Not Your Mother’s Roller Derby

Earlier this month, the Men’s Roller Derby Association held its second championship tournament in St. Louis. The event featured the top eight men’s derby teams in the country.

If you were fortunate enough to see it happen live on DNN, you witnessed something special indeed. There was speed. There was power. There was drama. Crowds (and announcers) were going ballistic. When it was all said and done, “Gateway to the Best” lived up to its name, and Your Mom Men’s Derby took home the 2012 title.

There is much to say about MRDA Championships 2012 and the state of men’s roller derby, so let me jump right into it.

Supercharged Competition

The argument could have been made that all the teams coming in with a top 5 seed—Your Mom, St. Louis, New York, Magic City, and Puget Sound—had at least an outside shot of winning the title, which is saying something considering a men’s roller derby championship has only been around for three years.

This showed in the contests between these teams during the 2012 tournament. Except for games featuring Dallas, which has had to deal with a weakened roster, the largest margin of victory between the top teams was about 100 points. Most were much closer than that. But even in the games the outcomes were in never doubt, their fiercely competitive nature made almost all of them must-see-TV.

“Fierce” is indeed the best word to describe the action. If you like hits, there were fierce hits. If you like fast jammers, there were some fiercely fast jammers. If you like scrum starts, there were fierce scrum starts too, though they tended to break up rather quickly due to the fierce jamming  at the front of the pack—which must be said, was greatly aided by front walls quickly stringing out to maintain pack proximity.

Some teams were much better at working together than others. I must say, the teamplay of St. Louis—when it happened—was marvelous. Magic City’s teamwork is also getting much better, although they need to stay out of the penalty box to best use the pick plays and screens they love to set up. Your Mom, the new champs, have come together very quickly with a deadly combination of (mostly) clean skating and and immensely talented pool of jammers to call on.

When it comes together, men’s derby played at its highest level feels like a supercharged version of the roller derby we’re accustomed to seeing in the WFTDA. Encouragingly, it appears as if it will only get better. If you consider the amount of progress teams have been making between the major MRDA events (Spring Roll and Champs) over the last few years, it’s almost scary to imagine the amount of potential the men’s game has.

However, for that potential to be realized, a few loose ends need to be tied up.

The Laces Were Out

Many, many memorable things happened throughout the weekend. However, the ones that I remember the most vividly happened in jams where skate laces were working themselves loose from the boots of player. Just a few jams, mind you. But I bring up this seemingly minor occurrence not because I’m a wacko obsessed with laces, but because the common thread between what happened in these jams framed things for me in a way I hadn’t seen before.

The first lace failure was simultaneously hilarious and incredible to witness.

During the Puget Sound/Magic City quarterfinal game on Saturday, Magic City’s Chuck Best had his skate laces loosen in the middle of a power jam. Realizing this as he approached the Puget defense, he lifted his foot to do something about, still rolling toward the front of the pack. Then, in a you-had-to-see-it-to-believe-it moment, he planted his foot, pulled a few jukes, bolted by the opposing blockers, picked up a full scoring pass, and picked up his skate again to finish securing the loose laces on it.

I couldn’t stop chuckling at this. The sheer comedy of sharply going from “skate problem” to “blowing by the weak-ass defense” back to “skate problem” was pure gold. I even started to think that he may have planned to do it from the start to bait the defense into complacency, only to get the jump on them with a lightning-fast switch back to attack mode.

Even if it was just a well-timed coincidence, it was still a lot of fun to see it happen.

In incident number two, all skate laces were tied down and accounted for. Thank goodness, because if they weren’t, that pair of skates may have been jumped clean out of.

Magic City was killing a power jam against Your Mom in the Sunday morning semifinal. MCM was taking a lot of jammer penalties in the game, so being on power jam defense was something they were growing used to. They were actually pretty good at it as well, holding back Your Mom’s elite jammer corps about as well as they could, for as often as they had to do it.

But on one particular penalty kill, Magic City did something that made them live up to their name.

As the YMMD jammer was pushing forward, the Magic City front 3-wall became a 2-wall, became a 1-wall, and was just about to drift out of play. But then out of nowhere, MCM’s Chuck Best, this time blocking on defense, came storming out of the rear of the pack and pulled off a HUGE apex jump to cut around his teammates and YMMD blockers behind them to land squarely (and legally) in front of the Your Mom jammer, just as he was ready to defeat the last line of defense.

That extra man extended the blocking space at the front engagement zone, giving Chuck some more time to defend. That defense was so stonewalling, in fact, the YMMD jammer eventually committed a high block penalty with his head as he tried to squirm around it, ending the power jam and putting Magic City on one in response.

Jammer apex jumps have been fairly common in derby lately. At MRDA Champs they happened all over the place, which would be expected given that guys can go faster and jump further to pull them off more regularity. But rare is the day you see a blocker jumping the apex, and with such volume and effectiveness on top of that. It was an incredible individual effort that turned around Magic City’s fortunes, at least for that one jam.

But not long after that, another skate-lace issue made me realize why certain incredible plays in roller derby, may be less than the sum of their parts.

Successful roller derby teams have never shied away from extreme sausaging tactics during power jams. Everyone did it at MRDA Champs, which was to be expected. Your Mom may have been the biggest culprit at doing it, which would make sense given the insane amount of talent their jammer rotation has. But there was one Your Mom power jam—one during which Your Mom had more players in the penalty box during their opponents—that I will probably back at with the most disgust in the outgoing WFTDA/MRDA ruleset.

While everyone was doing crazy-awesome things like sustaining one-on-one blocks for impossibly long periods of time, landing huge hits on blockers that tried to push them away from the opposing jammer, and jumping several feet into the air just to get into a better blocking position throughout the entire game, during this one particular power jam against Magic City, a blocker on Your Mom casually bent down tie his skate laces, as if he had all the time in the world to do so.

The terrible thing?

He did.

What really peeved me off about this instance of non-derby was that tying shoelaces had, under the right circumstances, proved to be a very exciting and entertaining thing to do. But in the wrong circumstances, it was embarrassing to watch and isn’t something anyone in derby would ever want to see in a highlight reel.

Admittedly, this is a hyper-specific thing to nitpick about. Still, when this came to mind I immediately realized something about the more “exciting” aspects of current era of loophole derby.

Consider the power jam in general. Many like to say it makes more games, more exciting. They allow teams an avenue to climb out of deep deficits and enable games to stay “close” through to their conclusion due to the potential bounty of points available from them. There’s also the tension that builds near the end of a tight game with everyone knowing that a single mistake by either jammer could cost his or her team victory.

Naturally, these benefits come with the obvious downsides of non-skating tactics, little or no blocking assistance from the offensive blockers, and inflated jammer scoreline stats. But what I didn’t think about until after MRDA Champs weekend was that even the crowd-pleasing cool stuff that people look to as good for derby are not without negative effects on the game.

For example, crazy apex jumps are only possible when the pack is moving relatively slow or stopped on the track. (You can’t jump around blockers that are going the same speed as you, basically.) A pack generally goes slow because a team has the opposing jammer trapped behind a 4-wall, or that team is on the power jam. In either case, that team is not giving much (or any) offensive assistance to their jammer.

That is to say, most highlight-reel apex jumps I’ve seen are a result of power jams (or at least, full defensive 4-walls) and by extension, a result of crappy non-skating, no-teamwork tactics.

Also, consider the effect that power jams have on close and exciting games. Just on the face of it, can you remember a big comeback or nail-biting last few jams that were not a result of an ill-timed jammer penalty? The closest I can remember was the Sacred City/Angel City 7th place game at WFTDA Westerns last month, but even that 50-point comeback started with a PJ-aided 19-point jam.

When derby people talk about power jam defense, they like to preach the strategy of “force the other jammer to take a penalty.” Having the opposing jammer removed from play is obviously the most effective way to stop them from scoring on you. But what I don’t like about this line of thinking is that by removing a team’s jammer from the track, you’ve essentially given them one option on defense: Hope the other team messes up.

Overall, I feel that most—but not all—times there’s a really fun happening on the track, in both MRDA and WFTDA play, it’s usually because there’s a really dumb non-derby thing happening to create that opportunity, usually in taking the form of a stopped pack in a power jam. The three skate-lace events I started off with? Yeah, two of them showed off incredible individual effort that send the crowd into a tizzy. But they also showed that roller derby is still broken, and that the rules update can’t come soon enough.

I would gladly trade the potential for huge comebacks and a higher frequency of amazing individual plays by way of broken power jams, for a more consistent jams that require meaningful teamplay and the ability to overcome poorly-timed penalties with what a team does right  instead of what the other does wrong. Because what people in favor of over-powered power jams are effectively arguing for is a game that can only be exciting due to penalties, instead of the lack of them.

That’s something I have a hard time tying down.

An Explosive Ending

Men’s derby has always had a high concentration of talented players relative to its smaller skater population. At first it was because most of the players were experienced coaches or referees for women’s teams. Lately, players have been coming in who are expert in other skating disciplines (or even past incarnations of roller derby). Put those two groups together and you’ve got a lot of mad skills in a relatively small derby organization.

I mean, Puget Sound’s Quadzilla is almost guaranteed do something super-heroic when he dons the star to go out on a jam:

With that insane talent available, top-level men’s derby has an intensity that is almost unmatched. Watching the action over the two-day tournament, I felt as if the ingrained competitive nature of men was exploding out in its raw form. Like putting a T-bone steak in front of a hungry lion, the jammers really, really, really wanted to get by the opposition.

You could tell this was the case during the thrilling Your Mom/St. Louis championship final. Despite jammers going up against 4-walls solo for most of the bout, lead jammers were lucky to get a half-lap lead on the trailing jammers, with double-jammer breakouts more common in that game than I think I’ve ever seen in any WFTDA/MRDA game before it.

But unlike most WFTDA games, there were no pussy call-offs here; even with a lead jammer advantage of a few feet, the guys were still jamming forward and at least lapping around to the rear of the pack to see if a scoring opportunity developed, with many cases of points being scraped off the hard way. When they had to, players were putting a tremendous amount of individual effort into jamming and blocking, so much so that players were becoming visibly tired just a minute into a full two-minute jam. They were well and truly leaving it all on the track.

This style of gameplay was much appreciated by the crowd. Every time the DNN cameras panned up into the bleachers, you could tell butts were on the edges of seats and every eyeball in the house was focused on the track—not on cell phones. Even Val Capone, who was on the webcast call, was so obviously freaking out in the closing moments of the game that one had to wonder if she was going to get through to the end without suffering a heart attack.

The closing moments of that game, a 21-0 Your Mom comeback run (aided by two power jams, ahem) that finished off a 136-135 championship victory, was frankly some of the most batshit insane WFTDA-style roller derby I had ever seen. The only thing that could have possibly made it crazier was having the home team win instead, enabling the pro-GateKeepers crowd to bring down the building with their cheers.

(At this point, I’d be linking you to the archive of this game and telling you to watch it without delay. Unfortunately, archives of the entire event are uncertain, but there is talk about offering DVDs at a later date, which I would recommend you check out if you’re at all interested in seeing crazy-good roller derby.)

The action was so good, the game so flowing, and the intensity so high, the game almost felt as if it were a professional derby contest.

Ah, but I did say almost.

As did the entire weekend, the final game had a lot of incredible moments. But many of those were cancelled out by the usual slow derby nonsense in every game that we’ve been accustomed to seeing:

There was also the fact that the current WFTDA ruleset effectively requires defenses to pummel a jammer in order to keep them from easily exiting a slow pack. That showed in many games on the first day of the tournament:

The stagnant, defense-first strategy that is the prominent one in WFTDA-derby these days made for some rather ungraceful sequences. A major one that comes to mind is when a GateKeepers jammer was being pinned against the outside boundary line by a Your Mom blocker, at which point a St. Louis blocker came barreling in and took them both out with a crushing hit. (With a teammate like that, who needs enemies?)

There was also this from the third-place game, which kind of explains itself.

Big hits are exciting, of course. But similar to the trade-off with amazing apex jumps vs. terrible power jams, that blockers have little other choice in this ruleset but to launch themselves at an opponent to displace them is giving me pause over the wisdom of men playing by rules that were designed by and for a female skating population. (For an interesting take on this subject, click here.) Women hitting women hard is one thing, but when heavier, stronger man comes in and wallops another man, that’s something else entirely.

Even with the updated rules coming out, I have to wonder an issue like this will be addressed by the WFTDA in the future. Or better, the MRDA itself. Men’s derby has ridiculous potential right now, but until they get a game that suits their abilities, we may never be able to see that current potential be realized. Because even though men play with an entertaining and explosive style—and who doesn’t like seeing things blown to smithereens?—until we see that explosiveness harnessed by rules that can get it going in the right direction, we may never know how high the guys (and indeed, the girls) can truly take this game.

So even though the St. Louis GateKeepers vs. Your Mom Men’s Derby MRDA Championship final may be called one of the best games of the year, if not the best-ever games in this rules revision cycle, it’s still only the best of a bad situation. Long story short, if you were fortunate enough to see this game, and you thought it was amazing, consider this:

Imagine how good the derby will be when they play by rules that don’t suck.