As a seasoned cosplay competition entrant and judge locally and overseas, I often get asked for tips on how to be a strong contender and a healthy competitor.
I started entering cosplay competitions with my first cosplay in 2006. Since then, I’ve competed around Australia and the world, winning over 80 awards including 5 national-level competitions, and representing Australia 3 times at global level championships. I’ve also participated in just as many competitions where I got no awards!
Now as a cosplay guest traveling the world, I’ve had the privilege of judging competitions worldwide from small local events to major international championships.
So it’s been 12 years… and I’ve…seen some shit go down.
Here are 10 things I think a competition cosplayer should be pretty good at.
1. CHOOSING A COMPETITION TO ENTER
This would be the first step for any cosplay aiming to be a serious contender who can get the most out of what the competition has to offer.
Choose the competition FIRST.
Think of it like taking an exam. It’s easier to prepare for an exam if you know what exam you’re taking in the first place… right?
WHEN is the competition?
Give yourself a reasonable timeline to avoid last minute panics and unpleasant number of all-nighters… (you will have all-nighters either way but there’s no harm in TRYING to keep them to a minimum. FUCK sleep is great.)
WHAT is the competition?
READ THE RULES. FIND THE JUDGING CRITERIA. Is it craftsmanship only? Skit only? 50/50 costume and skit? Or some other custom setting made by some sadistic cosplay organiser (I say this with love)???
Based on that info, you can choose a competition you would do well at, or one you where you could safely try a new skill, or generally know what’s expected from your entry.
What’s the prize?
Is it a national leg of a global championship? Is it a trip? Is it MONEY? Or will you be given a bag of old figurines? This could either be a major motivator or a good indicator as to how much effort/little you’d be willing to put in.
BUT THEN if you’re just some serial competitor who just wants to collect all the titles available in your country (lol guilty)… then ignore the prize and go 9000% on whatever competition you choose.
2. CHOOSING A COSPLAY FOR COMPETITION
Cater to yourself:
Choose character you like. Choose a costume you think looks cool. Choose a project you wouldn’t mind going into the depths of hell with. Choose techniques that you can enjoy between the hours of 3am-5am in the morning. Choose from a series you don’t think you are capable of getting sick of.
Because whatever you choose…it will become pain.
Cater to competition criteria:
Choose a costume that can fulfill the competition’s judging criteria.
If it’s a competition that requires a performance/skit, make sure it’s a costume that you can perform, express and MOVE in. You might even choose to sacrifice some size/intricacy/costume difficulty to achieve this.
If it’s a craftsmanship only competition, you might prioritize in having an impressive costume, and in reverse be able to sacrifice some movement.
BUT it’s important to remember that the ability to move and express character can become an unspoken deciding factor for many judges even in craftsmanship-only competitions. So try not to completely sacrifice movement and comfort for visual impact.
Cater to audience/judges:
For the extra competitive…
Impress the crowd, because crowd reaction can contribute to the judges decisions as an X-factor. The crowd most likely won’t get to see your costume up close like the judges do. Make your costume as visually impressive on stage as you can, or choose a character that has the potential to look amazing from afar.
Research who the judges are and what they specialize in. But this isn’t so that you change your project just for them, because you’ll be trying to make a costume that looks amazing up close regardless who they are anyway.
This is more so you can plan how to impress them with your work.
3. MAKING YOUR COSTUME
Obviously… a strong contender in a cosplay making competition would be good at making costumes right? But there is a little more to that.
A competition costume needs to look good in 4 ways:
Outside. Inside. Afar. Up Close.
The ultimate goal is to be visually interesting from afar, satisfying up close, finished on the outside and clean on the inside.
So put your BEST SKILL forward: The BEST way to make a quality costume is… to make it with ways you KNOW you’re GOOD AT!
A common mistake ambitious competitors make is they would center their entry around something they don’t usually do or use a technique they’re not very good at in an attempt to stand out by showing judges growth or originality. This only works if a quality end product is attached.
Cosplayers, as artists, are encouraged to expand their skillset by venturing outside their comfort zone. Just be careful with it in competition, where the finished costume matters. It’s important to remember not to sacrifice your comfort zone for the sake of it.
Chances are (especially in big competitions with guest judges), none of the judges know what your usual work is like. All they see is what you show them on the day. So it is okay to rely on the skills you’re amazing at and spent ages mastering!
This isn’t to say “don’t experiment or try new things in competition”. It’s more like “don’t bench your specialty just to be different”.
Base your costume around your best skills, then compliment and stretch it with some little components outside your comfort zone.
4. WRITING/PLANNING YOUR PERFORMANCE (SKIT)
This is usually a very neglected part of a cosplay entry because we’re already dying from making the damn costumes.
Spend time writing and planning the skit as if it is a part of your costume – if not more important!
In higher level competitions where everybody is on top of their craftsmanship game, your skit/performance/stage presence will become a tiebreaker. Whether it’s 50% costume 50% skit, or 90% costume 10% skit, make it your skit like it decides your chances!
Use your time on stage to show off why your costume and your character is great. In a skit, make sure your story grabs attention quickly and develops to a climax and then ENDS when it needs to.
5. PREPARING FOR COMPETITION DAY
I know we’re cosplayers and artists which means something in our genetic make up renders us incapable of time management.
Here’s how to at least attempt it and minimize dying:
Break your cosplay entry down into components as soon as you’ve chosen a competition.
eg. for World Cosplay Summit: Costume, Skit file (audio and video), Stage Props, Portfolio.
Set a personal deadline for each component.
SKIT FILE (audio and video): ASAP. Preferably over a month before submission date. First thing to be completed out of everything – so you can listen on repeat and PRACTICE. Practice a lot. Practice until the skit music and cues are second nature. Then you’ll have room to build characterization, confidence and presence.
COSTUME: All essentials completed a week or two before deadline. Leave the last two weeks leading up to the big day for optional detailing and being extra.
Pull all-nighters EARLY in the project. So come the night before, any remaining work is optional and can be ditched for sleep.
STAGE PROPS: Depends on skit. If the stage prop is a functional center piece that contributes to the climax of the story… Get it done along with the skit file so you can practice. If it’s some inanimate stage decorations to set a scene… you can give it a lower priority.
PORTFOLIO: some competitions require extensive online folio submissions. Add to your folio after each worthwhile crafting session like a diary. This will save you from having to fiddle on your computer on submission night, when you could just be clicking send.
Optional physical portfolio: Some competition organizers print off physical copies of your online applications for the judges. But it can’t hurt to organize one on your end as well. This not only makes you look and feel prepared, but can help you remember what to say to the judges too.
6. TALKING ABOUT YOUR HARD WORK
Most competitions that take themselves seriously will have this dreaded thing called “PREJUDGING”, which is a fancy way of saying “INTERROGATION IN SCARY ROOM WHERE STRANGERS MUST COME NERVE-RACKINGLY CLOSE TO YOUR WORK”.
Interrogation – I mean – Prejudging can range from a minute to 5 minutes depending on the competition.
This isn’t long. Especially if you’ve worked so hard so long over this one thing and you only have mere minutes to express it all. It’ll feel even shorter on the day if you don’t know what to say!
So, prepare and practice your prejudging talk. Like it’s a skit.
Think about it like a sales pitch. What are the features of your costume that make it stand out? What are the techniques you’ve used to create the costume, and WHY? Why is it so impressive? How did the techniques you’ve chosen contributed to your finished costume? Are there any interesting stories behind any of the parts?
This is where researching your judges can come in a little handy too!
Appeal to the judges who are familiar with the methods you’re using and make them sympathize with your efforts. At the same time, try flex a little (nay, flex a lot) and make whatever you’ve done REALLY interesting to someone unfamiliar to your craft.
Try to avoid spending too much talking time on the end product but more time on the process and intentions behind the end product.
eg. Most judges can see when a costume fit nicely and has clean hems and is well painted. So rather than wasting time telling them that it’s nice, tell them HOW you made it so nice.
7. SHOWING OFF ON STAGE
Performance on stage is often a tiebreaker in competitions, whether performance is even a part of the criteria.
Practice heaps. Practice to the point where you don’t have to concentrate to listen out for cues in the music. Then think about poses you can hit while performing and angles that will make you and your costume look great to the audience.
Think about your poses beforehand so you can just WORK IT when you get up there without having to think what to do next on the spot! Try to hold each pose still for a few counts before moving onto the next so you can get photographed nicely.
8. PUSHING THROUGH UNEXPECTED HAPPENINGS
Obviously prepare your plan Bs and plan Cs. Think about what could go wrong with your costume and props. Plan how they can be fixed at an event venue. Then bring the supplies with you.
As much as we try to prepare for everything, shit can and will happen on the day that’s totally out of our control .
Try to breathe and prioritize your stress energy.
Random button falls off? EH! Leave it. No one cares. You shouldn’t either.
A toe get chipped from your armour? EH! Leave it! People will understand.
A prop gets shattered into a million pieces? Okay stress here. But it’s not the end of the world. Get up there without your prop like you weren’t meant to have it. Fake it til you make it.
You get the idea.
At the end of the day, they say “the show must go on”… and the show will go on with or without you. So just do the best you can with what you have at that time. At the same time, doing what you can is all you can do. Don’t worry about all the stuff that you can’t control.
Besides, the best thing about cosplay is that you’re in charge of what you’re supposed to be anyway… so if you need to, JUST WING IT.
Be pleasant to each other:
We’ve all heard the phrase “In it to win it, not here to make friends”.
BUT. WHY. THE. FUCK. NOT. BOTH?
It seems almost illogical that in a competition that involves being liked (even if it’s just what you’re wearing) that anyone would abandon the option of making friends…a.k.a BEING LIKED!
Besides, everyone is stressed out. Who needs extra negativity?
Make some goddamn friends! Stress around friends is better than stress around people who hate you… any day of the millennium.
Rise to the occasion, not put others down:
Your goal in anything competitive should be about being the best by being better than the rest, and never about being the best by making others worse.
Healthy competition is when everyone involved is putting their best effort forward and encouraging others to do so. Dismissing others’ work does nobody good. If you want to win, just raise your standards – let others be. Besides, wouldn’t you rather be a part of an incredible show where everybody was fucking amazing, than win a competition where everybody sucked and you just happened to suck least? Which one is more worthwhile? Which one is more credible as a win?
The power of friendship (with judges)… is really not all that:
With any competition, comes talk of biased judging, comes conspiracy theories about winners winning because they’re friends with judges.
The reality of most (key word: most) competition circles is that they’re small enough that once you’ve competed a couple of times, faces start getting familiar. And as long as you’re not a nasty piece of work, familiar faces naturally become friends. Over time the competition circle becomes a friendship circle. So when you sometimes notice that competition winners are coming out of the same friend group… it’s more the result of people becoming friends backstage rather than the cause of people winning.
If anything, it’s a bigger red flag to see a competition regular who has no friends…
The power of friendship (with judges)… is actually pretty shit:
People can fantasize all they want about how knowing the judges can somehow boost their chances of winning competitions. But ask any seasoned competitor and you’ll learn that it actually feels harder.
Imagine being being interrogated – I mean – prejudged by someone who knows you, your flaws, your shortcuts, your telltale cover ups, your weaknesses, and all your techniques you’re trying to sell as amazing craftsmanship gold but they know you’re full of shit and can do it in your sleep.
Don’t abandon a good time!
Being rivals doesn’t mean you can’t be friends. Being there to win doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy the day. Having a prize on the line doesn’t mean you have to push people away.
10. COPING WITH RESULTS
Of course winning feels great and not placing feels like crap.
But despite what all the competition hype can make us think, the reality of any judged competition is that it’s never an absolute indicator of “who is the best”. Never has been. Never will. It isn’t a ball sport or a track race where our work can be measured.
It is simply “who, out of those who rocked up that day, managed to sell their shit to three people behind a table the most that day?”.
The most counter-productive thing a cosplayer can do to cling onto a competition result – whether it is being bitter about a loss or letting a win get to the head.
If you don’t win, it’s okay to feel bad but don’t waste the defeat by dwelling on it. Use it because it’s the best chance to grow. Find out where you did well and where you fell short so you can come back better and stronger.
And if you win, it’s okay to celebrate but it’s over as soon as you let the win make you think your work is done. The work is never done. There is always a higher place to reach for, and there are always people catching up. Don’t live in the past.
Win, place, or not. Keep moving on.
The biggest, most undeniable win you can have is a win against yourself!
I hope this has been a helpful read.
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Good luck to you all. Happy competing and REPEAT TIL CRY!