Thursday, August 10, 2006

[Essay] Cosplay Part 3: Judging

In any cosplay event, it is inevitable that people will form opinions about cosplayers, both good and bad. And when it comes to competitions, I’m sure people will have their own judgments on who should win, rather than who actually won. I’m far from a cosplay connoisseur, but here are my thoughts on how a cosplayer is judged.

Of course this article is not for everyone. I mean there will be cosplayers who will attend conventions and will have no intentions of participating in the competition. There will even be people who look horrible in costume, but it doesn’t matter to them (we all cosplay for various reasons after all). Still, would-be cosplayers could find a helpful tip or two, even if they don’t plan on winning. It’s not about being the champion in a competition, but honing your craft, and looking good in front of your friends, if not an audience.

Know the Mechanics

Irregardless of what competition you’re joining, it’s extremely helpful to know the mechanics, especially if you plan on winning. Before you start wondering why you didn’t win, or cry foul on someone whom you thought shouldn’t have won, it’s a good idea to check the mechanics first.

If you’re dead set on winning a competition (if you’re the competitive type), knowing the mechanics also enables you to focus more on what’s important. For example, if the mechanics was 70% costume, 30% acting, you know where you should direct most of your energy. Those focusing more on having fun, at the very least, will know what their chances are, and brace themselves for the final decision.

Knowing the mechanics is also helpful if you’re a judge. Obviously, we all have our biases but knowing the mechanics enables us to be more fair. For example, if we have a breakdown of 40% costume, 30% acting, 30% props and gimmicks, we can easily decipher more easily why we favor a certain cosplayer. We might be impressed by a cosplayer’s costume, and give them a perfect 40%, but less impressed with their acting, so give them a 15%, and just to be fair, give another 10% for their gimmicks, or lack of one. As a judge, if you tabularize it and look at it on paper, it’s easier to see the breakdown, rather than give them an arbitrary number of 1 to 10 based on sheer emotion.

Of course some competitions won’t have blatant mechanics, but they’re still there nonetheless. And as usual, some will favor certain characteristics more than others. Take for example something like a people’s choice awards, or where the public gets to decide on who wins. Honestly, for the most part, it’s really a popularity contest. It could be that the cosplayer has lots of friends, or maybe the character they’re cosplaying as is quite popular at the time. Sure, there will be voters who will be taking the stance of a judge and vote depending on their own criteria (unfortunately which, there is no “universal” mechanics as everyone will prioritize different aspects), but for the most part, it comes right down to who has more appeal to the public. And who can blame them? What Filipino wouldn’t be enthralled, even temporarily, to see Voltes V up on stage? Or perhaps you’re a guy and you see a pretty cosplayer in a revealing outfit. Doesn’t your heart go out to that cosplayer? (And before you girls complain, the reverse is true as well: females ogle over pretty boys too.)

There will also be situations when the mechanics are less apparent. Take a look at the recent National Cosplay Competition’s Online Voting. Aside from suffering from the above symptoms, another limitation it faces is its medium: photos on the Internet. If you’re a cosplayer who has lots of energy and acting talent, will that show in the photo? Not as much compared to seeing you on stage. You might also be photogenic but your outfit appears less impressive in person, or you might have a really awesome costume but the camera caught you at a bad angle, again, that puts you in a different disposition compared to being judged in a catwalk. Even those who focus on producing a good costume might lose out in points as some of the minute details and props might not be seen with the small size and resolution of the picture.

And then there will be competitions where the hierarchy of mechanics is more obvious. It could be a fight scene sequence, or a group skit competition. Sure, we might not know the exact mechanics, but we can take a good guess at which factor the judges will prioritize.

Optimum Body Type

Let’s face it, life’s not fair. Some people are prettier than others, and certain people fit cosplaying certain roles better. And to a certain extent, cosplayers struggle with this dilemma: should I cosplay someone I resemble, or should I cosplay as someone I really really love, even if I don’t resemble them physically?

The good news is that sometimes, this isn’t always the case. There are tons of characters who have their faces concealed, for example, and if you’re a mecha fan, mechas are usually a haven as you can be almost any body type (short of being obese, or too frail of a body) and still cosplay as your favorite mecha.

But when you don’t have that option, what do you do? This is the moment when a cosplayer should ask themselves what their agenda for the convention is: am I here to win (or perhaps as a favor to a friend or a group), or am I here to have fun? Either, really, is a valid answer. If you cosplay as someone you physically resemble, that’s additional points when it comes to the judging part of the competition. On the other hand, if you’re cosplaying as someone who’s thinner than you, taller than you, or perhaps even the wrong gender (and you’re not androgynous to begin with), well, brace yourself for some negative reactions from the audience. But that’s fine if you really want to do so. You can make up for it either in acting (see Costume vs Acting at the bottom), or simply do what you came to do: to have fun. Just don’t harbor any illusions.

Costume Complexity

When I was still active in the cosplay scene, a friend of mine (I won’t name names because… I tend to forget people’s names! But you’ll know who they are anyway, trust me.) established a reputation of creating mecha costumes, and having a streak of winning competitions. Thus for a period of time, there was a rumor going that he was winning through sheer size and bulk (because mechas tend to be large).

Honestly, there’s a better explanation for why he was winning. It’s a matter of costume complexity. If we’re going to judge based on costumes alone, who should win between two competitors? Honestly, it’s not enough to have an accurate costume. It must be challenging as well, at least when you’re up against fellow competitors.

Crafting costumes is no easy thing, whether you’re looking for materials or building it from scratch. However, no two costumes are the same and some are more difficult to make than others. For example, a relatively simple costume (but we must give credit as finding costumes still takes time and effort) would be the student outfit. There are tons of anime characters there that wear school uniforms, and well, our school outfits resembles theirs. At the very least, we have an existing template to work with. Compare that to say, a mecha costume. Mecha costumes aren’t exactly something you can buy off the rack. You have to make it, and experiment with various materials (everything from cheap cartolina to Styrofoam to expensive fiber glass). If you manage to pull it off (actually build a decent-looking mecha costume), both of you might gain the same points in accuracy, but the technical difficulties and visual impact between the two cosplayers aren’t the same.

That’s not to say mecha costumes will always win in terms of visual impact and technical skill. There are other, similarly complex costumes that doesn’t involve mecha. One example would be the priestess variation of Miaka from Fushigi Yuugi, as the costume requires a lot of details and accessories.

Of course bear in mind the key word here is also “if you manage to pull it off”. Some costumes do try, but fall short. I’m sure judges will give you extra points for trying, but who should win becomes blurred as people struggle between two choices: the simpler but more accurate costume, or the more difficult but less accurate outfit. Then again, cosplay competitions aren’t based solely on the costume craft.

On a related note, a similar challenge is present when it comes to group cosplay. Anyone who’s cosplayed as a group knows that sometimes, it’s difficult to complete a team. A group of three characters, for example, is easier to form than say, ten. If the latter manages to pull it off, with great costumes and stuff, kudos to them, even if the three-person group was just as impressive.

Costume vs Acting

Now we come to a controversial topic. Which should bear more importance, costume or acting? My answer? See Know the Mechanics above. People will have differing opinions about this, and competitions will similarly have different priorities.

However, both should be present at some level. It’s a cosplay competition after all. If it was simply about the costume, we’d just get mannequins and have the mannequins wearing the costume on display. It’s less taxing on the cosplayer that way. Similarly, you don’t enter a cosplay competition without a costume. Cosplay suspends people’s sense of disbelief, and that’s kind of hard to do when all you have is a t-shirt and shorts, and you’re supposed to be a big, menacing evil overlord, no matter how convincing your acting may be.

Perhaps the hardest trick for a cosplayer to pull-off is to have synergy between costume and acting. It’s not about being spectacular in either factor, but complementing each other. Take for example a friend of mine who won a certain international cosplay competition as Saito Hajime from Rurouni Kenshin. Let’s break it down, shall we? At the time, Kenshin was enjoying huge popularity all over Asia, so that’s plus points in winning over the audience and the judges. The costume itself was somewhere in the middle when it comes to complexity. Not the most technical of costumes to be had, but neither is it easy to craft. (And my friend had a really good and accurate costume.) And as luck (or fate) would have it, my friend has a certain resemblance to the character (an optimum body type). That’s not what impressed me though. It’s my friend’s ability to channel the character, at looking threatening and impressive at the same time. He even had the smoking part going for him. I’m not saying the acting part was the deciding factor for making him win, or the costume, but all these factors played a role in the final decision.

Of course there have also been circumstances where acting has swayed the audience over. I have this friend who cosplayed as Poe (“Iga” in the local dub) from Shaider. The character she was cosplaying as was popular (as no one had done it at the time), and she had a well-made costume, complete with headdress and staff. However, if I were to be critical, there’s just one problem: the cosplayer didn’t have the optimal body type for the character. She was a bit large and didn’t have the thin, androgynous (apparently Iga is a transvestite) look. However, that didn’t bother her. She stuck to her role quite well, waving her staff and chanting her popular mantra. She’s a winner in my book, and apparently a winner in the eyes of the audience as well who cheered and chanted with her. Just goes to show that acting is indeed a factor in cosplaying, and how it can make up for your other weaknesses.

Lastly, there was this group cosplay that’s worth mentioning. It was held in Mega Mall, and the winners of the event incorporated several wacky and comedic stunts during their act. Their outfits were mediocre, some were even obviously rushed, while others were improvised. What made them win? They made the audience laugh, made us fans enjoy the entire scene. And it wasn’t done through sheer costume ability, but due to choreography, and their sheer playfulness on stage. Obviously, such competitions are more biased towards the play aspect of cosplay, but goes to show how acting can become more dominant than costumes in such a situation.

Popular Characters

Choosing who to cosplay also affects your chances of winning. Obviously, more popular characters will receive more fan reaction than obscure characters, but you also have a higher chance of competing with a fellow cosplayer who has the same costume as you.

Theoretically, cosplaying should be about who has the better costume and acting talent, not who’s more well-known. But life’s not fair, and the judges are only human. Let’s say you have 100 participants in a cosplay competition, and each competitor is from a unique anime series. That’s over 100 anime shows the judges should be familiar with, and the way cosplay competitions are run in the country (that is, registration is usually a day or two before the competition), that’s really not enough time for judges to familiarize themselves with each and every character that’s supposed to be present at the cosplay. Cosplaying as a familiar character gives you certain benefits as well as disadvantages.

A problem with obscure characters is that unless the judges are familiar with them, it’s a mixed blessing at best. All the judges have going for them when judging accuracy is the photo you submitted, and that hardly conveys all the details of the character, much less the personality of the person you’re cosplaying as. Details that you should have or shouldn’t have might be missed, and you run the risk of getting scored erroneously (whether you want to win or lose by a judge’s ignorance is up to you).

An example would be my friends who cosplayed as gold saints from Saint Seiya. I’m a big fan of the show but unfortunately, it’s not that well-known here. The costumes they made were great and there were several of them but the audience reaction was ho-hum. Obviously, such an endeavor was done out of a fan’s passion rather than a desire to win (which I applaud, by the way).

However, certain characters draw your attention to them, even if they’re not that well-known. And in my opinion, that’s a great feat and perhaps one of the hardest challenges a cosplayer can strive for. Take for example the original batch of cosplayers dressed up as Trinity Blood characters. The series didn’t have an anime yet and the manga only recently started at the time. Yet everyone was looking at them, from their boyish good looks to fact that it’s an actual group and they had lots of props and detailed costumes that have never been seen before. I didn’t know about Trinity Blood back then but I couldn’t help but say wow.

Still, it’s a different atmosphere when a well-known character appears, especially when no one has cosplayed them before. It’s happened several times, everything from Voltes V to Prince Zardos to Ringwraiths. There’s a great satisfaction, after all, when you have the attention of the audience, and they’re all cheering for you.

Worthy to note, also, are recurring characters, or cosplaying the same character over and over again. Let me put it this way: even if your favorite food is chocolate, if you eat it every single day, you’ll eventually tire of it. I’m not saying you shouldn’t recycle costumes, but there’s a point when you can overdo it. Perhaps worse is the kind of reputation you’re building, as your pigeonholed into a certain character (not even a role), and your name will constantly be associated with it.


Cosplayers friends, upon arriving at the convention, are often disheartened when they see someone having the same costume as them. Me being less emotionally attached (perhaps simply being a spectator has something to do with it), the way I see it, doppelgangers help weed out the weakest link. Here’s why.

First off, there are actually two types of doppelgangers. First are cosplayers who are portraying the same character, but different variations of them. They have different costumes, although they are portraying the same character. For me, it seems that there’s lots of room for flexibility here, and that cosplayers shouldn’t be worried. There’s enough differences, after all, to make you unique compared to the other person. Sure, you’re cosplaying the same character, and the only thing you need to be insecure about is if the other person has a body type that resembles the character more than you. Even then, you can outdo him or her via your sheer personality, or by simply having a better costume.

The other type of doppelganger is when you and the other person are cosplaying the same character in the same costume. Obviously, comparisons will be made, but the good thing about comparisons is that the better cosplayer becomes evident. Of course if you’re insecure about your costume and your character, you will feel disheartened when beside your doppelganger, but that’s why as a cosplayer, you should strive for the best when designing your outfit and appearing on stage.

Comparisons aren’t a bad thing, especially if you’re the one with the superior costume. Your better design, your better attention to detail, will come out. More often than not though, what will happen is that you will excel in certain areas, while your doppelganger will also be good at other aspects. At that point, it becomes a numbers game, and the more areas you excel in, the better. However, if you truly want to impress your audience and the judges, I think this is where acting in character becomes a pivotal element.


Gimmicks could be anything from functioning weapons, blinking lights, a transforming robot, or some spectacular special effect that’s easy to construct. It actually crosses the line between costume and acting, because on one hand, it’s part of the costume and on the other, it’s there to help you act in character more.

Complex gimmicks obviously scores you more points with the audience and the judges. However, my advice is that while gimmicks are nice, they’re there to augment the costume and acting. Without a good outfit, or if acting out of character, the gimmick won’t win you competitions. There might be applauses from time to time, but you’re stuck being a one trick pony, simply relying on your gimmick. A gimmick is nice to watch once, but not repeatedly.

Still, cosplayers who have good costumes and acting talent have been known to win cosplays due to gimmicks, giving them that extra edge to win and gain the people’s approval. Perhaps that’s why it’s favorable to work on your costume early, so that you can include an additional gimmick or two. But if you’re pressed for time, remember that your gimmick isn’t your costume.

I’d also like to point out that gimmicks can really be anything. If you have a talent for singing and your character has been known to burst into song, then you can capitalize on that. If you’re cosplaying as an action-themed character and you can do backflips, I’d count that as a gimmick if you perform on stage.

Sexy Characters

Another common complaint in the cosplayer community are cosplayers who win because they’re sexy. It’s usually applied to females, but the accusation could actually be applied to anyone. As mentioned in Optimum Body Type, some people are more well endowed than others. Should you fault them for biology, especially if the character they’re cosplaying warrants it?

I think that’s really the issue at hand. Is the sex appeal the cosplayer is emulating part of the character? If yes, then they’re simply fulfilling their role. It’s hard to imagine Mai Shiranu from King of Fighters, for example, that’s not well endowed, or a Fujiko from Lupin III who’s not flirty (albeit not straight-out revealing). Of course if it’s an out-of-character moment, such as a strip-tease Miaka, well, then something’s wrong (unless it’s part of a parody in a skit or something).

And then you have to look at the costume as well. Having a good body type is well and good, but that alone won’t win you cosplay competitions. Because honestly, if you think showing skin will win you awards, then try going to a convention as a truly naked Kekko Kamen (Google her if you don’t know who the character is). The cosplayer would win for boldness in my book, but whether she’d win the actual competition, trouncing the other cosplayers whose costumes might have more technical appeal, well, I doubt it.

From my point of view, the “sexy cosplayers” who win have at least points going for them when it comes to the costume. Their sex appeal, yes, is a big plus, but I doubt if it’s the only factor the judges were looking into. Take a look at the Gundam Girl, for example. It’s a partially-skimpy outfit, meaning that on one hand, it’s not supposed to show lots of skin (the chest area, for example, is heavily armored), but it does anyway because of the concept (applying feminity into a robot). But I doubt if anyone would contest that the costume would be easy to make, or that it didn’t have a big visual impact.

And at the end of the day, you also have to give points to someone who cosplayers as a sexy character. It takes guts to do so, after all, especially if it’s a role the cosplayer is not usually accustomed to (you’d be surprised at how many “shy” cosplayers there are).

And honestly, one merely has to look at the history of cosplay winners in the country to see that various cosplayers of varying genre and gender have won cosplay competitions. I’m not saying that all the cosplay decisions have been fair, but usually one or several of these factors have influenced the decision of the judges.

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