By Minh Nguyen
Rosedoodle (@rosedoodles) is an Ontario-based art streamer on Twitch, a livestreaming platform, since 2018. She had her big breakthrough in February 2020, when she hung out with a popular streamer and caught the attention of his audience. Once having only a handful of viewers, Rosedoodle now averages over 500 per stream.
However, no one has ever seen her face – she only appears as a stubby white-haired squeaky-voiced anime character on screen. She was in VRChat, a virtual reality game where people can use an avatar to roam around and chat with each other, with that streamer.
Rosedoodle belongs to a growing group of content creators called Virtual YouTubers, or VTubers. These creators form a unique dynamic with their audience through their digital mascots.
In VTubing, a person uses motion capture technology to appear as a virtual character on camera. The equipment ranges from a studio with actors wearing motion capture suits, to just a PC, a webcam and face detection software.
The first VTuber is London-based Ami Yamato, who started doing short vlogs about her daily life in 2011.
The phenomenon took the world by storm when Japanese VTuber Kizuna Ai arrived in 2016. Created by Tokyo-based digital production company Activ8, the mascot with the pink bow and sailor uniform sang, danced and screamed her way into the Japanese and English-speaking audience’s heart.
Since then, VTubing explodes in popularity. A YouTube report (2020) shows VTubers view grows to over 1.5 billion per month.
So why do so many people tune in to talking anime characters?
“Having a VTuber model gives you a more eye-catching thumbnail and presentation,” said Rosedoodle, now using a green-haired cat girl model. “That’s why people use very bright colours or very specific aesthetics.”
After seeing good receptions, Rosedoodle decided to try streaming VRChat. A former freelance illustrator, she now streams full-time; her income comes from Twitch subscriptions, YouTube videos and merchandise. She hits Twitch three times per week, doing arts or playing video games up to seven hours each time.
“My channel is a place for people to relax and unwind at the end of the day, and as long as I have that I’m happy with my content” – Rosedoodle
Having a unique branding is one thing; giving the audience a sense of human interaction is another, especially during the lockdowns. “People were socially starved because they couldn’t go out,” said Rosedoodle.
For the VTubers, not having their face on camera means one fewer concern.
“When I stream with a face cam, I gotta get the lighting right, the camera on, the makeup on. But with VTubing, I can look flawless all the time, so I can focus on what I wanna do, the content I wanna make.” – Deophest, Jamaican-Canadian VTuber
The 27-year-old Calgary-based streamer had to rely on streaming when she lost her job during the pandemic. Now, it is her side gig besides a day job in data science. Her revenues come from a sponsorship with an American coffee brand.
According to Deophest, having a digital mascot also grants streamer “digital safety.” “Normal streamers can have 2000 people wanting to know what they do, where they are. But with VTubers, people engage with their characters.”
Do VTubers adopt a different persona, then? Deophest said it is more like playing a character that resembles her.
“It’s my personality but more embellished to the fun aspects. Because you can’t have cat ears in real life.”
Still, real life and virtual life can have a blurry line. Having a high-pitched voice and a cute model, Rosedoodle has received weird requests from anime fanatics.
“People asked me to say weird anime tropes/phrases,” said Rosedoodle. “I decided to tell them, I’m not going to give you this unless you give me something. If you donate $500 I’ll say it.” And someone did.
It is not all about creepy anime stuff; the VTubers have full control of their image.
“I don’t put out sexy content; I’m more like goofy chaotic stuff.”
This also influences their fanbases. Deophest describes her own community as “tight-knit” and “like a festival.”
“It’s like this big party where everyone is welcome.”
Her Discord server, named Deofest, only has one rule: keep the vibes good.
The outgoing VTuber has suffered from social anxiety, and streaming has been a form of exposure therapy for her. “It helps me overcome the crippling fear of being around people I don’t know.”
For Rosedoodle, VTubing has made her a better speaker. “It makes me more comfortable with speaking for a long period of time. It also helps me formulate my thoughts better and present myself in a confident way.”
It might seem hard to relate to fictional characters; but with VTubing, everything is real. Behind each mascot is a person who just wants to make their audience happy.
“I’m fortunate to cultivate a community of people who are understanding” – Deophest