Into the Great Unknown, Part 2: USARS Regionals 2012

The playoff previews continue with the debut of USARS. What's going to happen with a brand-new rule set in play?

…Continued from Page 1

Southern Region

October 13 – Mobile, Ala. – Hosted by Deep South Derby
Live Streaming Coverage on Derby News Network

Here’s another USARS regional tournament with only three teams. But the South may be different than the other regional with only three teams (the North Central) in that two of them here were specifically created to focus on and eventually play under the USARS ruleset. The teams in this region have also appeared to been the most vocal and most active in recruiting others to join them, though only the three managed to enter the tournament.

Despite that, this region may be interesting for more than a few reasons. First of all, DNN will be streaming it unopposed to the WFTDA tournament season, with no other major roller derby action happening this weekend. (The MRDA Championships will be held the weekend after this regional.) Second, the hosts are attempting to put together a men’s and/or co-ed game to showcase during the break between scheduled games; like other alternative derby rulesets, USARS rules are written to be co-ed friendly.

Host Deep South Derby has also released a bit of video featuring some co-ed scrimmage jams, which I’ve stitched together and annotated with some basic rules and strategy explanations, if you’d like to see the fundementals of the USARS game in motion:

USARS Tournament Info Page
Event Website
Tournament Structure and Schedule (PDF)
Team Rosters (PDF)

Participating Teams:

Deep South Derby All-Stars (Mobile, Ala.) – The host team is working with a big advantage: They were one of the few who participated in the USARS beta tests late last year. Although the finalized first version of the rules have some significant differences from the beta (chief among them: the beta used WFTDA pack definition), that doesn’t change the fact that these girls may be one of the most experienced in the USARS game, at least on paper.

Birmingham Roller Derby (Birmingham, Ala.) – BRD is another league in the south that’s gone all-in with USARS rules, training under them exclusively. According to their Facebook page, they are “interested in fostering the best concerns and most logical rules regarding roller derby for both women and men.” (No wonder they don’t play under WFTDA rules….)

Pensacola Roller Gurlz (Pensacola, Fla.) – Despite their opponents’ relative familiarity in the USARS rule set, Pensacola isn’t coming into this tournament a sitting duck, as they are a ranked team playing under WFTDA rules—22nd out of 34 teams under the Derby South banner, a collection of regional teams that make it a point to play each other with regularity. (The DSD All-Stars, as well as ranked South Central WFTDA teams, are also a part of this coalition.) Pensacola is 4-4 in their eight interleague games played this season within Derby South.

Again, all three of these teams automatically qualify for the USARS national championship on account of them being the top three teams in the region, barring a catastrophic breakdown in basic mathematical principals. This makes it sound as if USARS put the cart before horse a bit, maybe working under the assumption that there would be plenty of teams entering its first tournament to green light locking in the top three everywhere…except that three is almost all they got for each of their tournaments.

Another thing USARS may be ill-prepared for in its debut championship is the fact no amount of beta testing can ever properly stress-test a set of rules. Making matters potentially more catastrophic, the USARS regionals will be the very first time any kind of real gameplay is done under USARS rules. Even if they think the kinks got worked out on paper, and even if with teams and officials dedicated to the rules, when there’s something significant on the line and players are doing whatever it takes to win, even the most water-tight set of rules will start taking on water.

But the problem here is, I’m not even sure USARS realizes their rules aren’t water-tight to begin with.

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The Return(?) of “Runaway Pussy”

So, about that USARS pack definition rule.

Regular readers of this blog will know that it is the proposal put forth, word-for-word, in The Pack Solution. Readers will also note that despite the numerous advantages this style of pack definition brings to derby, there was a rather glaring issue with it that I made clear at the end: It harbors the potential for the return of the “runaway pussy” situation where a team just goes to the front of the pack, accelerates, and just keeps on going.

This is something that’s completely possible, and completely legal, in USARS rules. Note that a team would have to be pretty bad (or their opponents really, really good) to make this happen under normal gameplay conditions, but it’s in there all the same.

One of the yucky things that might happen as a result of this, besides the obvious situation of a conga line going 25 miles per hour (as opposed to zero mph in the WFTDA variant of this problem) is the potential for a team’s half of the pack to completely skate around the track and lap the opposing blockers, which would be the capper to an already ugly situation.

A team with no reason to play defense has no reason to engage the pack, so if they have the means and ability to do so, they could just skate forever.

How often this may happen is a pretty big question mark, as is how boring it could make the game when it does. But there are a few things to consider that could prevent it happening in the first place.

For one, teams should realize that if they can get all of their blockers to the front, they can exercise full control over how fast or slow the pack goes, which is very good for them in virtually all gameplay scenarios. They should also therefore realize that if the other team gets all of their blockers to the front, that would be bad, bad, bad news.

Therefore, good teams should be working pack strategies that show a severe bias toward keeping members of the other team behind them at all costs. This is made easier by the fact that both pivots start at the front, so a team will always have a fair chance to hold up the other team–remember, four blockers need only hold one opposing blocker behind them to keep the pack under control–if that team has reason to charge toward the front.

But realistically, as long as both jammers are on the track a situation like this will just not happen. Sure, a team could sprint the pack indefinitely, but they’re never going to score points if their blockers (and therefore, the pack) is going just as fast as their jammer is. Too, should a team try to use the maneuver defensively just before a scoring pass and surprise their opponent by busting through to the front of the pack, the lead jammer will probably call off the jam immediately, knowing that it doesn’t benefit her team to tire themselves out and chase a team they failed to contain.

But once you put penalty scenarios in the mix, things change dramatically.

During a power jam situation, the team without a jammer has no reason to block for offensive purposes—a pivot cannot break to score if their jammer is sitting in the penalty box—so if they can get around the other team and get to the front of the pack, they could just keep on going and going like the Energizer Bunny. If the other team can’t call it off because they don’t have lead status, or they have not made an initial pass, we may see something looking more like a USARS Speed Skating competition.

Worse, if a team is starting with a power jam, their opponents could crowd nearer the pivot line behind the pivots—a task made easier if their bench is nearer to it. If the power jamming team’s pivot is in the penalty box, there would be little or no chance to slow the other team before their jammer can pick up lead status. There is also the potential for 2-minute penalties (think a more severe version of a WFTDA major penalty) and up to four(!) players in a team sitting in the penalty box, which may compound the problem even more.

But at least with the USARS rules, teams that do not engage and do not hold back their opponents will not be successful, in any way, shape, or form. To that effect, its version of non-engagement boring derby punishes the team that can’t block and rewards the team that is better, as opposed to the WFTDA version of non-engagement boring derby which rewards the team that doesn’t engage (or commits destruction of pack penalties) and punishes the team that is working their asses off, even if they have more players on the track at the time.

So yeah, as much as the USARS game may potentially breed some very fun-to-watch roller derby, there’s just as much of a potential for very dumb-to-watch derby to happen as well. But this is a new set of rules, and to think that anyone could make a “perfect” ruleset in that short of time is unrealistic by anyone’s standards. Hell, it’s been six years and the WFTDA still isn’t anywhere close to getting there.

No rules are perfect at this point in the modern roller derby revival. But that doesn’t mean that some rules can’t be less imperfect than others.

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Northwest Region

October 20 – Coeur D’Alene, Id. – Hosted by Snake Pit Derby Dames
Live Streaming Coverage on Derby News Network

Although the final regional tournament is just four teams strong, it’s the most interesting considering who is participating in it. It’ll also be interesting because by this point, all of the participants should have a very good idea of what to expect with the USARS style of game, having (by then) seen the previous tournaments via DNN. The Northwest tournament will also has some of the best skating talent in the country, mostly by way of one team you’ve definitely have heard of—and one you may be about to hear from.

USARS Tournament Info Page
Tournament Structure and Schedule (PDF)
Team Rosters (PDF)

Participating Teams:

Snake Pit Derby Dames (Coeur D’Alene, Id.) – Unaffiliated Snake Pit is no stranger to big-time derby events, having participated in Wild West Showdown this past March. They’re also not too many degrees away from playing against a top WFTDA team, having played against one of Emerald City’s three home teams earlier in the year. (Emerald’s all-star team was ranked #W14 at the time; they are now ranked #W20.) Alas, the results of those games are unknown to the world.

Oly Rollers (Olympia, Wash.) – Yes, you’re reading that right. The 2009 WFTDA Champions and 2012 WFTDA playoff team currently ranked #4 in the west, will be contesting the inaugural USARS roller derby championship.  There’s nothing more that needs to be said about that, other than perhaps what team Oly will send to the one-day tournament. Will it be their WFTDA tournament team sans Hockey Honey? How about Atomatrix? Or perhaps one of their other two teams will go instead? Those questions will be answered when USARS releases the team rosters in the weeks leading up to the tournament.

Undergrounds Derby Death Dealers – (Olympia, Wash.) – Olympia’s other derby team doesn’t want their big sisters to have all the fun, so they’ll be joining them in Coeur D’Alene. There isn’t much info available on this team, except for they don’t appear to do much travelling outside the comforts of Skateland Olympia, the home venue they share with Oly. The connection doesn’t end there, as Undergrounds had played against Oly’s fresh meat team (the Bella Donnas) two months ago, but the score of that bout is yet to be revealed.

OneWorld Roller Derby (Bellevue, Wash.) – OneWorld is both a league and a nationwide derby community. The team going to regionals is an all-star collection of their best local skaters, but OneWorld itself is “a community designed for growth and inclusiveness.” Founded by former Rat City and Tilted Thunder skater Donna “The Hot Flash” Kay, their driving philosophy is “skills before drills,” but everyone has a place with them regardless of experience. OWRD has a small but growing number of leagues in their “family” in places like Oregon, Texas, Iowa,  Pennsylvania, and Canada.

At first glance, Oly would have to be the runaway favorites to win the region, and maybe even win the whole national tournament. While that’s more than likely to happen, the fact that OneWorld is also in this tournament is going to make it very, very interesting to keep an eye out for.

OneWorld normally skates under OSDA rules which, like USARS rules, allow for the pivot to immediately break from the pack to chase down the lead jammer and score points. (Contrary to the beliefs of some, OSDA does not practice “fake” derby or otherwise choreograph their games for entertainment purposes; it is legit just like the WFTDA is.) So right off the bat, they’ve got an advantage in that they’re the team most familiar with the USARS style of game.

While Oly has to juggle training under the vastly different strategies required within WFTDA rules and USARS rules, OneWorld doesn’t need to do much retooling to what they know to compete in this new rules environment. However, where Oly has the definite edge is their more than three years of interleague experience; OneWorld’s skating core barely has three games of interleague know-how.

So how well they do against Oly, or the other teams in the Northwest Region, is another unknown in a tournament chock-full of them. But if I had to pick just one game to watch out of the 23 that will be taking place over the four USARS regional tournaments, it would be Oly vs. OneWorld. Not just because it might be a great game, but because the players playing on both teams are going have so much fun playing against each other, it would be special to witness indeed.

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The Skaters

I’ll wrap up this preview with what this whole USARS tournament is really all about.

As those knee-deep in the derby community may know, OneWorld’s Donna Kay has been in an ongoing battle with breast cancer. It’s a battle she’s winning, thankfully, and through it all she still skates and runs OneWorld. Oh yeah, and she’s over 50 years old young.

All who know of her or have been lucky enough to meet her instantly fall in love with her and her derby spirit. So it would come as no surprise that she would post this comment on the OWRD Facebook page:

I’m going to get my old ass out there and skate in this and THEN I’ll have my other boob whacked off. I will take this possibly small window of opportunity and run with it.!!  What a gift!!!!!

Now, you can say whatever you want say or think whatever you want to think about USARS. If you believe they’re just in it for the money, or that they’re destined to ruin roller derby just like they’ve done with other roller sports in the past, or if you think they have absolutely no idea what they’re doing. Fine. Whatever.

But this roller derby tournament isn’t about USARS. It’s all about players like Donna Kay who want to take roller derby to a new level … and skate for all they’re worth to get it there.

The fact is that much of what’s happening in USARS roller derby is being driven by skaters, or those with close ties to the roller derby community. Of the five people currently on the USARS Roller Derby Sport Committee, two of them are active skaters and two more were at one point directly affiliated with WFTDA leagues like Windy City or Kansas City. USARS also wants to add more people to the committee as well as find the right person—potentially a skater—to sit on the full USA Roller Sports board of directors as the new roller derby representative.

Also, USARS isn’t pocketing any money from the team entry fees for this tournament. Of them, half goes to the host league for assistance and the other half goes right back to the skaters in the form of purse money for the winning teams. In other USARS sports, the organization provides a travel stipend for athletes going to national or international competitions; that may not immediately happen for USARS roller derby, but if teams playing under USARS charter can one day get some financial help going to major events, that can only be a good thing for everyone.

USARS is trying to change how it operates to better cater to how some of the players playing the game want things to be done. (You can hear more about that on episode 121 of Derby Deeds.) Whether or not the “new” USARS will be any different than the “old” USARS will take time to realize. But in the end, the success or failure of their version of roller derby has less to do with them, and more to the skaters that play their game.

The teams that made the decision to participate in the USARS tournament likely did so for different reasons. Some may have done it just for a new challenge. Some may be doing it purely for the hell of it. Some may be doing it for the potential of playing for a decent cash prize. Others may have shared in the belief that derby may one day be in the Olympics and decided to join USARS on their quest to perhaps someday get it there.

Whatever their reasons, it was ultimately the skaters and their teams that made the decision to play USARS derby, not USARS. And if USARS was to ever drop the ball moving forward, the skaters will always have the power to pick up that  ball and go home to the WFTDA ruleset—or, if the WFTDA rules are still inadequate to them at that time, some other alternative.

But the initial reports I’m hearing from leagues and players up and down the grapevine is that, so far, they are overwhelmingly positive on playing under USARS rules. For the most part, everyone is elated that they actually get to skate to play roller derby again. I’ve seen many players used to practicing under WFTDA ruleset commenting on how much harder, more intense, and just plain ol’ fun the USARS game is in comparison.

So regardless of how the regional tournaments ultimately pan out, we should not measure their success or failure by how many people turn up or tune in to watch, or how good or bad the roller derby may appear to be in the opinion of others, or by any quantifiable measure in comparison to the WFTDA. The derby cadre that plays under alternative rulesets does not and has never measured success by those benchmarks. The only thing we as a community should judge the USARS regionals is simply this:

Are the skaters having fun?

If the answer to this question is yes, the USARS tournaments were a success. If no, they were a failure. In a community that has always been about having fun in a competitive environment, this is really the only thing that matters, and has ever mattered.

As of late, the some players and leagues playing in the WFTDA rules environment have not been answering that question in the affirmative. If they were, there would not be those who would take it upon themselves to go as far as create an entirely new set of roller derby rules, organize a national derby tournament using these rules that no one has played under before, and then convince leagues to play in a tournament using a style of roller derby that is mostly foreign to them.

The most amazing thing about all this? Nearly two dozen leagues said “yes, we want to try this.” Whether or not they’ll stay with USARS rules going forward is not certain. (More likely most leagues will play USARS and WFTDA rules concurrently.) But one thing is for sure, more skaters and teams are starting to use their voice to play the roller derby they want to play, whether the WFTDA status-quo provides it to them or not.

The first USARS regional tournaments are not about USARS. They’re about the skaters that have chosen to play in them, and the decisions they and other players will make about the sport in the near future. If the first five years of derby were about discovery, and the last five years about organization, the next five years will be about direction, and what directions the players want to take the sport in.

To be frank, it’s both exciting and kind of scary to think about. But of course it would be.

Roller derby is heading into the great unknown.