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Sonic speeding into real life

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Matthew Taylor
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Japan is a content pioneer, with gaming at the forefront. Nowhere is this witnessed more than in the world of ‘VTubers’ – Japan’s virtual gaming YouTube streamers who are breaking a new frontier by bringing gaming characters to life.

They use virtual, computer-generated avatars with real-time motion-to-capture technology for streaming. Avatars, perhaps, like Sonic the Hedgehog.

Shuji Utsumi, COO at Sega and keeper of the Sonic brand is enthusiastic about VTubers, saying: “We’re planning to expand transmedia initiatives to our major IPs. We firmly believe it plays an important role, allowing us to strategically expand the values of numerous IPs in innovative ways.”

VTuber facts and stats:

  • 1.1 billion – hours of viewership clocked up by VTubers in 2023
  • 73.9 percent – VTubing channels run by independent virtual influencers (rather than companies)
  • 38.5 percent – VTubers based in Japan, more than three-quarters of whom are women
  • Kizuna AI is considered one of the first mainstream virtual influencers, with three million followers on YouTube and an additional three million on TikTok
  • Virtual characters don’t always pan out. Netflix launched its VTuber N-ko two years ago to highlight new anime content, but quietly dropped it in the last year
  • Twitch and YouTube – with a 50/50 split – account for 98.9 percent of the VTuber market

Of the top VTubers, just 10 percent are actual, real human beings. And it’s big business. “They’re some of the most-subbed and superchatted livestream influencers of both the real world and virtual,” said AKA Virtual CEO Jia Shen.

“In Japan, they’re now everywhere, appearing on TikTok, streaming platforms and live television. They’re so mainstream that you can find them in your local convenience stores adorning your favourite snacks,” Jia continued.

According to Jia, this is a trend that is also beginning to catch on in the West, particularly as younger audiences gravitate towards self-curation of their content diets on TikTok, YouTube and Twitch.

Technology also means that brands can now bring these VTube characters into the real world, and feature them in marketing and brand-based content creation.

Jia’s company partnered with Sega to bring its distinct stable of characters – including Sonic and the Street Fighters – off-console and into the real world. Whether that ends up being as impactful as promised is yet to be revealed.

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