Monday, November 19, 2012

Cosplay Pro Tips! FAQ

I’m diverging from game geek mode over to cosplay geek. The Geek Spot tackles all aspects of geekery! But this topic in particular has to deal with cosplay/costume contests: what to expect, how to prep, etc. This isn’t necessarily a “how-to” but more of responding to recent questions and discussions I have been finding online.

I don’t consider myself an expert on cosplay or contests, but having competed in a few, working as staff, a contestant, and a judge, and having an absurdly high number of years doing professional modeling and acting work, I think I have a good handle on how they roll. I’ve even taught panels on cosplay runway, and will be continuing to teach them. Not many people openly discuss cosplay contests unless it’s to provide feedback. Very few cosplayers, I’ve found, know how they are put together, how judges make their decisions, the work that's involved in putting together the contest, etc. So, here’s my all-encompassing FAQ about cosplay contests.

How do they pick judges?

Judges are typically pre-determined by the convention/staff members of the cosplay department months in advance. Typically there is at least one person who is attending the convention as a “known” cosplayer and will be asked to assist with judging. The rest of the judges can be local costuming guild members or staff of the convention itself. Some cons will even bring back past winners of their Best In Show to be a guest judge.

In rare cases will judges be picked on the fly. This would have to be an extreme circumstance, i.e. someone didn’t make it to the convention, sickness, etc. It would have to be something pretty out there for a judge to not be made available, in which case I’ve found that staff members will pick another in their crew to act as a judge or call up on local, known cosplayers for helps.

As such, judges will have all types of backgrounds and experiences. No two people will have the same view about a costume, which makes for fun and difficulty in judging because there are multiple opinions. Having typed that, all judges have to follow the same rules and guidelines set by the contest. I’ve yet to have met or worked with a judge that would stray from them. When a winner is chosen, you can be assured that they were the right one for the rules presented for the contest.

What’s the best way to win a contest?

This is a tricky one to tackle, because it really depends on the contest and the rules. You also have to consider the type of convention and the history of the contest itself. Some conventions are more favorable to Original Characters, like A-Kon, while others are more geared towards Sci-Fi and Fantasy; SDCC for example. You can still bring an Anime costume to SDCC but your chances of winning are going to be low.

As a general rule, your costume needs to be multi-faceted. A costume needs to have sewing AND armor, or armor AND props, or props AND latex makeup. It also needs to be a finished piece. All seams, all hems, all lining (when necessary-because not all costumes/outfits require lining), all jewelry, everything has to be completed. Something at 75% that doesn’t match the character reference will not win an award. Make your costume the best that it can possibly be before you enter it into a contest. At least it’ll ensure you can get feedback on how to improve in the future.

These are not sure-fire guarantees that you’ll win something. In fact, entering a contest just to win an award is probably not the best reason to enter. Most contests have crappy prizes, aka “dealer’s room leftovers.” Sometimes a contest will surprise you and the audience with the winners. Devil is in the details. A perfectly constructed school girl outfit can beat out a mascot.

How do scoring systems work?

Each convention is different and may have their own unique set of scoring systems. In some cases, it’s just a matter of circling the contestants name or x-ing them out as they walk across the stage, and then discuss the selections. There is no one right or wrong method. Some cons are very strict about points and whoever has the most points wins. Some are more relaxed and want judges to be able to discuss freely who they felt had the best construction and presentation.

This is tricky also because there isn’t a universal governing body for cosplay contests. There is the World Cosplay Summit, but that only applies to that one event. It’s not an overarching law for all contests.

What it all boils down to is if you are really interested in how a contest is judged, contact the staff members. They’ll be able to give you a better idea of what’s involved.

Are all cosplay contests the same?


Seriously, no they’re not all the same. Each of them will have their own nuances. Most are going to be similar so you’ll have a good idea of how things will roll, but no two are exactly alike. This is where talking to past contestants, staff, and former judges can really help you out. They can give you a feel for how the contest really runs and determine if it works for you.

For example: Contest A only focuses on runway performance and takes no crafting skills into account. But, it’s also a larger convention so you’re more likely to get attention for your costume. Contest B has closed-door judging where they check your costume up close. The convention has much fewer attendees, and even less for the cosplay contest.

Personally, I’d go for B every time because I know my strength is in my skills. I don’t pick popular or well-known characters. Contest A tends to rely more on the visual and popularity vote of the audience. Contest B focuses on the craft. Pick the contest that is best going to suit your needs and what you feel best represents you.

Does hand-sewn mean a better costume?

Absolutely not, nor does it mean that you are going to win an award. What matters is the finishing and how well the costume is pieced together. Hand sewing is easy and tricky. I’ve used it on all of my costumes so far to get into the nooks and crannies that my machine can’t handle. I’ve also hand sewn entire garments. What makes hand sewing impressive is when it doesn’t look hand sewn. That is where you’ll get the bonus points.

A hand sewn garment can look like crap if it’s not done properly. It means you have to be extra careful with every stitch, every hem, and every knot to make sure it looks right. Even with embroidery, the finished result is what matters. If someone asks what machine you use, and you hand sewn the entire thing, then you did it right.

Why does it seem like groups always win?

Well first off, they don’t. Of all of my awards, only one has been with a group. The rest have been solo, and big awards at that (ranging from Best Masters, Best Craftsmanship, to Best in Show). The end result and presentation are what really counts. I’ve personally chosen single winners for multiple awards in the past because they were well executed in comparison to the groups.

But a group tends to face a lot more challenges then the single cosplayer, and as such are given more consideration at times. Groups have to be cohesive in every aspect of their costumes. Fabric purchases need to be in sync. Wig styling needs to be flawless. Props have to be harmonious. It requires much more to work together. As such, any errors can easily stand out. The most common problem I’ve seen while judging is that each person feels that they need to make their own costume. So while they may have purchased the same fabric at the same time, if someone in the group isn’t as strong of a sewer, it’ll show.

I learned this from Yaya Han: there will always be one weak link in a group.

Very true. The groups that make it work the best are the ones that distribute the work load to focus on each other’s strengths. When I did my first group cosplay, I offered to make the wigs because I knew I would be the strongest in that aspect amongst the others. We were all excellent at sewing and tailoring, but I knew that the other person with the wig was more use to using his natural hair. So I took it upon myself to make the wig (and that was a fun challenge I was happy to accept)! But that’s what you have to do! I’m not saying that one person should sew all 8 costumes, unless they really want to do that. But don’t give the sewing project to the person who has little to no sewing skill. Let the prop maker work on the swords and shields. Give the leather-worker the leather tasks.

A group requires dividing up the responsibilities in a way that makes sense. And to gel together, of course. Nothing is worse than a cranky group that doesn’t look like they want to be in the same room with each other.

Do judges give preferences to groups? Only if the group has created something of a caliber worth being recognized. They have to have the craft to back up their group effort. Otherwise the solo performances will knock them out.

What do I do if I have a problem with a contest?

Talk to the staff. Voice your concerns. And be polite about it.

Look. I know there are cases where you want to rant because rules weren’t followed. I’ve been there. But there’s a time and a place for it. And just like customer service, convention staff members hear a lot of really foul things and don’t want to deal with it. But! If you’re polite, and present your concerns in a mature manner, they’ll address it!

The staff knows that the cosplay contest is about the contestants and the audience. They want to ensure everything is fair and to put on a good show. If you have a concern or a suggestion, they’ll listen! Honestly! It may not be immediately fixed, but a convention or two down the road you might see changes take effect. Just don’t start out the conversation with “this sucks.” They won’t listen.

What tips do you have for newcomers?

First off, decide why you want to enter a contest and never lose sight of it. Most of us do it to show off our hard work, and that’s great! There’s no better reason. It’s ok to be proud of your costume. They take a long ass time to make and you should be happy with the results. If you want to enter so you can perform in front of an audience? That’s fine too! Whatever you reason may be, don’t let it fall to the wayside. It’ll be your guide and pull you up when you’re feeling down.

Next, talk to other cosplayers about the contest. Don’t be afraid to ask questions about the contest, what they did, and what they learned. It’ll help you better understand what to expect and you’ll get rid of those jitters at the con.

Read up on the cons rules. You’d be surprised how many people skip this step, get to the con, and realize that they could have had their own music!

Practice what you’re going to do on stage while timing yourself. First off, no one likes it when you linger on stage for longer than your time frame-have a watch handy to make sure you don’t go over. Second, you don’t want to go up there and feel helpless because you don’t know what to do. So make sure to practice your walk. Even if you’re moving from one end of the stage to the other, practicing will make a difference, as well as calm your nerves.

What’s this thing about portfolios?

As you start doing more intricate work with your costumes, you might consider investing in making portfolios. A portfolio is something to give to judges that allow them to see more of the details that you can’t give in your short presentation. Most contest don’t require them: some do.

There is no one right or wrong way to make a portfolio, but from experience judges tend to respond better when they are more focused on images and less on text. I’ll have a tutorial/guide up eventually on how to make one.

I don’t think that person/group should have won!

Sorry you feel that way. Look. There are rules in place and judges made their decision for a reason. You don’t have to agree with the outcome but be a good sport. It’s a costume contest. Not the Nobel Prize for science. You’re not going to win every time you enter a contest. Losing is going to happen.

We are such a small community. Many of us look to conventions as a means of finding some form of kinship because we’re not accepted by the outside world. We’re not normal because we like video games, and anime, and sci-fi, and comic books. The last thing any of us should be doing is making one of our own feel less then themselves because they won and we didn’t. Don’t be the bully.

Stand up. Be proud of what you have accomplished and be happy for the winners. Look at your loss as an opportunity to improve upon your work. Give thanks and be appreciative that we have such a wonderful hobby that allows us to be dorks without fear of retaliation.

Just have fun! That’s what cosplay is about.


  1. Hi! I found your post while googling tips on a runway contest as i'm taking part of a competition called Gamestart cosplay runway. It's my first time doing a contest like this, i'm going as Zhou Mei Ling from Overwatch and i'm really nervous due to the rules saying that we will have a minute or two to pose, walk and pose. We can only do 4 main poses tho, do you think a minute would be too much time or too little?

    aaa i'm gently freaking out, i don't want to make a fool of myself up there nor do i want the past month of rushing my cosplay with my sibling's help go to waste ><

    Advice would be nice thank you!

    1. Hi there! Thanks for your comment, and hopefully I can help out a bit.

      A minute is PLENTY of time. I promise you that. :D You'll find that most contests only use 30 seconds, and when you are up on that stage, 30 seconds is an eternity.

      I'd strongly encourage you to practice your stage walk (in costume) around your home with a timer. Set one up on your phone for a minute and you'll see how slow it is. By the time you get done with your 4th pose, you'll probably have 20-30 seconds left on the clock!

      Practicing really does help. The more you practice, the more you'll be comfortable with your outfit, your walk, and your nerves will calm. That's the key thing.

      The reason for the 1 minute is to give you plenty of time to stop and pose. That's tip #2. Make sure to stop and hold that pose for 6-8 seconds. This gives photographers, judges, and the audience a chance to see your costume without it being in motion. That means they can see the construction, the detail work, and how much you replicate the character's look. This can be difficult when you're moving. So make sure to stop and HOLD the pose!

      I'd also recommend checking out my Cosplay Runway panels through my Podcast: It has a few tips regarding walking, posing, and how to count out your time. :)

      Hope this helps a bit and good luck!


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