Forget regular livestreaming—you can make more money as a VTuber
Madeline Urback—known online as Syafire—was uploading to Twitch and YouTube for years before she figured out a niche that worked for her. Of all the videos she made, a tutorial on how to become a VTuber broke through. She found her audience, figured out what algorithm would work, and started VTubing herself.
As YouTube has grown over the years, so have new takes on the platform and what audiences gravitate toward. VTubers, short for “virtual YouTubers,” are creators who use animated avatars instead of live video to interact with their viewers.
VTubing art, or the models that livestreamers use as their avatars, can vary dramatically: some are two-dimensional, others are three-dimensional. Some creators use motion-capture technology to follow and animate their movements in real time. Others just have animations that move when they talk and nothing more.
VTubing allows creators to weave together fact and fiction, blending life with art. The characters are both an expression of the real-life YouTuber while avatars can have rich fantasy backstories. Gizmodo called the trend “both a twist on an existing medium and something completely new at the same time.”
The whole affair can be appealing because it allows audiences to disappear into a fantasy world while still interacting with a creator directly. It can also work well for creators because it eliminates the need to be in front of the camera.
Audiences are biting. Millions of subscribers follow YouTubers like Gwar Gura and Kizuna AI on YouTube alone, and entire companies like Hololive and Nijisanji have cropped up to specialize in VTubing. Creators are earning so much that they are out-performing regular livestreamers, bringing in nearly $1 million per year in some cases.
The options are appealing to creators because successful channels can draw serious attention and money. Companies can approach creators about brand deals, but fans themselves also pay directly. Because Twitch is a popular platform for VTubers, livestreams often attract tips.
This is an important piece of the puzzle for earning money as a VTuber. Because YouTube ad revenue is not enough to live on, creators must build another method of bringing in money from fans. Livestreams and online tip culture are among their best options.
"My goal was always to share my creativity, my art projects, and the process of what I was working on."
Until recently, the trend wasn’t popular in North America. Originating in Japan in 2016, the livestreaming approach quickly caught on but remained niche in the US. Then, in 2020, the incredibly popular streamer Pokimane uploaded a stream where she was replaced with an avatar, which prompted many discussions and helped bring attention to the format.
Syafire has seen this interest develop in her audience. Now 22 years old, the creator had nursed dreams of getting into the business for years but struggled to grow her channel.
Syafire spent years moving between different states while pursuing an art degree, all the while uploading to video platforms and trying to build an audience. She started streaming on Twitch and playing video games five years ago as a junior in high school. Later, she began to host livestreams where she would paint and talk with her audience.
“My goal was always to share my creativity, my art projects, and the process of what I was working on,” Syafire says. “My focus and dedication at that point was just to get better at my skills. I wasn’t really focusing on the marketing end of livestreaming. I didn’t really realize the power of what it could do until I grew as a VTuber.”
After some family challenges, Syafire moved to Salt Lake City to live with her mom. While sitting in class for her art degree one day, she realized she could learn most of what she needed online. Eventually, she was inspired to get into VTubing by streamer CodeMiko, who has nearly a million followers on Twitch and uses motion-capture suits and the video game Unreal Engine to animate her avatar.
This revelation turned into a basis for Syafire’s future audience. Now she’s growing her channels by focusing on tutorials and encouraging viewers to create art. Many of her tutorials center around helping users get into VTubing themselves, making evergreen videos that can perform well over long periods of time on YouTube.
“That’s when my love and passion really kicked in for learning about marketing and growing my own business because I was just obsessed with figuring out how this video started going viral,” she says, referring to her first VTuber tutorial. “My niche kinda found me and chose me.”
The move is smart. Other creators see an opportunity in the trend but don’t know how to achieve it. Syafire started using SEO to make sure she caught this audience. With 16,000 new VTubers now uploading, it’s helped her grow. She’s now building out a business where she does private consulting work for other creators and even uses her platform to sell art lessons—all on top of hosting regular livestreams.
It can be long hours, Syafire says, but she’s able to earn a comfortable living from it. And the appeal is about more than just growing an audience: Syafire says VTubing will be the future of digital engagement.
“I don’t make enough money to be hiring a huge team, but I don’t make little enough to be ignoring the fact that my business is growing.”
“Imagine if Wendy or the Burger King mascot was able to interact directly with their fans, directly connect with their community,” she says. “This is huge.”
Syafire is by no means the only VTuber in Utah. There’s also FrostyFrog, a self-described “family-friendly, wholesome” creator who also has seen their tutorial videos perform best on YouTube. But each platform can be different, with algorithms and audiences changing between them. FrostyFrog, for example, has double the number of followers on Twitch as on YouTube.
Like other creators, VTubers deepen engagement with their fans by building a community. Syafire has a Patreon, for example, that allows audience members to support her directly. Both she and FrostyFrog run Discord communities to provide further interactions with fans.
This approach works for creators of all kinds but requires work. VTuber TFM Jonny recently tweeted, “Being a VTuber isn’t some cheat code to win at content creation. You gotta still be good with community building, entertainment, and talent. Money does NOT buy success in this space.”
This is echoed by Syafire, who feels that the wide range of options has been both an asset and a challenge for her. Having to keep up all her admin and strategy while still doing her livestreams requires a lot.
“I’ve been really caught between a rock and a hard place recently, where I feel like I want to narrow it down on one thing, but I feel like I need to keep all these things running at once,” she says. “I don’t make enough money to be hiring a huge team, but I don’t make little enough to be ignoring the fact that my business is growing.”