USARS Regionals 2012: A Rough Start

A look at an understandably sloppy first round of USARS roller derby tournaments, with a few suggestions on how things can be improved.

On four weekends throughout September and October, USA Roller Sports held its inaugural regional roller derby tournaments, which were in fact the first USARS-rules games officially played. Sixteen teams and hundreds of players braved the unknown to take the track and participate a style of game that turned out to be the extreme opposite of “slow derby,” the style most prevalent in the WFTDA. If you think roller derby should be played at a fast pace, then the USARS game delivered that during its maiden matches.

Unfortunately, a lot of teams might have thought it was too fast derby. The punishing style of play required massive endurance and constant physicality, causing many serious problems among players. The newness of the USARS roller derby rule set also caught out teams and even officials, leading to many confusing and frustrating sequences. The wide skill gap between competing teams also crated some very ugly games to watch, particularly when teams were forced to play in multiple bouts in the same day.

If I had to rate to the overall first effort of USARS roller derby, having watched three of the regionals via DNN and attended the fourth in person, I’d have to give it a straight “D” grade. In the end, the events did not feel well-organized from the USARS perspective, which one might expect to be the case when they were essentially scrambling to put together everything within a matter of weeks.

However, despite the rough start, there are a lot of positives that can be taken from what was essentially a large-scale test run at a new way to play roller derby. Assuming USARS can move quickly to work out their rule and organizational issues, they might actually be able to pull together a legitimately viable alternative to skaters that are wanting to put the “roll” back in roller derby. But if the first USARS roller derby regional tournaments are any indication, the issues USARS has to worry about are daunting ones.

With that, here are my thoughts and observations on the derby that took place in USARS-land over the last few weeks. These impressions will focus on the Southwest regional (which I traveled to Stockton, Calif. to see personally) though they will also touch on the other regionals as appropriate. There will also be a quick preview of the USARS national championship, set for December 14-16, and a couple of thoughts on some of the gameplay issues that cropped up.

Making a Mess of Things

When players and refs are only given as little as four weeks to learn a brand-new roller derby rule set, and then are given a crash course on its implantation during live tournament gameplay, it’s impossible to think things will go smoothly for everyone.

They didn’t.

There was player confusion. There was ref confusion. There were times the players thought they were right but the refs corrected them. There were times when the players were actually right, but the refs incorrectly corrected them. Hell, there were times when I was confused, which is saying something from someone who is intimately familiar with alt-derby rules and strategies.

That players are confused over an unfamilar ruleset is always something that will eventually work itself out, as they get more and more gameplay experience under their belts. But the one thing that could undermine in the long term is that the referees seemed, at times, to be on a completely different page than everyone else.

Referees at the USARS North Central regional (the first of four) were having trouble with seemingly basic calls like defining the pack. It was much the same for the officials at the other regionals. (Photo Credit: KORfan)

Of course, refs only had the same six weeks or so with which to get familiar with the new rules as did the players. Nor did it help that they had no interleague USARS experience to draw upon. So it’d be unfair to completely pin a shoddy month of game officiating on them exclusively. Particularly, because of inconsistent “clarifications” that USARS handed down during the course of the tournaments. (More on those later.)

Throughout all the regionals, this general confusion resulted in a great number of official timeouts. Most ref pow-wows were to clarify among themselves why a wrong call shouldn’t have been made and how to (try to) call it correctly in the future. Bench coaches and captains also spent quite a lot of time huddling with the officials in the infield flipping through the USARS rulebook, stretching out games and causing events to run behind schedule.

But even in places where the rules were more black and white, there were still plenty of miscues. Basic derby errors like missing clear points or failing to realize when a jam had even started happened more than once. Flat track refs unfamiliar with the “jammer in front is always the lead jammer” rule, as common on the banked track, were mixing up which scoring player was in the lead, creating incorrect jam call-offs. During jams where a pivot became eligible score, I even saw referees reporting 5-4 jam scores after both players completed their first scoring passes simultaneously, which by simple math should be completely impossible.

Putting together referees unfamiliar with USARS rules and players unfamiliar with the niceties of USARS gameplay was rough going. When players who were in the right on a call didn’t get it, you could readily see their frustration. This made the times when players were definitely in the wrong even more confusing—which was admittedly quite a lot at the first few tournaments—as if they couldn’t be sure the refs got it right or wrong on the first try.

Honestly, this was something I wasn’t expecting to happen. Perhaps I’ve gotten so used to the quality refereeing in the WFTDA that I expected the zebras at the USARS regionals to be just as much of a non-factor. But in reality, getting everyone on the same page—especially the officials—may be the most critical thing that USARS needs to address if it wants to build up a solid foundation of leagues to kick-start their version of roller derby.

To that effect, USARS will need to do its part to make sure referees understand how to officiate their games past just knowing the rules. Besides a more consistent rulebook, the only true way to ensure refs know what’s up is repetition, repetition, repetition of games. That will take time.

However, there is an indication that things may smooth out in this regard relatively quickly.

Quick Learners

Throughout the Southwest regional, it was clear that more game time in the infield helped the referee crew considerably. Wildly inconsistent calls on the first day were replaced with more confident calls that refs made a much better effort to affirm during gameplay. And the across the four regionals in general, the more games were played and available to see, the more prepared everyone was in the games that followed.

There was also noticeable improvement in the quality of play from the skaters through the course of the two-day tournament in Stockton, and in fact in most of the regional tournaments. You could get a sense that players were starting to “get it” and make better efforts to execute basic USARS derby strategy, like guarding their pivot at the front of the pack, getting players into a forward blocking position, and holding critical blocks in order to prevent the pack from running away from them.

These efforts were not always successful, considering the large skill gap between some teams. Southwest regional champs San Diego Roller Derby has many high-level skaters, most notably Hockey Honey. There was only so much the more inexperienced teams could do against them … which is to say, there wasn’t much of anything they could do against them. The same goes for the Oly Rollers in the Northwest, who could have beaten all comers in their sleep.

But when the teams were more evenly matched, the derby being played was much better from game to game, and even from the first half to the second half. For Exhibit A on how quickly teams were understanding the rules and learning basic USARS way of playing during the Southwest tournament, look no further than the Grim Reap-Hers of Merced, Calif.

In their first game of the weekend against Resurrection, they were using WFTDA gameplay strategies that were completely the wrong thing to do in the USARS rule set.

Quickly realizing that wasn’t going to work, they turned things around in the second half.

Game #2 was against San Diego. It was one of those games where the skill gap was large, but the Reap-Hers were starting to recognize the benefits of forward pivot presence and strong front walls. Though they lost—badly—you could get the feeling that lightbulbs were starting to illuminate on their bench.

On their day two opener against SINtral Valley you would have never guessed the Reap-Hers were a derby league that had only played under WFTDA rules until this tournament. Their pivot play was excellent, showing good teamwork to keep the stripe at the front of the pack. Their blockers were starting to throw their weight around with better awareness, making sure that they would get a benefit out of going for a big hit as opposed to losing blocker positioning during a reckless block attempt. This rapid improvement resulted in a win.

Surprisingly, every team across the board appeared to have gotten a grasp on what they needed to do to be successful during games. Still, there were moments when teams executed incorrect strategies just because they were excited to do so—it’s great that you have the ability to make the pack go as fast as you want, but it’s not a good idea to make it go so fast your jammer can’t catch up to score on a power jam when your team is losing and time is running out!—and the wide skill gap between some teams resulted in hopelessly dull bouts.

But by my eye, the regionals (particularly the Southwest regional) demonstrated that the basic strategies the USARS rule set requires teams to use to win are intuitive enough for anyone to pick up relatively quickly. It goes to show if you hold a team’s feet to the flames and effectively force them to play in a certain way, if they really want to succeed they’ll learn to play that way in a jiffy.

Although, if the way to win is physically beyond the capabilities of a team, there will be other issues to worry about.

Dropping Like Flies

Here’s a category USARS can boast about in outdoing the WFTDA: Four times as many regional tournament games have been forfeited under USARS sanction.

Oh … no, wait. That’s not something worth boasting about.

Day two of the southwest regional, the elimination round, was supposed to have six games. But there were only four on account of the withdrawals (forfeits, if you prefer) of two teams. The Sactown Smackdown and the Grim Reap-Hers both pulled out of the event before completing all of their games on Sunday. In the southern regional, two games ended prematurely, as both Pensacola and Deep South pulled out of their final games before their completion.

However, unlike the controversial forfeit of Dutchland at last year’s WFTDA East region playoffs, these forfeits were not strategic, and the teams involved had no real benefit to do so other than their own safety and self-preservation.

First, there’s Sactown. Being Sacramento’s third-string league (the first two being Sacred City, who placed 7th in the 2012 WFTDA West regional; and Sac City, who just graduated out of WFTDA Apprenticeship) they don’t have the outright skill as most leagues that played in the regionals. But they sure as hell have guts and determination. In their day one late game of their players were starting to look physically uncomfortable and showing legitimate signs of peril. Sactown jammer Jeneration Hex looked as if she was literally going to die as she limped and labored to her bench at the end of every jam.

Though Sactown seemed to have a good grasp on basic game strategy and they contributed a competent and fun-to-watch game to the tournament, it was pretty clear that they were in way, WAY over their heads. Their lack of total skate skill and endurance wasn’t enough to keep pace with the much harder style of gameplay USARS rules require to be competitive. Pretty much everyone I talked to agreed that in their situation, Sactown totally made the right call to not play another game when they pulled out Sunday morning.

Forfeit number two was from the Grim Reap-Hers, the same team that made big improvements throughout the weekend. Their decision to pull out of the tournament came right as they were scheduled to play in the third place game; had they gone through with it, they would have had a pretty good chance of advancing to the USARS National tournament in nearby Fresno.

But the had a pretty good reason for pulling out despite that. Had they played in the third place game, it would have been their fifth game in two days, their third game of the day, and their second game in a row—they were only given 20 minutes to rest between contests. Not only that, they were playing the tournament with a short roster, having only 13 (of 15) geared up to play and finishing out day one with  7 players left on their bench due to ejection and fatigue. And although they looked fantastic in their just-completed game against SINtral Valley, they appeared to use up everything in their reserves to complete it.

(The most amazing thing I saw all weekend: #00 R.C., a Grim Reap-Hers player, had a leg injury early Sunday. She later returned to play with a wrap around her leg. Went she out to jam, she was noticeably grimacing as she pushed off on her bad leg and definitely not skating at full strength as a result. But when her weight was over her good leg, she had the biggest smile I’d seen on the day. Ah, roller derby.)

The withdrawals in the Southern regional also came about due to extreme skater fatigue and injuries as a result of it.

In their second game of the day, the Pensacola Roller Girlz suffered three pretty significant injuries, including what I heard what turned out to be a broken ankle. They pulled the plug on the game with 15 minutes remaining, more minutes left than they had players. Pensacola was losing their game quite badly, adding insult to literal injuries.

In the final game of the day, Deep South Derby and Birmingham Roller Derby played in a rematch from an earlier ranking bout. This game too came to a premature end.  One of the DSD skaters took a skate right to the face in a fall, and another suffered a broken rib. When it was clear Birmingham was pulling away on the scoreboard, the decision to end the game, and the tournament, was agreed upon by all parties involved.

These four games—err, non-games—told me two things about USARS and its fledgling style of roller derby. In the cases of Sactown and Pensacola, that the USARS style of roller derby as it exists now is definitely not a game for novices. A majority of players on a team, if not everyone on it, needs to have more than just basic skating skills and a lot more endurance to get through a USARS tournament weekend, let alone a single game.

In the cases of the Grim Reap-Hers and Deep South Derby, that USARS was showing a bit of incompetence in expecting teams to play that many games in such a short time frame. I can tell you from observing both first-hand that this style of derby is much, much harder on players than that of a WFTDA game. It’s non-stop action in USARS, with no chance for players to take a break during a jam (such as for blockers to take a quick pack-splitting rest break during power jams) and no less physical contact between players.

To USARS’s credit, they tried to accomodate teams in compromising scheduling positions by the final regional, having talked about cutting short the last game of the Northwest tournament. It turned out to be the second-place contest between Oly’s neighbor Underground Derby, and hosts Snake Pit Derby Dames. Just minutes earlier, Snake Pit had taken a whipping from Oly…and then USARS effectively asked them to immediately play in another game, as that’s how they scheduled things beforehand.

Yikes.

Thankfully, USARS seems to have already taken this into account for its national tournament later this month. Eight teams will play in 14 games over three days, with a team playing no more than two games hours apart from each other on the same day. One would hope that USARS will take great care to ensure a debacle like this doesn’t happen again in future tournaments and events, especially if the game remains as punishing as it is.

Oh, and there’s one other thing to consider: I spoke with Hockey Honey after SDRD’s win against Resurrection in the final of the Southwest regional, and she told me her legs were hurting. But it wasn’t because they were battered and bruised. It was because for the first time in quite a while, she actually had to use them to play roller derby.

If one of derby’s most prominent athletes is huffing after a hard-fought game of USARS derby, that says something … although, exactly what is up for debate.

Minimally Fast Derby

Oly and San Diego Roller Derby were the classes of their respective fields during the regionals. Except for surprisingly competitive first half of the Resurrection-San Diego bout—SDRD was stuck in “WFTDA mode” for a while and trailed until just before halftime—neither powerhouse was ever really threatened.

This was mostly due the high level of skating skill the two teams had at their disposal. Although their opponents on their respective weekends were competent teams in their own right, the skill gap was too great to overcome.

That gap lead to many instances of  San Diego’s and Oly’s faster blockers weaving their way to the front of the pack very easily and stay there, not giving their opponents any opportunity to regain position. This led to them having full control over pack speed, and for the most part they kept the pack moving at a fast clip to use their speed to their advantage. For example, against San Diego’s blowout win over the Grim Reap-Hers on Sunday, many times I clocked them pacing around at about 10 seconds per lap. And they were barely breaking a sweat!

People skeptical of USARS rules may point to this sort of pack domination and claim that “speedskating” teams like San Diego or Oly will be able to do this to the pack at will, which would therefore  ead to very boring games all of the time. It’s true that pretty much every game San Diego and Oly played in at the regional was hard to watch for this reason.

But the rules aren’t exactly at fault in this instance, or at least, may not be the main problem.

Consider Gotham’s 2012 WFTDA schedule, where in Q2 they played in two laughers: 630-65 and 505-19, both Gotham trouncings of lowly-ranked in-region teams. While the problems with the former 2010 WFTDA rule set may have contributed to Gotham’s astronomical point totals, the fact of the matter was that Gotham was playing opponents so far below them in skill, the game was going to be unbalanced and embarrassing to watch regardless of what rules it was being played by.

Modern roller derby’s ongoing rules issues should not be confused with its issue of competitive balance. Simply, no rule set can possibly make a game between an NFL football team (Oly or San Diego, relatively speaking) and a high school football team (all their opponents, pretty much) worth watching. You can only get an accurate gauge on the validity and entertainment factor of game rules if you have two teams that are mostly equal to each other. Otherwise, you run the risk of mistaking a team’s superior athleticism with a misguided style of gameplay.

If you look at USARS games between teams that are somewhat closer in skill level, like SINtral Valley vs. Sactown or Grim Reap-Hers vs. SINtral Valley, the pack speed averaged around 12-14 seconds per lap during regular jams, giving both teams a better chance to actually move within the pack and get into blocking position. Better yet, this happened naturally; the pack was able to move as fast as it needed to, when it needed to. There were also fewer “runaway pussy” packs in these games due to the lack of one team being overwhelmingly better than the other. This showed when runaway packs did manage to happen—the other team was able to recover and slow the pack back down after a few moments.

Some might think a 12 second lap is still a fairly quick pace for roller derby, especially when you compare them the much slower pack lap times you normally see in regular WFTDA jams. (You’d need a sundial to measure WFTDA power jam pack speed.)  But actually, 12 seconds isn’t fast; it’s the minimum speed both the WFTDA and USARS expects to be maintained during gameplay. A 12 second lap is the minimum speed required to pass the 25-in-5 endurance skating test, a speed all players (not just jammers) are expected to maintain.

In any event, there are many factors that need to be juggled to properly test a roller derby rule set. One of those factors are two equally-matched teams that can demonstrate a moderately high level of skating skill.

It will take some time, probably on the order of years, for USARS roller derby to have a lot of games between even, good-skating teams to make a final judgement on what the group is trying to accomplish. (Higher quality refereeing wouldn’t hurt, either.) Luckily, there was one game at the Southwest regional that demonstrated that, with some tweaks going forward, there’s every chance that the USARS ruleset can produce some fast, fair, and compelling roller derby.

The Diamond in the Rough

If you want the best example of the kind of roller derby USARS is trying to bring to the table, or if you just want to see an ol’ fashioned derby slobberknocker—though not completely without its flaws—you must check out Port City vs. Resurrection from the Southwest regional.  It was a game featuring two teams who were at about the same skill and ability level, were both good at skating, had both spent considerable time studying the USARS rules, and understood the basic strategies necessary to stay competitive.

This showed on the track. Although Resurrection was able to jump out to a 30 point lead in the first half—which is a big lead in this style of game—Port City was skating well enough to keep the game close. Eventually, they began chipping away a point or a pass at a time, ultimately getting to within nine points going into a nail-biting last jam.

Seriously, this was a great game. Click to watch the DNN archive. (Camera operated by yours truly.)
Seriously, this was a great game. Click to watch the DNN archive. (Camera operated by yours truly.)

During that last jam, the pack launched off the line right from the start to try and get into a good position. After a hard fight by Port to win lead status for the their jammer, their blockers stayed on the attack to keep both the Resi jammer and pivot behind them, since they know they needed at least two passes to make up the gap.

After a few tries to break out both position players, eventually the Resurrection stripe got to the front and beat the last line of defense up front to break out. The Resi defense took over from there, stuffing the Port jammer to allow their their scoring pivot to catch up and overtake her, earn lead status for for Resurrection  and then end the jam and the game to win it.

The last jam of this game is really a good indicator of the kind of gameplay USARS wants to bring to roller derby. It was fast, but not blindingly, unfairly fast. It was hard-hitting and action-packed. It featured a game-long comeback that culminated in a super-nervous-time last few minutes. And most importantly of all: It was fun to watch!

But this being the USARS regionals it didn’t go without its problems. The game might have been even closer if not for a bad call earlier in the second period, where a ref missed awarding a pivot break to Port City. This forced their pivot back into the pack and allowed Resurrection to add a scoring pass to their total that they probably wouldn’t have gotten had the right call been made.

(Then again, had Port City’s jammers not immediately called off the jam the three or four times the Resurrection pivot immediately chased after them, they might have scraped off enough points to make a difference in the end. You can’t score if you never try to enter the pack!)

To me, the amazing thing about this game is that despite everything USARS has not done well with its first roller derby outing, despite the teething problems with the rules, the lack of referee experience or consistency, and the bad rep that a lot of derby folk are giving them—whether it be justified or not—they still managed to get a great proof-of-concept bout (and three or four other keepers) in fewer than a month of existence.

No matter how you slice it, that ain’t bad at all.

The 2012 USARS Roller Derby National Championship

usarsnatlchamps

USARS started its regional roller derby tournament season with sixteen teams of wildly different skill and ability levels that had varying levels of experience with the USARS rule set. In their national championship tournament, they will have eight teams of somewhat closer ability levels with a lot more practice time under the new rules. So it’s not a stretch to say that the USARS Nationals will feature the best derby USARS has offered to date—really, it’s not going to be hard to beat most of the stuff that was seen in the regional tournaments.

The teams will be contesting the newly-commissioned Seltzer Cup, a trophy named in honor of roller derby inventor Leo Seltzer. Although twelve teams qualified for nationals (six of them by default, being the only teams in some of the regional tournaments), four of them couldn’t make the trip to Fresno, Calif.: Snake Pit from the Northwest, Rushmore and Eastern Iowa from the North Central, and Pensacola from the South.

That leaves Tulsa Derby League, Deep South Derby, Birmingham Roller Derby, Underground Roller Derby, Port City Rollers, Resurrection Roller Girls, San Diego Roller Derby, and the Oly Rollers as the eight teams going for it on December 14-16.

San Diego and Oly are clearly the odds-on favorites to contest the Seltzer Cup on championship Sunday. But based on what I’ve seen in the four regionals, the other six teams have what it takes to put on a good showing, provided they play games against each other instead of against SD or Oly. So we really might see some pretty good roller derby, even if it comes with some niggling issues attached.

But a lot of those issues surrounding the regional tournaments look as if USARS has already taken steps to try and help resolve.

You can forget about teams being forced to play too many games in too short a timeframe—the  tournament will have its 14 games spread out over three days, so the teams will have a fair amount of rest between games. The ref crew at nationals will be including some of the finest officials in the land, notably Eric Rawk (Level 5 WFTDA Certification) and John Foul John (Level 3). With luck, more consistent officiating will let us blame bad happenings on the rules directly, not (necessarily) the zebras. And now that the players know what to expect out of USARS roller derby, they should land in Fresno much more prepared with strategies and counter-strategies during all phases of play.

DNN is tenitively scheduled to cover all three days of the tournament (and I am tentitively scheduled to do some play-by-play for the webcast). Since there’s nothing else happening on the derby world that weekend, all eyes will be on Fresno to see if the second step USARS takes toward a viable derby alternative will be better than its first. More info on the USARS 2012 Roller Derby National Championship can be found on their snazzy new website, usarsrollerderby.com.

~ ~ ~ Continue to Page 2: USARS Rules and Gameplay Observations ~ ~ ~

  • Hi, WindyMan, I have a couple of comment on next week’s USARS Nationals.

    First and foremost, DNN coverage of the tournament is not tentative. It’s a definite thing. My United tickets are bought, my hotel room is reserved, and our internet connection in the venue has been ordered. We’ll be bringing fans coverage of the entire tournament, including the men’s and juniors’ exhibition bouts, as a joint project of USARS, Derby News Network, Exploding Corpse Productions, and Ultimate Derby Scoreboard. Check out DNN’s Live page for the exact links to tune in: http://www.derbynewsnetwork.com/live

    Second, regarding officiating: You’re sending the Rawk? Shit, WindyMan, that’s all you had to say.

    See you in Fresno.

  • Joe Rollerfan

    Minor correction about the Northwest regional tournament: The second-place bout was between Underground and Snake Pit, not OneWorld. Snake Pit came in 2nd, Underground in 3rd, and OneWorld in 4th.

    • Argh! I knew I was forgetting a team. I’ll fix that, with apologies to Snake Pit.

  • Great post Windy. You have really valid points and we are definitely listening to all the ideas so that we can quickly improve. I want to mention two quick things:

    1. The regional qualifiers were planned and executed directly by the host leagues. We are very thankful and appreciative of what these leagues, the players and the officials did considering the short prep time they had. For Nationals it is a different story: although NOtown is the host league, USARS is running or is heavily involved with almost every part of the tournament. As everyone should expect, all aspects of the event will be better: organization, facilities, marketing, and of course, the level of play and the quality of the officials. The Roller Derby Committee has taken a number of steps to address as many issues as possible based on the Regional qualifiers. However, we know (and hope you all agree) that this is just the beginning, and that there is a long way to go and a lot of ways to improve. That is one of the most important commitments we have made to the sport: every single day we are doing things to improve. So… you can certainly expect decisive adjustments to a few rules and other areas almost immediately after the tournaments.

    2. The pivot break “clarification” did not go through the Roller Derby Committee. Since then, we have talked about that situation (and others) and have instructed the officials to call the game as the rules indicate. In this case, the pivot’s ability to break is not limited by the position of the opposing team’s active scorer.

    Game play and the rules are definitely a priority for USARS and the Roller Derby Committee, and we are always listening to the community for good ideas. We have a lot of good partnerships coming down the pipeline and I am confident that next year is going to be a great one, not only for USARS, but for the entire derby world. We will continue trying to make the sport move forward (literally and figuratively).