Posts Tagged ‘Outside Perspective’

The Win Button

Good news, bad news time.

First, the good news: The WFTDA has announced that its next roller derby rules update will be released this fall, to go into mandatory effect on January 1, 2013. So far, it is confirmed that the new rules will have no minor penalties as well as other changes to be revealed later.

The bad news: The delay in the update has created a lame duck period for the current ruleset—flaws, loopholes, and all—which will continue to be used through to the end of the 2012 WFTDA Big 5 season.

We remember what happened when this same set of rules were put through the pressures of tournament level competition. It wasn’t pretty. Non-jams, booing crowds, a record high for penalties, and what turned out to be a false hope that it would all be fixed for 2012.

It’s a huge unknown what we’re going to see during the playoffs this year. We’re likely going to see some fantastic derby, sure. But one would be a fool to not think horrible derby were not as equally likely. It’s just a matter of how much of it we’re going to see.

As fate would have it, there’s a precedent for the current situation the WFTDA finds itself in. Ten years ago, another popular competitive game found itself faced with a game-altering flaw. When this flaw was used to help players win at the tournament level, it led the game down a path of a slow and quiet death.

The flaw in this game was very similar to the one found in the rules of roller derby. Spooky similar, in fact.

But you wouldn’t think that initially, considering the kind of game it is.

This isn’t just any old fighting game: It’s roller derby, ten years ago. (Really.)

The defining characteristic of this particular fighting game was the thing that eventually destroyed it. Having played it competitively for five years myself, I know first hand what happens when people abandon the original design and spirit a game in the single-minded quest to do whatever they can to win.

Modern roller derby has reached a critical stage. The choice that players and teams make during the playoffs could potentially determine what course derby will set for itself moving forward over the next five years. If they make the right choice, the WFTDA will head into 2013 and beyond stronger than ever. If they make the wrong choice…

Well, you won’t want to make the wrong choice. I know what happens when the wrong choice is made. I’ve seen an entire game—one of my all-time favorites—crumble before my eyes. I don’t want to see it happen again, especially not to roller derby and those that made the game what it is today.

The choice is such: Do roller derby teams want to win by playing roller derby, or do they want to win by doing something that’s as easy to pull off as pressing a button?

For the consequences of this decision to be best understood, let’s go back to the mark of the millennium and learn the story of a fighting game that, unbeknownst to its creators, landed in arcades with a flaw that would decide its ultimate fate.

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The 2011 WFTDA Penalty Derby Championships

September 13, 2009 was a very significant date in the history of modern roller derby. Do you remember what happened then?

Because I will never, ever forget it:

(Derby News Network) RALEIGH, NC — Philly and Gotham provided what was by far the most dramatic bout of the Eastern Regionals, trading the lead all through the second half — and 4 times in the last jam alone — before Philly scored a one-point upset of Gotham to end Gotham’s two-year, 18 game winning streak by just one last-second point, 90-89.

It was the day Philly upset Gotham. Their game was an epic contest that featured everything that makes roller derby, roller derby: Speed, constant action, great blocking, amazing teamwork, and competitive on the scoreboard the whole way through. As if that wasn’t enough, the last jam of the game went the full two minutes, culminating with Philly’s Teflon Donna literally making a last-second pass to pick up a point on the track and a ghost point in the box…the two points they needed to overcome Gotham and win the regional title.

The game was amazing in every respect. Personally, I hold it near and dear to my heart. It instantly sold me on flat track roller derby, and showed me everything that was good about the modern game.

There are two things about it that will forever be ingrained in my memories.

The first is what happened at the end of the game. When Philly realized they had won, their entire bench came out and dogpiled onto Teflon in mad celebration. By itself, this moment was amazing.

But then Gotham joined in the celebration and also jumped onto the dogpile.

That made the moment legendary.

A pile of humanity containing Gotham and Philly skaters. Awesome!

Right then and there, I got it. I understood how teams could be fiercely competitive and still be part of a community that just wants to have fun playing roller derby. That winners and losers can mingling in the same ball of joyful humanity after a nail-biting finish told me all I needed to know about the people playing the game.

It was absolutely wonderful.

However, it’s the second thing that I took away from Gotham/Philly 2009 that has been on my mind a lot lately.

As exciting as the finish was, I was more impressed with the start of the game. In light of recent events, you may have a hard time believing this: For the first ten minutes of the bout, there were no major penalties committed by either team.

I was gobsmacked. Finally, I thought. The best teams playing the best roller derby, skating hard, skating fast, and skating clean, playing the game five-on-five for an extended period of time. As it should be!

Inevitably, penalties factored into the game. A penalty directly influenced the final result, obviously, as a last-minute blocker penalty by Gotham gave Philly the last-second ghost point they needed to topple the giants and end their years-long win streak.

Even so, this game showed me how quickly derby skaters were bettering themselves and their abilities, proving that they could skate hard without committing penalties. I envisioned roller derby games with fierce action and very few penalties, as is the way in other sports. I was stoked. Surely, I thought at the time, this was the springboard towards a bright future.

Unfortunately, it didn’t turn out that way.

Two months after Philly’s historic upset, Denver started to tug on loopholes in the rule book at west region playoffs. Ever since then, derby has been getting slower and more sloppy, ultimately culminating with Gotham solving the rules and coming up with unbeatable strategies, directly resulting in red-faced referees gasping for air, whistling more penalties than ever. This has turned derby into a mindless farce, and a shadow of what the game used to be just months previously.

This isn’t my opinion. This is a fact.

With the help of Rinxter, we can look at bout statistics and prove—beyond the shadow of a doubt—that the “slow derby” game has been bad for roller derby, turning beautiful games featuring clean skating, into ugly affairs filled with penalties.

If you’re someone who likes the “strategy” game, then you’re going to have some explaining to do: The numbers will prove that you also like games filled with rule violations and box trips galore.

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“Self-Destruction” and the Integrity of Derby

Update: It’s come to my attention that Mr. Watts isn’t actually a columnist for the the Vancouver Times-Colonist.  The commentary in question is actually a Letter to the Editor, which was not made clear at the time I found the piece online.  Regardless, the point I make in this post is still relevant, although it has been updated to reflect the facts.

Additionally, Vancouver’s own Terminal City Rollergirls have issued a counter-response to the original letter, which you can read here.

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An interesting letter to the editor of the Vancouver Times-Colonist caught my eye today.  It’s from Norm Watts, a hockey fan speaking briefly about the state of hockey and the uptick of dirty and violent play that has seen many NHL players suffer brutal injuries.  The last paragraph of the piece is of interest to derby:

The final playoff series was a disgusting display of dirty hockey, and the officials seemed content to let most games deteriorate to an unsavoury display of punching, spearing, slashing and numerous cheap shots.

The NHL leaders and the officials are ruining a wonderful game. It takes little time before the face-washing and ankleslashing turn into violent hits along the boards with little regard for the welfare of an opposing player.

Officials have a duty to set the tone of a hockey game and hockey players are responsible to one another and to the integrity of the game itself. The poor leadership shown by the NHL, its officials and the players has influenced the game at all levels and unfortunately the game is on a downward slide. It’s a path to self-destruction for a league which appears to be going the same route as roller derby.

In effect, this guy is saying that unless the NHL cracks down on violent play and general gooniness, it will continue down a path of devolution until it’s at the same level of roller derby, which, in his view, is apparently is at the bottom of the barrel when it comes to sporting fair play.

Now, before you click over there and go to town on this guy for having the audacity to make such a comparison, consider where he’s coming from. Clearly, he has no idea that there’s a modern derby revival that has skaters playing the game legitimately, without the kicking, hair-pulling, and fighting that used to happen from time-to-time in derby’s “sports entertainment” era, some decades ago.

Still, that means the only notion of derby he has is the one he grew up with, the form of derby that featured professional skaters that didn’t always skate…professionally.  (If you know what I mean.)  Unfortunately, there are a lot of people out there that think the same way.  It doesn’t help that YouTube has loads of popular videos that feature roller derby fights.

I mean, even though I’ve scoured YouTube for countless months beforehand, I only stumbled upon modern derby in 2007.  Before I struck gold, each time I searched for derby videos I hoped that there would be new clips that didn’t feature alligator wrestling or a fistfuls of hair.  Even while looking for legitimacy in derby, I found an assumption that the derby of old hasn’t changed in modern times.

But how instilled is this assumption?  Let’s ask YouTube.

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A Velodramatic Opinion on Slow Pack Starts

Many people in the derby community enjoy watching teams employ various strategies at the start of a jam.  You know, how blockers move off of the line or how they position themselves amongst the pack, among other things. Stuff like that.  The execution of these strategies include tactics like taking a knee before the start of a jam to force the jammers to start immediately, or deliberately standing around behind the pivot line to stall for time to force a positional advantage.

Slow starts and no-starts are something of a hot-button issue in the derby community. Personally, I feel that standing around and doing nothing to get what you want should not be a part of roller derby in any way, shape or form. You may call it strategy, but I call a determent to derby and counter-intuitive to how sports should work.

Interestingly enough, however, there’s another sport that has the occasional sequence of strategical inaction, with very close similarities to slow start situations in roller derby. It’s very popular in Europe and is also an Olympic sport. In this sport, teams or individuals compete in various kinds of races in order to get the most points, to see who can make the fastest time over a distance, or be flat-out faster in a heads-up three-lap sprint. During some occasions, riders will come to a dead stop in the middle of the track, sometimes not moving for up to a minute or more at a time. What is it?

Think banked track roller derby, only supersized and with bicycles.

Track cycling. It’s a sport featuring athletes in tight shorts racing around on a highly-banked oval track (just like roller derby!) on highly specialized bicycles that are worth more than a new car and can go faster than an old car. Track cycling has many variants and disciplines, but the one I’ll be singling out is the sprint race, which is about as simple as a concept as it comes: Three laps, two participants, one winner. Fastest one wins, right?

Actually, no. Although the track sprint is an extremely simple concept, there’s some deep, deep strategy and gamesmanship in play. We’ll get to that in a moment. But believe it or not, we can look to the sprint and its extreme tactics to compare and analyze how similar tactics in roller derby stack up—and why people cheer inaction in cycling and boo inaction in roller derby.

If you’ll pardon the vernacular, a crash course in sprint cycling strategy is first required for anything to make sense beyond this point. If you’ll stick with me, you’re going to learn something interesting about roller derby by the time we’re done.

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