Points Per Jam: Roller Derby’s Default Difficulty

…Continued from Page 1

Roller Derby’s “Default” Level of Difficulty

As shown using 2013 game data and the PPJ metric, roller derby rules have a significant impact on how competitive roller derby jams can be. Now it is time to demonstrate which rules have this impact and why some forms of roller derby can be more competitive, across all skill levels, than others.

Everyone has long since updated their rule books for the 2014 season, so from this point forward we will be talking about things from the perspective of this year.

Still, enough similarity still exists between 2013 roller derby and 2014 roller derby that we can the 2013 PPJ data to help make further observations about competing for points in each game environment.

There are no significant differences among the gameplay philosophies of each of the four derby organizations, when compared to last year. Certain “core” rules have the greatest effect on scoring difficulty and overall game competitiveness, and no organization did anything to alter their respective cores.

In fact, multiple derby variants share many of these core rules, even if they are implemented or applied differently. These are the ones that help shape competition, since they are interconnected and rely on each other to work optimally.

Here are those among the most prominent in assuring jams, and games by extension, are as fairly contested as possible.

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“Team” Defense and Pack Definition

If one team is doing a very good job on defense in the pack, that should consistently give them a good chance of succeeding on offense. That’s Roller Derby 101.

Now for Roller Derby 102: What does it really mean to play defense in a team sport?

In modern roller derby, as it currently exists, there are two different philosophies on the meaning of “defense.”

In the WFTDA, playing defense means “stop the jammer.”  In its rule set, a team need only defend one player, the opposing jammer. Depending on how well it does this, it can deny the opposition a chance to work together as a team, giving them no way to counter offensively and quickly complete their initial pass. Let alone, score any points on the play.

In the RDCL, MADE, and USARS, playing defense means “stop the team.” In these rule sets, a team must not only defend the opposing jammer, but must simultaneously contain at least one other opponent to ensure a good offensive opportunity. In being made to do so, however, the opposition is allowed ways to work together on offense, ultimately giving them a proper chance of scoring points—or at least, a real chance of preventing them.

Put another way, no matter how one team plays defense together, the other team will always have a chance to play offense together. When a competent team always has a chance to play offense together whenever it wants, it will always have a chance to compete for points.

This is in major part due to pack definition and its related rules, which helps to make sure uncontested points in the RDCL, MADE, and USARS are hard to come by and keeps PPJ averages low, no matter who is playing against who.

Teams are afforded at least two ways to play offense during regular jams, as commanded through game rules, so defenses need to cover them all to gain a superior defensive position. By itself, this is not too difficult for a good team to do.

The tricky bit is keeping such an absolute defense going while simultaneously keeping the pack slow. Slowing down the pack will allow a jammer to more easily come around and get into scoring position, but this simultaneously gives more opportunity to the opposition to free their jammer offensively.

Which is what the blue team is trying to do in the chart below. Here, the red team is in good position for lead jammer and to maintain a slow pack.

Take note of who the red team needs to cover (solid blue players) and who it can generally ignore (faded blue players) on defense in each of the four rule sets, and how difficult it would be to keep the pack under their control as a result.

Then compare that to their respective PPJ averages from 2013. You should see a connection between how much opportunity the blue team has to work together offensively (the blue arrows) and how many jams are equally contested across games of all skill levels.

The diagrams show generalized advantageous positioning for the red team. Note how it must engage the blue team defensively in order to score well—and the resulting offensive options the blue team has to counter. (Click for full size.)

This concept is easier to understand if you look at examples in gameplay environments outside of the WFTDA derby we all know. Like it, RDCL play requires both jammers to clear an initial pass for their teams to be eligible to score, which is good for a parallel comparison.

The rear 4-on-1 blockers-on-jammer wall is an extremely common play in the WFTDA. It also happens in the RDCL, but not nearly as frequently, or for as long, or as effectively. For good reason.

RDCL rules feature no destruction of pack penalties, no immediate failure to reform penalties, and a persistently defined engagement zone during split packs. As a consequence, should the red team allow the blue team to all get to the front of the pack, the blue team may legally destroy it to temporarily increase its speed and stay together in a wall without necessarily having to bridge back.

The blue team can control the speed of the pack and remain in a 4-wall formation indefinitely from this position, so long as it pauses acceleration to allow the red 4-wall to catch up and reform the pack. (Sustained failure to reform penalties after 2 seconds prevent indefinite pack pullaways.) But once the pack snaps back together, the blue team can legally split it again and speed it forward.

This repeating cycle of speed-slow-speed-slow will always favor the team wishing to do the speeding, the blue team in this example. This is sub-optimal for the red team, who with lead jammer would wish to do the slowing and keep it slow for a potentially big score.

For the red team to have its wish granted, it would need to keep at least one blue blocker behind them defensively at all times. Doing this affords the red team the privilege of pack speed control, as well as the getting to watch the remaining forward blue blockers get pushed 20 feet forward out of play by the red jammer.

With good defense against the jammer and a blocker, the red team is in a good offensive position to score points. At the same time, however, this necessarily puts the blue team in an equivalently fair offensive position.

Once the red jammer gets clear for lead, the blue team will have a 5-on-4 pack advantage, no different than if they were on a miniature power jam. The blue team can use this extra body to work together, overpower the red defense, and break the blue jammer out of the pack relatively quickly.

Unless the red defense is significantly better than the offense it is trying to contain, this is a battle that will inevitably fall in favor of the blue team on every jam—one way or the other.

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By forcing the red team to play defense against more of the blue team, the blue team has more of a chance to play offense against the red team. That’s offense and defense at the same time. (Roller derby!) Whether the red team likes it or not.

If the red team lets the goated blue blocker go to focus only on the blue jammer, it will give pack advantage to the blue team in the process. From the front, the blue team can strategically (and legally) increase speed and split the pack to directly help their jammer.

Splitting the pack forces the red team to break up its defensive wall to reform the pack from behind. But in doing so, it must simultaneously look back to block the blue jammer. The rear wall will eventually become disjointed while having to concern itself with two conflicting responsibilities, creating a gap and exit lane for the jammer.

For the red team to avoid this from happening, it will want to keep hold of a goat. However, a goat trapped behind a 4-wall with a jammer is also an offensive assist for a jammer to help get through that same 4-wall.

It doesn’t matter if the blue team is in front of their opponents or behind them: Because it has offensive options no matter where it is situated in the pack, it will always be able to use teamwork to have a chance to play offense. It’s up to the red team to work hard on defense to stop those chances if it wants to do well.

Yet even if the blue team isn’t good enough to actually break their jammer out, their offensive efforts should at the minimum force the red team to skate forward at some speed to keep up their containment, forcing the red jammer to have longer loop-arounds on scoring passes. (Stopping or clockwise skating is illegal outside of the WFTDA.)

If even a bad team can create a rolling pack, extreme jam scores become rare, and jams overall become much more competitive across all games played. This helps explain the 6.02 PPJ average calculated for RDCL games played last year.

Contrast this with the WFTDA and its 2013 tournament scoring rate of 9.18 PPJ. In the WFTDA there are many situations where even the best teams have no way of offensively helping their jammer, either through blocking or pack speed control, if she gets gunked behind a rear wall and recycled.

In fact, any offensive attempt by teammates to help a recycled jammer by skating back to her will move the pack back with them. If they could somehow get there to engage, they would be unable to legally throw positional blocks while stopped or in the clockwise direction. This means trying to work together offensively makes their situation even worse!

How can roller derby truly be competitive if all five members of a team don’t always have a fair opportunity to play offense together, no matter the level of their skating skill?

If WFTDA blockers trapped at the front of the pack had a second option on offense besides the “pray your jammer doesn’t get recycled or get a penalty” strategy, all players on a team would always have a way to directly contribute on offense. This is because their opponents would be forced to account for what they can do to help their jammer, no matter where they are on the track.

This is how pack definition rules make sure jams are more competitive for everyone, both offensively and defensively. With a “default” chance for blockers to define the pack in their favor, even an outmatched team can take advantage of the defensive failures of an opponent.

Even when that defense has no jammer to defend.

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Power Jams, Penalties, and Pack Control

Here is the interesting thing about roller derby power jams, as most know them: Technically, they are not roller derby.

Roller derby is a game where both teams play offense and defense simultaneously. If one team has no opportunity to play offense, and the other team sees no need to play defense, both teams are not playing offense and defense at the same time. By the textbook definition, a power jam of this manner cannot be roller derby.

Yet there are ways to adhere to the proper definition during the situations where there is only one jammer on the track at any given moment. Doing this keeps regular jam scoring balanced with penalty-heavy scoring in such a way where the value of an individual point, and the effort necessary to earn it, is the same either way.

Basically, rules must force a team to play defense throughout an entire jam, lest they face consequences. Including while on a power jam. This makes sure there are consistent consequences for bad teamwork or individual mistakes, allowing their opponent to take the advantage and have a chance to counter offensively on the penalty kill.

Yes, offensively. Offense with your jammer in the penalty box.

In this next diagram, we will remove the blue jammer and see what happens from the perspective of the red team, who has lead jammer and is about to complete a scoring pass. We know the blue team can’t get lead jammer and/or score points; that’s the consequence of its mistake, the jammer penalty. We know who the blue team is trying to defend against.

We also know what the red team is trying to do on offense. But for it to really be roller derby, it also needs to be playing defense simultaneously. Who does the red team need to play defense against? And if the red team makes a defensive mistake on the power jam, what consequences does it face as a result?

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If the red team wants to keep scoring on the power jam, it should be made play roller derby—do well on offense and defense at the same time. If it can’t play defense well, it shouldn’t deserve to do well on offense.

Here we can see how pack definition plays a major part in ensuring that both teams have an appropriately fair chance to play offense and defense on power jams. We once again look to the RDCL scenario for the best example of this.

With the blue jammer in the penalty box, the red team enjoys a big advantage. As it should. But this advantage does not grant the red team immunity from punishment for bad defense or committing penalties. Like any advantage, it can be squandered with mistakes such as poor blocking or penalties.

The red team can only cash in big on its offensive chance if it simultaneously plays a basic amount of defense, in this case containing a single blue blocker. Doing so prevents the blue team from speeding up the pack or creating a strong forward rolling 4-wall, as explained before.

To do well on offense, the red team must do well on defense simultaneously. That’s roller derby, even during power jams.

If it can’t do well on defense and the blue team offensively frees their goat, on the other hand, the red team can forget about a big power jam score.

That’s right: Offensively. The blue goat can be freed as if she was a jammer offensively breaking through the opposing defense. Even if that blocker is not eligible to come around and score points, the mechanics of her getting through the red team and gaining advantageous forward position is exactly the same.

So it is also with blocker penalties. If red blockers start riding the pine, holding back the “offense” of the blue team with fewer defenders becomes much more difficult to do—let alone doing it while keeping the pack slow.

Unless the players in a red micro-pack are significantly better than the other blockers on the track, a faster pack is likely to happen as the blue team together constantly attacks the red defense. This naturally leads to longer jammer scoring laps and a lower power jam score.

By way of defensive miscues or blocker penalties, the red team gets punished for their mistakes to the tune of diminishing their chances of scoring well on offense. Power jam or not.

Contrast this with how power jams often go in the WFTDA, where there are few or no consequences for blocker penalties or (defensive) laziness. Teams that activate offensively at the right time can be rewarded by forcing an pack split/bridging situation, yes. Yet, this strategy requires no simultaneous and persistent defense to gain access to.

To do well on offense, the red team need not play defense simultaneously. By any definition, that cannot be roller derby.

Power jams like these throw gameplay out of balance, even in games between highly-skilled teams. This factor helps to further explain the much, much higher PPJ average across all of WFTDA roller derby last year.

This, despite the fact that both the RDCL and WFTDA had 60-second power jams last year—a duration that is not changing in the RDCL any time soon. (RDCL penalties last up to the full duration of one 60-second jam.) Why would it need to, when the scoring effects of RDCL power jams remained much more in balance with regular jams due to its rules differences?

In the RDCL (and USARS, too) the team that best holds control over the blockers on the other team defensively is the team that earns the best chance of success on the power jam offensively. During power jams or during regular jams, the conditions for success, or failure, are the same for both teams.

If teams are not able to directly compete against each other for points due to jammer penalties, rules should make they sure have the same opportunity to compete for the next best thing: Pack speed control, the major factor how successful a team is at scoring offense (slow pack) and scoring defense (fast pack).

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Active Pivots and Fair & Equal Jam Starts

In the WFTDA and RDCL, a jammer must physically pass their helmet cover to the pivot in order to transfer points-scoring abilities on the jam. In MADE and USARS rules, pivots can break away from the pack to become a jammer without a star pass, but only after an opposing team has made their way through the pack on the initial pass to pick up lead.

The role of the pivot is the single biggest difference between the two styles of roller derby. It is also the single biggest reason why the average scoring rate in USARS and MADE is below 4.00 PPJ—and the numbers in the RDCL and WFTDA are some distance above it.

With a front-loaded active pivot, it is extremely likely that both teams will have someone jamming on the same scoring lap, making jams ideally competitive almost every time up.

Hold on: Wouldn’t giving a team the ability to send away their pivot from the front of the pack make it easier for it to score? The claim is a lower PPJ should make it more difficult to put points on the scoreboard. Without ever needing to get their jammer out of the pack, the implication is that a pivot break will ensure a team an easy chance to get points every time.

That teams may appear to have an “easy” way to get a scoring chance on every jam is completely irrelevant. In reality, the only thing that matters here is that both teams start with an equal opportunity to get a scoring chance on every jam. This is because both teams start a jam with the exact same legitimate offensive threat available to them to initiate that scoring chance.

By default, this offensive threat is not the jammer.

It’s actually the pivot.

Both of these USARS teams start a a jam in equal position to break their pivot out from the front of the pack. If a team wants to lead the breakout, however, it will have to best get their jammer through the other team to earn that privilege.

In MADE and USARS, pivots (and jammers) are required to start every jam and pivots must start at the front of the pack. These requirements hold even if the player wearing the star or stripe is seated in the penalty box at the end of the previous jam; they remove their cover and finish their penalty as a blocker into the next jam.

When both teams are rule-bound to field a pivot on every jam, both teams have the same chance to break a player away from front of the pack. Neither team starts with an advantage or disadvantage here, because both teams begin a jam in equal position to lap opponents—from ahead of everyone else.

(“To lap” in this context means to complete one more lap of the track than an opponent, as on a race track. This does not necessarily mean “initially pass and then re-pass” an opponent. Anyone anywhere on the track and lap anyone else by skating around and passing them up; the need not have initially started behind them to meet this definition.)

Yet in spite of their scoring abilities, pivots can never be the first player out of the pack to start a scoring pass. (That would be far too easy.) This being a competition, teams are made to compete against each other for the strategical advantage of breaking away from the pack first and with as much of a head start as possible.

We better know this advantage as lead jammer.

A team (not just an individual on it) that plays effective offense during the initial pass while simultaneously playing effective defense to hold back the other team (not just an individual on it) will emerge with lead and have the advantage going into the pack on the scoring pass. The bigger the desired advantage, the harder they will have to work for it on offense (slow pack) and defense (containment).

Getting positioning advantage during the initial pass is critical. From an advantageous pack position, a team can more easily defend an opponent at a speed that allows for good scoring opportunities.

Every rule set has a naturally advantageous position within the pack as a consequence of pack definition rules, an advantage that is often exploited by a team whenever the opportunity presents itself.

But even here, rules must be in effect to ensure teams have an equal opportunity to compete for what they want—even before the very first whistle.

In our next diagram, note how the rules force certain players (circled in yellow) to line up in certain positions at the start of a jam. It’s here where we see another spooky commonality.

Unlike the points per jam tables on the previous page that showed very similar figures across multiple WFTDA events, below we see very similar jam start formation rules across three of the four gameplay environments.

If the red team wants to gain a comfortable defensive position after a jam starts, how is it made to fight against the blue team to earn it? Given how the pivots, blockers, and jammers line up, how hard must the red team work to do what they want offensively, without spoiling what they want to do defensively?

A team should have the same chance to offensively prevent a 4-wall from forming as it does creating one defensively. If these teams wanted to play 100% offense off the start line, which would be in a fair position to do that? (Click for full size.)

The start rules in the RDCL, MADE, and USARS are eerily similar—RDCL and USARS, virtually identical—despite all three of the organizations promoting different styles of play and developing their rules independently of each other.

All three of them require both teams to field a pivot and place them on the pivot line. All three of them also forbid the formation of a 4-wall before the jam starts, forcing blockers to directly compete with one another for positioning after the whistle.

And all three of them had significantly more competitive jams in 2013 compared to that of the fourth—the WFTDA, which just so happens to have none of these requirements during jam starts.

Are these similarities just a coincidence? Or is there something bigger at work here?

Making pivots just as important as jammers, as in MADE and USARS, is the cut-and-dried rules can guarantee good competition. But even without them, equal jam starts and pack definition rules, as seen in the RDCL, and act as a good compromise on competition and keeps jam scores competitive.

Without either, however, a butterfly effect occurs. Good teams can often overcome the starting disadvantages they may be forced into. But even slight mismatches can often cascade into large jam score wins, for the simple reason that an inferior team has no way to help their jammer defeat a team starting in a superior defensive position, a position they did nary a thing to earn.

When teams are made to compete for position at the start of a jam, the team that winds up getting the positioning they want did so because they worked harder than their opponent, on both offense and defense.

A team that earns this positioning can then use it to help compete for lead jammer during the initial pass. The team that gets it did so because they worked harder than their opponent, on both offense and defense.

The team that earns lead jammer will have an advantage as the players in the pack begin to compete for points on the scoring pass. The one that works harder than their opponent, on both offense and defense—and without making any mistakes—will be the one that score positive points on the jam.

In a highly competitive roller derby game environment, particularly if an active pivot is in play, that score will typically be no more than four points. Four hard-earned points by a team five roller derby skaters. Contested in every single moment, of every single jam, in every single game.

Rules ensure this competition, because rules make doing things the easy way, the unsuccessful way. In a competitive environment, the only way to score points is to work hard; the only way to score more points is to work harder.

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20 responses to this post.

  1. As a WFTDA rules skater, I really like some of the aspects of the other three rules sets such as the verbal warning for cutting and always having to be doing offence and defence at the same time. But watching the Your Mom v Oly game, it did feel a at times like I was just watching a load of men race each other around the track!
    I like fast derby but I think slow derby can be awesome to watch and take part in. I’m not sure how the two could be combined but I agree that, as a spectator, massive blow outs and the feeling of “Well, we all know how this jam is going to pan out” is not good and will potentially drive fans away.
    There are a lot of problems with WFTDA and it seems very fashionable to bash it at the moment. But I’m not sure everyone switching to USARS is the answer. I would be interested to have a go at playing under one of the other rule sets however.
    Good article but it did take me a LONG time to read! :D

    Reply

    • You’re right about the guys just racing around the track. Last year, USARS teams killed a power jam by speedskating away once they got around the (bad) defense of the other team. This year it is a much more rare occurrence because USARS added the requirements that jammers and pivots start every jam, among other tweaks. This means a team that just endlessly skates in circles is effectively throwing away a chance to score points. Running away from your own jammer is a dumb, dumb strategy, and no successful team will ever do this except in end-game situations.

      Your desire to “combine” fast derby and slow derby is exactly what other rulesets do: Both teams have an equal chance to play the game at the speed they want to play it at. Want to speed things up? Get around the other team and earn the forward positioning necessary to do that. Want to slow things down? get around the other team and earn the forward positioning necessary to do that. WFTDA teams can always slow things down, but they can’t always speed things up (see: power jams). In truth, there is no such thing as “fast” derby or “slow” derby. Only fair derby.

      Anyways, this isn’t about roller derby “switching” to a different rule set. It’s about making sure everyone that plays roller derby, is actually playing roller derby. If you haven’t seen my seminar from RollerCon last year, I highly recommend you check it out, here. It’s long (75 minutes) but it should explain what I mean by that.

      Reply

  2. Thanks so much for the excellent article!

    Reply

  3. Am I missing something obvious here, or are the 2013 MADE tournament stats really claiming an average combined score of 199, with an average score gap of 131? That’s saying the winning team wins by almost 5:1 on average, even without scaling.

    Reply

    • No, that’s correct. You can view the stats on my Google Drive, here.

      Having personally attended this tournament, I can tell you that the actual roller derby that happened on the track was fantastic. Everything else about the tournament, however, was not. A very, very poorly structured bracket (the organizers actually asked ME for suggestions on what could be done to change it—halfway through the tournament), a venue that was terrible, a promoter that did not make good on the promised prize monies, and a lot of angry players at the end of it.

      But stil, 3.43 PPJ. I’d see it again in a heartbeat.

      Reply

  4. Posted by Captain Lou El Bammo on 2 September 2014 at 11:35 am

    Your maths are wrong for the analysis you wish to make. As is your definition of competitiveness.

    Using your own numbers, the WFTDA model provides for much more competitive games over the other rulesets.

    You should be using the PPJ numbers to bring all the rulesets into comparable tables so that you can see which rules actually create the biggest gaps/blowouts/discrepancies.

    Both MADE and USARS trails far behind the WFTDA on the competitiveness scale when you compare apples to apples. This is an analysis you could have done yet it does not fit your agenda. Sadly, for you, the facts and numbers don’t lie. The WFTDA numbers are the superior for the datasets that you provided.

    Reply

    • Posted by Costa Ladeas on 23 October 2014 at 3:56 pm

      Yea cause “everybody” is playing WFTDA rules because WFTDA is the “cool kids” club. “Everybody” wants to hang out with the “cool kids” regardless whether the product is good or bad which should tell you a lot about people generally speaking.

      Reply

    • Posted by theoriginaldonald on 23 October 2014 at 6:50 pm

      Call me November 3rd when the FIVE TIME! FIVE TIME! FIVE TIME Jennifer Wilson Memorial Trophy winner Gotham Girls Roller Derby crush all three of their opponents by AT LEAST 100 points each

      Reply

  5. Posted by broei on 3 September 2014 at 1:00 pm

    In MADE, the Jammer or Pivot can take off, uncontestedly, on a scoring run during a No Pack situation. This makes it imperative that you also keep two opposing Pack Players behind you. I do not see this reflected in the corresponding diagrams (Minimum defense required…). I think this also could explain the lower PPJ rate in MADE compared to USARS.

    Relatedly, creating a No Pack under MADE rules is not only possible but also goes unpunished, as this recent bout shows (at the ends of clips 29, 39 & 45):

    Off course, no Jammer will score points during a No Pack, but if you’re still on your initial pass, that doesn’t matter.

    Reply

  6. Posted by Mike on 23 September 2014 at 10:57 am

    The link between PPJ and competiveness is weak at best.

    I can make a game have any typical number of points. The teams are always looking to have more than half of them. If that means they need 2 points or 200 points, they are going to work just as hard to get over half of the points and win the game.

    Raising or lowering PPJ won’t do anything to make a game more or less competitive.

    In a competitive game, the teams split the available points fairly evenly. Whether that is a lot of points or very few doesn’t matter, how evenly those points are divided does.

    Reply

    • I can make a game have any typical number of points. The teams are always looking to have more than half of them. If that means they need 2 points or 200 points, they are going to work just as hard to get over half of the points and win the game.

      Well, yes, but you’re talking about how hard teams work relative to each other, and how the ratio of points between them. I’m talking about how hard a team must collectively work to score points in the style of game being played before adjusting that difficulty level up or down based on the skill level of the opposition.

      Let’s think about what you said here, then take it a step further:

      In a competitive game, the teams split the available points fairly evenly. Whether that is a lot of points or very few doesn’t matter, how evenly those points are divided does.

      In a competitive jam, the teams will wind up with fairly even jam scores more often than not. Game scores can be close whether they are low or high, but the key is that jams can only typically be close if they are low-scoring, due to the team with lead calling off the jam early. Naturally, the WFTDA is the exception to this, with full 2-minute jams where both teams score a lot of points that cancel each other out equally.

      If the two teams were really equal, jam scores would more often reflect that. But you’re saying a (simplying) 24-0 jam followed by a 0-24 jam would result in a competitive game, since the scores cancel out 24-24.

      But then, wouldn’t a 14-10 followed by a 10-14 would be even more competitive? In this kind of jam, both teams would be dueling on offense and defense simultaneously. The scores would reflect that one team was slightly better in one jam, and the second team slightly better in the other.

      This distribution of scoring would be much more in line with the equality level of teams playing against each other, in the context of the game being played. However, if you have a style of game where 14-10 jams and 24-0 jams are possible (24.00 PPJ), you run the risk of one uncompetitive 24-0 jam wiping out 6 competitive jams’ worth of 14-10s.

      The reason why low(er) PPJs helps keep games more competitive overall is because the competition level of each individual jam more accurately resembles how competitive the teams actually are against each other. Two very equal, very competitive teams should be partaking in very equal, very competitive (and therefore, low-scoring) jams, in such a way that “big” scoring jams should be hard to get.

      Hard enough, so that if a big score does happen, it doesn’t render the competitive jams obsolete. I argue that this this “default” level of scoring difficulty is something around 4.00 PPJ, because two equal teams shouldn’t be scoring multiple passes on each other if they were really that equal.

      This way, two equal teams and two slightly mismatched teams would still be dropping single-pass scores on each other, it’s just that the bad team in a mismatch has more tools and more time to put a competitive effort in to try and score points, checking against blowouts and making sure a team that loses a few “big” jams can make up that deficit with a realistic number of “small” jams.

      Roller derby played in a high PPJ environment doesn’t show how good two teams are in a duel against each other, but rather which one scored better when it was their to pop shots at a shooting gallery. Big difference.

      Reply

      • Posted by mike on 25 September 2014 at 11:04 am

        We’re going to end up disagreeing on some points as what we like in a sport is different. And I would say that is a statement that multiple rule sets existing is good as it allows us to both have games going on that we really like.

        So on to some disagreement/suggestions. :)

        There are some features of WFTDA play that make PPJ less informative.

        Take a look at Berlin v Rideau Valley at the Kitchener Tournament. I picked this one because it has a very high PPJ and a very low score differential. So this is a game we would disagree on the competitiveness of.

        483 combined points (243-240). 47 jams. PPJ = 10.3
        A high PPJ which you would consider to be a lot of noncompetitive jams.

        However, since WFTDA play often has jams where both teams score points, the PPJ is inflated.

        If I only consider jams where one team scores, what you indicate is what we should see in a competitive jam, the PPJ drops to 4.59.

        The high PPJ is coming from play where there are scoring passes for both teams in a single jam.

        If I replace PPJ with the average of the difference in points scored per jam, I get a score difference per jam of 5.30. Roughly half of the overall PPJ.

        The high PPJ isn’t reflective of lots of blowout jams and wild scoring swings. It’s indicative of a style of play where teams regularly make multiple scoring passes whether or not their opponent is also on a scoring pass. Having one jammer score 8 and another score 4 only shifts the score difference by 4 points, but it pushes the PPJ up significantly.

        The last jam of Rideau Valley v Berlin was a 38 point jam. 20 points for Berlin and 18 points for Rideau Valley. That jam raised the PPJ by 0.7 all by itself. But it was a jam where both teams competed for points and the score differential for the jam was only 2. I propose that you should view that jam as nearly perfect competition since both teams scored nearly equal points even though it was 7.9% of the total game score in a single jam.

        I would suggest that score difference per jam is a better stat for what you are trying to argue since that allows for play where both teams are successfully competing for points.

        (Numbers pulled from rinxter.net and FTS)

      • However, since WFTDA play often has jams where both teams score points, the PPJ is inflated.

        The high PPJ is coming from play where there are scoring passes for both teams in a single jam.

        I realize that WFTDA’s PPJ is higher in part due to the 2-minute high-scoring jam. I said as much in the analysis and in my previous comment. However, you can’t ignore that high PPJ also comes from play where there are scoring passes for only one team in a single jam.

        The high-scoring but competitive 20-18 jam from the Berlin/Rideau game you cited also had high-scoring and uncompetitive jams of 27-4 and 23-0. Both types of jams happen often across all WFTDA games played.

        I’d wager that the lopsided jams happen more often than the ones that even out, when you look at the bigger picture.

        If I only consider jams where one team scores, what you indicate is what we should see in a competitive jam,

        Not what I said a competitive jam is. By your logic, a 1-1 jam wouldn’t be competitive, because both teams scored. But a 23-0 jam would be, because only one team scored. That is clearly not correct.

        A competitive jam is simply one where both teams have an equal chance to score points, and both teams have an equal chance to defend points. Any equal jam score (0-0, 1-1, 4-4, 10-10, 20-20) would have to be extremely competitive, because the offense and defense of both teams are cancelling each other out on the scoreboard in that contest for points.

        However, part of the territory that comes with ruleset-wide low PPJ averages is that there is always—ALWAYS—a lead jammer that can call off the jam after scoring points. In that situation, they almost always do, as to prevent the opposition from scoring and cancelling out the fact that they got to the pack to score points first. So of course the other team isn’t going to score on many jams!

        You argue that a 20-18 jam is competitive. Of course it is. Yet your argument disregards the reality that the same gameplay environment produces 23-0 or similarly ridiculous uncompetitive jam scores. The major issue many people have with WFTDA derby is that the 1, 2, 3, and 4-point differences earned in the very competitive, very difficult jams, are rendered irrelevant by the 15, 20, and 25+-point differences that comes in very uncompetitive, very easy jams.

        Basically, in the vast majority of WFTDA games, the exciting hard-fought point differential wins are inconsequential to the final game result, because the boring, easy point differential wins are often the only ones that really matter.

        A low PPJ environment keeps the competitive score differences, but takes away the more easily-attainable uncompetitive score differences by making them proportionally more difficult. Your 20-18 jam in a WFTDA game would always be a 2-0 (or 3-1 or 4-2) jam elsewhere. If a team in a low PPJ game wanted to get a 23-0 score, however, that would be almost impossible simply because the difficulty level of doing so would be off the charts.

        In a big USARS mismatch, for example, a very good team would need to keep the pack moving forward as slowly as possible while simultaneously containing 2 or 3 opponents on defense. There were some pretty big mismatches at USARS Nationals this past weekend, but even so, the biggest jam, which only happened two or three times all weekend, was a 20-0. That seems about the upper limit for a USARS jam, because scoring that many points in a jam is very difficult, even for the best teams in the world playing against those way down the pecking order.

  7. Posted by Mike on 13 October 2014 at 9:15 am

    This is the area where we’re going to just end up disagreeing.

    I view competitiveness on the scale of the enitre game, not on the scale of an individual jam.

    To me, competitive means I don’t know who is going to win through most of the game. No matter what the point scoring structure is, the trailing team could reasonably be able to come back and challenge the lead.

    If the losing team was able to remain in position to threaten the lead for at least 75% of the game, I view it as a competitive game. The size of the score isn’t what interests me, and the single jam scores only play into it in that they determine how large of a gap can reasonably be overcome.

    So to me, a game where I knew who was going to win by halftime isn’t competitive at any PPJ.

    Reply

  8. Posted by Tim on 16 October 2014 at 7:17 pm

    The real issue is that WFTDA roller derby is BORING. The points per jam and the competitiveness of any jam or bout are just symptoms of the real problem. The real problem is that the skaters are not skating, and they are definitely not skating with any speed or skill. They are stopped, they are standing, or they are even going backwards, they are ignoring 80% of opponents on the track, and THIS IS BORING.

    The current rules give the advantage to the team whose blockers are in the back and stopped and completely ignoring everyone on the other team except their jammer. This same problem is the cause of both why it is so easy to score in WFTDA roller derby and why it is so boring. The reason it is so easy to score is because the pack barely ever moves forward. It is now common to have entire 2 minute jams where the pack does not complete one lap of the track. The pack never completes more than a few laps of the track anymore. So since a jammer scores by lapping opponents, and those opponents are not moving, all the jammer is really doing is skating a few laps with opponents acting as glorified traffic cones in the way.

    When I attended my first roller derby bout back in 2008 and up through about 2011 for the roller derby league in my area, everyone skated fast. They did not know about bullshit passive offense, and so they were ignorantly playing fast, skillful, and EXCITING roller derby. Scoring was much more difficult back then too. This was because the opponents you needed to pass in order to score were always skating away from you. In order to make a scoring pass, a jammer had to circle the track several times to catch back up to them. The pack was often circling the track at about 10 seconds per lap, and the jammer was skating even faster. They were skating, blocking, dodging, and jumping at breakneck speeds which was EXCITING.

    So the reason it is so easy to score is because with bullshit passive offense, if a jammer is going to make 4 scoring passes, she only needs to skate 5 laps since the pack is not going anywhere. Before bullshit passive offense, a jammer that made 4 scoring passes was circling the track 25 times at incredible speeds, literally flying around the track, and the blockers were skating fast too.

    You can talk about the number of points scored, the closeness of jams or bouts, the competitiveness of any bout, the way the ranking are calculated and all the other symptoms of the real problem, which again, is that WFTDA roller derby is now incredibly BORING because 4 out of 5 of a team’s players are not skating at all, and the jammer is not skating all that fast. They are in fact encouraged not to skate by the perverse incentives in the current WFTDA rules.

    The way roller derby was played when I first saw it was fast and exciting. I imagine that the same is true for everyone that is a fan of the sport, or at least was a fan at one time. Why do WFTDA’s own promotional videos feature fast skating action rather then the prevalent bullshit passive offense? The fast roller derby is what I want to see come back. It baffles me that the skaters in WFTDA are apparently against rule changes to effect this. Maybe bullshit passive offense really is incredibly fun for the skaters, but I don’t believe that. How can it be fun for the skaters, when they aren’t even doing any skating? It does not look fun to me, and it is absolutely not fun to watch.

    Windy Man, after finding and reading a lot of your posts, I am pleased that someone at least is pushing on this subject with some intelligence and suggestions for improvements. The other rule sets appear to have some solutions to the problems in WFTDA, although I’ve never seen any of those rules used in person. But it can’t get much worse than it is right now, so I am left hoping that either WFTDA starts adopting these rules or that my local league switches to these other rules.

    Reply

  9. Posted by mike on 20 October 2014 at 2:58 pm

    Passive offense in WFTDA is a passing phase that is already passing.

    If you want to see WFTDA games without it, watch the WFTDA Championships at the end of the month.

    The problem that all the rule sets are seeing and responding to is that roller derby is an incredibly difficult sport to play. Simultaneous offense and defense is not something most teams are able to effectively deploy.

    Some of the rule sets respond to the problem by disabling defense. The active scorer rule where the pivot starts in front of the blockers essentially removes defense as a viable strategy so that teams gain little from defense. You get a more offense oriented game because all the pivot has to do is loiter at the front of the pack and avoid engagement and they can completely negate the blocker’s efforts to contain the jammer. You get passive play in front instead of in back of the pack.

    The WFTDA rule set rewards defensive play. This has resulted in the short term in slower games because teams have focused on defense as there is much to gain by developing a good defense.

    What you see at the top of the sport is defenses that have become so strong that they cannot be effectively penetrated without offense. The teams that then move to the very top are the ones that can deploy effective offense while still maintaining a strong defense. When top end WFTDA teams meet, the stronger offense wins since they both have staggeringly powerful defenses that even the best jammer cannot reliably penetrate alone. This is leading to faster play at the top end since passive offense against a division 1 team and an increasing number of division 2 teams is a losing strategy.

    The challenge is how to find effective methods to move these offensive strategies further and further down the rankings so that more and more teams are able to make the transition from playing purely defensive derby to playing a mix of offense and defense. And that’s a challenge since making that rapid transition while maintaining a cohesive pack is very difficult.

    Reply

    • Posted by Costa Ladeas on 23 October 2014 at 3:51 pm

      from your lips to God’s ears Mike.

      Reply

    • The active scorer rule where the pivot starts in front of the blockers essentially removes defense as a viable strategy so that teams gain little from defense. You get a more offense oriented game because all the pivot has to do is loiter at the front of the pack and avoid engagement and they can completely negate the blocker’s efforts to contain the jammer. You get passive play in front instead of in back of the pack.

      Not true. If a pivot “loiters” at the front of the pack, she is ignoring her defensive responsibilities, to the detriment of her team. (I wrote about this in a previous article on strategy, which you can see here.) For example, the pivot is the last line of defense against the other team breaking out first for lead jammer. If the pivot continuously allows the opposing jammer to break out of the pack first, it will always be second into the pack, will not score very many points, and probably lose the game.

      Also, the job of the defense isn’t to “contain the jammer.” It’s to contain the opposing team, of which the jammer is only one member. Stopping the opposing jammer is important, in that it ensures your team will get your jammer out first for lead. But if your team wants a big jammer lead, it will need to play even better defense to contain the opposing pivot, too. If your pivot is “loitering” at the front and not actively defending the opposing pivot, you’re not going to get much out of your lead jammer advantage, are you?

      So yeah, there can be passive strategies by pivots at the front of the pack in MADE/USARS. But they are often losing strategies.

      The challenge is how to find effective methods to move these offensive strategies further and further down the rankings so that more and more teams are able to make the transition from playing purely defensive derby to playing a mix of offense and defense.

      Notice how you kept saying that at “the top of the sport,” or with the “top end WFTDA teams,” things appear fine. Great! But these teams are a small minority in the WFTDA, and an even smaller percentage of teams that play by WFTDA rules overall.

      There’s a misconception out there that boring/uncompetitive derby in the WFTDA will go away once the “bad” teams get better at playing defense, thereby forcing more of their opponents to have to play offense. As I explained in my analysis, that is a very unreliable strategy. The level of teams playing one another any given day is variable, and you can’t rely on a variable if the goal is to see offense and defense being played consistently across the entire spectrum of games played, especially when so many teams will never approach anything close to top-level debry.

      As I said, the only way you can guarantee consistent competition is to describe it in the only thing that is consistent everywhere: The rules. A rule set needs to work for everyone, not just those that are very good. A rule set needs to foster competition between teams regardless of how close or mismatched they may be, not just between teams that are ranked near each other—and can afford to travel to peer opponents regularly.

      And that’s a challenge since making that rapid transition while maintaining a cohesive pack is very difficult.

      No shit, it’s supposed to be difficult. This is roller derby, a game where a team is expected to play offense and defense at the same time, which is impossible. But that’s the point: It’s equally impossible for both teams. The trick is to make sure both teams have a fair opportunity to play offense and defense simultaneously and at all times, regardless of the level of their opponent or current situation on the track.

      Reply

  10. Posted by Mike on 3 November 2014 at 1:01 pm

    If teams of wildly different skill play each other, the game should not be competitive. The teams won’t have equal ability to score since they don’t have equal ability.

    Competitive play requires teams of similar skill.

    You don’t need to build the incentives for teams of similar ability to play each other into the rules. The WFTDA builds it into their rankings calculator. A team is only going to hurt itself playing teams far above or far below its ranking. For sanctioned play, this encourages teams of similar skill to play each other across the entirety of the organization.

    Reply

  11. […] I had some great feedback from Part 1, including an absolutely amazing article from WindyMan (https://windymanrd.wordpress.com/2014/09/01/points-per-jam-roller-derbys-default-difficulty/) that I suggest everyone check out, and it is time for me to continue to the second part in this […]

    Reply

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