be free. The amount of content offered in this game is staggering too, with an expanding roster currently comprised of 38 different characters and a large variety of power-ups and items. Furthermore, the game has received a lot of content outside of the Vampire Survivors aspect, such as a Stardew Valley-esque farming sim called Holohouse.
For a free passion project, Kay Yu and his team have put a massive amount of effort into this game. They continue to tweak build balance and item powers and introduce new content based on the evolution of jokes in the community. This effort has paid off, as Holocure is now recognised by many, including Rock Paper Shotgun and GamesRadar, as being the best Vampire Survivors clone available, possibly even surpassing the original game. Holocure currently holds the title as the highest-rated game of 2023 on Steam.
The game's quality has allowed it to break free of Vtubing's insular bubble and reach Western streamers, even getting the notoriously derisive Asmongold to play through multiple hours attempting to finish the game. The community's response has also been incredible. Vtubers, even outside of Hololive, have streamed Holocure for hundreds of hours and expressed a great deal of appreciation for the game and the community that enabled it. The game itself now boasts a healthy player base and is rated "Overwhelmingly Positive" on Steam with nearly 30,000 reviews.
Holocure has directly increased the visibility of Vtubing and, more importantly, shown that the community is not some weird parasocial collective, but a community driven by an appreciation for these streamers and the fans that they have fostered. Their enjoyment for their community and their favourite Vtubers is no better seen than in Holocure and the wellspring of content that has emerged surrounding it.
Covercorp, Hololive's parent company, in response to the community's support for the fangames made of their streamers, has taken a fairly unseen step in the gaming sphere. On the 15th of November 2023, Covercorp announced a change to their Derivative Works Guidelines; the framework governing all fan-created content featuring their characters:
We aim to create opportunities to deliver a wide variety of derivative games to everyone. Additionally, as a Game Creator Support Program, we have decided to provide posting on Steam accounts for derivative games, and have decided to launch a new game brand "holo Indie" for derivative work games.
In a move that completely subverts the behaviour of traditionally litigious Japanese companies, Covercorp are instead allowing fans to monetise their work and help publish their fangames under the brand "Holo Indie" on Steam. Even the most cynical of people have to acknowledge that this is a move that betrays no ulterior motive but a true giving back to the community.
With this, Covercorp has acknowledged the effort and care of the community and created a great way to foster its continued growth. The Holo Indie brand is a legitimate avenue for amateur programmers and game designers to monetise passion projects. As gaming has grown Vtubing in its infancy, Vtubing now returns the favour by nurturing young game designers and providing avenues to enter the industry.
In a tangentially related move, American Vtuber ShiaBun actually created a parody of Five Nights at Freddy's featuring himself and his Vchiban brandmates. The game, called Meet Your Oshi, puts a spin on the FNAF formula by requiring you to do tasks as the nights progress. These tasks split your attention while you are being hunted by the Vtuber animatronics, making the game more challenging and adding something fresh to the gameplay.
Vtubing still carries some stigma, but while some may find the voices annoying or the characters cringy, its link to gaming and gaming culture is simply undeniable. The way it has conjured a community through gaming and shown genuine love for gaming culture has been nothing but positive for gaming as a whole. This has happened a few times in history – Pewdiepie also had a few fangames made for him – but Vtubing is the first time where the practice has become so widespread that some of their games have broken outside the niche.
Fan-made games are interactive displays of appreciation for the culture and community that the focus of these communities themselves can engage with. Vtubing and streaming are just new ways of exploring the social element of gaming, one where you can enjoy a lan party experience, and Vtuber fangames are an evolution on how people can interact with their favourtie streamers. Games are fun and should be shared with others, and fangames are a new frontier for that. Perhaps in a decade, gamers will look back on Vtuber culture, not as another cringy phase of the internet, but as a movement that birthed creative games and injected the indie scene with new blood.
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