Heroes of Cosplay: Cautionary Tales of Competition

by Tee Morris on August 22, 2013

syfy-heroes-of-cosplayI am not a fan of reality television. There are few exceptions that keep my attention; and with friends I have in the reality television business, some of the scripting and direction behind supposed slice-of-life docudramas is just painful to watch.

But enough about Amish Mafia. I want to talk about the latest reality show that has gotten many a geek and especially that sub-culture within the subculture that I love supporting — cosplayers — into a close-on-rabid uproar. I speak of SyFy’s latest offering, Heroes of Cosplay.

First, there was the New York Post who came out swinging with a nasty review more on the sub-culture and less about the Hero of Cosplay show itself, immediately followed by a back-and-forth between the publication and cosplayers everywhere. I wrote this off as the Post following suit with the Times. New York journalists, it seems, are just too good for science fiction.

What followed the second episode was an epic backlash on various social media channels where cosplayers, fans, and SMOFs who just like to bitch went after Hero of Cosplay’s host Yaya Han. There have been several posts on her Facebook page where she has needed to, for the lack of a better term, set the record straight.

Yaya-LeagueofLegendsBetween the two episodes, a lot of venom has spewed in my social media feeds so I figured I’d find out what was going on. The first episode had me smiling from opening to close. This was, from where I sat, an honest and loving look at that passion and drive I respect in cosplay. It was also a deeper look at how the players in this circle of fandom — Yaya Han included — continue to uphold a standard and raise a bar not only for cosplayers but for themselves as well. All in all, I was getting behind Heroes of Cosplay.

Then, during the Emerald City ComicCon episode, came a conversation over cocktails that threw the cosplaying community for a loop. It started with a sincere and honest question from Chloe Dykstra. While hardly a stranger to the community, this episode chronicled Chloe’s first competition. She asked quite sincerely about the state of cosplaying. The answers that followed was as mentioned before —sincere and honest.

It was also quite jarring. Just after I was thinking this was “a loving tribute to cosplay” the show took a quick turn to “the ugly underbelly of cosplaying,” especially considering Chloe’s stunned reaction to what these seasoned veterans were telling her.

I’m not going to defend Yaya, Riki, or any of the other cosplayers at that table because all of them are big boys and girls, and they can defend themselves. But I will say I don’t think they need to defend their words. Why? Because what they were talking about was not about cosplaying. It was about competitive cosplaying. Just because you love a sport, a hobby, or a pastime doesn’t mean you should compete.

Let’s consider this hypothetical: I love video games. I have been digging the reboot of Tomb Raider, and with all the epic deaths I’ve suffered in Columbia I still think Bioshock Infinite has been a blast…even though I’m stuck on the last level. (Dammit!) But what if I were to suddenly say “I love video games so much I’m going to compete professionally.” would that really be a wise commitment for me to undertake? Of course not! I would have to train for one thing (yes, even in video games, you train). That would mean no more time for podcasting and absolutely no more time for The Ministry of Peculiar Occurrences. I would have to dedicate myself to making my skills untouchable, mastering levels like Level 17 of Portal…where I’m currently stuck. (Dammit!) So no, I don’t have what it takes to compete professionally with video games.

Does that mean I should stop playing video games? Oh, hell no! Ask Pip. She watches me swear up a storm when I can’t take down the Vox Populi…and then goes back to whatever she was doing as I hit “Replay” and go through it all again.

If anything, that candid conversation (caught on film) was quite telling and a dose of purest reality concerning competition. Whether it is cosplay, video games, writing awards, or anything involving a score, you play to your strengths. That is true in any sport. As much as I love doing the dramatic, heavy material, my Forensics coach had me go with humor whenever she could. Why? That was my strength. That is the nature of competition, and a truth that many new cosplayers might miss.

However, I do think Chloe Dykstra nailed it when she said at the end of the same episode “Holy balls, that was fun!”

My heart really went out to Jesse Lagers, the male cosplayer (with the wicked handlebar mustache) who wowed Emerald City ComicCon with his Steamptrooper. He worked the crowd and had them eating out of the palm of his hand. When he lost, though, he started second guessing why he was putting in all the time and effort into costumes that weren’t winning. I wanted to grab him by the boilers and scream, “Bro, if that is why you’re cosplaying, you’re doing it wrong!” Cosplay because you love it! You didn’t get the title or the money, but you had the crowd. It means you’re heading in the right direction. Don’t lose the passion, Jesse. As Captain Tight Pants once told us: “Keep flying.”

And that, I’ve seen, in my Facebook boards has been another sticking point for this geek-centric show: its focus on the competition. A colleague of mine and accomplished cosplayer (well, I think so), Lauren Harris, said “My only issue with the show in theory is that it’s a competition. Cosplay does have contests, but is really about something other than competition. The last thing geek culture needs is more exclusivity.” She’s absolutely right, but we also have to remember — this is television. Television thrives on compelling drama. So where is there more drama? In a cosplayer who is designing his or her next epic costume, or in a cosplayer who is trying to win a competition with his or her next epic costume? Part of what makes Deadliest Catch so compelling is watching the captains try to make their quota. Part of what makes Mythbusters so compelling is watching the team trying to debunk or verify a challenge against science. Part of what makes Dirty Jobs so compelling…

Okay, I think that is whether or not Mike Rowe is going to get poo in his mouth again. That’s comedy gold right there.

There is drama in competition, and that is part of what Heroes of Cosplay is about. It is also about these amazing creations that we all see at conventions. It also an honest look at the rough ride that is competitive cosplay. This is also a look at what happens when you reach a level of excellence, and how you are still held to a higher level of excellence that needs to be maintained. Heroes of Cosplay is also a candid look at the people behind these incredible homages — what inspires them, what drives them, and how they face both wins and losses.

1170655_10151785097131348_261860280_nBut when I heard Chloe Dykstra say “Holy balls, that was fun!” I thought that was the lesson of Heroes of Cosplay. Yeah, sure, it’s a competition, probably when you don’t even realize it…

It’s all about having fun. That’s good enough reason for me.

That, and bow ties. Bow ties are cool.

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{ 33 comments… read them below or add one }

Sidney Bristol August 22, 2013 at 8:28 am

Dang. I was hoping to catch the show later. It’s sad to hear of the backlash, but when it comes to competition you’re getting a few certain personality types, and not the broad swath of people who participate for fun. I’m a child of competition, I grew up testing myself against others, not everyone is cut out for it sadly.

Sometimes I wish the reality shows would hush up and just show the cool stuff, the process. I’m much more fascinated by how something is put together, as in Face Off on SyFy, than the inter-personal drama between contestants, but that’s the creative side of me speaking. Show me how it is done so I can take those methods and create something new!!!!!!!!

Also, some day I will cosplay, and It will be just for fun.

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Lauren August 22, 2013 at 11:15 am

I still think documentaries where cosplayers race against the clock would be more illustrative of the hobby as a whole. Like, maybe they get a specific challenge–armor, crossplay, big wigs, non-human–and they have a specific time limit they have to complete it. The show could follow their process of choosing the costume and talk about the materials they use and the techniques they employ. The end result could be evaluated by cosplay legends, who could make suggestions for other techniques. If folks REALLY want a competition, a top five decided by the judges and within that, a voting poll online or via phone or text could decide the winner of some cosplay materials-related prize (Like Worbla or a vacuum table).

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Tee Morris August 22, 2013 at 3:04 pm

So you would propose a “Heroes of Cosplay” with more of a “Face/Off” approach?

Yeah, that would be cool. Perhaps that was the intent but somewhere the mark was missed.

Still, Lauren, thanks for the quote in the column, and the feedback.

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Will August 22, 2013 at 10:30 am

I haven’t seen the second episode and I don’t have your con experience. I love what cosplayers do and I am always fascinated by the creations. I liked the first show but found myself ‘rooting’ for the people that were not featured in the show. I felt like it was a competition of pros mixed with amateurs. Perhaps it’s time some of these things (gaming, cosplay, etc). Create actual Pro leagues. Thus creating a dual competition at things like cons. Leave the money for the pros and the fun for the amateurs.

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Sandra Banjoff August 22, 2013 at 9:56 pm

Very insightful article. And, as Jesses’ mother, I want to thank you for your comments about him and to him. He IS very good and people know it. He will do well. Thank you, again.

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Tee Morris August 22, 2013 at 11:45 pm

WOW!

Ma’am, it is a pleasure to have you visit my blog.

I’m cheering for him (and his wicked mustache) as my wife and I are both award-winning steampunk authors and we love how he is representing the steampunk community. I hope he, too, swings by my column and takes my words to heart. He worked the crowd, and in our eyes he was a real winner. Tell him, on behalf of the Ministry of Peculiar Occurrences, we wish him all the best!

Thanks for the comment!

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Erinn Lani August 23, 2013 at 12:23 am

Not to take the thunder out from under you, Tee (because I love you and Pip very much :D Best Steampunk couple that a girl could have meet in a group of authors in NOLA). Jesse was amazing! I was rooting for him the whole entire time and when I saw him walking around in steampunk, you should have heard my reaction. I love steam punk, but i find that it is not in the cosplay world as much as I would like.

Thank you Jesse for bringing steampunk to TV so that others could see what I love.

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Sammy Bear August 23, 2013 at 10:05 am

I still say the title is mis-leading. I expected more “background” on the “heroes” but feeling a little empty with the whole center on competition–isn’t that what Face Off is for?

Oh well, I know I do like seeing the different takes on costumes and how people construct their costumes especially armor and such.

Jesse’s Fallout 3 costume was pretty awesome…just needed some tweaks…

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Andrea L. Cook September 18, 2013 at 10:21 am

I’m a little late, as I’m catching up on my blogs, but I was really hoping that Heroes of Cosplay would be more like Face Off too. As it is, I’ve been cosplaying for about a decade, and I’ve even won a couple of awards locally, but watching that show, I really just want to give up. I know that I’ll never be that good, and if that’s how all the really good cosplayers act (with the exception of Jesse, he doesn’t come off as catty) I really just don’t want to do it anymore.

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Tee Morris September 18, 2013 at 7:43 pm

And I would return this frustration with “Don’t quit what you love.” While Heroes of Cosplay may be perceived as showing off the worst attitudes in cosplay, I think it actually shows off the best in editing. I was fortunate enough to have a quick chat with one of the featured players who was taken by surprise in how the conversation I cited here was “treated.” Editors are hired to make the mundane melodramatic, so I would hardly be shocked if there was some manipulation (and even a little hamming for the cameras) at play.

Don’t stop what you love, Andrea. I almost did that with podcasting, and that was a bullet I narrowly dodged.

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Tee Morris August 22, 2013 at 11:05 am

I love it when you’re a rabble-rouser, but know what rabble you’re rousing. (You DID watch the episode I’m talking about, right?) Yaya didn’t make the “300-pound” comment people are pinning on her. Her comment was “Money is exchanging hands.” when she was talking about what made competitive cosplay different. The other cosplayers, save for Chloe, were talking about cosplaying to body type and while it came across as crass, it was true from a competitive standpoint. They weren’t cruel or vicious comments nor were they “knee-slappers” either. They were off-the-cuff and honest. And nowhere did anyone at that table say “Only the pretty people should cosplay.” They were talking about competition. I don’t think the opinions were mean-spirited at all. (Hell, they were tame in comparison to some things said at MY expense.) However, I do think the cosplayers at that table, Yaya included, should have braced themselves for blowback. I know that in an editing room, you can make people say the darnest things.

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