Hololive English: Examining a Worldwide Phenomenon

Over the weekend of the 12-13 September 2020, the world was treated to the debut streams of “HoloMyth”, a group of five virtual YouTubers specifically designed to entertain the English-speaking online community.

HoloMyth, or Hololive English as they’re also known, are part of the rapidly growing Hololive agency run by Japanese “virtual entertainment” company Cover Corporation. To date, the numerous Hololive virtual YouTubers have been primarily aimed at the Asian market, though several of them have enjoyed breakout worldwide success thanks to the efforts of community subtitlers — and the talent’s own enthusiasm to embrace their overseas viewers.

Hololive English demonstrates that Cover Corporation is very much aware of the international enthusiasm for virtual YouTubers, and is keen to provide entertainment to that market. It just makes good business sense, after all — but is it worth English speakers finally diving down that rabbit hole if they haven’t already? Let’s take a closer look.

The concept of a “virtual YouTuber” first came about in 2011 when UK-based Japanese vlogger Ami Yamato decided to represent herself on her channel as a computer-generated avatar rather than making use of real-world video. Yamato makes no reference to the fact that she is animated, has appeared in collaboration videos with “live” YouTubers on location and has even addressed viewer questions such as “what do you really look like?” with in-character, animated videos showing her avatar “without makeup”.

This commitment to being a “virtual character” would go on to become an important part of the virtual YouTuber phenomenon, though Yamato likely didn’t know the sheer scale of what she was on the cutting edge of when she uploaded that first video in June of 2011.

While Yamato continues to enjoy a comfortable fanbase of over 150,000 YouTube subscribers at the time of writing, she is, sadly, not an especially well-known name in the history of virtual YouTubers. Instead, most people became aware of the phenomenon — and the possibilities it offered — in 2016, with the advent of Kizuna Ai.

Kizuna Ai burst onto the scene with little to no explanation, coined the term “virtual YouTuber” and promptly set about capturing the hearts and minds of audiences worldwide thanks to her chaotic energy, her endearingly flawed personality, and what appeared, at the time, to be an on-the-nose parody of what “a YouTuber” was at the time of her first appearance.

As time went on, it became clear that Kizuna Ai was sticking around, and was far more than just a simple parody. She’d host discussion streams with fans, she’d post videos about topics she was interested in, and she started to offer gaming content, too.

Her origins remained somewhat shrouded in mystery as part of an attempt to keep the image of the “virtual idol” intact, but she was starting to have an impact in the real world. Since her first appearance, she has hosted TV shows, released a variety of music tracks and even acted as an ambassador for the Japan National Tourism Organisation. Not bad for someone who, in her early days, had to purchase friends from the Unity asset store.

There are many thousand virtual YouTubers plying their trade online today, so it can be difficult to know where to begin if you’ve not involved yourself in this peculiar phenomenon before. Those who enjoy the most enduring popularity (and financial success) belong to agencies like Hololive, and, like Kizuna Ai, have spawned a thriving community of English-speaking enthusiasts, even if their streams and videos are entirely in Japanese.

That doesn’t mean there haven’t been any English-speaking virtual YouTubers to date, however. In fact, Western enthusiasts have been rather keen to embrace the concept, since, prior to Hololive English’s debut in September of 2020, the English-speaking community was reliant on the continued efforts of fan translators to be able to enjoy their favourite characters.

Of particular note in this regard is Projekt Melody, an English-speaking virtual YouTuber who first appeared in July of 2019. Interestingly, Melody marketed herself as “the first 3D rendered hentai camgirl” rather than specifically as a virtual YouTuber, and indeed initially became known for her adult livestreams on Chaturbate, where her debut managed to dethrone a number of established “real” camgirls in terms of popularity, much to their chagrin. It should probably be added that she also makes videos and hosts Twitch streams in which her clothes very much stay on.

Although you might think her 18+ activities would make her something of a niche interest, Melody actually represents a great example of virtual YouTubers’ core appeal. She commits completely to her character and its backstory — supposedly she is the personification of a piece of software that used to scan email for malware, and became “corrupted” by the pornography that she was subjected to on a daily basis — and, perhaps most importantly, she engages directly with her fans (whom she refers to as her “Science Team”), frequently hosting fanart and media share streams where everyone can get involved. Also she makes Dad jokes with the best of ’em, giving her an oddly wholesome reputation despite what a significant proportion of her online activities involve!

Given the clear enthusiasm among the English-speaking market for virtual YouTubers to call their own, it’s kind of surprising that it took Hololive so long to cater specifically to this audience. That said, it’s worth noting that a big part of Western appreciation of Japanese virtual YouTubers comes from the cross-cultural aspect — successful Japanese Hololivers such as Inugami Korone appeal to English speakers specifically because of their endearingly broken English and attempts to communicate with their overseas fanbase.

With this in mind, it probably took a lot of corporate meetings and talent scouting for Hololive to figure out the best way to approach a specifically English arm of their growing empire. Should they go with purely Japanese talent and subtitle everything? Should they seek out talent that had English as a first (or only) language in an attempt to broaden the appeal even outside the Western otaku fanbase? Or should they do their best to appeal to as broad an audience as possible?

The latter can be a risky option. We’ve seen numerous examples over the years of how Big Corporate attempting to “appeal to a diverse, broad demographic” often ends up with bland, soulless, cynical products that feel less like genuine attempts to entertain and more like money-making exercises. And yet this is the route Hololive chose to go; rather than excluding the existing Japanese fanbase of their numerous YouTubers, the Hololive English group are all at the very least bilingual between Japanese and English, and some even speak additional languages on top of all that.

Hololive English also manages to sidestep the aforementioned Big Corporate, Design By Committee problem by the very nature of what it does. While each virtual YouTuber is the work of several people — an illustrator for the original design and core artwork, a Live2D rigger to bring the illustration to life and, presumably, someone to come up with the character’s backstory and personality, ultimately in the long term a virtual YouTuber’s worth is the responsibility of a single person: the talent who plays them. It’s their responsibility to make good use of the character designs and Live2D rigging that they’ve been provided with; it’s their responsibility to entertain the audience with their interpretation of the character; and it’s their responsibility to put out a variety of interesting videos and streams that will keep people interested.

Over the course of each Hololive English member’s hour-long debut stream, we got a good feeling for what each character is all about — along with how the talent behind them plan to bring their own real-life skills into the mix. Along with a commitment to playing the role of the character their Live2D avatar represents, successful virtual YouTubers also inject something of themselves into their work, too.

Mori Calliope (“Calli” for short) demonstrated her rapping abilities in her debut stream, for example, as well as having an original song ready to upload to YouTube and an EP on the way. This immediate “wow factor”, this sense of “I didn’t know you could do that”, clearly plays a crucial role in making a solid first impression alongside the more mundane content of the stream — and for Calli, the fact she clearly has a talent definitely made up for the technical issues her initial stream suffered.

Takanashi Kiara is one of the most natural entertainers of the group, with a solid commitment to her character and a willingness to engage with (and spawn) memes about herself, even before she actually took to the virtual stage. To this end, it’s been unsurprising to see her appearing in collaborative streams with her peers right from the very outset; the chemistry between her and Calli is a particular highlight of the lineup for many viewers

Kiara is also helped by her distinctive design and the “big name” behind her; she’s the work of Steins;Gate and Black Rock Shooter illustrator Huke, and like her peers, she clearly has a genuine enthusiasm for her “papa’s” work.

Ninomae Ina’nis proved to be a pleasant surprise for those whose limited contact with virtual YouTubers has been clips of Inugami Korone screaming at Doom; despite being some sort of betentacled horror from beyond time and space (I, err, mean a “priestess of the Ancients”, and definitely 100% human), Ina (as she is generally known) is a calm, relaxing, comfy presence with an incredibly soothing voice.

Ina has proven particularly appealing to those with fairly intellectual tastes or just a need to chill out; her debut stream revealed that she is a particular fan of the Nier series, for example, and she is also an immensely talented artist with an obvious passion for showing and explaining her process as she draws. She also has an absolutely lovely singing voice.

Gawr Gura the shark captured everyone’s hearts immediately with the “a” meme that you kind of had to be there for, and also a lovely rendition of city pop tune Ride on Time in her debut stream. She then followed this up with a gaming stream focusing on open-world shark-based action RPG ManEater, and demonstrated that she, too, has enviable natural energy and charisma without feeling the need to go excessively over the top.

She’s another of the crew who commits admirably to her character — her assertion that she doesn’t want to go back to Atlantis because they don’t have French fries was a particular highlight of her ManEater stream — but she also has a friendly presence that makes everyone feel welcome and included, even when the stream chat is, as always, scrolling by at a million miles a second.

Finally, Amelia Watson closed off the debut streams with a spectacularly bizarre hour of nonsense that demonstrated a wonderful understanding of the Lovecraftian undertones featured in the entire “HoloMyth” ensemble. After all, what is more appropriate than an investigator who has involved herself with the paranormal and, by extension, has gone completely and utterly insane?

Thankfully, subsequent streams have proven Amelia to be much more than a one-trick “zany, wacky” pony; the collaborative stream that the entire Hololive English crew joined together after everyone’s debut was done was held together excellently by Amelia as the main host, and during her subsequent gaming streams she has shown herself to be a knowledgeable and skilled player as well as a natural, genuine and warm-hearted individual.

Hololive English clearly demonstrates to the English-speaking audience that being a virtual YouTuber doesn’t have to mean one specific thing. All five of them offer quite different experiences on their channels, and doubtless over time those who continue to follow them will develop distinct preferences for the types of videos and streams they each put out.

At heart, developing a preference for one of the Hololive girls is just like finding a favourite “real” streamer on Twitch or YouTube — you simply find them entertaining, or enjoy their company, or like the things that they do. The key difference is that layer of fantasy; for many people, particularly in the otaku sphere, it’s easy to develop feelings of attachment and affection for distinct, exaggerated characters that play up traits we find particularly appealing — and this is very much true not just for Hololive, but for good, successful virtual YouTubers in general.

The obvious immediate visual appeal of each of the characters also makes each of their respective channels a lot more accessible for newcomers to streaming than a sea of bearded faces and/or boob cams that are all playing Fortnite. It’s perfectly understandable to show up to a virtual YouTuber’s stream simply because you like their character design more than anything else; in this sense, there’s a lot of crossover with the appeal elements of “pure fantasy” media such as anime, manga and video games.

Speaking personally, as someone who doesn’t watch many streams and only has a few specific YouTubers he enjoys, I found Hololive English’s debut weekend to be fascinating and enormously enjoyable — but a big part of the reason I checked it out in the first place was entirely down to the character designs, all of which I found hugely appealing. After that initial “inroad”, though, I now have a good reason to check out the broader English-speaking virtual YouTuber community as well as continuing to enjoy these five remarkable virtual girls’ work.

And more than anything — perhaps most importantly, even — the Hololive English debut weekend was a wonderful haven of calm and pure happiness, far away from the toxicity of the rest of the Internet.

No-one was arguing, no-one was shouting, no-one was being mean. Everyone was thrilled with what they were seeing; everyone was supportive to all of the girls; and everyone — including the virtual YouTubers themselves — was having a thoroughly lovely time.

As with anything new and popular, Hololive English is an accessible gateway to something you might not have explored before, and whether or not you choose to dive deeper down that rabbit hole from there is entirely up to you. There’s no shame in sticking with Hololive if that’s what you enjoy or feel comfortable with — but it would be remiss of me not to emphasise the fact that there are plenty of other hard-working, English-speaking virtual YouTubers out there who would doubtless appreciate and welcome your support, too.

Besides the aforementioned Projekt Melody, from my own (limited) experience and (equally limited) friendship groups, may I recommend Lily’s Night Off developer Kyuppin, self-professed chaotic anime waifu Ironmouse and Type-Moon lore specialist OtakuDaiKun as good starting points to show your support? If you’ve got any more favourites, feel free to share them in the comments and we can all take a few more steps towards living that endless happy 2D life far away from the trials and tribulations of today’s world…


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12 thoughts on “Hololive English: Examining a Worldwide Phenomenon”

  1. As someone who’s never understood what the VTuber phenomenon was about, this was a useful primer.

    I know that for IRL streamers, youtubers and even mainstream media talent, the persona they put on is often an act or an exaggeration, there will often be a team of professionals at work behind the camera, and what seems to be spontaneous speech may actually be scripted or paid for. In other words, the ‘reality’ we see is literally mediated en route to our screens.

    Obviously, though, Vtubing is quite a bit more artificial still. I don’t use that word as a slight; it’s just that the level of mediation that’s happening is clearly more evident. My suspicion is that I would struggle to suspend my disbelief long enough to engage with the performance. A lot of IRL personalities, after all, rely on a sense of authenticity to establish that connection with their audience, however compromised that might be in practice.

    Clearly it’s not an issue for the thousands of people who enjoy the content though, so perhaps something else is going on. It’s interesting.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. There’s absolutely artificiality there, but I think that’s almost part of the appeal with vTubers. Everyone knows they’re not “real”, that they’re playing a character, and that makes that disconnect a little easier to deal with.

      I know I’ve certainly had more fun watching Hololive EN over the last few days than I ever have watching “real” streamers, outside of those who are friends that I know personally.

      Check out some of the vids included in the article if you get some time to spare — you might be surprised 🙂

      Like

      1. You make a convincing point – if the artificiality is part of the appeal, then then that helps to explain the popularity. I’ll check out some of the vids, might need to log out of my youtube account first though 😀

        Liked by 1 person

  2. I just wish there was some way to escape this stuff. I don’t want to watch people play videogames whether they have an anime avatar or not but everyone’s obsessed with it for some reason. Streaming killed gaming culture years ago, weeb culture was “safe” for a while but this is pretty much the last nail in the coffin.I guess it’s finally time to find a new hobby…

    Like

    1. There’s a very easy way to escape it: don’t engage with it. It’s not difficult at all. Don’t click on things you know you won’t enjoy, don’t subscribe to YouTube channels you won’t enjoy, don’t watch other people play video games if you don’t want to.

      If you let the fact that other people are enjoying your hobbies in different ways to you bother you that much, I have to question how much you really enjoy those hobbies in the first place.

      You can always enjoy things on your own terms, because absolutely no-one is saying “it’s fine if you like [x], but you MUST like [y]” as well.

      Like

      1. I mean sure, “don’t engage with it” is simple enough in a vacuum but when all the discord communities, twitter friends and so on won’t stop going on about it and I’m having it thrown at me from all sides what am I supposed to do? I’ve already cut off several friendships over it. if I wanted to take part in this tedious celebrity culture I would have got into sports or something.

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  3. I also barely watch streams anymore; I just don’t have the time. But I have been watching quite a lot of translated Hololive clips on YouTube lately during downtime, so when this English-language edition was announced I had to check it out. I agree about the appeal of it — all the personalities are great and nicely varied, and the feel of the whole thing is very positive. It’s a nice break from the usual, especially in this time and place.

    Of course, I’ll still be watching Pekora’s antics and trying to understand what Korone is saying in those other translated clips as well, but I’m happy to see that Cover seems to get what western fans are looking for.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I find it highly questionable that you completely ignore (or are you just not aware of it?) that Hololive EN aren’t the first multi-lingual Hololive VTubers with significant English content. While it’s understandable that Hololive CN doesn’t garner that much attention, since they’re largely confined to Bilibili (although Artia also does English streams on Twitch), it’s Hololive ID in particular that pioneered English Hololive streams, making them more accessible than any other Hololiver before.

    That’s part of the reason why I don’t care about EN much. With ID I already get enough English Hololive content (that also still somewhat exotic). And the supposed novelty of Hololive in English, that many think EN brings with it, has no effect on me, because it’s not actual novel at all.

    And yeah, I’m also kinda bitter that EN has exploded so much (which is not something that happened with ID, when they started earlier this year) and pushed ID much more in the backline. ID was never really small (alone being in Hololive gives a lot of prestige, after all), but now it feels like they’re horribly underappreciated. As I write this, Moona Hoshinova is celebrating 100.000 subs. Nearly all EN VTubers (Kiara is the only exception) have more than double of that, despite barely existing.

    Like

    1. You can be bitter all you like, but Hololive EN has brought the whole vTuber thing to a new audience. I don’t know why Hololive ID didn’t explode in the way EN has, but I would put it down to a combination of factors: the fact it’s not clear to your average newcomer what “Hololive ID” is (whereas “Hololive English” is self-explanatory); the fact that they haven’t been pushed hard to an English-speaking audience (which is a failure on Cover Corp’s part); and the fact I’ve not seen a peep about any of them from existing vTuber enthusiasts (which is a failure of the community).

      There’s really no point being bitter and complaining at me because your favourite doesn’t get the attention you feel they deserve — particularly when I saw one of the EN girls congratulating Moona on 100k subs earlier today. If you like a creator’s work, share that work and support them how you see fit.

      Like

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