Passing judgment

Nyjah Huston drops a nollie heel during X Games 17 where skaters were judged on overall impression. Mark Kohlman

Aided and abetted by a generation attached to daily Internet coverage, the progression of skateboarding seems to be at an all-time high speed. Naturally, this progression has spilled over into the contest realm, where the stakes are higher than ever and a judge's job is harder than ever. In just the last couple of years, contest prize money has skyrocketed: Sean Malto took home $200,000 in one afternoon for his win at the Street League Championships back in August. With that kind of life-altering cash on the line, all bets are off. Longtime pros who've built careers on video parts are coming out of the woodwork to compete against the latest standouts -- some of them still amateurs [Ishod Wair, still technically an amateur won the Maloof Money Cup in South Africa and its $100,000 prize]. Put all that seasoned talent alongside the creative fire of youth, toss in a prize purse number with five or six zeroes attached and, just like that, contests are driving progression nearly as much as the latest DVD or online vid.

"Skateboarding is progressing so fast right now that it's hard for even someone judging a contest to stay current," says Scott Pfaff, Street League's head judge. "That's why all the judges that we chose are younger guys that are all really good skaters."

Street League mastermind Rob Dyrdek also claims to be revolutionizing skate contest scoring with his Instant Scoring Experience, or ISX, which breaks away from skateboarding's traditional "overall impression" judging technique and focuses instead on trick-by-trick performance.

"I feel that overall impression is still the best way to judge skateboarding," says Don Bostick, founder and president of World Cup Skateboarding, which handles the judging for X Games and Dew Tour, among other events. "Overall impression doesn't dictate the skating, the skating dictates the judging."

In this era of live television and webcasts, any judging method needs to pick up the pace to keep the audience's attention and this has been a goal of the ISX system from the get-go. The point of ISX is not only to engage the audience with real-time rankings of each competitor throughout an event, but also to rally the contest skaters themselves. As competitors near the pot of gold at the end of the proverbial contest rainbow, they need only to glance at the JumboTron to know exactly where they stand and how much they'll have to gamble to move ahead on the leader board.

Street League competitor Billy Marks, who's been skating contests for more than a decade, says that the league is in a position to set the new standard for format and judging.

"I used to like the jam format," Marks says. "But now I think I like the Street League one-trick format. You don't get burnt out and the judges don't miss any tricks you do."

Street League's one-trick and one-line format has drawn some criticism, though, especially when falls are scored as zeroes. It wasn't long before some savvy competitors found a solution: Don't want a zero dragging down your score? Stick to the tricks you know you can land.

Consistency became the name of the game. According to Jason Rothmeyer, SPOTlight Productions' head judge, that's happened in the past.

"When I first started judging, I think there was too much emphasis put on consistency," Rothmeyer says. "Not that consistency is bad, but that if you bailed in your run, you were [overly] penalized. As I started having more influence, I really wanted to stress that if someone is going for it and makes amazing stuff [even if he bails once or twice], that's [better than] the dude who's out there doing the 'safety dance,' trying to stay on with the basics."

Pfaff is the first to admit that Street League scoring has undergone some much-need evolution during these formative, first two years. "The first year it seemed like we stuck too closely to the guidelines and that difficulty, risk, and style weren't being rewarded enough," Pfaff says. "So in 2011 we put more emphasis on harder tricks and style and lowered the scores for the more basic tricks. We want to encourage the pros to try the hardest tricks they can which is more exciting for everyone."

Indeed it is, and in the process, it's fanned the flames of progression. Top ranking Street Leaguers have become accustomed to dialing in their tricks, and now it's nearly routine for them to land first-try a trick that would have been a video part ender four or five years ago.

"I think jam formats are awesome," says Street League competitor Chris Cole, who's been on a competitive tear for the past few years. "Before Street League [had its first contest], I thought no way is this going to be as cool as a jam. But I was willing to give it a try because I believe in Rob's vision ... and it's getting better."

Regardless of format and judging style, adds Cole, it's important to remember that every contest is different and that scores are essentially opinions.

"Judges do a pretty good job most of the time," says Cole. "But there are times when the scoring reflects an emotion. Really, it's about human beings and human feelings, and judging is not an exact thing, like, 'This trick equals that number.' It's not like bowling."