As 2020 marks the fifth year of the Vans Park Series, and skateboarding heads into what will surely be its most visibly competitive year ever, this is a good time to step back and acknowledge that competition is a peculiar area of skateboarding.
Unlike most traditional sports, there are no measurements or empirical facts by which to assess performance in skateboarding. Unlike, say, hockey (where success is based on goals/points) or horse racing (where victory is determined by fastest time), skateboarding is more like gymnastics or figure skating and judged subjectively. There are, of course, referees and umpires and the like in traditional sports that need to make judgment calls at times—last year’s Kentucky Derby winner, for instance, Maximum Security, was controversially disqualified because, in the opinion of the three Kentucky racing stewards, the horse interfered with Country House (the eventual winner) in the final stretch—but opinion is largely absent in these events. Performance appraisal in aesthetic sports, like skateboarding, on the other hand, is dependent on the opinions of a judge(s) who is looking at and evaluating the athlete’s skill, style, and performance. While there’s only one way to win a race, there are nearly an infinite number of ways to approach riding a skateboard—but what is the best way? Because judging a skateboard contest essentially comes down to aesthetic opinion and it’s not much different than asking, who’s a better painter: Picasso, Rembrandt, or Van Gogh?
It’s not that skateboard contests are wrong, or that they can’t be evaluated, but the question of how to accurately and fairly judge a contest has plagued skateboarding since its earliest days. So I spoke to VPS head judge, Jason Rothmeyer, to get some insight on how skateboard judging works and how VPS approaches the subject.
Jason is a former pro skater and has been judging skateboard contests for nearly 20 years. He began as a stand-in judge at CASL contests in the early 90s before graduating to judging the prestigious Tampa Pro/Am contests. He has been Head Judge of the Vans Park Series since its inception.
“How does one become a skateboard judge?” I asked when we spoke over the phone recently. “Can you get a ‘Skateboard Judge’ diploma from one of those vocational schools that also teach Hotel Management and Gun Repair? Is there any official skateboard judge training or anything like that?”
“No, there's actually not,” Jason replied. “I can only speak to what I look for when I'm hiring judges, but, I mean, obviously paying attention and not looking down at your phone for a pretty good amount of time is pretty key. You also have to be competent at math—you don't have to be a mathematician, but you do have to know how numbers work. You have to adapt on the fly cause this is all live scoring. So it's very quick.”
VPS Head Judge, Jason Rothmeyer, concentrating on Copenhagen in 2017. Rob Meronek
“I like that the first two qualifications you listed,” I said laughing, “have to do with attention deficit disorder and math. I would assume riding a skateboard is a prerequisite?”
“Well, I would never consider someone if they didn’t have skateboard qualifications,” Jason replied. “I like to pick people who are relevant, who were pro, or are currently pro. Kyle Berard [a VPS judge] could be skating the Park Series right now. He happens to build skate parks for a living now so he’s not really into being pro anymore. Lincoln Ueda is also a good one. We’ve used Willis Kimbel at other contests—he’s pro for Creature. We’ve used regional judges also, but last year we were real consistent for the whole year: it was me, Kyle, and Lincoln at every contest.”
The three represent a pretty broad spectrum of skateboarding: Lincoln is a straight-forward power vert skater; Jason is tech street skater; and Kyle is kind of a synthesis of the two blending strong tranny skills with some tech flair.
Skateboard contest judging is a curious occupation to me. As long as I’ve been skateboarding, I’ve never really understood how the actual act of judging even works. I always see the judges sitting over there with their visors on—when I picture skateboard judges they’re wearing visors for some reason—at their little table scribbling notes and whatnot, and then next thing you know there are numbers on the board. What happened? How’d they get there? But my first question pertained to the first thing Jason mentioned: attention. Is that really an issue?
“Some of those days when we were doing Tampa were just gnarly,” Jason said. “When you're concentrating on watching people for 10 hours, and trying to give them a score, I mean, you're a zombie by the end of the day and the numbers don't mean anything. But the Park Series are pretty good because they're relatively short and we don't have a really long qualification day.”
I could never sit through an entire contest. It’s longer than a baseball game and baseball is the worst. “Do the judges get bathroom breaks or lunch or anything?”
As soon as I posed the question it reminded me of a study I read on Israeli judges and lunch. The study took data from 1,112 parole decisions by Israeli judges. They found “the likelihood of a favorable ruling is greater at the very beginning of the work day or after a food break than later in the sequence of cases.”
While I originally scoffed at Jason’s attention requirements, it started to seem like a very real factor. “Does hunger and that sort of thing effect your judging?” I asked.
“I hope not,” Jason said. “I hope I'm not hiring a bunch of fat boys that can't handle being a little bit hungry before the contest. But you know, dude, some of those contests have super good spreads so we don't have to run into that, which is nice. They give us banging catering.”
Hurricane Rothmeyer makes landfall and creates massive curb devastation. Rob Meronek
While the study on hungry judges has since been retracted due to a false correlation, the existence of bias in judging sports is very real. There have been many studies in multiple sports that have shown significant biases. Sport psychologist, Inga Wolframm, wrote an interesting article on the subject titled, “Natural Bias, the Hidden Controversy in Judging Sports.”
“There is considerable evidence of officiating bias in subjectively judged sports,” Wolframm wrote, “the majority focusing on nationalistic or political bias. Nationalistic and/or political biases have been demonstrated for a range of subjectively judged events, including Olympic diving (Park & Werthner, 1977), figure skating (Campbell & Galbraith, 1996; Seltzer & Glass, 1991) and gymnastics (Ansorge & Scheer, 1988; Whissell, Lyons, Wilkinson, & Whissell, 1993). Interestingly, this bias seems to have changed little.”
One would have to assume that those biases, as well as a host of others, are present in skateboard contest judging as well because they’re present in all of our decision making whether we’re buying pants or choosing a beer. There’s no doubt that judges try to remain fair in competition and we should assume that judges want to do their job well, but that is itself also a bias: giving a score that is unfair or wrong in skateboarding—or any sport—leads to outrage from riders, team managers, parents, etc., so there’s motivation for judges to get it right. Yet there is considerable evidence that “getting it right” isn’t as easy as it sounds. There are, I’ve been given to understand, many, many psychological factors that can cause errors in judgment. We are, of course, completely blind to them, but think we’re always right regardless.
“Research has shown,” Wolframm writes, “that the processing of such complex information [i.e. the technical and artistic elements involved in any skateboard trick] simply exceeds human capabilities. In order to still be able to provide relevant scores within the given timeframe, judges fall back on schemas, which essentially represent a person’s knowledge of how people (athletes) generally behave (perform) in certain situations (competitions). These schemas or ‘short-cuts’ are based on a number of different information sources, such as the athlete’s reputation, their previous performances, which team they belong to etc., and help judges come up with judgment decisions that, in their mind, approximate actual performances.”
VPS Judge, Kyle Berard, doing a totally biased, bio f/s flip at the Dream Driveway. Rob Meronek
I attempted, as best I could, to present this information to Jason and asked how he and his VPS judging team navigate their biases.
“You have to be as impartial as you can,” Jason replied simply. “But everyone's got—I wouldn't say biases against people—but everyone has their thing. Brian Anderson might be your favorite skater and you're like, ‘Oh my gosh! Brian Anderson!’ every time he goes. But that's why we have other judges to even that out. So if you give that dude a 90 and everyone else is around 70, 75, then I might be like, ‘Hey, 90 seems a little out of whack for that.’ Right? So we try to evaluate that after—and even during—the contest to see what everyone is getting scored. Maybe I saw something that wasn't really there? Maybe I got something wrong? And so we try to make a correction next time.”
One of the biggest differences between Vans Park Series and some of the other prominent contest series is the emphasis on points and scoring. A few of them have tinkered with the scoring and contest formatting to a great degree so that their events are in a position to deliver “buzzer beater” moments—an exciting conclusion more common to traditional, objective sports, like basketball. Whereas VPS seems to take a more relaxed approach with their scoring system.
“So how do you compare the judging of a VPS contest to that of the other contest series?” I asked.
“It's a run contest, but we’re switching it up to a jam format this year,” Jason said, “which I think is a cool, classic way of doing stuff. Because I feel like when I'm watching some of the other comps it seems like everyone is taking similar runs—it’s hard to say some of this stuff without dissing another event, but I do watch them and they're like, okay, this guy checks these boxes, this guy checked these boxes, this guy checked these boxes, and those three guys happened to be the exact top three.”
Great skate moments in history: Jim's Ramp Jam.
“So you think that contest series that put more emphasis on points, as opposed to ‘best run wins,’ have a little more of a compulsory aspect to them?”
“They do,” Jason said. “It sometimes seems a little compulsory. As a judge you don't want score like you’re making a checklist, like: kickflip, 540, smith grind, back smith grind, etc.. That's why when skaters do something unique, you want to reward them for it. That's what I'm looking for, like, whoa, that was super out of left field. I'm backing that and I'm going to give that a good score because I definitely wasn't expecting that. Take Oski’s run at Salt Lake City. If you look at that run on paper, it seems like a fine run. But if you gave him a point total based on how hard you thought his tricks looked on paper, he probably wouldn’t have placed that high. Like he did a manual in his run. If you saw ‘manual’ on paper, you'd be like, oh, okay, manual, yeah, whatever. Who cares? But that manual happened to be around the deck of a cradle that was only as wide as a truck and he had to ollie a gap back into the transition. When you watch it in person with the crowd freaking out it was a big deal. It was sick and super creative. And so I think we [VPS judges] are putting a little more emphasis on rewarding skaters who are not doing the exact same thing that everyone else does. We're definitely giving a little bit more emphasis to style, and feel, and flow, and especially how you see the tricks in the moment.”
Oski’s rainbow manual begins at 00:25.
“So how are you doing that?” I asked. “Like, how are you physically performing your duty as a judge?”
“It's real simple,” Jason said. “We use a 0-100 scale, okay? You have a hundred points to work with and you're really just using the points to help you rank people. That's all the score is: a means for you to get people in the right order.”
“So you’re just comparing and contrasting skaters?” I said. “You’re just giving them a number based on how you feel after his or her run? That seems a little new-agey and woo-woo, don’t you think? Do you guys have a rule book or anything?”
“No,” Jason admitted. “But we do have some judging criteria that we put out there at rider’s meetings—like what we're judging them on. We tell them we’re judging on consistency, we’re judging on creativity—because all these courses are different, so you don't necessarily want to see someone be a mini-ramp champ and go back and forth when there are hips, and spines, and extensions, and things like that to skate. But we also try to let everyone know, don't skate to how we want you to skate. Play to your strengths. Don't try to skate to get me to give you a certain score, just skate how you skate, you know?”
The VPS judging guidelines are no secret and anyone can have a gander at them on the site, but the criteria the judges base their score/ranking on is listed as:
“We came up with the criteria at the end of last year,” Jason said, “because we wanted to give a little more visibility to both the riders and the public. Because to say, ‘Hey, we judge on overall impression,’ that's pretty generic and I understand that.”
On the surface, it feels rather problematic to give three dudes the ability to determine the outcome of a major contest—something that is surely going to become more and more important to a skateboarder’s “career” and bank account in the near future—based solely on their “impressions.” How do you quantify impressions, how did you arrive at that result? It doesn’t seem very fair.
At the same time, how else do you judge a skateboard contest? Because, as studies mentioned above suggest, if a human can’t process the complexity of a skater’s entire run, then it would seem futile to try and quantify those complexities. So why bother with complicated scoring matrixes? Judges of subjective sports use numbers to represent their opinions because they feel more concrete, more scientific, but any number you give to an event (such as a skateboard trick) is always going to be an arbitrary number. You can give a trick 1-100 points, or 1-5 stars, or you could just as easily use colors or emojis as your scoring system. It doesn’t matter because it still just represents an overall impression.
To use the art analogy again, you can break down a painting into its constituent parts, colors, composition, etc. but ultimately you either like it or you don’t. And while that result seems slightly inadequate because it is absent of reasoning, it does feel more congruent with the true spirit of skateboarding: you don’t score points when you go skateboarding and you don’t win at skateboarding.
On paper, a “lien air” sounds okay, but it turns into a possible contest winning trick when you write “by Lincoln Ueda” after it. MRZ
I mentioned to Jason that a scoring system that is based on overall impression, rather than points, seems to embrace a more Eastern philosophy. In the Western view of the Universe, everything is separate and thus can be measured separately, but in the Eastern view, everything is interconnected and it’s impossible to isolate anything. The VPS judging system seems more fluid, encompassing everything in the environment, and doesn’t separate the rider from space or time. All factors are included in the judgment, the day, the time, the course, the colors of their clothes, the judges’ hunger level, etc.. To use a word I have a slight dislike for: an impressionistic style of judging is more holistic (cringe).
“Yeah, exactly,” Jason said. “And that's what I've told people. There have been riders who were like, ‘Hey, I got an 89 at the first contest and then at the next contest I did the same run but only got a 79, why didn't I get a better score?’ And it's the same thing: it's different every time given the day and it changes from contest to contest. You may have won one contest with an 89, but just because you do the same run at the next does not mean you're going to get another 89—the skating's different that day. There might be five dudes that are murdering it and so instead of an 89, you're going to get a 75 because those five guys screwed the curve up for you, if that makes sense. It fluctuates. These contests and these courses aren't in a vacuum, you know?”
As Vans’ Global Digital Marketing Manager, Chris Nieratko, has said to riders and judges alike about Park Series judging: “We all know what it’s supposed to look like.”
Similar to that old definition of obscenity, a winning run in skateboarding is difficult to define, but you know it when you see it. Sometimes you need to compare some numbers and get into the minutiae to arrive at a decision, but we should all have a pretty good idea of what the final result is: the person who won the contest wins the contest.
Easier said than done, right? But I like the VPS style because it cuts through the bullshit and simply says, this is who we think won, and this is who we think came in second, and this is who we think came in last. There will be disagreement at times over the results, but there always will be where opinions are concerned. And skateboard contests are nothing but a game of opinions.
This article won, by the way.
“Won what?” you ask.
I don’t know. But do you see any other articles on this page that are better than this one?