Why Pokimane’s Vtubing Twitch stream has everyone talking

Usually, when streamer Imane “Pokimane” Anys goes live on Twitch for her 5.5 million followers, you can expect to see her bubbly face anchoring the broadcast as she reacts to the game she’s playing, or responds to the endless flood of comments. But midway through September, the popular Twitch streamer debuted a pastel-colored 3D anime model of herself, which was rigged to follow her real-life movements.

In other words, Pokimane was dipping her toes into the world of “Vtubing,” or entertainers who do livestreams or YouTube videos as virtual girls. While the practice isn’t new, in recent years Vtubing has dramatically risen in popularity and visibility to the degree that there are social media accounts dedicated to sharing funny Vtuber moments.

On YouTube, videos with Vtubers can get hundreds of thousands of views. And where eyeballs go, money soon follows. Virtual YouTuber agency Hololive recently announced a line of English-speaking personalities based on mythical creatures, in an effort to better cater to the market outside of Japan. Vtubing is a genre of its own, and some people devote their entire careers to it.

Pokimane’s livestream, by contrast, was more of an experiment. The gregarious personality isn’t pivoting to full-time anime girl livestreams anytime soon, but she did say that she’ll likely use her Vtubing avatar when she does streams without a camera broadcasting her real-life face.

“No-cam streams are so comfy,” Pokimane said during the livestream. “Especially because, I don’t know, sometimes it gets tiring to get people comment on you. I’d rather have people comment on this cute little anime drawing of me, you know?”

For anyone following Pokimane’s livestreams, this turn of events isn’t surprising. Her lively personality easily lends itself to a more cartoonish depiction like this, for one. But also, in the past, Pokimane has been criticized for daring to do livestreams without any makeup, an expectation that lays bare just how much pressure livestreamers face when it comes to looks. For some, it’s not enough that a Twitch streamer is entertaining; you have to show your face, and you have to look good while doing it. The demand is especially excruciating for women, who are frequently judged on sex appeal.

“I have noticed a marked decrease in viewership on days I don’t use a face cam, sometimes as much as 15% to 20%,” said Nikatine, a Twitch partner who has been livestreaming for two years, over email. The thing is, it’s not always feasible for a livestreamer to show up on-stream — especially right now, in the middle of a taxing pandemic and a variety of ecological disasters unfolding across America.

“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 makeup, and just stream but I feel a little like I opened Pandora’s box. Now when I don’t use a face cam, I get messages all the time in chat like, ‘why no cam streamer? streamer? Use cam.’ and it makes me not want to do it even more.”

A digital avatar, then, could be a useful tool for personalities who still want to give viewers a sense of intimacy and presence even when they’re not looking or feeling their best. Well, that’s if you can afford it. A Vtubing model can cost anywhere from $500 to $2,500, depending on who makes it and the level of detail.

Pokimane’s livestream, however, wasn’t universally embraced by onlookers. Some accused her stream as a sort of bandwagoning of a popular trend, or as a stunt that is somehow outside the realm of “real” Vtubing.

Pokimane, it should be noted, contracted an artist within the community to make her model, and repeatedly told viewers to check out the wider existing world of Vtubing if they liked what they saw during her stream. The artist, Teru, told Polygon that their model tried to capture the essence of the concept art they were given for the project, while also displaying enough of their own personal style.

“I sorta gave it this style that makes it looks like it’s a 2D image and not fully 3D when you take a screenshot or when she’s standing still,” Teru said in a Twitter DM. According to Teru, the demand for Vtubing models has “gone up really quickly since the start of the year.” For a while, they couldn’t keep up with the number of people looking for a 3D model of this kind. Part of it undoubtedly comes from the mainstreaming of Vtubing as a practice. But Teru theorizes that some of it has to do with the specific moment we’re in, too.

“Because of the pandemic, a lot of people have been staying at home and have more free time than usual to stream which has contributed to the sudden influx of new English Vtubers debuting at once for the past couple months,” Teru continued.

The backlash, then, might be the inevitable fissure that comes with a community exploding in size and visibility. Those who have been enjoying Vtubers all along might have specific ideas of what “counts” as a real Vtuber. To these viewers, Pokimane might not fit the mold and could potentially be considered a dabbler.

While Pokimane did not respond to a request for comment in time for press, she likely wouldn’t argue with said characterization. During her livestream, she said that she didn’t want to come off like she was inventing something new. Beyond Vtubers, which have been around for a while now, there are also programs dedicated to projecting all sorts of digital characters in your stead for any kind of video, whether that’s a livestream or Zoom call.

“I don’t want to offend anyone by using this, or [make] anyone feel like I’m trying to encroach any community … I just think it’s such a cool thing to do for when I don’t feel like being on cam,” she said during the start of the livestream.

But even if that weren’t true, the gatekeeping around “real” Vtubers seems misguided. You don’t have to stick to a 3D model 100% of the time to be considered legitimate, whatever that means.

“Some people switch back and forth between both and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that: not showing your face isn’t a prerequisite to being a Vtuber!” SerotinaVT, a pink-haired virtual YouTuber, told Polygon over Twitter. “Many people in the community also started out streaming with their real faces before making the switch.”

While some detractors might feel uncomfortable with bigger names trying their hand at Vtubing, it’s likely just a small, vocal contingent dealing with some growing pains. It doesn’t help that Pokimane has, in the past, had a tussle with a content creator who uses a virtual model. Said squabble ended up costing that content creator a sponsor. While Pokimane has since apologized for the sponsorship debacle, it does mean for some people in the Vtubing community, the Twitch streamer has started off on the wrong foot.

But for the most part, Pokimane’s Vtubing livestream is being embraced by fans who see it as a good opportunity to raise awareness for the practice of virtual livestreams.

“There’s SO many new people who are aware of Vtubers now because of her,” said SerotinaVT. “She approached the community as respectfully as she could, and most of the negative comments I’ve seen about her are about previous actions.”

Teru, the artist behind Pokimane’s anime avatar, also thinks that Pokimane approached her Vtubing debut as gracefully as possible given the circumstances.

“I’m very grateful that Poki decided to reach out to people who were already involved in the community to make her model and design,” they said. “She could’ve gone to anyone else to get her commissions done but decided to support us smaller VTubers instead.”

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