JoqniX has silver platinum hair, wears glasses and loves meeting new people.
He streams – or broadcasts – himself playing popular video games for up to 12 hours on his YouTube channel. His few hundred followers love to watch him play or talk about the action that unfolds in the game.
But JoqniX is not real. He is a digital avatar created and managed by a student living in South India who doesn’t like to reveal more details about his location and offline life.
JoqniX belongs to a rapidly growing niche group of virtual YouTubers or VTubers in India – digital personalities created by online entertainers and content creators who mostly want to keep their identities a secret.
These VTuber avatars usually have distinctive Japanese anime style features and they stream games, participate in internet trends, make art or music and engage in other fun online activities. Creators say that part of the popularity of these digital personalities is that their true identities remain obscure.
The trend reportedly originated in Japan in 2016 when Kizuna AI, widely credited as the first VTuber, first used the term. Since then, the trend has grown in popularity as several content creators have set up quirky VTuber digital avatars, some of which have garnered a huge following.
Venu G Joshi, founder of Indian VTuber talent agency Project Starscape, says the trend has gained popularity in India during the Covid-19 pandemic. The creator of Joqnix, who only wanted to be known by the digital avatar, estimates that there are currently more than 90 VTubers in India.
He maintains a list of Indian VTubers on Twitter and is a moderator of Discord servers – an online space for like-minded people to interact with each other via video and text chats – for the community.
The phenomenon has yet to gain popularity in India, but participants hope that could change soon. The BBC spoke to some Indian VTuber account creators to better understand the trend, its appeal and purpose.
For the creator behind VTuber Suzuki Zuriko, VTubing allows her to escape the malicious trolling content creators that content creators are often subjected to online. “I feel like it’s allowed a lot of us, especially women, to try out content creation without feeling insecure,” she says. “I don’t have to worry about people making fun of my real body or making sexist comments.”
For the creator of Virtual Sakura, on the other hand, the appeal of VTubing lies in the creative freedom that the trend offers. Creators can give their avatars interesting backstories – Virtual Sakura, for example, is a 200-year-old girl with magical powers. “Here we can create our own realities and it’s beautiful,” says the Delhi-based creator.
Creators either design their avatars – also called “models” – or commission artists and animators to design and create 2D or 3D versions of these models. Most models are Japanese anime style designs while others are modeled after other creations such as mythical creatures. A number of apps are used to design them and their movements are controlled using face and body tracking software.
The 19-year-old creator of VTuber Mio — a half-cat demon, half-human avatar — has designed 10 such models so far. “I’ve made about $2,000 (£1,700) over the last two years making models and commissioned art,” she says.
JoqniX’s creator says his digital avatar speaks in his own voice, although most creators choose to use speech modulation software to give their avatars a unique voice. JoqniX speaks in a singsong voice and often sprinkles his conversations with Japanese words.
The creator describes himself as “shy and taciturn” but says JoqniX gets him out of his shell, at least online. “When I started streaming, I made a promise to myself that I would speak up and make friends,” he says.
While Japanese VTubers are immensely popular – many of them have millions of followers on their YouTube channels and some others are part of paid advertising campaigns and launch events – Indian VTubers have yet to enjoy this commercial success.
The creators the BBC spoke to recall how in 2019 Nijisanji — a popular Japan-based VTuber agency — announced its Indian branch and launched three VTubers, including Noor, which amassed more than 60,000 subscribers — just for the sake of operations to be discontinued in 2021. Observers speculate that this is due to “failed marketing”. AnyColor Inc, the entertainment startup that owns Nijisanji, declined to answer the BBC’s questions.
Most Indian VTubers start on YouTube but are now also active on streaming platforms like Twitch. Their videos rarely exceed 1,000 views on YouTube and the creators work independently. However, experts in the field say the niche is slowly expanding.
Project Starscape has so far released two batches – popularly called “gens” – of VTubers. The agency hosted auditions for shortlisted candidates and helped them set up their YouTube channels.
“We received a total of around 260 applications,” says Mr. Joshi. So far, the company’s VTubers are all women, but it plans to launch a line of all-male VTubers soon.
“Female VTubers tend to do better because gaming has a predominantly male fan base,” says Mr. Joshi, adding that he just closed an angel funding round with a Japanese investor.
An introductory video by Zucci Agasura, one of the agency’s VTubers, has 52,000 views on YouTube. “Depending on your engagement, you can make money through YouTube channel memberships — where fans pay to access exclusive perks and content,” says the creator, but declined to divulge any further details about her earnings from the platform.
Last year, the 25-year-old founder of VTuber founded MeowCatMax Virtualism – a company that provides a platform for aspiring VTubers to showcase their skills and build their fan base.
“We publish news, podcasts and also do auditions to launch our first generation of VTubers,” he says.
Harsh, who maintains a page for the Indian VTubing community on Reddit — a social news and discussion site — says Indian VTubers have yet to take root because “the concept of living for your hobbies is still germinating here.”
But he remains a huge fan. “Watching a VTuber is like watching a friend, and when VTubers work together it can feel like watching a reality show.”