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The thing about being a vtuber, new or otherwise, is that you tend to get caught up with Japanese internet culture trends, at some levels, by sheer osmosis. Though the scene in the west is growing fast (with waiting lists for the most respected Live2D rigging artists stretching months into the future), it still takes most of its cues from the Japanese agencies and creators that best represent the overall medium.

That means two things. One, a lot of familiarity with the activities from the Hololive and Nijisanji vtuber agencies in particular.

Two, as a result, Respawn Entertainment has basically annexed your YouTube subscriptions.

Apex vtubers ascendant

To say there is a healthy interest in Apex Legends among Japanese streamers is to understate it. The game tops the rankings and is among the most viewed games in the country. Even its casual invitationals attract diehard levels of audience support – numbers usually associated with League of Legends or Counter-Strike broadcasts here in the west. The recently concluded fourth iteration of the Crazy Raccoon Cup, for instance, wasn’t just a showcase for pro players of the organization that gave the circuit its name.

It was, instead, a 300,000+ viewer festival of bullets and grenades across both Twitch.tv and YouTube, not to mention other, more localized streaming services, thanks largely to the guest-competitors involved.

Apex Crazy Racoon Cup
Hundreds of thousands of viewers across YouTube and Twitch have tuned into Crazy Raccoon Cup matches to watch Apex Legends esports. | Photo provided by Crazy Raccoon.

That’s not to say that Crazy Raccoon’s pros weren’t part of the draw. The organization’s stable of pro players are among the most exciting talents in the North Asia-Pacific competitive circuit, well reputed for the violence and mayhem they bring into the battlefield.

But as talented and popular as South Korean gunner Ras is (and 129,000 followers on Twitch.tv is a far cry from a laughing matter), he isn’t as much of a draw as, say… manga-ka Aka Akasaka of popular comic and anime series Kaguya-sama: Love is War.

Nor is he as big of a draw as handsome vampire and awkward introvert Kuzuha, currently the most popular male vtuber in the world with more than 750,000 subscribers on YouTube. As well, Hololive’s summer-colored schoolgirl of outrageous anecdotes, Natsuiro Matsuri, draws a crowd with a staggering subscriber count at well over 900,000. That puts her roughly in the middle of her agency’s pack, given how wildly successful their content model proved to be in a post-pandemic world.

There’s no disputing the fact that the game has its grip on the island nation – especially not with its animations beaming down upon you from the vast screens overlooking the streets of Shibuya. But the “how” and “why” of how that happened is a bit of a harder nut to crack. The aspects of vtuber culture that filters from east to west rely heavily on the work of fan translators of varying qualities – and that means viewers mostly get the supercuts of the most amusing, meme-worthy moments.

Those are great, of course. The grease on the rails that drop viewers swiftly into the vtuber rabbit hole. People start with a cute anime dog girl making funny noises while playing Banjo-Kazooie and they end up memorizing an entire national library’s worth of in-jokes and character canons. But a self-styled hungry ghost vtuber isn’t going to be satisfied with the mere crumbs available on the western internet.

So, to find as close to an answer as anyone without Japanese fluency can get, I got a full-fledged response from EA’s esports operations.

Riding the wave

Apex legends vtubers
EA isn’t exactly sure how Apex Legends blew up in Japan, but the company is committed to making the most if the situation. | Image provided by StreamerJ.

“At times, it can be difficult to label players of Apex Legends as ALGS players or influencers,” said John Nelson, esports commissioner for Apex Legend’s global efforts, the man with the broadest overall view of the competitive scene, and my interview subject on March 31st.

Yet even for him and EA, the chicken-or-egg conundrum confounds them. It’s a little hard to tell whether the popularity of Apex esports in Japan is driven primarily by the game’s own appeal to the playerbase or if it’s largely lucked out on having such popular streamers. Not that the question matters as much as how EA will capitalize on it – and help others do so as well.

“We’ve struck a good balance, in terms of competitions globally, between ALGS tournaments that are about finding the best players around the world and who is the best player globally and in regions, and balanced with competitions that have more exhibition and fun feel,” Nelson said. “I think the Crazy Raccoon Cups are an example of that. In North America, there have been competitions run by Twitch Rivals and also driven by individual influencers themselves, like LuluLuvely.”

Most notably, the Crazy Raccoon Cup is not an official EA-affiliated event – but even discounting the esports pros involved, a lot of its non-esports competitors are nonetheless circuit regulars in their own fashion. Vtuber ShibuyaHAL, for instance, is a heavyweight in his own right – as a streamer with a 450,000 subscribers presence on YouTube, the host of the weekly ShibuyaHAL Custom tournaments and a regular guest of the official Apex Legends Global Series events.

In contrast to a lot of other esports’ closed-garden approaches, this seems to be EA’s preferred strategy – letting others grow whatever they can around the core ALGS content, whether as creator-driven watch parties or private invitationals or otherwise.

Even, say, giving the time of day to a sub-100 subscriber vtuber who wants to interview them about what they’ve been up to in Japan.

Open doors

There’s still a rhyme and reason to even that – and not just the fact that having Upcomer’s readership involved helped open some doors. Even outside of esports-specific content, Apex Legends is enthusiastically waving an open-arms flag with their soon-to-launch third-party collaboration with streetwear company Chinatown Market, signaling their intentions to work with creators outside of the EA family.

That includes their esports efforts, of course.

“Obviously, you can’t confirm anything in development,” I asked Nelson. “But what third-party activations and partnerships would you like to see?”

“That’s a good question,” he responded. “I’ll keep it esports-focused. From a third-party perspective, the growth that Apex esports has seen over these past three to six months has been tremendous. What I would really like to see is more organizations coming into the game and picking up players. We have a number of top-flight organizations involved in Apex Legends now across the world, and I would love to see that grow in the future.”

Apex Legends Global Series
EA has no plans to include any celebrity appearances at any Apex Legends esports events, but they haven’t ruled out the possibility. | Photo provided by Electronic Arts.

Esports organizations are all well and good, but was it too outlandish to hope for a Nijisanji or Hololive guest appearance at a future tournament, either as a guest commentator, on the analyst desk, or otherwise?

“I wouldn’t rule anything out,” Nelson said. “There’s potential for a lot of folks who are passionate about this game to become part of a future broadcast, and especially when we return to live events.”

Anecdotally, and infamously, Hololive vtuber Minato Aqua was supposed to have a major esports milestone herself late last year – most notably featuring a wholly original pop song titled “For The Win,” whose release coincided with the 2020 League of Legends world championship (and whose music video heavily featured the game’s champions).

As her agency was mired in the depths of Taiwan-centric geopolitical controversy at the time, her involvement with Worlds was seemingly curtailed, and what would have been the full extent of her involvement can now only be speculated upon.

However, no amount of drama is enough to blunt her addiction to competitive gaming. Her most recent activities, as of late March 2021, involve 10+ hour Apex Legends sessions, chasing (and coming within breathtaking margins of) that elusive top 0.20% Master rank.

By definition as hardcore a gamer as any top level pro, with as hardcore form of gaming content as you can find anywhere else on the internet. Aqua’s rank-grinding videos draw a million views apiece.

I look forward to hearing how she’ll sing about it this time around. Perhaps it will be at some live Apex event in the somewhat near future.