In a move that many derby players and fans have been waiting for, the WFTDA has made addressing the problem of unbalanced power jams and passive offensive a priority.1The frequency and length of jammer penalties was throwing games out of balance, and the resulting power jams were boring to watch and extremely unfair to the team without a jammer.
As is their way, the WFTDA membership wanted to take the time to get things right with such a critical and potentially significant change to the rules. This process took over a year to complete, from the initial rules proposals to the final rules document release.
In October 2013, the WFTDA announced an open beta test for leagues to participate in so as to see how the proposed rule changes worked during gameplay. Feedback from from leagues was collected over the following weeks, and a decision was eventually made on what to implement and how to do so in the updated rules.
The two sets of beta proposals went right for the two major trouble spots: The huge effect of jammer penalty length and the responsibility to maintain the pack during play.
Let’s look at the change to penalty time first. If there is one new rule that is the best and most welcome addition to the 2014 WFTDA rule book, this is it:
Section 6 – Penalty Enforcement
6.1 – Penalties
6.1.2 – Penalties expire after 30 seconds served in the Penalty Box. Each penalty is timed separately and individually.
Nothing else needs to be said about this, but here we go anyway: Shorter penalties means players get back on track sooner and packs will stay more full of blockers for longer periods. Penalty-heavy players will stay on the track for more play time, forcing them to clean up their act or risk faster ejection. The length of power jams will be immediately cut in half, with jammers getting less time to go up against the opposing defense unopposed.
As it relates to jammers, the reduction in penalty time may actually have more of an effect on regular jams than in power jams.
Jammers are generally conservative in close jammer races, not wanting to risk giving up a jammer penalty in a push for minor partial-pass points. Through last year, a jammer would have had to score 1s and 2s in at least 10 tight jams, when they happened, to offset the risk of a box trip and the potential of giving up up to 20 points or more the other way in just one jam. 10:1 odds against were very poor odds for jammers, which is why even the very good ones were quick to call jams off 0-0 if a scoring pass was to be closely contested.
But with half the penalty, now those small scores only need to happen in 5 or so jams to offset the potential risk. Jammers will still be betting against the house in these situations, but at least they can be aggressive in more situations that they may have not been able or willing to be before. This means being aggressive in a neck-and-neck race around the track will bear fruit a bit more often, meaning we may see this exciting play happen more and more.
All of this is good. Good, good, good. But was it the best way the WFTDA could have achieved all of this progress in this area?
Let’s take a look at the five beta test plans for penalty times (PDF) the WFTDA went through to see if there was a better option among them:
WFTDA 2013 Rules Beta Test Proposal: 30 Second Penalties
Part 1: Penalty Time Scenarios
Practice Plan 1: Jammers 30 Seconds, Blockers 1 minute
Practice Plan 2: All Skaters serve 30 seconds
Part 2: Scoring Pass Scenarios
Practice Plan 3: Jammer serving one scoring pass based on Engagement Zone
Practice Plan 4: Jammer serving one scoring pass or 30 seconds, whichever is less
Practice Plan 5: Jammer serving one scoring pass or 1 minute, whichever is less
There were really two problems to fix with penalties: The huge imbalance between one jammer penalty and one blocker penalty, and the ridiculous number of points that could be potentially scored during a power jam. The different scenarios listed here attempted to solve both of these problems in different ways.
The scoring pass scenarios (Plans 3, 4, and 5) were to put a definitive cap on power jam scoring by ending a jammer penalty based off of whether or not the opposing jammer can pick up all available points on the first uncontested scoring pass, effectively turning any jammer penalty into a flat five points for the other team. These ideas were probably never likely to get very far through testing.
Plan 3 was doomed from the start; not putting a time limit on a scoring pass would have strategically let a team keep the opposing jammer in the penalty box indefinitely by never completing a scoring pass. Plan 5 seemed like overkill, given that even the most stalwart defenses would have a hard time preventing a grand slam for a full minute. Of the three scoring pass scenarios, Plan 4 seems as if it would have had the best chance of making the cut.
But really, any of them would have invited stalling abuses and created a lot of potential confusion as to when exactly a jammer penalty ended and whether or not a jammer was eligible to be released from the box. The necessary rules to comply with all of these situations and create the necessary communications would have been a nightmare to write cleanly. Which meant the winner of this beta test was always going to be behind door number 1 or door number 2.
Plan 1 would have directly addressed the jammer/blocker penalty imbalance by doubling blocker penalty time to give them more weight against the potentially devastating effects of jammer penalties. A nice idea in theory, but having a different length penalties for the exact same infraction only really makes sense if the longer penalty was a result of a greater impact on gameplay, not as a jerry-rigged way of fixing the wrong problem. (We’ll get to that shortly.)
Of the five tested, there was only one proposal here that was easy to implement, the only one which reduced and equalized penalty time for all players across the board: All skaters serve 30 seconds in the penalty box after committing a penalty. And lo, rule 6.1.2 gets updated to make it happen.
Claim yet another victory for consistency and simplicity in rules!
With penalty time taken care of, the WFTDA moved to examine the other problem with jammer penalties: The glut of passive offense and the pack manipulation strategies that make it possible.
The beta proposals for pack destruction and failure to reform (PDF) went a step further than the penalty time scenarios by actually incorporating test rules into the at-the-time existing 2013 ruleset. These were broken down into three different parts: Two were linked to each other (“A” & ” B”), and the third (“C”) was a separate add-on which could be optionally approved.
Here are the two significant parts of the pack rules beta, with the rule section numbers changed to show where they would have (approximately) fit in the new 2014 rules, had they been implemented:
WFTDA 2013 Rules Beta Test Proposal: Destruction and Failure to Reform
Beta Concept Addition A:
.1.2.2 – When one team slows and or stretches the pack back away from the team actively blocking their opposing jammer, they should be considered to be intentionally creating a no pack situation or destroying the pack. Slowing or stopping on the track can be a penalized if it destroys the pack.
Beta Concept Addition C:
.10.2.3 – In regards to .10.2.1.2, the front team cannot sprint away from the rear team to chase down an opposing jammer. If the rear team is actively skating and working to maintain a pack and the front team chooses to sprint away, the responsibility then falls on the front team to slow their speed to reform that pack. In this situation the front team needs only to slow enough to maintain a pack. If the front team continues to sprint away, they are intentionally creating a no pack situation or destroying the pack. However, if the rear team slows to a crawl and/or stops on the track, the responsibility falls on the rear group to reform the pack.
Some translation from WFTDA-ese into English is necessary: With the “A” and “B” proposals, the WFTDA wanted to stop a rearward team from artificially slowing down the pack via non-engagement (in the way that eventually forces the forward team to also slow and bridge) as long as the forward team was actively engaging the opposing jammer. The biblically wordy “C” proposal would have gone a step further and prevented the forward team from initiating a clear speed increase in the pack, in this situation or any other.
The real problem with huge power jams and jammer penalty imbalances has always been the asymmetrical advantage a rear blocker wall, particularly in “sausage” form, enjoyed in controlling pack speed.
Once the pack slows or comes to a stop, even if this speed change was initiated by passive disengagement or a rear blocker penalty, the rear group has all the power to keep it stopped. Speeding the pack back up again would ruin any chance for a high-scoring power jam, which is why teams kept up with passive offense even when it looked like it was unsuccessful.
Proposal “A” would have mostly restored a huge share of pack control to the front group of players, forcing the rear group to maintain speed with it. If the front was actively engaging the opposing jammer in a nominal-speed pack, and the front group attempted to keep that speed reasonable while keeping their defense rolling forward, the rear group would have been wholly responsible for staying with the pack under fear of getting destruction of pack penalties.
Under this proposal, a rear blocker group choosing to play offense passively would be required to maintain proximity and the established pack speed of the front group until their jammer broke through on her own. But this would suddenly become much more difficult for the jammer. Since this beta rule would have allowed the front wall to keep rolling (but not sprinting) indefinitely, they would not need to bridge and weaken their wall as quickly, if at all.
A consequence of this setup would have meant offensive intervention by the rear blockers during power jam situations was to be all but assured. The resulting pack strategies to prevent an opposing defense from being able to put up a massively advantageous “rolling fortress” 4-wall, which would have included keeping a blocker goat behind some number of defensive players at all times—or else—would have almost certainly solved the passive offense problem once and for all.
Which is why it is disappointing that the WFTDA skater membership declined to implement this potential improvement for the 2014 rules.
In fact, none of the beta rules from pack testing wound up in the final draft this year. You can forgive the skaters for not wanting to add that dreadfully wordy “C” proposal into the new rules, sure. But the “A” proposal and its “B” companion rule seem as if they would have been relatively easy to implement and not be too terribly confusing. Certainly, not any worse than current pack definition and reformation rules.
But because this critical gameplay component remains mostly unchanged for 2014, passive offense strategies will not be blunted as much as many people will have hoped.
Thirty second penalties are not going to suddenly make passive offense any less effective of a strategy option. The sausage and its related pork barrel strategies aren’t going away as many so desperately hoped, because if a team knows disengagement is its best chance of scoring maximum points during a 1-minute power jam, disengagement will still be its best chance of maxing out during a 30-second power jam.
Not only that, the constant and looming threat of being pushed forward out of play and the no-pack scenario will only make things even more difficult for a front wall defense in a stopped pack, even with the improvement of semi-legal clockwise blocking elsewhere in the rules.
How strange it is that the WFTDA keeps throwing the rules at the apparent problem of players not wanting to try and keep pack together, and makes new rules to force teams to get back in proximity when it breaks (5.10.6); but with a 2014 rule update has only reinforced the real reason why skaters will do everything in their power to try and keep it apart:
5.10 OUT OF PLAY
5.10.12 Immediate Failure to Reform: After a warning, a failure to immediately attempt to reform a pack (see Section 5.10.6). If a pack is not immediately reformed, a penalty will go to one Blocker from each team, if the team has any Blockers who made no immediate effort to reform the pack.
184.108.40.206 A Blocker who continues a block or initiates a new block after a No Pack situation is declared shall be considered to be making no effort to reform.
Even if the pack snaps together immediately after a no-pack situation is declared, forward blockers have absolutely no choice but to react to the no-pack call and disengage. By the time they realize they can re-engage the jammer, she’s already past them. If any blocker continues to engage the jammer under the assumption the pack will reform immediately, but it doesn’t, it’s an instant penalty and the jammer gets to go past them anyway.
A front wall needs to be even more wary of this now, meaning they may be more likely to begin bridging (and weakening their defense) sooner than before.
This is where we need to be reminded that the back group of blockers, whether they have a jammer to block or not, are never threatened by these requirements, and indeed are benefited by them.
A further examination of the pack reformation beta proposals reveals something extremely interesting about the thought process behind the skaters testing them and the kind of feedback they were looking for on their end, which is related to the persistent back wall advantage in the WFTDA game.
For both the “A/B” and “C” proposals, skaters involved with testing were given curiously specific instructions on what to discuss with officials and each other before testing, and what to do during testing in regards to common gameplay strategies that may be affected by the rule changes:
A 30-Minute Beta Test Scrimmage should be broken into the following sections:
5 Minutes: Review by Practice Leader and Head Referee about changes:
– Discuss what actions are now illegal/legal
– Practice Leader – Discuss how to keep a slow pace pack
– Practice Leader – Discuss how to stretch a pack back
– Practice Leader – Discuss pack definition and the new rights and responsibilities of both groups
Minimum 20 Minutes: Black and White Scrimmage
– At least ten minutes should include Power Jam scenarios, these may be staged if needed by having the ref send off a jammer. (Vary the speed, have the team with a jammer pull their pack back to receive the jammer from the box, have the rear team skate back 9 feet.)
This is curious because the underlined activities that skaters wanted to do—keeping a slow pace pack and stretching a pack back—could not have done anything to help gauge the ultimate problem of passive offense in these rules tests. Or in any other passive offense test where skaters wanted to keep doing these strategies.
In reality, these popular strategies are actually part of the global passive offense problem the WFTDA is allegedly trying to fix.
Here is the dirty secret about WFTDA roller derby: Core defensive strategies, like 4-walls, scrum starts, or pack-stretching jammer recycles, fully rely on passive offense to be effective.
All these things call for a team to give absolutely no offensive assistance to their jammer whatsoever. This same “you’re on your own!” attitude demonstrated by blockers during power jam passive offense sequences is the one everyone seems to be so averse to. The only difference is that during the other passive offense situations, at least the teams are playing some kind of active defense against the other jammer…but not the rest of the other team.
This means that for the team game that is roller derby, the WFTDA switching to 30-second penalties didn’t do anything to fix passive offense. It only cut in half the power jam “passive defense” problem.
Lest we forget, roller derby is a game where a team must play offense and defense at the same time. The true strategy of roller derby forces teams to decide how to best divide all four of their blockers between offensive and defensive duties. (Yes, even during power jams.) Elite WFTDA teams are already starting to explore this idea, where they can, by breaking away from 4-walls and sausages to give their jammer direct offensive assistance.
But even those tactics would not be possible without the passive offense with which to easily launch them or reset back to should they fail.
As the best teams in the WFTDA continue to exploit this fact while on the power jam, alternating between passive offense and active offense (but never any defense), average power jam scores may actually turn out to be higher than a half-time penalty might suggest they would be. Which means the jammer penalty imbalance problem may have not been completely solved in the new rules, either.
For now it appears that a majority of skaters and teams want to be able to keep doing things like ganging up on jammers 4-on-1 with passive offense, keeping a pack slowed down with passive offense, recycling the opposing jammer far to the back with passive offense, and assuring guaranteed power jam scoring opportunities with passive offense.
What other conclusion could we come to? None of the beta proposals for pack destruction got through testing favorably enough to make it into the 2014 rules. Particularly the “A” proposal, which would have been the most simple and most consistent one of those tested. Even if the rule wasn’t 100% refined upon implementation, neither are many other new rules that gained approval. At least doing something would have put the WFTDA on a definite path to fix the passive offense problems. All of them.
But the skaters don’t want that. At least, not right now.
There could have been a multitude of justifiable reasons why this was the case. Perhaps the “A/B” proposals were judged to be too difficult to officiate. Maybe they didn’t make the cut due to discovered loopholes in other areas of gameplay. It could also be that the idea received positive feedback in some areas, but negative in others, possibly necessitating refinement to brought up again next year.
Those of us “on the outside” may never know the exact reasons why the WFTDA collective decided to hold station on this issue for at least another year, despite there being evidence showing it was both a sound idea and a universal fix that could have worked this year. However, there is a way for us to see what WFTDA skaters may have been thinking when it came time to choose the ideas to but forward into beta testing…and whether or not the WFTDA truly is on the right track to fix passive offense.
As the WFTDA began the 2014 rules revision process with its member leagues early last year, it sent out a number of votes for various items on the agenda. One of these votes was regarding passive offense—or”patient offense,” as the WFTDA refers to it internally.
According to multiple sources familiar with knowledge of the process, in April 2013 the WFTDA directly asked membership if passive offense should be, as it was put to leagues, “solved with new rules or new strategy.” The communication offered three questions for a vote, and from these questions we can infer some information about the skater thought process in trying to deal with the situation.
The news is good or bad, depending on your own view of the passive offense problem.
The first question directly asked skaters, yes or no, if they wanted to do something about passive offense in the upcoming year. A majority of WFTDA skaters voted yes to that question, of course, if the beta testing and final changes to the 2014 rules are any indication.
This is good information to confirm. We can be confident that skaters feel it is time to try to do something about passive offense with future rule changes.
Or at least, the power jam sausage variety of passive offense. As mentioned before, so many of “new” strategies that have come about in the WFTDA over the last few years have all been passive offense in its other forms. Without changing rules to prevent these new strategies from being viable, they will only continue to be used, power jam or not. But thank goodness that the steps are finally being taken to get something started.
However, there is the matter of the second question of the vote. Skaters were given the option as to which future rules revision to begin tackling passive offense: The June 2013 release, or the (scheduled at the time) January 2014 release. The WFTDA rules committee advised membership that it was probably better to wait until the new year to allow time to test ideas, but could move to implement new rules immediately “if that is what membership would prefer.”
It goes without saying that membership preferred to wait until 2014.
This is disappointing. The Majority had an opportunity to grab the bull by the horns and do something—anything—to at least make an attempt to quell the outrageous effect power jams have been having on the WFTDA game. If any changes they tried were unsuccessful, or even a complete failure, seeing new rules in action during to-the-public, high-level gameplay would have garnered feedback more valuable that any amount of beta testing ever could.
This is how the public no-minors beta tests of 2011 happened, remember. Because of them, additional loopholes were discovered. Had a similar public test taken place last year, on any scale, it could have given the WFTDA a much bigger head-start on the 2014 rules revision—a revision that was delayed two months from its original January release goal.
Alas, skaters chose not to take this opportunity. And we all know what happened during the 2013 playoffs as a result of that choice.
Which brings us to the third and final question the WFTDA asked of its member leagues, and the most pertinent in this rules analysis. Had skaters chosen to implement an immediate fix to the rules, they were given a list of six possible solutions to passive offense.
These six were whittled down from a master list of dozens and dozens of skater-submitted ideas for items across the rule book. Most of these suggestions have been around within the rules committee since at least the first half of 2012. (Many from the bigger list have already been adopted for the 2013 or 2014 rules releases.) Of the six selected choices regarding the passive offense problem, leagues could vote for multiple options. Any that hit the 50% majority threshold would be further explored by the WFTDA rules committee.
In looking at this list, we can start to get an idea of how the WFTDA-skater hive-mind identifies the problem of passive offense and what its top potential fixes have been up to this point. We know of the proposals that passed this vote and advanced to the beta stage for testing, shorter penalties and pack responsibility. But as for the other four…
WFTDA April 2013 Membership Vote: Possible Passive Offense Solutions
– 30 second penalties
– Changing blocking restrictions during a no-pack
– Changing pack definition during a no-pack
– Allowing star passes after a jammer is penalized
– Mandating forward movement
– Redefining responsibility to maintain a pack
Remember the golden rule: For something to be truly fixed, simplify and make consistent. Any rule suggestion that is neither simple nor consistent is one that would likely take so many words and multiple rules revisions to finalize, trying to force it through would create more trouble than it would be worth in the long term.2 There are several of these “booby trap” rule proposals on this list.
Half of these suggestions address the pack problem. This offers glimmers of hope that players feel that (the threat of) the no-pack situation is being abused and needs a rules change to fix, as seen in the two options about no-packs. In fact, the proposal for redefining pack responsibility got as close to fruition as a real fix has ever been, although it didn’t pass through beta testing favorably enough to make it all the way.
But creating two sets of blocking restrictions for two different types of pack definition—one for defined packs, and one for no-pack situations—breaks our golden rule. Had these nascent proposals ultimately made it into an official rules release, it would have taken a lot of verbal judo to define, outline, delineate and separate (and don’t forget: officiate) it all, potentially opening the door for new misinterpretations or loopholes.
The same goes for the other inconsistent proposal, allowing star passes after a jammer is penalized. This is a really interesting idea, but one that would be very tricky to put into the rules cleanly. The WFTDA did good work over the last year in cleaning up star pass rules; needing to add back in a subset of exceptions for what constitutes a legal after-penalty star pass without being insubordination for non-immediate compliance, for example, would have mucked up that progress for sure.
It doesn’t take a lot of thought to see that these ideas were sketchy or incomplete from the start. Proposing potentially complex ideas, let alone being asked to choose from them, won’t do anything to help fix things like passive offense in the way that skaters think it would in their heads or on paper. Their own track record on self-developing rules has shown that thus far.
Thankfully, skater votes steered the ship away from those paths. (For now, at least.) But they also chose to avoid the only apparently consistent rule that did not move on to be fully tested in beta, one that is popular with many on the outside looking in: Mandating required forward skating motion.
Except, this idea was an even bigger booby trap than the other three.
Although the rule would be very consistent and completely simplify blocking rules and penalties, its inclusion in the current WFTDA rules environment would have introduced a more critical problem to gameplay. This is not speculation. It is a claim has already been verified in different roller derby rules environment.
Here is a power jam from a banked track game played under 2012 Roller Derby Coalition of Leagues (RDCL) rules. It had (and still has) the required forward motion rule, and at the time had the exact same passive offense problem as the WFTDA faces today. Watch this video, then ask yourself if forcing everyone to move forward at all times would do anything to fix passive offense:
This is yet another poor stand-alone proposal offered by the skaters to fix the passive offense problem, because the rule would be inconsistent with the current state of WFTDA gameplay. Without the ability to recycle a jammer by skating clockwise, a front group of blockers would be beyond screwed once a bridge gets extended out. Because there it would stay relative to the sausaging rear blockers, both slowly moving forward.
Without giving blockers a compelling gameplay reason to naturally drive the pack forward, such as to get up with or ahead of multiple opponents out of necessity for offense and/or defense (regardless of the level of opposing competition), putting in a rule to force everyone to skate forward will not solve anything. This type of rule would be no different than making one that forces both teams to cooperate to keep the pack together, when the only thing they want to do is compete to break it apart.
Oh wait, that rule already exists! And the WFTDA was this close to finally doing something to finally fix the passive offense strategies that came about because of it. With the failed “A” and “B” beta proposals, pack definition would have no longer been artificially forced by rule enforcement, but have happened more naturally during gameplay to maintain competitive advantage.
But the skaters don’t want that. At least, not right now.
So what to make of this list of “alpha” rule proposals? It’s hard to criticize the WFTDA for offering the options that they did, because it only acts at the direction of the skaters who came up with them. You can’t completely fault the skaters for coming up with so many incomplete ideas, since they were the ones that ultimately ferreted out the two most complete ones out of the six presented. That is a part of the rules process, after all.
However, there are two solid pieces of information we can glean from these alpha proposals and the entire rules revision process it is a part of.
The first is that there has been definitive progress made in terms of wanting to implement some kind of pack definition fix, even if only for power jams. A 50% majority voted for it at this point last year, meaning that enough feel it is an acceptable concept for eventual implementation into the rules in some form or another. In the best-case scenario, development on this could be in a holding pattern at the beta level until an appropriate set of rules and an agreeable amount of testing can come about to nail it down for sure.
This is important, because the other insight here is that all of the other “good” ideas that the WFTDA has had up to this point to solve passive offense, as it narrowly views the problem it, have apparently been exhausted.
If jammer penalty imbalance, lopsided scores between equal(ish) teams, and our friend passive offense are still unacceptably prevalent, it seems as if the WFTDA ain’t got much left to go with. Penalties cannot get any less than 30 seconds without compromising their intended purpose, so another reduction in penalty time is not possible. Aside from the pack rules that were passed over after testing this year, the other four proposals, assuming they were the best ideas known to WFTDA derby-science at this point last year, just aren’t solid enough to make a compelling case for a complete fix to all of passive offense on their own.
In the coming months, as the WFTDA ramps up its revision processes for the mid-year rules update and eventually the 2015 rules release, perhaps skaters should think about putting every and any option on the table to fix all forms of passive offense in a way that is simple and consistent, even if that may adversely affect strategies and tactics they want to have in their game. There are ways of getting what you want within this framework, but these can only be discovered if the WFTDA would put the priority on the game instead of on the skaters who create it.
Hopefully, the WFTDA wants that. It may very well need it sooner than it thinks.
That’s the A-to-Z (a-to-z?) of the 2014 WFTDA Rules of Flat Track Roller Derby. The time has come to dig our noses out of the rule book and come back out from behind the curtain of secrecy to take a look at what the updated rules text will ultimately mean for WFTDA play this year.
For people that are all-in with the WFTDA style of roller derby—passive offense and all—the game you will see in 2014 will be leaner, meaner, tougher, and more hotly contested.
Slashing penalties in half should immediately cut out a significant number of “junk” points that have been making scoreboards more and more obese over the last few years. Fewer box points and reduced power jam scoring will help bring scoring down to less ridiculous levels in games between equal opponents, meaning each individual point will become a little more important and a little more exciting to see scored. This still places an emphasis on forcing penalties and winning big on power jams, though, which was part of the problem last year.
However, with improvements to the rules in other areas, penalties should happen at a lower rate and their residual effects should be greatly reduced. In a lower-scoring rules environment, any individual (blocker) penalty will influence the final score much more; if regular points are harder to come by and (blocker) penalty points are more rare, then those extra points and extra gaps will become hotter commodities: Low supply, high demand.
As mentioned in the beta section regarding jammer penalties, this is part of the reason why reduced penalties will probably have a greater effect on regular jams. If only because so much more of the game will be “regular,” or a 5-on-5 roller derby situation. It’s been a very long time since most games in the WFTDA have been light on penalties and heavy on action, and a good part of me is excited that the “light on penalties” part is making a long-overdue comeback.
But there’s still the part of me expects the “heavy on action” part to be lacking in 2014. Specifically, roller derby action.
In the quite-a-few games I have seen played under the new ruleset, the passive offense tactics that persist throughout every single phase of the game are cancelling out many of the improvements elsewhere in the rules. Going up against more persistent defenses does not appear to be motivating blockers to push forward to assist their jammer, at least not yet; during the high-level games played earlier this month, there were endless double 4-wall jam starts. One of them lasted for over 100 seconds into a 120 second jam!
For so much “action” during those sequences, if 80% of a jam can still be nothing but passive offense then not a whole hell of a lot of roller derby—active defense and active offense—is happening.
A similar cancelling-out happened last year with no-minors. This seemed like an immediate improvement, but turned out to throw penalty balance so out of whack that the WFTDA ultimately had to cut penalties down to 30 seconds to counter the effect it unwittingly created. With 4-on-4 blocker packs ready to become more common thanks to this development, there is a danger that some other part of gameplay will get thrown out of balance this year as a direct result of it.
That tipping of the scales may turn out to backfire onto the scoreboard. I anticipate more games between equal opponents to end in closer and potentially lower scores than last year, although that’s not too far a prediction seeing as only 16% of 2013 Division 1 playoff games finished with a “close” score difference of 25 points or less. But in the games between mismatched opponents, and even slightly unequal ones, the number of triple-digit blowouts outside of the butter zone may spike.
In lopsided affairs, the stronger team will score a lot of points in every situation. The weaker team often only gets good scoring opportunities during long power jams and/or when the strong team gets many blocker penalties at once. Since the new rules are reducing the likelihood of any team finding themselves in trouble, the stronger team will still score a lot of points in every situation—but suddenly the weaker team has no chance to make a real impact.
In other words, don’t expect the dreaded “horrible blowout” to be going away any time soon.
A score of note from last wknd: 635-12, Bay Area (#2) over Treasure Valley (#46). Game used 2014 rules. Looks like 30 sec. PJs are working?
— Derby Notes Blog (@windymannet) March 26, 2014
This game happened last month, played under the new ruleset. Given the teams involved, you’d expect the game to not be competitive. But when that same #2 Bay Area went up against teams their own size, #4 Denver and #5 Angel City, games you would fully expect to be competitive, the games were much closer…
— Roller Derby Scores (@DNNscores) April 12, 2014
— Roller Derby Scores (@DNNscores) April 13, 2014
…but still 100+ and 200+ point blowouts, respectively.
Hard to say that’s the fault of a rankings mismatch, isn’t it? Especially with an (excellent) adjustment to the WFTDA rankings algorithm made earlier this month. It should help ensure that teams are better distributed into the brackets for the 2014 playoffs, in any event.
By that time, teams will have best adjusted their strategies for a world of shorter penalties, fuller packs, new blocking rules (and loopholes), and lower scoring power jams. It’s really only then can we make a full and fair assessment on the effect that the 2014 WFTDA Rules of Flat Track Roller Derby has on games, whether they be between elite teams, in expected mismatches, in surprising upsets, or between two mid-level or low-level teams that are just happy to be playing a roller derby game that has some meaning. (And even the ones that don’t.)
Except this time around, we have some insight into the process that led the WFTDA to make some of the rules changes. If the changes are deemed to be a success, we can better appreciate the way the WFTDA arrived at the solutions to enact them. If certain changes are found to be inadequate or more detrimental to the game, we will know exactly what went wrong behind the scenes—and we will know that at least one potential fix has been waiting in the wings for some time now.
But that judgement will have to wait until this time next year, after the WFTDA has taken stock of the 2014 playoffs and has finalized the 2015 rules, further cementing into writing the kind of game the leading women of roller derby want to play.
Here’s hoping it’s still the kind of roller derby a lot of us want to watch, too.