What Makes a Good Contest Judge?

I had the opportunity to judge another cosplay contest this past weekend at the HKMKT NightMKT event and it got me thinking about what makes a good judge. There are many skills required and I thought I’d talk about them!

Hard Skills—Be the expert.

Craftsmanship

If you’re going to be an authority on craftsmanship, you need to be a craftsman. That just goes without saying. That said, in the cosplay world, there are many different types of creation. You don’t need to be a master of every single one—anyone who claims they are is a liar—but being a master of one or more categories is good. Any good contest runner will choose a panel of judges that can cover these skillsets together.

Here are just a few different crafting categories that go into cosplay:

  • Sewing (and all the different sub-genres of it)
  • Foam smithing
  • Painting/shading/weathering
  • Make-up
  • Wig styling
  • 3D designing, printing, and finishing
  • Armor rigging
  • Prop-making
  • LED circuitry
  • Puppetry & mascot building

This is by no means a complete list and lots of these bullet points can be broken down into many different techniques.

Waiting for the contest to start at HKMKT NightMKT

Performance

For judging performance, it helps to have some sort of background in performing. Does that mean you have to have done theater? Nope. (I didn’t.) But having experience on stage can help you look out for those small details when watching the cosplayers.

Here are some examples of performance backgrounds that may come in handy for you:

  • Theater/acting
  • Choir
  • Orchestra/band
  • Drill team/dance/idol groups
  • Live-streaming (live streaming is absolutely a form of performing though it may not be on a physical stage)
  • Stand-up comedy
  • Improv

Nice skills, but not necessary for judging

While there are a lot of other skills that make up a cosplayer, not all of them are needed to make a good judge. So skills such as photography, marketing, branding, video editing or the like are not as relevant.

On stage with just some of the contestants for the HKMKT NightMKT Cosplay Contest

Soft Skills—Be a good person.

These are things that will make or break your experience as a judge; they’re things that help you get your foot in the door and become a repeat judge. All of these skills can basically fall under being professional. If you’re not professional, no convention or contest will want to work with you. Here are some things that can help you.

Before you get the gig

  • A clear communicator. Are you prompt responding to messages? Do you answer clearly with proper spelling and grammar? Are you professional in your emails? Do your socials have your contact information as well as your location readily available?
    • Note on location: Some contest runners will want to keep judges local so they do not have to pay for travel. Having your location on your social profiles’ bios can help get you seen! You don’t need anything as detailed as your address, but just the general area that you are in is good. (For example: “Texas-based” or “DFW-based” Something in the ballpark range of where you are.)
  • Personable. If you are unruly, rude, or generally a nuisance, no one will want to work with you. First impressions matter and a contest runner’s first impression of you will likely be formed through your presence online. If you are bullying, harassing, or generally being problematic on your socials, runners may not want to deal with that. (We don’t want contestants being bullied!)
    • Additional note: The cosplay contest community can be pretty tight-knit, especially on the local level. Many convention and cosplay contest runners know each other and talk often. So if you are treating people poorly at one convention, don’t be surprised if you end up blacklisted at other events.
  • Persistence. This one I will add a disclaimer to say that there is a fine line between persistence and crossing boundaries. Let’s say someone reached out to you about a judging opportunity and you reply back promptly, but then they don’t reply again for a while. Don’t be afraid to send a friendly follow-up email to let them know that you are interested. Organizers can get very busy leading up to an event, so some emails can get lost in the shuffle. Now does this mean email them every single day and harass them on social media? Absolutely not. But don’t just give up immediately if you don’t hear anything right away.

On the job, during the contest

These are things that will help you while you’re fulfilling your obligations as a judge.

  • Punctuality. Being early is necessary. (Notice I didn’t say “on time!” You need to be early, because of the point I’ll make in the very next bullet point.) The contest runners need to know that they can rely on you to be where you need to be when you need to be. If you are late and are the reason that the contest falls behind, they will not want to have you back.
  • Flexibility. Anything can happen during live shows. It’s very rare for a contest to start right on time. Not only that, but the level of organization during a contest can vary widely. I’ve judged a contest where the sign-up sheet was done in marker on notebook paper while we judged outside in the grass. (I have to add that it was a very fun contest and that this style very much matched the vibe of the event. This is in no way a knock on that event.) I’ve also judged contests where they had fully printed out binders full of every single contestant with a grading rubric, as well as the script for the contest. Being flexible is key. For smaller events, you’ll likely end up taking on more roles than just judge and you need to be ready for that. (For this past weekend’s contest, I filled the role of runner where I would bring the cosplayers to the judging area and kept them informed of what was happening. I also kept time on my phone to make sure we gave each contestant exactly 5 minutes for their judging session.)
  • Detail-oriented. You’re going to need this if you’re going to be looking at a lot of cosplays in a row. Asking questions about the costume is a really good way to find out the crafter’s process (and also weed out if you think they may be lying about it! Cause that can happen!) Make sure to take notes.
  • Tactful. It’s called constructive criticism, not just criticism. And to be honest, most times during judging, you don’t tell the cosplayer what’s wrong with their cosplay, you would just make a mental note. Point out the good things in their cosplay. Hype them up! Do not point out the flaws to them unless they ask for that kind of feedback.
  • Public speaking. This is probably my least favorite one of all of these. As a judge, chances are you will have to speak on stage to introduce yourself and/or announce the winners. Having stage fright is totally fine! But you need to make sure you can work through that and still be able to do your job. If you know ahead of time that you’ll have to introduce yourself, practice! You’ll likely be allowed a sheet of paper or your phone to read from for announcing the winners, so memorizing shouldn’t be necessary. I’m relatively good at public speaking, I just don’t enjoy doing it. But I put up with it because I love judging contests and meeting fellow crafters.
The judges for the HKMKT NightMKT Cosplay Contest (left to right, IG handles: arirose09, kaseydidwhat, hayatedoll)

Be proud!

The last thing I’ll say is that if you find yourself with the opportunity to judge a contest, try not to let the imposter syndrome get to you. For every single contest I’ve judged, I had a brief moment where I felt like I didn’t belong or was not good enough. Stop that self talk as soon as it starts! You were picked because the organizer saw something in you that they liked, that impressed them. Get out of your head and focus on creating as good of a contest experience as you can for your contestants.

Be supportive, be patient, be friendly.

We’re all just a bunch of nerds making costumes and playing dress-up as our favorite characters.

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