What It's Like To Judge A Cosplay Competition

Competitions are one of the cornerstones of the cosplay community. Whether they're high-stakes national competitions like Madman Nationals or Oz Comic Con's Championships or just your local games store's cosplay weekend, there's a lot of them around. Entering them can be a great experience, but judging them is whole other ballpark.

Image via Kris Ezergailis / RTX Australia / Hayley Elise

It's hot. I'm sweating in my ballgown — the hoopskirts uncomfortably crammed into a narrow auditorium seat. I really didn't think this costume choice through. We're only halfway through the competition and I've already picked out eight cosplayers who deserve one of the four prizes on offer. I've been in cosplay for the whole day and it's rounding on 5pm, I'm fading fast and the cosplayers on stage aren't doing any better — though I'm the lucky one, I at least have a seat and a cold bottle of water. But judging isn't quite the walk in park it may seem.

Image via Kris Ezergailis / RTX Australia / Hayley Elise

One of the biggest appeals of cosplay is the huge range of costumes that come under that umbrella — from huge ball gowns to suits of armour — and the number of techniques used to create said costumes. This does, however, make things harder when it comes to judging a cosplay competition.

How do you compare an intricately embroidered princess dress and an ambitiously foam-built Iron Man suit? Do you reward ambition in scale or do you look for perfect, precise execution? Should your winner be someone who has stretched themselves or someone who is doing what they know very, very well? These are the things you have to think about as a cosplay judge.

As a cosplay baby I religiously entered competitions, but things have changed. Back then you'd rock up, parade across stage and sit down to wonder if you'd done enough to earn a prize. Judges sat anywhere from one to ten meters from the stage, and sometimes you'd wonder if they even saw your costume at all.

In the last couple of years the stakes have been higher than ever, with conventions giving prizes including everything from trips to overseas conventions, to cash prizes of up to $1500 — the latter being a prize I had the pleasure (and the incredibly difficult task) of helping to award.

Of course it wouldn't do for judges to be making a decision based on a glimpse and a vague impression in such serious competitions, which is why prejudging has become increasingly important. Prejudging is when the contestants meet with the judges before the competition, showing off costumes up close, providing details on how it was made.

Image via Steamkittens / Hayley Elise

It's a pretty fun experience for the judges, though often a nervous one for the cosplayers. Sometimes there's a bit of good judge/bad judge behind the scenes, though I've yet to meet the true Simon Cowell of cosplay. Perhaps because this is a process where even the most experienced judges tend to learn something.

Having up to 100 cosplayers discussing their costumes is a tiring process, but also a rewarding one. You get 100 fresh perspectives on how to approach a tricky costume piece. You get people who are using the newest and most expensive in cosplay technology, and you get people who had a field day at their latest council clean-up and cobbled together an impressive creation on a budget of $10.

The prejudging process does have its drawbacks, unfortunately. While it allows judges to go up close and personal with costumes and see details they otherwise would have missed, the audience — and even the other cosplayers — are still stuck viewing the costumes from a polite distance. This means anyone and everyone is going to disagree with who should have taken home the prize — but like they say, opinions are like arseholes.

Image via Kris Ezergailis / RTX Australia / Hayley Elise

I don't know if I've ever been a part of a cosplay comp — whether competing or judging — that hasn't had at least a little manufactured controversy. Earlier this year while judging a competition that ran across two days, I rocked up to the Sunday comp to hear that a whole lot of people had (apparently) decided that we had chosen the wrong winner from Saturday's bunch.

Cosplay is an interesting community where the idea of a cosplay professional is highly subjective — you can't get a degree in cosplay and there are very few cosplay-related job titles that exist in the world — so when people start judging your judgment, the easiest way to do it is to question your 'qualifications' for being a judge.

Interestingly enough, back when I actually entered the competitions myself, I can't even remember who the judges were. They may have been convention staffers, and a couple of cosplayers who had won a few competitions of their own — but there was no big emphasis on having the 'big names' of cosplay on those panels.

More and more, however, judges have been chosen for their renown, for being a big name to attach to the competition and the convention. It's perhaps no surprise that cosplayers are questioning decisions to pick popular cosplayers who have never entered a competition themselves in their lives. Of course not entering competitions shouldn't automatically mean that they don't know what good craftsmanship looks like — but the question of who is 'qualified' to judge has long been a tricky one.

Oz Comic Con have taken a new approach to this, with a strict selection of judges for all rounds of their Australian Championships of Cosplay. OZCC's approach has seen not only international cosplayers such as Yaya Han being brought in, but also local professionals in the costuming and makeup industries — with experience that runs to stage and film more than the convention floor.

Image via Kris Ezergailis / RTX Australia / Hayley Elise

These questions, the long hours and the general discomfort aside, being a judge is always completely worthwhile at the very end when you get to announce the winners. Of course, there are never enough prizes for the people who deserve them, but in a pastime that can often be incredibly thankless, it's a great feeling to be able to reward at least a few cosplayers' effort and hard work.


    We went to a BBQ competition the other week, and surprisingly, there are similarities with what's said here and what we learned.

    After all, anyone can eat a BBQ and say if it's tasty or not, right?

    They have a A$70 course where you're essentially given the right to judge. You learn usual judging terms and so on, and learn about the chemistry and physics of BBQ cooking, but it's nothing too strenuous.

    Once accredited, you can travel the world as a judge - in fact, the American judge who was telling us all this said Australian judges can easily get gigs overseas because they can be advertised as "accredited international judges" which is very good for the competition organisers.

    Last edited 15/02/16 4:14 pm

      Maybe I should start a cosplay judge accreditation course for $70?

        Someone should start a cosplay judge accreditation course accreditation course.

    You'd also have to create an organisation to provide the accreditation, but hell, why not?

    As someone who's just had their RWBY obsession reignited it's great to see some on-point RWBY cosplay going on.

    Neo looks pretty dark to losing out on the prizes in the first shot!

    You did amazingly at RTX (although I'm probably biased, since I won the Sunday comp :D). Such a huge range of cosplays, and especially when you have multiple people cosplaying the same character, it can become tricky - someone may have a better styled wig and makeup, while someone else might have absolutely nailed their weapon.
    I help judge the comp at Popcon Sydney every month, and the deliberations - even for such a small competition - are headache-inducing. You're absolutely right about comparing huge armor builds with exquisite sewing skills, and since I do both (I was lucky enough to do a costume degree at NIDA, and I work in film/theatre costume) it makes it even more difficult to choose which cosplayer's skillset is being utilized the best. There truly is no basis for comparison, really, and I've been heartbroken over awarding "best cosplay" prizes in the past when there have been three of four people who have all put in staggering amounts of skill and effort, and who all deserve to have their efforts recognized, really.
    Part of me thinks that a fairer system would be to award different skills - sewing, armor, makeup and hair - similar to a craft show, but that's really not as exciting as categories like games, anime, film/TV, etc.
    At the end of the day, though, being a cosplay judge is absolutely not as glamourous a job as many people see it.

    I'm wondering, are cosplay competitions as catty as beauty pageants?

    I mean, look at the faces of some of the contenders in the back...

      I think it's less that they've lost, but more that they're tired.

        It was definitely tiredness. Most of the RTX venue wasn't air-conditioned.

          People who don't cosplay don't seem to realise that a wearing a costume at a con makes life just that little bit harder and more tiring. Posing, removing bits of costume to go to toilet, moving sometimes is an issue. It really drains you.

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