By Black Lily Cosplay. Edited by Potato Sack Cosplay and Z Asmal

Black Lily Cosplay is a tour de force in the local cosplay scene and has several terrific wins under her belt. She has placed at EGE, rAge, FanCon, ComicEx, UCON and multiple other events around the country. Using her experience, she provides invaluable advice below about how to crush your next cosplay contest!

First, let’s cover the basics. 

Before we can get into tips about how to compete, let’s take some time to familiarise ourselves with how and why cosplay competitions are run.

What is a cosplay competition?

A cosplay competition is a space for cosplayers of all levels to test and gauge their skills in a formal arena. Some competitions focus on performance, others on costume-making and many on a mix in between

Why do we have cosplay competitions?

Cosplay competitions are formal arenas for a cosplayer’s skills to be tested. While they are crowd attractions, it is a space for cosplayer self-improvement after being given some constructive criticism.

Local competitions aim to upskill cosplayers in hopes of them qualifying for the international stage, such as the World Cosplay Summit (in teams of two) and C2E2, the world cosplay championships. There, cosplayers do not represent themselves as singular entities, but rather represent their countries. Local competitions prepare a cosplayer for the strict rules of international ones, along with upskilling and granting cosplayers the experience in their field in order to produce higher quality cosplays.

Who judges cosplay competitions?

Judges often consist of cosplayers from the local or international community who have been cosplaying for years or have perfected a cosplay skill that makes them experienced enough examine other cosplayers’ work with a critical eye .

Because some judges come from the community, a participant will often know the judges chosen for a competition. This does not mean that you shouldn’t participate in the competition, as inevitably everyone becomes close in such a small community. However, do keep a formal relationship during the pre-judging segment of the competition, as judges will remain impartial and professional on their part.

Competition Rules and Requirements

Each event, especially events in different cities, have different rules and requirements for competitions. You must familiarize yourself with all competition rules and requirements if you plan to compete. A document containing all the information you need can usually be found on the event’s website/Facebook page. If you cannot find it, send a message to the organizers and they will provide you with the documentation or a link to their post.

How do you enter a contest?

Cosplayers have to fill out a sign-up sheet with all the information needed for the admin team, submit any additional documentation required, as well as pay an entrance fee (if required).

The additional documentation can vary, but usually it includes a reference photo and work-in-progress booklet. You are NOT required to include photos of yourself in the actual cosplay in your document, but may be included if you feel the need.

What is a reference photo?

A reference photo is a high-quality image of the character you are cosplaying and will be used to judge the accuracy and detailing of your costume. Thus, your reference photo should be in full colour, sized large (preferably A4) and include a back and front view of the costume where possible. Most contests insist on a printed reference image, so always take one with you if you think you might enter a competition. Reference photos on phones/tablets/computers etc are rarely allowed.

If your character has multiple outfits, only use photos that come close to what you used in designing your cosplay. Do not mash together multiple different character designs into one outfit. This makes it confusing to judge and this is what you do not want.

If you are using a specific fan art, character skin or design, name it in your entry form. If you are using fanart or artwork specifically designed for you, please credit the artist.

Original characters are usually not allowed, and not every contest will allow fan art unless it is high quality. Check with the competition organisers if you are unsure.

What is a work-in-progress (WIP) booklet?

While they are many different names for this (such as progress photos, proof of progress etc), a WIP booklet is a printed collection of images (and sometimes notes) that provide proof that you made the cosplay you are entering. These photos will show the incomplete versions of your outfit, the design process behind the costume and how you made your costume.

While you are putting together your costume, make sure to take photos or videos of as many steps as you can! If you miss an aspect or part of your cosplay creation in your WIP booklet, there will be no proof that you actually made that aspect of your cosplay and therefore could be marked down for it. This helps prevent fraudulent entries or winners.

Not all cosplay competitions require WIP booklets. Always check the rules to see if they are a requirement before attending the event, as WIP photos need to be organised, printed and stapled/bound/filed before handing it over to the admin team in charge of the competition before you can be judge. Photos or proofs on phones/tablets etc rarely count unless the judges unanimously agree to waive the rules.  

What does judging entail?

This depends on the competition. Many competitions release judging break downs before the competition, which you should always check to see what the judges are looking for. Judging falls into two categories: pre-judging and stage time. 

Not all contests have pre-judging, and not all contests will count stage time. This is why it is so important to familiarise yourself with the competition rules in order to see how you will be judged. Stage time and pre-judging can have different weights in terms of overall judging, and this will always be stated in the competition rule.

What is pre-judging?

Pre-judging takes place in a secluded area of the event, before stage time. It is time allocated (usually chosen by the cosplayer or depending on what the admin team decides) where each cosplayer meets the judges to talk them through their creative process, as well as giving the judges an opportunity to ask questions pertaining to the cosplay. You must – as far as possible – remain in character during your pre-judging.

During pre-judging, judges will assess whether you made the costume, how well it is made, what skills you used to make it and how well it matches your reference photos. These time slots are short, so make sure you are concise and to the point with your explanations. Hard questions will be asked, so make sure you know your cosplay in and out and if they find faults, admit to them and even ask for advise on how to correct it. Remember, as much as the judging time is there to critique your work, you always want to learn and improve, and this can be an opportunity to do this.

The way you present yourself during this is very important. Be open to questions, be honest when asked about what you did/didn’t do but also be enthusiastic. It is okay to be nervous, but don’t be negative, nitpick your outfit for them or point out all the flaws or things that didn’t happen. Be proud of the work you did accomplish and focus on that!

There is a limited amount of time set aside for pre-judging and it has a set cut off time. Preferably be ready at the designated place or sign up area 10 minutes before your slot (can vary per event) and set aside at least 10 minutes for the pre-judging to take place. The earlier you sign up, the more chance you will have to dictate when you will go for pre-judging and can plan your time accordingly. If something has happened to you that you cannot make your pre-judging time slot, please contact the admin team as soon as possible to explain your situation.

What is stage time?

Stage time is a chance for cosplayers to present themselves on stage. Stage presence often includes a pose, monologue, dance, skit or any other performance that a cosplayer would like to do in character. The most important thing is to show off the essence of your character. Stage time is separate to construction-based judging: judges will look at what you do on stage, how you used the space and how you brought your character to life.

You can ask for a mic to speak or use music, sound effects and props (with some limitations) for stage time. Some competitions will allow you to use extras on stage or allow group entries. It is important to arrange everything for your stage time in advance: check what your time limit is, inform organisers when you sign up if you will need to set anything up, and bring any sound or visuals you are using on a clearly marked flash drive.

Once the stage time is completed, the judges will compare notes and choose their winners. In order to place, it is your job to familiarise yourself with the rules and different judging criteria, and prepare yourself accordingly. To assist further with this, here is a breakdown of the type of cosplay competitions!

Competition Categories


Construction competitions focus solely on how the cosplay is made. However, it is advisable to stay in character as much as possible during the pre-judging and stage time. During pre-judging, you will be given the opportunity to explain to the judges how you made your cosplay. The more you can explain your own choices and method, the better the judges will understand your process. Constructions require WIP booklets. Construction competitions also include the use of wig styling and makeup, not just the garment and props. Be prepared for the judges to ask you questions, request to inspect your prop and to turn your garment over to look at your hemming.

Skit (Performance)

Skit-based competitions focus solely on the performance aspect of cosplay. The cosplay entry form will require you to tick off whether you need a mic and sound when you sign up. You would need to prepare your audio before the competition and hand it in on a flash drive for it to be queued up in the playlist as streaming audio will not be an option. If you are using stage props and require assistance, please remember to organise this yourself as events do not provide stage assistance.

Stage time usually has a cut-off time. Please read the rules to see how much time is allocated per cosplayer. If your skit is a bit longer than that, please discuss this with the event organisers BEFORE you submit it for a competition.

The judging for the skit will be based on what happens on the stage, so make sure you have practiced and are ready to wow them with your character representation! Note that not all events have a skit category for competitions.

Here are two examples of skits:

Kimiko Cosplay at Comic Con Africa 2018, a song and dance skit:

Maoukami Cosplay at Comic Con Africa 2018, a skit that utilizes self-recorded audio and video background:

Free for all (cosplay masquerade)

Free for all (also known as cosplay masquerades, open competitions or casual competitions), are informal competitions where spot prizes may be awarded. The construction of the cosplay is not taken into account as bought and borrowed cosplays also qualify to enter. Free for all competitions invite cosplayers on to stage one by one for them to strike a pose or do any other performance on stage. The judges watching the competitions will decide who the spot prizes are awarded to.

Levels of Competing

Please note that this is a general assessment of where you would fall as a competing cosplayer, but there is not set definition agreed upon within SA cosplay events for these categories and thus each event sets their own terms.

Once you have entered a particular category, it is easy to move up a level but you are rarely allowed to move down so be careful when choosing your initial category. But if you’re up for a challenge, you can enter higher than what you are categorised for. Check with your organisers to see where you would fall if you are unsure.


Beginners are classified as cosplayers who have never competed and are relatively new to cosplaying. Beginners have the least self-made requirements of all the cosplay levels. They are usually required to only bring a reference of their character to the pre-judging. While in-character portrayal is a plus, it is not a requirement.


Intermediate cosplayers are cosplayers who are actively cosplaying and make their own cosplays, but have not placed in the top 3 in more than three separate competitions. The self-made requirements for intermediate cosplayers are higher than their beginner counterparts. Intermediate cosplayers will often be asked to provide some work in progress pictures of their cosplay, along with their reference images. In-character portrayal is a plus for intermediate cosplayers.


Masters cosplayers are cosplayers who have been cosplaying and making their own cosplays, and have placed in the top 3 in more than three separate competitions. The self-made requirements for Masters has the highest percentage of all cosplay levels. A portfolio is required to be submitted for pre-judging, detailing how the cosplay was made with full references. Masters level cosplayers are required to be in character during pre-judging until the judges give the go ahead to break character. Stage time is also very important for Masters level as the focus is both on the construction and the performance aspect of cosplay.

Note that some events do not distinguish levels in competitions, and some may only separate the categories into Beginner and Advanced.

Competition Tips


The first rule of competing is to practice self-care. Con-crunching (rushing and cramming to finish your costume days, even hours before an event) can be draining, you can get frustrated because a piece isn’t turning out as you envisioned and your motivation can fly out the window. Always remember to take a step back and look after yourself. Competing is draining and we would prefer having rested cosplayers instead of participants “dying” on stage. Not fulfilling a competition after you’ve set your mind to it can be disheartening, but nothing is worth your health. Save it for another competition. Other opportunities always arise.

Start off small

If you’re a cosplayer watching the Master’s division compete, you’ll often see big armour builds and complex sewing. Please remember that we all started somewhere. Pick something simple to start off with that you can execute well and grow your skill set from there.

Choose a character that you relate to

If you’re a person that finds it difficult to smile and be energetic all day, maybe choosing a character whose personality is like that is not the best place for you to start. Choose a character that you share a personality with to ease you into becoming the character. When you become more comfortable with adopting a character’s personality, you can choose more challenging ones.

Quality over quantity

Always aim for neat, well-executed cosplays when it comes to competing. If your cosplay is messy or rushed, even if it looks very impressive or you’ve provided lots of different elements, it will not do as well as flawlessly executed cosplays. Don’t let what the cosplay looks like fool you into thinking it’s too simple or easy either!

Please keep in mind that construction cosplay competitions especially are about how well made your cosplay is. If your costume only looks good from afar, you’re going to struggle.


Things you do yourself will always be more impressive in a competition setting. Did you draft you own patterns instead of using bought ones? Did you style your own wig instead of buying a pre-styled one? Did you modify your shoes yourself? Upskilling comes with time but the more you learn to do yourself, the better for competing, especially at higher levels. Remember that different levels require different amounts to be self-made.


If there is something specific that you’d like to enter into a competition, remember to budget properly for it. You don’t want to run out of funds half-way through your creative process. Remember that a competition cosplay does not need to be made out of the fanciest materials to be competition-worthy and that fancier materials do not guarantee you placement in a competition.


If at first you don’t succeed, try and try again. Practice does indeed make perfect. Practice your character’s mannerisms and expressions. If you are doing a full performance, make sure that you have enough time to do a full rehearsal before a competition.

Bring a repair kit

A repair kit should be a standard with a cosplayer attending an event, but especially if you are competing you don’t want to have anything breaking and staying broken. Bring all the thread you used to create your cosplay, glue, safety pins and anything else that you’ve used to create your cosplay.

Bring your makeup along

There is often a big gap between pre-judging and stage time. Your makeup will probably not fully last from its first application till the end of the event. Bring all your makeup along so that you can do a touch up before stage time.

A change of clothes

Big and uncomfortable cosplays can be challenging, especially when you want to do something simple, like go to the bathroom. Bring along a pair of flat shoes if your cosplay has heels and a change of clothes for after the competition. A change of clothes is also helpful if you have an emergency and urgently need to get out of your cosplay.

Everyone gets nervous

It’s completely normal to be nervous before a competition. If you have a friend in the audience, try to focus on them. Take deep breaths. If you make a mistake, roll with it. If there is a technical glitch in your music, ask the MC if you can start over.

Remember to eat and hydrate

A lot of cosplayers that compete forget that they need to eat and drink, especially when their cosplays are big and awkward. Make sure that your cosplays can detach in some way to enable you to eat. Bring along some latex gloves if your hands are covered and are not easy to take off, along with a cover of sorts to put over your cosplay while you eat. If you have a friend that is willing to help you, that’s great!


A participant is very welcome to ask for feedback after a competition to receive constructive criticism to improve on their craft. Most events offer this to their participants, however if it is not included, feel free to email the admin team and ask about it. You can also approach the judges to get personalised feedback if they are free after the contest is over.

Above all, remember to HAVE FUN! You are in an environment with like-minded people, who probably have the same likes and concerns as you. Network with them, make friends, share tips and enjoy yourself!

You can catch Black Lily Cosplay on Facebook at “Black Lily Cosplay” and Instagram @blacklilycosplay. She is open for one-on-one advice concerning all aspects of competitions up to a week before an event.