The popularity of VTubers has exploded over the course of the last couple of years, particularly since Hololive has gone global and the “west-first” agency VShojo opened its doors.
While not every VTuber out there ends up with millions of subscribers to their name, the best ones that come to be most fondly regarded do have a number of elements in common. So if you’re considering exploring the phenomenon as a hobby of your own — or if you’re just looking for some new talent to enjoy — here’s a rundown of what makes the best VTubers shine the brightest.
A striking model
You only have to look at the excitement over Hololive’s new outfits to understand how important a VTuber’s model is to their success. First impressions very much count in this medium, and since being a VTuber provides performers the opportunity to be literally whatever they want to be, how they present themselves is of critical importance.
There are two distinct approaches one can take with a VTuber model, and both have their benefits and drawbacks. You can go full polygonal 3D, which arguably offers the most flexibility at the expense of some detail, or you can go Live2D, which seems to be the most preferable option for the most successful VTubers out there. Once a VTuber is successful, they can do both; Live2D for regular streams, and a 3D model if you want to do something more active like dancing. Or indeed daily shitposts a la Coco.
Both have their own important considerations that go beyond simply “getting the art or model done”. 3D models need some form of motion tracking to be most effective, with many 3D VTubers making use of tech built for VR; Live2D models, meanwhile, need extensive rigging to be convincing; good Live2D is much more than simply having a mouth that flaps and eyes that blink, and recruiting someone to take care of that can be just as pricy as getting the actual artwork done in the first place!
The best VTubers out there play a character. This doesn’t have to be something exaggerated like pretending to be something that is non-human, but the most memorable VTubers take a particular characteristic — usually one that relates to their visual design — and play it up as part of the role they perform in their streams and videos.
Koopa Fortuna (above) is a great example. While technically a “turtle” VTuber, she tends not to make a big deal of that side of things. Instead, she leans heavily in to the “mom” character with her gentle, comfy tone, openness and honesty.
The most skilled VTubers manage to seamlessly blend the character they’re play with elements of their real-life personality, meaning that they can “get real” when the occasion calls for it without feeling like they’re “breaking character”. VShojo’s Ironmouse is a great example of this; her relentless enthusiasm and brutal honesty while she’s “in character” means that when she does feel the need to talk about concerns she has in the real world, people will listen, because they know that she speaks her mind and is worth listening to.
A clear theme
This isn’t necessarily the same as playing a character; it can be as simple as ensuring that a channel’s overall audio-visual theme is consistent with the way the VTuber presents themselves.
VShojo’s Froot, for example, is a kind, gentle soul who must be protected at all costs, but her character design and “lore” makes her out to be a soul-stealing lich — and thus her channel’s presentation, including its colour scheme, background music and interstitial artwork, reflects that.
Having a clear theme is just good branding; it makes the VTuber memorable. I bet you can name the colours each of the Hololive EN members are associated with even if you’ve never watched a single stream of theirs, for example.
A common mistake made by many streamers and YouTubers, regardless of whether or not they’re a VTuber, is trying to be too much of a generalist; trying to bait the nefarious “algorithm” into paying attention to something that they do, even if it means trying all sorts of things.
The most successful VTubers have their own specialisms. They will often branch out from these specialisms — particularly when the opportunity for a collaboration raises its head — but much of their work will focus on what they’re good at, or at least known for. That way, those people who end up coming back for more always know what to expect — and which VTubers they can turn to when they’re in the mood for a particular type of stream or video. You flip over to Kani Kanizawa (above) when you’re in the mood for some chilled-out trucking, for example, then you might stick around to see how she gets on with her first ever horror games.
Hololive EN has this absolutely nailed across its complete lineup. Calli emphasises her music; Ina focuses on her artistic skills; Gura shows off her talent at music games; Ame demonstrates her abilities in esports-style games and adventures; Kiara is great at interacting with others. In between those specialist activities, they take on things with a broader appeal such as playing Minecraft; these more “general interest” streams can help in building their audience, but the specialist streams are what tend to keep that audience loyal.
The VTubers who have managed to make it big do a wide variety of things, even within their own specialism. They showcase a range of different games rather than playing the same thing all the time; they collaborate with many different guests; they experiment with their format and try new things. Sometimes those experiments fall flat on their face, and sometimes they become a phenomenon in their own right; the best VTubers have the courage to deal with the possibility of the former while hoping for the latter.
There are few places where this is more apparent than on Kiryu Coco’s channel, where we see a VTuber who takes great delight in being creative and experimental — and she’s widely beloved for it. Her regular “Reddit Shitpost Review” videos provide an opportunity to collaborate with other Japanese VTubers, as well as being some of her most inclusive work when it comes to her substantial English-speaking audience.
Then, of course, there’s Haachama, but whatever’s going on there is an entire field of study in itself…
The best VTubers don’t work in isolation; they build a community around them. They’re entertainers, and the majority of them place a strong emphasis on performing live in one way or another, whether it’s through simply hanging out with the people in chat, or delivering some sort of more formal experience such as a virtual concert.
With the most popular VTuber streams having chat that moves so quickly it’s literally impossible to read, skilled VTubers have to find a variety of alternative ways to make their audience feel included. They can provide personalised thank-yous to those who make use of any of Twitch’s myriad confusing ways to show your support for a streamer; they can read Super Chat messages on YouTube; or they can do something as simple as come up with a collective term for their audience — Ironmouse’s “precious family”; Calli’s “Dead Beats”; Projekt Melody’s “Science Team” and the like.
The latter is especially important to provide a sense of welcome and belonging to those who find engaging directly with online communities exhausting. You’re no less of a fan of a particular VTuber if you never type a single thing in chat but still watch every one of their videos, and the best VTubers know that — they’re grateful for any kind of support, whatever form it takes.
Establishing a solid community takes time, but the most effective examples in the VTuber community all have a few things in common. They build up a sense of anticipation prior to their official debut; they establish and promote prominent, public community hotspots such as Twitter hashtags where people can express their enthusiasm; and they encourage community contributions, often by featuring them somehow in their streams, videos, thumbnails and social media posts.
So there you go! Everything you need to know in order to establish yourself as the greatest VTuber in the entire universe. Well, aside from luck. You need a fair bit of luck, too. But what fun is life without a little risk?
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