The Mike Toole Show
by Mike Toole,
One day a few months back, I was wandering around Boston doing some shopping, and decided to hunt for used video games. I spied the anime shelf at the local CeX store, and made my way over, because first of all, I can't resist checking out the inventory of any anime section I find. I still compulsively look at the anime section at Best Buy, even though I know it's gonna be the same mix of Ghibli and Funimation titles every single time. Secondly, there aren't a whole lot of brick n' mortar places to browse for anime at all these days. And finally, you never know what you're gonna find. On this day, tucked between dusty old single-disc releases of InuYasha, I spied the first thirteen-episode box set of Prince of Tennis. Score! Wait, they don't actually call it that in tennis, right? What do they call it when you score? Points? Love? Anyway, I sure do love scoring a bargain, and this set was just six bucks. Touchdown!
Ever seen Prince of Tennis? It's a pretty cool standard shonen sports series, in which our main character must defeat a series of increasingly formidable opponents at the game of tennis. The twist is that protagonist Ryoma Echizen is no underdog—he's a well-known rising star who vanished from the youth tennis scene for a couple of years to train in America. On his return, he's full of both braggadocio and impressive skill, so the appeal of the series is more about rooting for a smart, trash-talking favorite than an earnest long-shot. I'd never actually watched the dub of the series—well, except for the fan dub, YOU KNOW THE ONE—so I immediately opened it up upon getting home. An insert fell out, and fluttered to the floor. It was for one of the earliest anime streaming services—Toonami Jetstream.
Do you remember the first time you watched anime online via streaming? I don't mean downloading 160x120 RealMedia Dragon Ball Z fansubs, or using peer-to-peer services with weird names like Kazaa, Gnutella, and eDonkey, I mean going to a place where the anime was legally allowed to be, and then not downloading a file, but opening a stream. I'm guessing that for a lot of you, it was sometime in the mid-2000s, or maybe even later than that. Heck, a lot of anime fans have had streaming available as an option for their entire experience in the fandom! But for myself and many other fans, our first experience with streaming anime was in the far future year of 2000, and the name of the site was Sputnik7.
Sputnik7 was so early on the scene that they didn't even call it streaming back then. “Real-time audio/video over the internet!” is what their tagline was, and one of their first coups was a partnership with Manga Entertainment, which yielded both a high-profile online premiere for the company's new movie Blood: The Last Vampire and access to Manga's library of titles. As features like Macross Plus and Perfect Blue trickled onto the site, Sputnik7 started tweaking their terminology. “Real-time video” became “Video stations,” and then, by the end of 2001, “video streams.” I have vivid memories of using Sputnik7 to stream both Giant Robo, during a time when I'd foolishly lent my tapes of the series out, and a show called Mad Bull 34.
These days, Mad Bull 34 is such a classic that any attempts to search for information about it are liable to be derailed by shouty online video critics picking the show apart. It has no DVD release in Japan, but was pulled out of the weeds by Discotek (full disclosure: I do work for these guys sometimes… but not on Mad Bull 34) due to its sheer infamy on the convention circuit. It's been held up as a standard gonzo, hyper-violent OVA for a long time, but I would argue that it wasn't just plaudits from folks like Daryl Surat that kept Mad Bull 34 alive, but its presence on Sputnik7. I'm one of many people I know who ignored the home video release, but happily watched the show for free when it emerged on the site in 2000. I would never have taken a chance on it without that opportunity; now, a copy of it sits in my library.
Sputnik7 got a few rounds of funding, but it wasn't gonna last; it was just too early, in a time when streaming video maxed out at a blocky 320x240 that still taxed a lot of typical home internet connections. The next big streaming site had to be Toonami Jetstream, right? Nope—it was Toonami Reactor, which launched just one year after Sputnik7, in 2001. Toonami Reactor was just as forward-thinking as Sputnik7, with a library of shows that couldn't be seen on the broadcast version of Cartoon Network's popular action block. For a long time, it was the only place you could legally watch Star Blazers without shelling out a bunch of money on smeared, mediocre-looking DVDs. Instead, you got to watch the show on smeared, mediocre-looking streams! It was the style at the time. Toonami Reactor also had Daft Punk-branded content, because this was the law in the early 2000s. If your site had anime stuff, it had to have bits from that Daft Punk record with the Leiji Matsumoto videos! Reactor hung in there for a few years; during that time, the site's library was expanded, first with more fare from CPM (like Harlock Saga) and later with a whole bunch of Shonen Jump series. This is what would lead to the 2006 launch of Toonami Jetstream.
Toonami Jetstream was a real trend-setter. Not only did it showcase popular ongoing shows like Naruto and Samurai Jack, it had a whole bunch of shows you couldn't see anywhere else at the time, like Hikaru no Go and Megaman Star Force. A brand partnership with the NFL gave us a weird, stitched-together dub of Eyeshield 21, and there were even a couple of shows that were tipped for the service but never made it to air, like Zoids: Genesis. I will be forever salty that this show got held back, because I'd been watching the other Zoids shows (what?!? They were good, man!) and was looking forward to seeing it. The entire thing got dubbed but never aired here, can you believe that?! It's on my Dubs that Time Forgot wishlist.
What was the next big player in online anime streaming? Well, here's where it starts to get complicated. Crunchyroll, inarguably the most active player in the global anime streaming realm, started in 2006—but back then, it was a pirate site. You won't find a lot of chatter about their origins from back then on the official site or profiles on big entertainment websites like Variety, because it's a little embarrassing for a million-subscriber site with big-money backing to have come from a scrappy little portal that swiped Naruto and Bleach fansubs, but it's important to remember these origins—and not to shame Crunchyroll, but because it's an interesting part of our past. The culture of piracy in anime fandom has caused a lot of trouble, but it's also been instrumental to the medium's rise. Anyway, I'll get back to Crunchyroll.
First, I want to talk about Joost, because that was also a really interesting service. Joost eventually became a standard “load the page, click the play button” streaming site, but it started as a weird peer-to-peer streaming experiment in 2006. Once they started attracting investment and building their library, the company retooled their player. The field was a little too crowded for Joost (man, it took me years to realize that you were supposed to pronounce it like “Juiced”), but it was where I was able to legally watch mid-2000s classics like Kaiji before they became more widely available.
By 2007, online streaming was really starting to be taken seriously as an entertainment option, even though people were just starting to get hip to the idea of hooking up computers or other appliances to their TVs. Netflix, which had already put traditional competitors like Blockbuster Video on the ropes with their DVD rental-by-mail service, launched something they called Netflix Instant, which offered a small selection of films for immediate online streaming. At the time, there wasn't any anime, so I shrugged and went back to my Greencine rent-by-mail account. After all, they had tons of anime!
Later in the 2000s, we were treated to Crunchyroll's big one-two punch. First of all, this weird pirate video site that was mostly popular in southeast Asia got a round of legitimate venture capital funding, which prompted complaints from the then-struggling anime publishers. More importantly, Crunchyroll were able to then leverage this funding and the air of legitimacy it brought by signing a deal with TV Tokyo to simulcast episodes of Naruto Shippūden. Part of the deal involved renouncing their old pirate ways and nuking their library of ill-gotten anime and J/K-drama. And suddenly, everything changed; other anime licensors, who'd been doing the usual 'wait for someone else to do it first' dance, queued up to give Crunchyroll their business.
Since then, we've had a lot of ups and downs in the streaming ecosystem. We've watched Viz and Funimation and Sentai Filmworks try to carve out experimental corners of the streaming world, only to eventually bail on projects like Neon Alley and The Anime Network (which, in fairness, started as a linear cable channel) and Funico, Funimation's non-starter of a partnership with Nico Nico Douga. Money has flowed into the business from the east and west, and now big players like Amazon and Netflix have entered the global anime streaming sweepstakes. Some other players have fallen by the wayside—Daisuki, a Japan-based portal funded by government-earmarked Cool Japan money, had some freedom to experiment, but their player was never good enough to compete; it was too frustrating to use. I was intrigued by Viewster's attempt to marry a streaming service with a pretty good Loot-by-mail box, but that didn't last, either; the site soldiers on, but their Omakase lootbox is gone with the wind.
Now, Toonami Jetstream and all of those early sites have vanished, yielding ground to ever more robust and competitive options. I feel like we're reaching a point of saturation, because I've gone from watching almost everything on Crunchyroll to splitting time between Crunchy, Amazon, Netflix, and new players like HIDIVE and Tubi TV. The content wars continue. In the meantime, I'll search the stacks for old DVDs I can't watch online—and hang on to that Prince of Tennis set, even though it turns out I can actually watch the damn thing on Yahoo View! Bet you forgot about them, didn't you?! Well, so did I.
What's your take, reader? Have you been there for streaming's rise, consolidation, and fragmentation? Do you enjoy hunting for old and new favorites across multiple services, or do you wish that one streaming site ruled them all? Let me know in the comments!
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