RDCL Battle on the Bank VII Preview

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As roller derby rolls through the spring and summer, anticipation builds as fall approaches. The autumn months are when the roller derby championship season begins in earnest, and is when all eyes are on flat tracks around the country (and world!) to see what teams are the best of the best.

For the impatient lot, the Roller Derby Coalition of Leagues has plopped its national get-together smack-dab in the middle of the year. Thanks to them, we don’t need to wait to see some bracket-busting action. We can have it right now!

This weekend, June 6-8, Battle on the Bank VII takes place in San Diego. The five founding member leagues of the RDCL, along with two guest leagues, a host of juniors, and for the first time a pair of men’s teams fill out the three-day national banked track tournament.

Banked track derby has been through a rough stretch as of late. Over the past several months, a handful of leagues have been forced to seek out or move to a new location, forced to mothball or sell their track, or forced to shut down altogether. There aren’t many banked leagues to begin with, so when things like this happen to a few, it affects the many. Even so, the spectacle of banked track roller derby is hearty, and even during trying times it continues to succeed in many places.

There is much good news to report on in this year’s battle. A team new to the tournament is getting a third chance to make a second impression. A team still-new to RDCL play is getting a second chance to get their first win. Two teams no strangers to each other are getting ready to mark a roller derby first for the second time. While victory seems inevitable for the coalition’s powerhouse, the middle placings may all be in play among the teams returning to the tournament.

That’s good news for fans, since the roller derby played in the RDCL can be downright incredible when the wheels hit the Masonite in a game between level participants. Though tournament participation is down this year, there is a still a healthy number of teams ready to duke it out in downtown San Diego across 17 half-length and full-length games.

Live streaming coverage is being provided by hosts San Diego Derby Dolls for free through the live stream page on the Battle on the Bank website. The full game schedule and adult brackets are available below, followed by a comprehensive preview of who’s who in the tournament, the kind of gameplay to expect on the banked track, and the current state of RDCL in general.

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WFTDA 2014 Rules Analysis

wftda-logoIn March, the WFTDA finally released an updated version of its roller derby rule book. WFTDA 2014 rules have officially been in effect for some weeks now, with all sanctioned WFTDA and MRDA games having been required to abide by them as of the beginning of April.

As each year goes by, the WFTDA makes improvements to its rules process, its rules documentation, and the ways and means interested skaters can access the rules. All of this is good. But when it comes to gauging progress on the rules in terms of the competition and gameplay that results from them on the track, it is plainly clear that there is still a long way yet to go.

For example, the elimination of minor penalties in 2013 massively simplified things for teams, officials, and fans. It also helped contribute to a 12.4% reduction in blocker penalties during the Division 1 playoffs. However, the resulting gameplay saw an unfathomable 40% increase in both jammer box trips and 100-point blowouts among the top 40 teams during that same period.

It is no stretch to argue that the competitively unbalanced effect that power jams had on the WFTDA game cancelled out any overall progress on penalties in that particular area last year.

The WFTDA and its voting member leagues are trying to stay ahead of things, though. This year, they are buttoning up incomplete fixes from last year while looking to curb big issues before they become bigger ones. Many rules inconsistencies and weird gameplay events have been addressed. Better explanations of common and new rules will (hopefully) prevent rule misinterpretations.

Most importantly, there are new rules that appear to directly address the glut of jammer penalties and the resulting sausage-fests of passive offense, the issues that have the most effect on the WFTDA game—and draw the most criticism toward it.

There is a lot to cover in the 2014 rules update, and the WFTDA has provided plenty of resources with which to do so.

Official WFTDA 2014 Rules Resources

2014 WFTDA Rules of Flat Track Roller DerbyOnline Version | PDF Version
WFTDA Rules Mobile Apps – Apple iOS | Android
2014 MRDA-Branded Rules of Flat Track Roller Derby (PDF)
WFTDA Rules Central Page
WFTDA Rules Q&A Page
Change Summary for 2014 Rules
Line-by-Line Rule Changes Detail Document (PDF)
WFTDA Timeout – Rules Issues Submission Page
June 15, 2013 WFTDA Rules (PDF) (for reference)

Third-party WFTDA Rules Resources

Roller Derby Rule of the Day on Facebook
RDJunkies Rules/Strategy GIFs
Roller Derby Test O’Matic
Zebra Huddle WFTDA Rules Forum

There is no shortage of materials available for players to learn WFTDA rules, from both the source and through other means. In fact, in the last few months the WFTDA has granted license/collaboration status with RDJunkies and Roller Derby Test O’Matic, making them de facto official resources. Great!

The comprehensive analysis you are about to read is yet another resource towards helping to understand some of the more significant rules changes for this year.

However, this particular look at the 2014 WFTDA rules will do more than just explain what key rules changed or how these changes will affect gameplay. It will dig into understanding why the changes were made, along with the full process behind those changes and a deep analysis examining whether or not the new rules are the best or most efficient way of fixing what was actually broken. It will also feature a look at how the the final 2014 rules document was affected (and not affected) by the 2013 beta rules proposals, with an exclusive look at how those proposals came about.

That will come later. Before we dive into the areas where the WFTDA still has a lot more work to accomplish, let’s start with the rules changes that everyone can agree are 100% positive.

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USARS Derby 2014 Rules Analysis

USA Roller Sports has released the 2014 version of its roller derby rule book. This is the third major derby rules update for USARS, but the first that leaves the core components mostly intact. Though there are significant changes this year, they are more refined and focused than the wholesale makeover USARS rules saw in 2013.

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Click to download the 2014 USARS roller derby rule book. (PDF)

Last year, USARS started to find its way with rules that did not conflict with the style of gameplay it is aiming to develop. But as USARS teams became familiar with the strategy behind the game, some of those rules showed signs of being incomplete. On top of that, the USARS game revealed that a lot of the players had incomplete skills to cope with the more challenging and tactical style of play.

This year, USARS has taken steps to fill in the gaps in both of those areas, albeit more in the former than the latter. Many weird (and boring) situations have been eliminated with a few simple changes. A much-needed dose of common sense has been introduced to reduce certain types of penalties. And a new way of calling off jams will help teams quickly learn the strategies they didn’t know they needed, as well as make games much more exciting…for the most part.

Despite the relatively small amount of rearranging done to USARS rules this year—of its ten significant pages, only about a half of a page was added or changed overall—the impact it will have on gameplay will not be small.

All of the rules changes in 2014—except one—appear to be immediate improvements in both writing and in practice. Even the one that seems a bit off in terms of gameplay on the track may be good for USARS teams and players in the bigger picture, although there is a small danger that the trade-off will not always be worth the potential headaches that could come out of it.

Before getting into the newest changes, here is a quick refresher of the major plot points of USARS roller derby rules for those that came in late:

  • Game roster cap at 15 players (Team roster is unlimited)
  • 90 second jams
  • Stopping and clockwise skating illegal (AKA required forward skating motion)
  • Pivots separated ahead of blockers in a separate box for jam starts
  • Pivots can optionally become scoring players by chasing the (opposing) lead jammer; no helmet cover pass necessary
  • Team at the front of the pack (if they can get there) is always the pack
  • 10 foot pack proximity—no extra engagement zone
  • The jammer/active pivot physically in the lead must always be lead jammer; status can (and often does) switch during a jam
  • Lead jammer/pivot must be inbounds and on skates to call off jam
  • Jam instantly over when both jammers are in the box (no musical chairs/jammerless jams)
  • 5-minute overtime, with sudden-death 2OT/3OT jams if necessary
  • Team auto-forfeits if injuries/foul-outs reduce roster to 8 players or fewer (for player safety)

The 2014 rule updates leave most of the above list unaffected, although USARS teams did trial a few things that would have but did not make the final cut. (A “jambreaker” to stop an unending runaway pack situation was found to be too complicated and mostly unnecessary thanks to changes elsewhere in the rules, for example.) But as for what got in?

Read on.

USARS 2014 Rules Resources

USARS Roller Derby 2014 Rule Book (PDF) – Includes Minimum Skills and Addenda
USARS Rules “Cheat Sheet” Quick Summary (PDF Download)
Official USARS Roller Derby Rules Public Facebook Group
USARS Roller Derby Home Page on TeamUSA.org

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WFTDA Playoffs 2013 Diary #3: WTF.tv

Welcome WRDN’s look-back at the 2013 WFTDA playoff season! Your intrepid commentator will opine on four different items in four separate posts, creating a snapshot of what the WFTDA has been doing right, what it has been doing wrong, and what it’s flat-out not doing. This is part three. (Part one is here. Part two is here.)

The next WFTDA.tv broadcast will begin in 3 … 2 … 1 …

The next WFTDA.tv broadcast will begin in 3 … 2 … 1 …

Launched for the 2011 tournament season, WFTDA.tv became an immediate hub for just about every major WFTDA game. It carried high-profile regular-season bouts and event weekends, the playoffs, and championships. Last year it started carrying the MRDA championships, and this year the online channel expanded to cover the newly-created WFTDA Division 2 playoffs.

Keeping all that derby coverage on one website is paying off. According to the sanctioning body, over 116,000 “unique website visitors” navigated to WFTDA.tv at at least some point during the WFTDA playoff season. Though this number includes the two free D2 streaming weekends that previous years did not have, it is still total that is impressive and commendable.

With Internet video streaming starting to become an indisputable force in the tech-society of today, and live sports programming becoming more valuable than ever, WFTDA.tv seems poised to ride both of those waves and help grow the sport. You could even say that the sky’s the limit for the WFTDA.

However, if the WFTDA is aiming to fly that high, we should make sure it’s not using wax wings to get there.

As great as the positives are with WFTDA.tv, worrying issues are beginning to appear behind the scenes. Dropped webcast feeds, payment problems, and capacity issues are the obvious problems, but there may be others lurking. And although growing pains were always going to be an issue with a project of this magnitude, they should be easing as time goes on—not getting worse.

After three years, enough time has passed to starting thinking about the direction the WFTDA is headed in with the service. There is no arguing that having it is better than not having it. But there is much discuss about whether how WFTDA is handling it is the best way of doing so, and whether or not its rapid growth is a good thing.

- – - – - – - – -

But before that, here is a refresher of everything that did not go quite so right with WFTDA.tv in 2013. If you are reading this, it is extremely likely you experienced at least two or three of the problems below:

Major issues with the paid stream - This was the big issue throughout the 2013 playoff season. Though the quality of the stream was excellent, broadcasting a hi-def picture means nothing if there is no guarantee of it showing up on the other end of the line.

When minor problems arose during the 2012 season, they were isolated and random. An accidentally unplugged a cable here, a barge blocked a transmitter there. Those are the sorts of things one might expect to see in the shoestring budget productions that the derby community had been used to up to that point, and were easily forgivable—under the assumption that they would be fixed next year.

They were not. In 2013, things turned disastrous once the paywall went up and the WFTDA asked people for their money for the right to look inside of it.

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WFTDA Playoffs 2013 Diary #2: Officially Challenged

Welcome WRDN’s look-back at the 2013 WFTDA playoff season! Your intrepid commentator will opine on four different items in four separate posts, creating a snapshot of what the WFTDA has been doing right, what it has been doing wrong, and what it’s flat-out not doing. This is part two. (Part one is here.)

Time to go under the hood on WFTDA official reviews.

Time to go under the hood on WFTDA official reviews.

It’s time we start giving referees a break.

Watching the playoffs from home, looking at the reactions of crowds and skaters, and seeing a lot of feedback online, I got the sense that the ref crews at the WFTDA playoffs, particularly those at WFTDA Championships, took a lot of heat for calls, non-calls, questionable calls, close calls, and calls that were extremely unpopular—but ultimately correct.

Granted, there were some calls that were very boo-worthy. A few insubordination calls for failing to immediately leave the track after a penalty call were probably unnecessary. There was also the rare moment when an officiating error was flat-out bad, such as the 2-minute overtime jam that only lasted one minute, called off too quickly by an (apologetic) jam timer NSO.

But with the number of games, the number of jams, and the number of total events referees needed to judge throughout the WFTDA playoff season, the fact that they got so, so much of it right should be commended. Particularly, since they need to wrestle with the complexity of the WFTDA rule book just as much as the skaters who wrote it.

In the few instances when a referee crew was incorrect on a critical assessment, the rules allow a team to use an official review to make their case to the officials to see about overturning the call as it was originally made. The rules and officiating of them are still a work in progress, so allowing skaters to point out a clearly-wrong call to the officials is important to make sure it does not unfairly swing the outcome of a game.

However, a discouraging trend among skaters and teams appeared during the tournament season, with regards to the official review system.

A lot of teams requested official reviews that seemed dubious themselves, requesting that referees stop the game to try and overturn calls that were obviously correct in the first place, or ask the referees to issue a penalty to an opponent that clearly did not happen.

At the time of their request, they seemed like simple uses of the review system. But two of them revealed an underlying motivation for their use, one that was inconsistent with the spirit of the rules and one should be stopped before it gets out of hand.

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The first is from the Texas-Gotham championship final.

With 6 minutes left in the first half, Olivia Shootin’ John and Bonnie Thunders take to the jammer line. Both get out of the pack quickly, but LeBronnie eats the baby on OJ, eventually causing the Texas jammer to commit a cutting penalty.

Gotham goes on the power jam, and after two snoring passes—sorry, scoring passes—of passive offense, the Texas 3-wall finally manages to shove their mark out of bounds at turn 4, recycling everyone back into the awaiting Gotham rear wall.

The three Gotham blockers try to hold Texas from recycling Bonnie all the way behind the pack, but a Texas blocker finds an open lane. Just as she starts moving clockwise behind the Gotham rear wall, Bonnie starts moving in the derby direction and re-enters behind her.

From most angles, this was a close re-entry. The crowd saw Bonnie cut the Texas blocker and demanded a penalty, as is what crowds tend to do when a call does not go the way of the popular underdog. The refs saw a legal re-entry by Bonnie and went about their business, as is what referees tend do when there is no penalty to call. Bonnie saw 20 points go up on the scoreboard, as is what Bonnie tends to do when she is on the power jam.

Texas, on the other hand, thought that the crowd was right and the referees were wrong. After the jam, they asked for an official review of the non-call on the alleged cut committed by Bonnie during the sequence, figuring Gotham deserved to be down a jammer—and they were owed a power jam. Continue reading

WFTDA Playoffs 2013 Diary #1: By The Numbers

Welcome WRDN’s look-back at the 2013 WFTDA playoff season! Your intrepid commentator will opine on four different items in four separate posts, creating a snapshot of what the WFTDA has been doing right, what it has been doing wrong, and it’s flat-out not doing. This is part one.

bythenumbers

Measuring progress in the WFTDA is tricky business.

Sure, seeing growth in the number of affiliated WFTDA leagues (now 234 full member and 89 apprentice) is great. You can also look at the ballooning WFTDA international presence and be left with the impression that the future is bright for roller derby abroad.

However, ticket-buying customers that go to see WFTDA teams play may not know about the rapid expansion of the game. Frankly, they may not care. They just want to see roller derby. If the roller derby they see is not entertaining and competitive, they will not come back to see it again. This is important, because without their financial support, there is nothing to realistically sustain whatever progress there appears to be.

Which means it’s not really progress. Tricky business, ain’t it?

Casting aside the debate on the rapid growth of roller derby, let’s just take a look at the roller derby itself. If we are to try and measure progress in that area, the question is simple:

Is WFTDA flat track roller derby getting any better—on the flat track?

“Better” is a subjective term, one that can differ with opinion. Anyone who watched the playoffs, particularly the championship tournament, could have easily walked away thinking this season was better that last year. (Hell, even I thought it was better than last year—at first.) But filtering the question through one’s own emotions is not the best way of going about answering it definitively.

To gauge the true progress of the WFTDA from 2012 to 2013, we can use Rinxter stats to take an objective look at the numbers. Score differentials, penalty numbers, etc. Take the numbers from this year, compare them to the numbers from last year, and see if things are really getting better—or at least, are moving in the right direction.

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You’re Doing it Wrong: 3 Common USARS Strategy Mistakes

The second full USA Roller Sports roller derby season has wrapped up, with Washington state pulling off a sweep and Oly taking home two national titles, the men’s (Oly Warriors) and the women’s (Oly Rollers). Thoughts of the event and a complete snapshot of USARS derby, Year Two, will come later in the off-season.

But ahead of that, let’s put on our strategy hats.

All the teams and virtually all the players playing under the USARS banner have very little experience in the faster, more tactical style of roller derby it is trying to develop. Knowing the rules is one thing—at only 10 pages of significance (for now) there is not much to need to know—but applying that knowledge on the track is another thing entirely.

This has been evident during the 2013 USARS tournaments, where teams have been making a lot of strategic mistakes. These mistakes were the major culprit behind some of the more boring sequences of play, including runaway pack situations or instant jam call-offs. These sequences often ended in a 0-0 jam with little action or excitement to show for them.

As with any learning process, these mistakes will pass with practice and game experience. But before one can learn from mistakes, one must know exactly what those mistakes are.

Here are the three most common tactical errors in USARS play over the last two years, from least common to the most.

Mistake #3: Runaway Pivots

In USARS, pivots are granted their traditional ability to break away from the front of the pack and become a jammer, but only after the opposing team has already gotten their jammer out for lead. This ability is most useful when a pivot is controlling the front of the pack, which lets them immediately spring into action should their jammer fail to clear the pack first.

A big chunk of USARS tactics is how the pivots do battle with each other, both at the start of the jam and during the rest of the initial pass sequence. In most circumstances, a pivot will want to be in front of the opposing pivot at all times, to help suck them back into the pack or delay them should they need to break away after the jammer.

Most circumstances. But not all circumstances.

Pivots hell-bent on getting to or staying at the front of the pack during the initial pass hurt a team’s chances of scoring points more than it helps it. This is a mistake made by pivot players new to USARS, and the traditional pivot position in general.

The logic behind this is simple: The scoring player with the best chance to score points on a jam is (generally) the first one reaching the back of the pack on a scoring pass. The first jammer to reach the back of the pack is (usually) the one that gets out of the pack first on the initial pass. The first jammer to get out of the pack is the one that (always) get the most blocking help and assistance from his or her teammates in the pack.

Therefore, that works together to make sure their jammer gets out first is well on their way to scoring points. However, a pivot trying too hard to stay ahead of everyone else will wreck this calculus by effectively taking themselves out of play, reducing the blocking power that their jammer might need to do that. A pivot race at the front of the pack can also ramp up the speed of the pack to hopelessly high levels, making it much harder for blockers to stay together or be effective.

Here is a video that shows an example of this happening during a jam. Focus on the white blockers and the white jammer and see how quickly they fall behind due to the white pivot racing the pack forward:

The white pivot ultimately got the position she wanted, the front of the pack. This put her in good position to chase the black jammer out without resistance on the part of the black team.

However, in doing this she left the white jammer in the dust and left the other white blockers vulnerable at the rear of a fast pack. She also put herself out of play ahead of the pack, forcing her to drop back into pack before she could legally activate her jamming abilities. This gave the black jammer a pretty easy scoring pass, picking up two free points.

But more importantly, in playing the jam this way the white pivot was basically guaranteeing her team would not score any points before the initial pass was even completed.

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