My First Time Judging a Cosplay Contest

This past weekend, I had the honor of getting to be part of the panel of judges for the Quakecon Cosplay Contest. Saturday of the con, I ran around helping get the green room set up, answered cosplayers’ questions about where they were supposed to be, and sat in a single room for 3 hours straight seeing all the different competitors. It was a fun, slightly exhausting, really eye-opening experience.

Disclaimer: This entire post does not reflect the view of Bethesda, Quakecon, or any of the affiliated companies that had to do with the contest. This is merely my point of view. I also will not be naming names or going into specifics for certain things. This is solely to talk about the things people should know when entering a contest. There is not tea here to be had. 

Judging a cosplay contest is very different from entering a cosplay contest. I’ve competed a few times, most notably when I entered the Kumoricon walk-on contest as Korra. I’ve seen the competition from the cosplayer’s side and am familiar with it. This weekend, I got to witness with my own eyes what contests are like from a judge’s POV.

When you enter a contest as a cosplayer, you get a limited view of the contest itself. You read the rules, sign up, show up to pre-judging, hang out in the green room, have your time in the spotlight, and then wait for the awards. You only see your portion of the contest. You may talk to other cosplayers in the green room and make your own judgements, but you don’t know exactly what criteria you’re judged on unless 1) the contest rules state them for you upfront 2) you’re given the grading rubric afterwards. You don’t see the judging process, registration, or the other countless things that go into running a contest.

When you work a contest as a judge, you see everything. Not only do you see every contestant and every cosplay on the day of the contest, you see everything leading up to it.

Registration

For this particular contest, we had an online form that contestants had to fill up prior to the con. They had to include basic contact information, what character/game they were planning to cosplay, and a photo of said cosplay (we accepted WIP photos). Here, we were immediately able to disqualify/reject entries.

Pro-tip: Read the rules. If the contest rules state that they’re only accepting characters from certain IP’s, do not enter characters that don’t meet the requirements.

It’s here during the online registration that a good portion of disqualifications and rejections can occur. Simply because people don’t follow the instructions or read the rules thoroughly.

Pre-judging

Any good contest will have a very specific grading rubric. Generally, it’ll consist of a few categories and a scoring system. For instance, you may have 5 different categories, each with a possible maximum score of 5 points. A perfect score in this case would be 25 points from a single judge. If you’ve got a panel of 3 judges, that’s 75 possible points you can receive. The categories and total possible points vary by con, but the basic premise is the same. Some conventions will give you these categories from the very beginning, some will give you your score card after the contest is over, and some will do none of those things. Sometimes, you can ask the judges afterwards where you can improve your cosplay. Sometimes, they’ll give you tips right away during pre-judging. It all is very specific to the con and the contest runners.

The pre-judging is the most important part of the contest. It’s where we as judges find out how you made your cosplay, how much of your cosplay you made, and how well you made it. As a contestant, you must be upfront about your process, including whether or not you bought/commissioned any pieces of your cosplay. You won’t be disqualified for having purchased/commissioned parts (unless that’s stipulated in the rules), but be prepared to lose some points. You’re not going to score as high as the cosplayer who made everything from scratch, but that doesn’t mean you can’t do well. If you can modify store-bought pieces really well to the point that they’re indistinguishable from the original product, you can still earn some good points.

The quality of your overall cosplay is going to really be an important factor. High attention to detail, clean seams, clean finishes, good paint jobs: they’re all vital for a good cosplay. Some contests will have “Materials” as a category where they take into account what materials you used. There’s been some debate recently in the cosplay community about this, particularly fabric choice. Some judges may dock points for lower quality fabrics, while others may be impressed by use of cheaper fabrics in interesting and unique ways.

Pro-tip: Regardless of your judges’ stance on materials, be prepared to talk about them and why you chose the materials you did, whether it be for style, budget, realism, movement, or weight.

Your Elevator Pitch

This goes hand-in-hand with pre-judging, but I thought I’d separate it into its own section. Contestants who were able to speak to their build process quickly and concisely with visual aids tend to score really well. Some contestants brought print-offs of references, some brought photo albums of their build process, and others even wrote out what materials they used as well as captions for their build process. All of this can really help a judge determine what went into your cosplay. It also proves that you did indeed make it yourself and didn’t buy it online or through a cosplay commissioner.

If you don’t have your elevator pitch prepared, you’ll be winging it, which can make for a sloppy presentation. Judges don’t have a whole lot of time for each contestant, so if you’re stumbling over how you want to explain a piece, that means you have less time to talk about other details. It’d be awful to leave a judging room only to regret not being able to point out all the different parts you’re proud of that you think can set you apart from the other cosplayers.

Pro-tip: Not only should you prepare your elevator pitch, you should rehearse and time it.

At least for this contest, we opened up judging with “tell us about your cosplay” which gave cosplayers a few moments to go through their build. They got to share the things they thought were important for us to know and then we dove into details by asking them follow-up questions. If you don’t have this introduction planned out, it means details can be missed and you may miss out on points.

Deliberation

There’s a lot of talking that goes behind those closed doors once the final contestant has finished their pre-judging. There’s the final tally of the scores, discussion of the contestants, and sometimes tie-breaking. The tally of the scores is of course very important towards determining the final winners. But sometimes judges will adjust their scores after seeing the full extent and range of the cosplayers. As a judge, you get a feel for the range of skill the more contestants you go through.

Deliberation is probably where the most controversy arises, and it’s not open to the public. It’s during these crucial moments that determine who gets the awards and why. If you’re ever upset at a judging panel’s choices of winners, it’s probably because something happened during this portion that set the final score.

Awards

The awards are determined beforehand. Judges typically don’t get any say in what the prizes themselves are. Sometimes judges get to do a Judges Award, sometimes they don’t.

Notice a theme? There is no standardized cosplay contest. You’re at the mercy of the contest coordinators.

If you’re not happy with the awards, don’t enter. And don’t try to complain to the judges about it because that’s not their job.


Conclusion

It’s unfortunate, but I can’t give you a rock-solid, foolproof method for winning contests. There are too many variables, too many contests, too many judges. What I can give you, however, are some general tips that can apply to any contest. Some of these I already stated, but I will repeat for emphasis.

  1. Read the rules. Don’t skim them; read them. Do not submit an entry that doesn’t follow these rules. If you do, be prepared to be disqualified.
  2. If you, for whatever reason, are not eligible for a contest, do not enter. This may be because you already won an award for a cosplay and shouldn’t enter it again. It may be because you’re affiliated with the contest runners. It could be any number of reasons. If you’re not eligible, do not enter. You will be disqualified and will be wasting both your and the coordinators’ time.
  3. Come prepared with your elevator pitch. Rehearse and time it. Have it down so that you can quickly and concisely tell your judges how you made your cosplay. Also be prepared to answer any questions they have.
  4. Have a build book and references printed off and readily available. Some contests require these, some don’t. It’s better to have it and not need it than vice versa. These help the judges see all the details that they may not see just looking at your finished cosplay.
  5. Be honest. We’ll know if you bought or commissioned a piece. Be upfront about thrifting garments. Modifying garments is a completely valid way of cosplaying, but it may not get you as many points during a formal contest.
  6. Don’t point out your mistakes! The judges may completely miss them. If you point out a mistake, we won’t have a choice but to dock points from your score. But if you don’t mention them and/or we aren’t quick or thorough enough to catch them, that works in your favor!
  7. Don’t be a dick. This is just good life advice, but it helps to not be a dick to the people who have your score in their hands. Not only should you avoid being a jerk to the judges, you should avoid being a jerk to your fellow contestants. We’re all here to compete and have fun; we want to create a supportive and creative environment. People can’t be given the chance to flourish if they’re being squashed by negative comments by fellow contestants.

With that all said, I had an incredible time judging. I hope I get to judge more contests in the future. I hope to also enter more contests now that I have this new knowledge.

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