Around the world, magicians, mentalists, and illusionists compete against each other in formalized competition settings. For comparison, think of something you consider nerdy, and then up the nerd factor by 10. Some competitions are held annually and locally in regional organizational chapters, others, like FISM, the world’s most important magic competition, is held once every three years in a new country, much like the Olympics. Typically magicians are split into different categories (stage, close up, etc), and perform a short act, such as 8 minutes long, to an audience consisting of lay people and judges. Like a figure skating competition, the act is judged on several criteria including skill level, creativity, etc.
Aside from being connected to magic conventions, which have community value, I think magic competitions are largely pointless. The competition format does not replicate a real world performance situation: no private event or corporate magician for hire, much less a theatre performer, is requested to perform for 8 minutes. Furthermore, most serious magicians are busy performing, which means often the judges at these competitions are amateurs don’t know much about the magic they’re judging. I remember an embarrassing story about FISM, the most respected magic competition in the world. An incredible card magician named Lennart Green competed and was disqualified. The rules of the competition required that anyone competing in the card magic category not rely exclusively on gimmicked cards (eg. cards that have been surreptitiously altered so as to achieve the magic effect). Knowing so little about card magic methodology, the judges of the competition disqualified Green on the assumption that he was using gimmicked cards, when in fact he was using sleight of hand. Any competent magician watching would have known he was using sleight of hand.
Given that the parameters of competitions are often so artificial, it becomes difficult to judge the professionalism of the act–such as the performer’s character and audience development–resulting in magicians appealing to themed acts to communicate apparent thoughtfulness. You’ll see a performer rely on a theme, such as “candy” to give the semblance of cohesion. But in fact, there’s no cohesion of character and performance, there’s only starbursts and snickers incorporated into every effect. What is rewarded for creativity is actually the opposite: doing the same thing as before but with a new veneer.
All that said, at 16, I was the youngest magician ever to win a Strolling Olympics medal from the Magic Castle in Hollywood. But this proves my point–I probably shouldn’t have won the medal; surely there were better magicians out there who were performing full time and didn’t care to compete, hence I was able to beat out a bunch of amateurs. I haven’t been interested in competing since then. If you are looking for a magician for hire and peruse sites where magicians or mentalists boast their awards, recognize that the competition setting is very different from the real world. Don’t get me wrong, some winners are legitimately great magicians, but not all of them.