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One Glaring Omission at PAX East This Year? VTubers

It's growing in popularity.

Gura from Hololive stares at the viewer.

When I went to New York Comic Con 2021, I was struck by an unexpected merchandising appearance at the show: virtual YouTubers, or “VTubers.” Blink and you’ll miss it, but it was there. Good Smile Company showed off previews for several of its Hololive figurines, featuring some of the most popular streamers from the iconic Japanese VTuber agency. Meanwhile, geek apparel store Shark Robot sold VTuber-themed t-shirts on the show floor, most of which highlighting VShojo darling Nyanners.

I gleefully told my coworkers and fellow VTubers about the latter after I picked up two of her shirts, but I didn’t think much of it. As a long-time Nyanners fan, I figured Shark Robot was trying to hone in on the hype around her streams, not VTubing itself.

That all changed when I went to Anime NYC. Hololive made an appearance at the Javits Center with its Hololive English booth, where visitors could pick up merch and pose with YouTube-themed cut-outs of their favorite Hololive English stars. The agency’s second-generation English-speaking VTubers hosted their own panel at the convention, and plenty of cosplayers came to the show as their favorite VTubers — with Hololive’s iconic shark VTuber Gawr Gura getting plenty of love.

If you missed Hololive at Anime NYC, don’t worry, you definitely saw VTubing elsewhere at the show. Across TVs at the Javits Center, anime streaming giant Crunchyroll gleefully advertised its streams for Crunchyroll-Hime, who received her own VTuber debut in mid-October 2021.

I walked away from Anime NYC realizing that VTubing was a growing niche in the larger geekdom world, one that’s here to stay. And the data shows that to be the case. Earlier this month, Bloomberg reported that VShojo’s Ironmouse is the most popular female streamer on Twitch and the second biggest on the entire platform. Japanese data firm UserLocal reports that there are more VTubers than ever, too, with over 16,000 as of October 2021. In comparison, there were only 1,000 performing in March 2018.

Given VTubing’s growing popularity, and that Ironmouse, Nyanners, and their fellow VShojo stars commonly stream video games together, I was expecting to see a larger VTuber presence at PAX East 2022. I was admittedly a little shocked when I found very few booths or panels about the field. Besides seeing some VTuber cosplay (particularly of Gura), there was only one VTubing-focused event at PAX East: A 101 introductory panel on getting started VTubing.

This panel, however, hinted at a lot about VTubing’s future presence at conventions, including PAX.

PAX East’s packed VTubing panel

I came to PAX’s “Vtubing — How to Get Started” panel a little late, and to my surprise, the room was nearly packed. Led by four experienced independent VTubers, the panel proceeded to teach con-goers a 60 minute crash course on the VTubing process. This ranged from setting up a 2D PNG VTuber avatar to navigating professional relationships with artists and riggers (or animators who set up 2D models for motion-capture animation).

The discussion’s popularity shocked all four panelists, who each expected a relatively low VTuber presence at PAX. In comparison, the team needed a spill-over room to field Q&A’s from the panel, which became “another 30- to 45-minute session just answering questions,” panelist Mink the Satyr told me.

“When proposing the panel initially, I was nervous that we were presenting content too niche within the gaming community for a big turn-out,” she said. “I am happy to be proven wrong! Because we were the only VTubing content at the con, our room was packed with people eager to get started or just show their support.”

VTubing is an enormous hobby in its own right, and the panelists noted how it was difficult to take a 101 guide and squish it into an hour, with 10 to 15 minutes for each VTuber’s specialty. Panelist Nimbus Grey said the four panelists met several times over voice chat to come up with an outline, but in the end, a fair amount just wouldn’t fit the one-hour format.

“There’s so much we wanted to cover but couldn’t, in our earlier discussions we talked about covering our reasons for starting, finding a community, coming up with channel themes, when to tweak your concept and finding your niche amongst other topics,” she said. “We decided early on though with the limited time to keep it simple to VTuber creation and the options available to you.”

That struggle suggests to me that PAX East needs more VTubing panels in the near future, not less. And if UserLocal’s data is any indicator, VTuber introductory panels will continue to see a strong turnout as more geekdom fans explore hosting their own VTubing streams.

“The overflow of positive responses on social media like Twitter and in my stream’s chat since the panel has been overwhelming!” panelist BeBee Queenie said. “I think VTubing is definitely going to become more prominent at anime, gaming, and geekdom cons. I have learned that VTubing is a whole new thing that brings all these groups or niches together and has helped with making new social connections for many.”

Will we see more VTubing at future cons?

Mink the Satyr plays Kingdom Hearts on Twitch.
Image via Mink the Satyr

PAX East, if anything, didn’t quite satiate its own demand for VTubing panels. That much is clear. But bringing more VTubing content to conventions is a challenge in its own right.

VTubing is a personality-oriented field, and VTubers often exist in close personal networks, building connections with each other while creating content within a larger community. Independent VTubers become a one-person team, serving as their own PR specialists, marketing leads, and business strategists. Unless you’re part of an agency or collective, it’s hard to pool together the money, resources, and following for some kind of “VTuber booth” at a show floor.

Mink believes the U.S. convention circuit’s VTubing presence will grow if major VTubing agencies like VShojo and Hololive table on show floors. Until then, independent VTubers like her only have one option: Bring talks to the local con circuit. In her case, she plans to do VTubing panels at New England’s PortConMaine and PopCult Anime Con.

“As in-person conventions come back from their pandemic-hiatus, I hope that we’ll see more VTuber content at the con scene. For now, it seems as though VTubing content is limited to a small handful of anime conventions across the U.S.,” Mink said. “I really hope that changes! Right now, fans like myself and my crew of amazing panelists are doing a lot of heavy lifting to bring our amazing hobby to the convention scene.”

BeBee Queenie discusses the PAX East panel on stream.
Image via BeBee Queenie

All four panelists see potential for further VTubing content at cons, but it’s unclear what that will look like. Panelist GoggleCandy expects PAX will see more fan-based VTuber panels and events, not necessarily VTubers tabling with their own booths.

“I don’t see it bleeding onto the show floor easily due ironically to the virtual nature of VTubing,” he told me. “It doesn’t fit a booth unless it is a new VTubing/streaming program, or a booth run by the VTuber which, in itself, is a small percentage of the VTuber community.”

Nonetheless, it’s not a coincidence that Crunchyroll invested in its own VTuber, nor is it that Ironmouse is taking over Twitch. VTubers are here to stay, and their personality-driven content comes with loyal fandoms eager to meet up in person. Yes, the VTuber wave might be a little too early for PAX East 2022, but PAX East 2023? That’ll be different.

And if PAX East is any indicator, con-goers aren’t just eager to meet their favorite VTubers. They want to join in on the experience with their own avatars.

“I think VTubing has a valuable place in streaming and can be used as an opportunity for those who are not confident in their appearance, have an environment where filming isn’t ideal, and those who just want to be a part of a new up and coming form of streaming,” Nimbus Grey said. “Plus it’s just fun to make your own cute creations!”

(Featured image: Hololive)

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Ana Valens (she/her) is a reporter specializing in queer internet culture, online censorship, and sex workers' rights. Her book "Tumblr Porn" details the rise and fall of Tumblr's LGBTQ-friendly 18+ world, and has been hailed by Autostraddle as "a special little love letter" to queer Tumblr's early history. She lives in Brooklyn, NY, with her ever-growing tarot collection.