Cosplay, once a subculture where enthusiasts dress and act like comic book and fantasy characters, is now mainstream, as geek movies make big money and conventions like Comic-Con pop up worldwide. Though hardly anyone would quit their day job to do it professionally, an elite few like Yaya Han and Jessica Nigri have engineered a brand that’s elevated them to stardom. Cosplay contests in conventions around the world inspire designers and performers, demanding colossal efforts for slim rewards. It was the drama of this lifestyle that created the 2013 Syfy reality show Heroes of Cosplay.
But it’s still a young hobby with bugs in the system. The most prestigious cosplay championship in the world, the Crown Championships of Cosplay that’s housed at C2E2 in Chicago, has until now used ill-defined categories like “movies,” “anime,” and “video games” that made for uneven competition. The Iron Mans and Big Daddies regularly one-upped spandex and Sailor Moon, no matter the hard work it took to sew or glue.
In response, ReedPOP — the parent organizers of C2E2, New York Comic Con, and other global conventions — announced last month a reboot of its championship rules the company hopes will even the playing field. These categories will be implemented in the inaugural Western Championship division, debuting at Seattle’s Emerald City Comicon in April:
Needlework: Cosplay constructed primarily through sewing, stitching, embroidery, etc.
Armor: Cosplay constructed primarily by molding and shaping its outer layers using acrylic, EVA foam, Worbla, Wonderflex, cardboard, etc.
FX: Cosplay that primarily features animatronics, optical effects, mechanical effects, special effects makeup, prosthetics, etc.
Larger Than Life: Cosplay that encloses the maker and extends their limbs by at least one-foot in length.
I reached out to ReedPOP’s Global Brand Marketing Director Brian Stephenson and Content & Talent Coordinator Justin Flores about their two-year process of reshaping the world’s biggest cosplay championship and what it means for the hobby’s future.
What motivated you guys to iron out the new rules for the Crown Championships? Where did these new rules come from?
Brian Stephenson: This is a culmination of a two-year process. As we’ve been building things out, expanding globally, and talking to cosplayers around the world, some of the feedback we got was that it made sense to come up with categories that stick to the obvious. There’s cosplayers from all around the world and we wanted to refine the competition to standardize it, to make it make sense and highlight the community in a positive way.
Justin Flores: I was speaking to cosplayers and judges from all of our events. With our old rules, we had categories graded through comic, television, video games, and anime. We definitely had a lot of crossover between genres. Certainly a number of comic book movies are coming out where some contestants felt unsure what category to put themselves. [But] I think the issue from competitors and judges alike always came down to a foam dress versus an armored, constructed cosplay in the same category. Particularly because it’s so hard to, on an even scale, give proper evaluation to both.
I’m imagining the best looking Sailor Moon having no match for an Iron Man. That’s what you’re trying to avoid?
BS: I think we just want to really look at the skill and the artistry. I was in Paris for our Comic Con show and the girl that won there that will be competing at Crown Championship. She had a Cinderella dress that was one of the most breathtakingly, unbelievably tailored … the needle-work was just astounding. But how can you fairly judge where she would [have to compete against] the Hulkbuster that won at New York Comic Con? Who would say which artist has more value when they’re very different but both very well deserving of the title?
We want to evolve the categories so that it is more apples-to-apples, where it’s going to be needlework against needlework. We still want to give the Best in Show — which is vastly different, there’s a different criteria there — but we want to give people an even playing field that will highlight their skills in a way that felt authentic to the community.
Is it difficult forming rules for something that’s built on artistry and not a clear-cut winner like you would find in sports?
JF: I think for any kind of judging competition, we’re always going to run into questions about how we can make this better. For a competition like this, it was driven by trying to be fair and speak to the different skills cosplayers have.
It was a ground-up process. We had to take the due diligence to speak with a lot of different people with varying points how the competition and categories could be divided. At the end, discussing as a team what would be best to achieve our goal would be to put everybody on an even field.
I think we’re getting to a good place, but I’m not going to say we have it perfect. We’ll say that we are going to do our best as we move forward and evolve the competition.
Do you know if you ever got to a point where cosplayers chose armored or flashier costumes just to win?
JF: It’s hard for us to know how everybody’s motivated because it’s a very open thing and everybody can cosplay for a number of reasons. Some cosplay because they really want to show off the design and work, other people want to embody a character because of something very important to them. I don’t want to generalize anybody for their motivations, but I will say I wouldn’t put it past competitors to take the route of building a particular type of cosplay because it’s more eye-catching.
Tell me a little bit about what’s going to happen at the Western Championship division. You have LeeAnna Vamp judging. Has she contributed at all to the new rules?
JF: LeeAnna has been involved in the process and her feedback from her experiences certainly helped us figure out what was the best rule set. Yaya Han was judging C2E2 [and] has also been involved. We always come back to these judges, like [Marvel Studios costume designer] Ann Foley. We’re always trying to take their feedback and see what rules would be most apt and appropriate.
BS: [LeeAnna] was a judge at our Vienna Comic Con in Austria back in November. Going into the competition we had a conversation with her, [and] she gave us some really good ideas and used it coming out of Vienna that helped inform what we’re doing. We work with professional designers to professional cosplayers like Yaya and others, talking to them and making sure it would be authentic and true to what competitors are looking for.
Where do you see cosplay in the next couple of years? Do you see it taking off in the way that eSports players have taken off?
BS: I don’t know if people understand how big the audiences for cosplayers are on social media. It’s astounding. They have more likes and more followers than a lot of celebrities. I can only see that as more people up the quality of their craft and more people become noticed.
Yaya Han used to compete at New York Anime Festival and New York Comic Con in the early days, and now she’s grown a massive audience. I think as this grows it will only continue, and I hope what we’re trying to create on a global level will fuel that growth in competitors from other countries who have the passion. Hopefully it creates the community that really builds upon itself, and the Global Championships of Cosplay becomes a hub for conversation and people to be excited about and emulate their favorites, seeing tricks and tactics to blow each others’ minds. I think that it has the potential to grow in the way you’ve seen TV shows like The Voice and people are discovered. I would love to see some of the cosplayers transition into working on films or figuring different things out.
JF: I’m happy to see that people who have spent so much time and effort to develop their craft, their persona, and their fan base is having the same consideration as other celebrities that are invited to shows. I think it’s a wonderful opportunity to see talent grow if that is what they want to do: building, designing, running their businesses, or being discovered who can go toe-to-toe with designers on movie sets. Maybe there is an opportunity there for them to share ideas to create awesome work that can appear in our media today.
But for me, all I hope out of these competitions is that at the end of the day, people have fun. It’s easy to talk about how everybody can be famous and own businesses and that’s wonderful. But at the end of the day, you have fun, that’s fine for me.
Do you think we’ll ever see an Oscar-winning designer who came from cosplay competitions?
BS: It’s totally possible. There are things that people are doing that. A great example, we run Star Wars Celebration with Lucasfilm and BB-8 was created by some guys that were just droid builders, and Kathleen Kennedy actually discovered and noticed them and asked them to create the robot. She came and she met the droid builders and was like, “You guys should build us something!” and now they’re officially with the film. It’s amazing.
I think the same thing can happen as awareness is raised for some of the things that people are doing like the Hulkbuster at New York Comic Con and the Cinderella from Paris, or any number of people that are going to be at the Crown Championship. And who knows what we’ll see at the Western Championships. We have judges like Ann Foley and Stephanie Maslansky, who’s designed costumes for Agents of S.H.I.E.LD., Daredevil, and Jessica Jones. They see the level of talent and quality they put into their work, I think anything is possible.