Archive for the ‘Analysis’ Category

Points Per Jam: Roller Derby’s Default Difficulty

It should be difficult for a roller derby team to score points. So why does it often seem so easy for them to be scored instead?

Derby scoring has seemingly been getting easier and easier over the last several years, with point totals climbing higher and higher. This year’s rules updates appear to have addressed this trend, sure. But even taking games played in 2014, it is still not abnormal for many of them to end with a combined total score of 300, 400, 500, 600 (!), or even more than 700 (!!!) points.

Press me for 5 points. And again. And again…

Press me for 200 points.

Whether point totals of such magnitude were reached in a close game or a blowout, if it is possible for two teams to together score that often in a 60-minute game, any individual pass for a point, let alone the non-scoring initial passes, must be relatively easy to accomplish.

If it were really that difficult to get points, there wouldn’t be so many of them scored in the first place!

Very high-scoring games still happen quite a lot in the WFTDA and MRDA, especially during mismatches. Scoreboard-spinners can also show up in other derby variants, like in USARS, MADE, or the RDCL.

However, games where the scoreboard hits perilously high totals are less frequent in non-WFTDA forms of roller derby, and of a lesser magnitude when they do happen. This is in part because scoring points is appreciably harder to do, on the average, in these versions of the game.

As a result, these games can often be much more competitive.

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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.

usars-derby-rules--2014

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 #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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2013 WFTDA Bracketology #2: Division 1 and the High Cost of Inflexibilty

wftda-playoffs-2013-header

With WFTDA rankings locked-in and the participating teams seeded into four cities across the United States, the first-ever WFTDA Division 1 playoff tournaments are set to kick-off this September.

As the growth of the modern game continues to seek a clear direction, the WFTDA is heading into new territory this postseason. Besides overhauling the ranking system to eliminate biases inherent in an opinion poll, the governing body has also made a significant change to its playoff format.

Out are the four distinct regional tournaments, which have been replaced by what is effectively one big championship playoff divided into four equally-seeded qualifiers. This method was selected by WFTDA member leagues to, according to them, allow for “more competitive play within and across” the whole of the playoffs, and ensure that “the best teams are eligible for Championships,” which this year will happen in Milwaukee the weekend of November 8.

In this installment of WFTDA Bracketology, it’s time to pick apart the Division 1 brackets and see how the WFTDA attempted to meet these and other goals, whether or not the methods it selected were the best way of meeting them, and if the concessions it made to do so were really in the best interests of its member leagues, and for roller derby as a whole.

In case you missed it, check out the first WFTDA Bracketology post wherein we discovered some issues with the Division 2 bracket and took observation at an alternate look at the Division 1 tournament, two things which will come in very handy for what you’re about to read here.

The 2013 WFTDA Division 1 Playoffs

The five events that make up the run for the Hydra championship trophy are no longer called “The Big 5” by the WFTDA, but the scale of the tournaments that now comprise the Division 1 playoffs are still pretty damn big. Forty teams are eligible regardless of what people are calling it these days, so let’s give “The Big 40” their due and see who is playing where this year.

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Battle on the Bank VI Diary: The Most Interesting Jam in the World

Heading into Battle on the Bank this year, there was little doubt that the L.A. Derby Dolls and their Ri-Ettes all-star team were the runaway favorites to repeat as banked track champs. Having destroyed both their closest rivals earlier in the year, the San Diego Derby Dolls Wildfires and the Arizona Derby Dames Hot Shots, Los Angeles did not have have much in the way of resistance to claim the title for the second straight year.

And so they did.

The L.A. Derby Dolls, winners of three out of six Battle on the Bank tournaments and two in a row. But this isn't about them.

The L.A. Derby Dolls, winners of three out of six Battle on the Bank tournaments and two in a row. That’s great and all, but this story isn’t about them.

Despite the winner being a foregone conclusion, there was still a lot to look forward to a few steps lower on the bracket.

At the bottom, the Sugartown Rollergirls and Penn-Jersey Roller Derby got their first taste of the RDCL national tournament. In the middle, Tilted Thunder and the OC Rollergirls showed that they are not too far off from competing for the podium, putting in a good showing against the top teams after putting on a great show against each other. And off to the side, the juniors of the RDCL demonstrated that it won’t be long until they replace the players occupying their eventual spots on the senior rosters.

But back to the top steps. Though San Diego was seeded ahead of Arizona, it wasn’t an easy pick to say who would overcome the other on the way to the finals. But it was all but certain that which ever one did would lose to L.A. in the finals, making the battle between them a race for second place.

The double-elimination format of the tournament virtually ensured both teams would face each other twice: Once in a 30-minute game in the winners’ bracket on Saturday, and again in a full tilt the next day for a place in the grand final.

Thank goodness they did. The two AZ/SD games, by a fair margin, featured the most engaging, most fascinating, most exciting roller derby I have seen at Battle on the Bank out of the four editions I have attended. Dare I say, it was the most compelling action I have seen in the Doll Factory in two or three years—a period which includes all-star appearances by Gotham, Rocky Mountain, Team Legit, and Team Bionic, among many other top-tier teams that have rolled through in that time.

A bold statement, that, but there are numbers to back it up. In ninety total minutes of gameplay between the two teams, leads larger than 20 points were a short-lived luxury. Sustaining a low double-digit lead was about as good as either team could manage throughout. In the 60-minute semifinal game, teams were averaging less than 2 points each per jam. Two! Factor out power jams, and it was even closer.

Close scores are one thing, but with the 2013 RDCL rules having almost eliminated “cheap” points gifted to teams during goating and power jam situations, it was literally back to the case of every point mattering and every point needing to be fought for tooth-and-nail.

The sausage non-engagement tactic has, for all intents and purposes, been eliminated in the new rules. Front-loaded defenses were at a formidable advantage, forcing both teams to engage and assist offensively to break through. Packs were moving at a reasonable speed, allowing a defense trapped ahead of a goat time to lock on to, match speed with, and slow down an opposing jammer wanting to complete a pass, making goating itself less effective and no longer an easy play to complete a full pass.

This restored competitive balance to gameplay, but it also created a most exciting side-effect. If two equal teams both have an equal chance to play defense, are equally proficient at playing offense in the pack, and have jammers of equal speed and skill levels, odds are that both jammers are going to frequently complete their initial pass equally—or simultaneously, as it were.

That is exactly what happened in the Arizona/San Diego games. I don’t have an exact number, but I can almost guarantee that their games saw the highest number of close double-jammer breakouts all weekend, by a fair margin. In fact, a good percentage of jams had jammers within a quarter-track of each other or closer after completing the initial pass, leading to a hard and fast jammer race back to the rear of the pack. This often led to low-score, and even no-score jams, but not for a lack of action.

As both teams began to realize that uncontested scoring passes were rare, the only thing they could do was gain every millisecond of advantage they possibly could with the jammer race on the track and against each other in the pack to secure a favorable position for the scoring pass. The AZ/SD games at Battle on the Bank were brilliant examples this kind of hold-your-breath gameplay.

However, they also showed clear signs that the strategy behind jammer-race contested scoring passes is yet-to-be discovered by many teams in roller derby, not just those in the RDCL.

There was one jam in particular that demonstrated this.

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