Brennan Williams stands 6'7", weighs 300 pounds, and wrestles professionally as Dio Maddin, aka Mace, forcefully terrifying onstage in a skull mask. And also, lately, he is a 7'14" pink-haired merman named Jibo, with a crunchy octopus ball on his head.
“The new king of the seas! Mother effing kraken! The takoyaki shonen! The great black octopus! I have many names. I have many titles,” Williams-as-Jibo proclaimed on his debut YouTube livestream in February.
Williams is a newly minted Vtuber, joining the most kawaii trend in live entertainment since actual anime. It’s a portmanteau of “virtual YouTuber,” an anime avatar whose body and face move in conjunction with a human performer’s. On Twitch and YouTube, Vtubers entrance live audiences, sometimes numbering thousands, with cutesy karaoke or the latest video games. The top 10 Vtubers collectively generated 36 million hours watched in the first couple of months of 2021, according to data from analytics firm StreamHatchet.
Moving between the squared circle and streaming comes naturally, says Williams. What is Vtubing if not digital kayfabe, a wrestling term describing the presentation of stage identities and storylines as genuine even beyond the mat. “It’s literally the same thing,” says Williams. With avatars as their masks, Vtubers keep up the performance across the digital world—YouTube, Twitch, Twitter, Instagram—without letting anyone know their true identities.
It’s an open secret among fans that a powerful anime strain runs among both community members and top wrestlers. “I’ve heard the expression that wrestling is anime for rednecks,” Williams says. The internet is full of lists of anime-loving pros: Kenny Omega, Sasha Banks, Xavier Woods. It checks out. The way wrestling heroes are built, their rivalries with heels, the storylines that stretch out over years, and even fans’ easy oscillation between loving and hating a character all would feel perfectly at home on any shonen anime. It’s like Dragon Ball Z with figure-four leg locks.
Williams’ story line has changed a lot lately, too. As an offensive lineman with the Jacksonville Jaguars in the mid-aughts, Williams wasn’t much in the spotlight. But he left his football career with his body intact, and so he traveled to Houston to train toward his lifelong goal of becoming a famous television wrestler.
He has the acting skills for it. Take the end of one recent match: Scottish Titan Drew McIntyre removes the mask of Mace, who is laid out twitching on the mat. Mace stands up, body heaving and mouth snarling, and slaps McIntyre in the face. McIntyre then slaps Mace with the mask, sending him crumpling back to the floor. The stunt disqualifies McIntyre. In the after-show, breathing heavy with his chin lifted, a victorious Mace grows, very shonen-esque: “As far as I’m concerned, Drew McIntyre, you did me a favor.”
It’s all art, he says. In WWE, Williams crafts personas by amplifying parts of his personality that aren’t necessarily on the surface. Vtubing offers that same release, without the physical limitations of being a 6'7" man. “I can enhance aspects of my physical form in real life,” he says. “But on YouTube, I’m a little and cute anime boy, which is also me. It’s all in here,” he says.
Breaking into that world is not unlike debuting as a wrestler, but with a different set of norms. At the beginning of a Vtuber’s “birthday” stream, they build tension with music as fans filter in. Then, they slowly reveal parts of their persona—first their physical form and then their personality. In his first video, Jibo’s octopus cap and wide, purple eyes slowly rise up from the bottom of the screen. He smiles, swaying back and forth, then posts a list of his favorite “squideogames,” anime, and music—all of which seem to reflect his actual tastes. A couple thousand viewers watched, including famous Vtuber Ironmouse. “Ahhh kawaii,” she wrote in chat.
“The biggest YouTuber,” Williams calls Jibo. “One running joke on my stream is that he’s not that big but pretends like he’s constantly expanding,” he says, laughing. “That’s kind of fun. You can work out your insecurities that way.”
Jibo is Williams’ softer side, with a dash of gamer competitiveness and wry humor. He draws silly drawings, sings silly karaoke, and doesn’t take himself all that seriously. When his audience bullies him (in his words), he smiles and laughs. Earlier this week, a fan in chat called him a himbo. “I’m a big dummy, but I’m handsome. I’m actually nice,” he said into his mic, snacking loudly on a protein bar. Likewise, Williams has always incorporated parts of himself into his wrestling persona, particularly his otaku side. For a while, Williams was known for his Nico Nico Knee, a reference to a catchphrase from the cutesy anime series Love Live! School Idol Project.
Actors often use their authentic selves to build convincing, crowd-facing facades. Vtubers similarly behave as more enhanced versions of themselves when online, with some anime tropes thrown in. It’s a third type of entity, somewhere between the human and the kayfabe, manifested in a tiny (or huge) digital cartoon.
It’s a fitting form of expression for the digital age in which technology both masks and enhances the self, and encourages sharing those altered and authentic and in-between selves constantly. The internet has bled it all together. Both Williams’ otakudom and his immense power have been on view since his football days. Instead of standing in direct contrast to each other, Jibo and Mace form the basis of two separate facets of one authentic self. Pro wrestling has already blurred that line for years. Wrestling is winks and smiles. It’s analyzed not just as art, but the art of the art. The viewer chooses to enjoy the Human Wrecking Ball or owl girl as an entertainer in their own right.
In one video of Williams before a WWE match, the camera sneaks up as he applies makeup. “You put on this paint and you become a different person,” he says. “You look in the mirror and you see this warrior, this warrior mask.”