Shaikin: How Gawr Gura and VTubers could help Dodgers further tap into Japanese fan base

In the service of digging into what the Dodgers might be doing to entrench themselves as Japan’s favorite major league team, I am interviewing an animated character.

“I’m a shark-girl from the lost city of Atlantis,” Gawr Gura tells me. “I swam to the surface to hang out with you guys on land about 9,000 years ago.”

Tell me more.

“I’ve been told I have a heart of gold and a head of bone,” she says. “I have a long history of saying and doing ridiculous things on the internet.”

This is the part where I tell you that Gura — she said I could just call her Gura — will be shouting out the traditional “It’s Time for Dodger Baseball!” exclamation at Dodger Stadium on Friday.

Except, of course, that she won’t be there.

She can’t be there. She’ll be displayed on a screen, where younger generations spend most of their lives. She is what is called a virtual YouTuber, or VTuber.

“You stream online, but you don’t stream with your actual face. You stream with virtual avatars,” said Max Kim, the U.S. sales and licensing director for Cover, the Japanese company that controls 85 such avatars, including Gura, that combine for more than 82 million worldwide subscribers on YouTube.

Gura is the most popular VTuber in the world. Her YouTube channel has 4.5 million subscribers. That is more followers than the Dodgers have on YouTube and Instagram, combined. (On the social media platform X, the Dodgers outscore her, 2.8 million to 1.9 million.)

Just the announcement of Friday’s promotion, featuring Gura and two of her fellow avatars, generated 3.4 million views on X.

The trading card sets that will be distributed Friday already are on sale for as much as $125 on eBay. The promotional T-shirt with Gura in a Dodgers uniform — with her shark tail sticking out — are on sale there for as much as $195.

For Cover — and its signature Hololive brand — the Dodgers’ promotion is one step in a campaign to broaden the appeal of VTubers beyond the fervent core of Japanese young men. Of the viewers of Gura’s YouTube Channel, half are 24 or younger, and nine in 10 are male.

Dodgers pitcher Yoshinobu Yamamoto is 25. The Hololive avatars have appeared in promotions for Japan’s Pacific League, in which Yamamoto played from 2017-2023.

I showed him a picture of Gura and asked if he recognized her. He said he did not.

“Our goal is to make sure that people know what VTubing is,” Kim said.

“Ten years ago, the whole concept of streaming was pretty strange. It was not really existing. Now we accept that as a normal means of communication and entertainment. We want the same for VTubing as well.”

That makes Cover no different than dozens of other companies signing up as a Dodgers sponsor to get their message out to a large, mainstream audience. Cover is opening an office in Los Angeles this month, its avatars are virtually appearing at an anime expo at the Los Angeles Convention Center this weekend, and it hopes its collaboration with the Dodgers can be just as useful as previous ones with Taco Bell and Red Bull.

Kim said his company would have pursued the collaboration with the Dodgers even if the team had not signed Shohei Ohtani.

“We have our interest: to expand in the U.S. market,” Kim said. “They have their interests. I’m pretty sure the Dodgers will have their own thoughts behind this collaboration.”

They declined to share them. Jon Weisman, the team’s vice president of communications, said the Dodgers did not wish to participate in this story.

In December, when the Dodgers introduced Ohtani, president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman said this: “One of our goals is to have baseball fans in Japan convert to Dodger blue.”

Is it possible the Dodgers could win new fans in Japan by tapping into an activity which is wildly popular among Japanese teens who just might be looking for a team to follow, even if they might not know it yet?

“The Dodgers and Hololive have distinct fan bases,” said the chief executive of Cover, Motoaki Tanigo. “It’s the diversity of our fan bases that allows us to blend and connect our followers into a unified community, which is the essence of this collaboration.”

For one night, anyway, that collaboration will involve a virtual girl with shark teeth. I asked Gura if she could play baseball.

“I can play ball,” she said. “I got bad hand-eye coordination, I’m not very fast, and my joints might give out by the third inning, but I can cheer and scream for my team like no other!”

So, virtually, it’s time for Dodger baseball!

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