Points Per Jam: Roller Derby’s Default Difficulty

How "competitive" is derby supposed to be? Our in-depth analysis investigates play in four rulesets and answers this question with a single number.

…Continued from Page 2

Why This Matters

Different roller derby rule sets have different levels of scoring difficulty, different rates at which points can potentially be scored, and different ways of defining competitive play. But as we have seen, some roller derby rule sets foster more competitive play, on paper, than others can.

So what?

Why does this matter? Especially when one of these rule sets, the WFTDA, has become the de facto universal roller derby rule set in America and in many areas of the world? Even if other rule sets “artificially” (as some say) create closer or lower-scoring games, as long as the elite players are playing by WFTDA rules, it will always have more competitive derby in spite of the final score differences.

Well, sure. Going by the PPJ rates calculated in this analysis, a 60-point WFTDA game from 2013 equates to a 25-point MADE or USARS game, in terms of how difficult it would be to mount comebacks of those magnitudes. Here, the absolute points difference doesn’t matter as much as the potential for a certain number of points to be scored over a number of jams, 6 or 7 jams in both cases.

That a number of points can be scored is not why all of this is important, however. Instead, it has everything to do with how a number points are scored, and how the collective team effort required to score them translates into the potential long-term success of a team.

But achieving success is more than just maintaining a winning record. In this case, it really means how good a team can be at sustaining itself financially.

As roller derby continues to get bigger and bigger, it will need to make sure there is enough money to properly backstop its growth. No matter their ability level or situation, skaters and leagues must have a fair chance to create for itself further opportunities to improve—and make sure there are realistic avenues available so they can comfortably afford to do so.

Well-established leagues with a large skater base and a sizable number of dedicated fans can find strength in numbers and easily generate money for facilities, training, and travel expenses.1 They will be fine no matter what type of roller derby they play, and good for them. They earned that status, and they deserve all the success that comes with it.

However, smaller leagues that have lesser skater populations can’t rely on the same economies of scale that larger leagues do. Nor can leagues that are geographically isolated from equal competition, those that must spend more money on travel just to find opponents on the same level as them.

With roller derby expanding on an international scale, the money that these small and emerging mid-tier leagues need to keep pace has got to come from somewhere.

The well-documented exodus of the common fan from roller derby venues, and the sponsors they attract, has made the monetary math very daunting for a lot of smaller leagues. These are the ones that really want to try and compete, but can only do so on a skate-lace budget.

We all marvel at how much the top leagues are improving, and sound the trumpets every time they find new ways and new opportunities to improve their game. However, if the up-and-coming leagues are beginning to struggle for a chance to get at those same opportunities, shouldn’t that be cause to sound an alarm?

Test
If playoff-caliber leagues must decide between “opportunities to play peer leagues” and “staying financially afloat,” there’s a problem. Why does any good team have to be faced with a no-win decision like this?

Judging by the frustrated, sometimes desperate tone of many skaters, it’s clear that a number of leagues are doing just that. For many of them, it seems that no matter what kind of promotion or production they do to make the gameday experience fun, the hard truth of the matter is that if people find boring the actual roller derby they are being sold, they won’t come back.

That missing revenue may really be hurting the growth of roller derby at the lower levels. Without a large skater base to rely on, there is no guarantee these types leagues will have the necessary financial resources to both compete at the level they feel they can compete at and stay open for business, should the lack of ticket sales start putting a bigger dent in their bottom lines.

The ever-apparent rise in crowdfunding will not be enough to make up the difference if skaters expect to rely on each other to meet their secondary or even their primary fundraising targets. Without a bigger crowd to make crowdfunding more viable, money spent on travel or on-deaf-ears marketing will exit the derby economy and never return.

There may be better ways of ensuring everyone has a fair chance to financially compete off of the track. And wouldn’t you know, it has a lot to do with how game rules ensure that everyone has a fair chance to compete for points while on it.

Boring roller derby is boring because it lacks competition. People aren’t stupid: When skaters barely engage each other during gameplay, or do so in the easiest way possible (hello, 4-on-1 defenses!) under the guise of “strategy,” nothing skaters say will be able to mask what they do. Or aren’t doing (hello, offensive teamwork!) as the case may be.

Which is why that even long-time roller derby fans are slowly becoming ex-roller derby fans, even as the skater population insists—incorrectly, if 9.18 PPJ is anything to go by—that the WFTDA roller derby that most showcases their collective talents has been getting more and more competitive overall.

This year, however, the WFTDA may have finally turned a corner. Its 2014 rules changes appear to have made games more competitive.

Lessening penalty length and giving defenses more blocking options has put more action into the game, they say, and the closer, lower-scoring games happening between top and near-ranked teams is proof of this. The just-completed 2014 WFTDA Division 2 tournament and its high concentration of competitive games would seem to back this up.

However, what you might not have realized is that the average scoring rate across the two tournaments and 34 games played, as of this writing, is 8.24 PPJ.

That number is similar—you might even call it spooky-similar—to the 8.5~9.0 PPJ scoring rate seen across many games played in the 2013 WFTDA rules environment, suggesting a meager improvement in the “default” difficulty level of the WFTDA game for 2014.

But again, why does this matter? The tournament had a lot of close, exciting games, which goes to show how effective the WFTDA ranking system and tournament seeding is matching equal opponents with each other.

True. However, we aren’t concerned with the leagues that can collectively afford tens of thousands of dollars to travel to a highly-concentrated meeting of equally-ranked teams.

It’s the teams that can’t afford to travel far to play teams ranked near them, the ones that can only realistically afford to play those in their immediate area, that we need to think about.

If these teams play by WFTDA rules, its high scoring rate becomes a liability if those teams aren’t equally matched. It doesn’t take much of a mismatch in skill levels to create a disproportionate discrepancy on the scoreboard, one that will make new fans immediately get put off by roller derby. After enough of these kinds of games, they will eventually drive away the dedicated fans, too.

Derbyfolk must be careful that they don’t get overly excited about the hard-hitting, low-scoring contests, when the same rule set produces extremely uncompetitive travesties. Everyone wants to improve their skills and teamwork to try and avoid them, but they just keep happening, even when two highly competent teams face each other.

The opening of this analysis had the Hooligans limiting scoring against a top men's team in MADE rules. These (other) Hooligans, against a top men's team in this year's WFTDA rules? Not so much.
The opening of this analysis had the Hooligans play a competitive game against a top men’s team in MADE rules. These (other) Hooligans, against a top men’s team in this year’s WFTDA rules? Not so much.

The vast majority of roller derby leagues are trapped in a catch-22: If a team wants to put on more competitive games, it should travel to play other teams of like-skill to gain experience. If it wants to travel to gain this experience, it needs to put on competitive games to attract enough of an audience to get ticket/concessions/merch sales and build up a fundraising base large enough to more easily afford away games or tournaments.2

However, if these smaller leagues played games in a low-PPJ rules environments, either primarily or on occasion, they would have more flexibility. In being able to play against pretty much anyone and being assured of a fundamentally competitive and entertaining game, regardless of the final score, teams can put on salable games more easily and more often.

This keeps the fans happy—and keeps them funding the team’s critical expenses—letting the skaters focus more on improving their skating skills instead of their fundraising skills.

Only when this happens can roller derby truly say it is on path to healthy growth.

Not just the teams at the top. Not just the teams that can afford it.

For everyone.

Some Final Points On The Competition for Points

To conclude this analysis, let’s take a gander at the Chicago Red Hots, a relatively new USARS roller derby club that established itself in the ever-saturated Chicago area at the beginning of 2013.

As a true club team that has no commitment requirements, many Chicago-area skaters are seeing the team as an extended opportunity to play some more roller derby.3 In particular, as much as a third of the Red Hots are simultaneously affiliated with the Windy City Rollers, skating with the USARS club in their free time outside of their WFTDA commitments.

This subset of skaters playing across different rule sets provides yet another place where we can directly compare how competitive one rule set is relative to another, in this case WFTDA vs. USARS. This time, however, we won’t be looking at the scoreboard to make this comparison.

Instead, we’ll look to the court of public opinion.

What does the average derby fan in Chicago think of these two teams? Surely Windy City, which is consistently ranked as a top-10 team in the world, has a high concentration elite and experienced skaters, and puts on a popular home team season, will be much more impressive than any other team in comparison.

When a local public radio reporter—an impartial adjudicator if there ever was one—got his first taste of USARS roller derby in the Red Hots’ first-ever public home game, he was one of the first in the area that was able to make an educated comparison of two different configurations of roller derby competition.

Clearly, a comparison based on him having previously seen the skillful and highly-strategic WFTDA game that Windy City plays.

A blunt an observation as you’ll ever see. Unfortunately, it is also a statistically accurate one.

As we know, WFTDA games in 2013 regularly saw PPJ averages in the 8.50~9.00 range. The USARS game our reporter friend tweeted from clocked in at a scoring average of 3.13 PPJ. That is more than twice the default level of scoring difficulty.

The final score of this USARS game from Feburary 2014 was 96-48, a 48-point gap.4 For comparison’s sake, the final score of the last Windy City game played in 2013 was at WFTDA Championships against a powerhouse of the roller derby world, Bay Area. That game ended in a final score of 230-135, a 95-point difference.

Relative to the scoring rates of each, the magnitude of score differentials in the two games are similar. (48 pts/3.13 PPJ = 15 jams; 95 pts/8.30 PPJ = 12 jams.) Both are typical mismatches, games that are neither particularly close nor ones that would be considered a blowout.

Yet one mediocre game of  USARS roller derby between two teams nowhere near the collective skill level of Windy City or its typical opponents was all it took for a radio reporter—and potentially, all of his listeners—to immediately understand what was lacking in some of the most high-level WFTDA games:

Competition.

Even when he may have very well been seeing some of  the exact same players play both kinds of derby!

He is not alone in this assessment. Announcers, derby webcasters, sports bloggers, and even skaters that regularly play more than one derby variation are starting to realize just how much more heated the contest for roller derby points can truly be—and they are totally digging it.

One player from a European league that trialed USARS rules was so impressed, he formed an auxiliary USARS team on the spot—despite not being from U.S. or really having anyone else to play against. “For the first time since I started playing derby, I actually felt like I was competing in a sport,” he exclaimed, having only ever known the WFTDA version of the sport before that point.

The enthusiasm for more competitive roller derby is not isolated to small USARS leagues or club teams, either. In the pacific northwest, established WFTDA leagues like Oly are taking advantage of this variety in roller derby by putting on WFTDA-USARS double headers for their fans. Rat City, too, recently hosted an MRDA-Juniors-USARS tripleheader with other teams in the area.

Another WFTDA Division 1 team, No Coast, also dipped its toes in USARS derby on two occasions. One of them was against another new-to-USARS team, the United Rollers from Texas. Unsurprisingly, a team as talented as No Coast beat them 202-16, a 186-point rout.

Yet strangely, this result was not met with the fan reaction we have come to expect after a hefty blowout. One long-time fan of the league said on its Facebook page about the game: “I’ve seen a lot of amazing No Coast bouts over the years….but this ranks towards the tops.” How on earth can a severe blowout, one of a magnitude equivalent to a 460-point massacre in the WFTDA last year, be one of the most amazing games he, or anyone, has ever seen?

Perhaps its approximate scoring rate of 4.50 PPJ—twice as competitive on a per-jam basis as typical WFTDA games have been over the years—was a factor.

If a typical mismatch of teams in a low-PPJ environment still has enough going for it to get people excited despite the score, just imagine what people would think about an extremely close, extremely low PPJ contest between two highly-skilled, extremely well-matched teams.

Let’s find out.

At the final game of the 2013 USARS men’s roller derby championship tournament, Your Mom Men’s Derby was up 69-57 over Oly’s men’s team, the Oly Warriors, after 59 minutes, 51 seconds and 47 jams of gameplay.

That works out to a ridiculously competitive 2.68 PPJ. This is what would be expected when pitting two teams packed to the brim with elite skating talent against each other. Their offense and defense were cancelling each other out so well, that even with penalties thrown into the mix, the best either team could muster was a partial scoring pass on every jam.

Under these circumstances, a 12-point Your Mom lead would appear insurmountable. For context, a lead of this magnitude in this particular game would effectively be the same as a 35-point lead in 2013 WFTDA rules.

When single-jam comebacks of this size happened in high-level WFTDA games last year, we know what they usually looked like. A jammer penalty leads to a power jam. A stupendous amount of passive offense is played to keep the pack at a stand still. The team scoring points is playing no defense whatsoever. The team defending points has few options to legally defend them, usually resulting in more penalties and even easier scoring.

Basically, the kind of boring roller derby that led the WFTDA to change its rules to help limit the effects of that sort of gameplay.

Compare that to this, how a comeback of similar magnitude plays out in a high-level USARS game.

There are no power jams here: Both teams have their jammer in the pack, although Your Mom was missing a pivot, the only penalized player pre-jam.5

No easy defense, either: Oly (in red) had to simultaneously stop the YMMD jammer and cycle forward to keep blocker containment defensively. Would the Your Mom blockers (in black) free their jammer, keep up a fast pack, or collectively escape, their team wins the game.6

A fact not lost on the announcer, who absolutely loses his shit as Oly continually defends constant offensive assaults, all while keeping the pack slowed down enough to get the necessary scoring passes in before time expires—only just.

If a professional couldn’t keep his excitement contained, imagine what the common fan was going through.

After the game (watch it here), Your Mom’s Seahorses Forever stated, unprovoked, that the game was “extremely intense. It was probably the most intense men’s roller derby game—roller derby game in general—that I have ever been a part of.”

As it turns out, it was one of the most difficult, most competitive and most exciting game he’s ever been a part of, too. He didn’t even need to do the math to know that.