Not All Blowouts Are Created Equal

Clearing up the difference between a mismatch and a blowout, their lasting effects on the financial prospects of a league, and how derby rulesets play into them.

Last weekend, the women of the Oly Rollers1 opened up their 2015 season in a USARS-rules game against friendly neighbors to the south and fellow WFTDA member Ranier Rollergirls.

This would not normally be news, but a comment on the game has got me shaking my head. Oly is the 17th best team in North America and Rainier 345th per Flat Track Stats, so I didn’t bat an eyelash when I saw the final wind up in a fairly significant blowout: Oly 234, Rainier 4. But of course it would be a blowout, when you have two teams with that big of a talent difference playing each other.

This kind of result would normally just be one of many that happens on the derby calendar, only to be forgotten as the next weeks’ games come around. Even most of the comments on Oly’s Facebook page are par for the course, arguments that are no different than those we have come to expect anytime a game like this is put out there for judgment.

“Both teams played hard and learned so much!”

playedhard-learned

“Who would want to pay to see a slaughter like that?”

slaughter-boring

“They fought like hell for those points!”

foughtforpoints

“Why did they run up the score?”

runupscore

And so on. Nothing out of the ordinary on either side of the fence.

However, a further scan of social media brought up something that I’ve been seeing a lot of when it comes to commentary about non-WFTDA roller derby. Specifically, how a lot of people find it boring.

There are folks out there that don’t care for the style of gameplay USARS is developing. That’s fine. However, the logic that some of them use to justify their position on the matter can often be downright gonzo, as this fellow demonstrates.

This argument can be summed up as such: “Because two extremely mismatched teams played against each other in USARS rules, and the result of that mismatch was a blowout, the USARS ruleset is bad and leads to boring games!”

Goodness.

I hope this is painfully obvious to everyone else: No matter the sport being played, or the specific ruleset being played within that sport, there comes a point where two teams are so far apart in ability levels, a game between them will result in a blowout no matter what happens. In roller derby, developing sport being played at the amateur level, those blowouts can often be extreme.

You simply cannot directly attribute the result of a bad mismatch to the contents of a roller derby rulebook.2 The problem isn’t the style of roller derby being played. It’s that two such teams should have never played against each other in the first place. If the game was meant to be played to a ticket-buying crowd, that is doubly so.

No matter how well one schedules or how well a tournament is structured, mismatches are bound to happen. That’s just the state of the game at the moment, and it will be for some time.

This got me thinking about the fragile financial situation that many leagues around the country are still faced with. For teams that regularly schedule public games, getting a lot of butts in seats and collecting the ticket revenue that generates has to happen whether or not a game is anticipated to be close, to be middling, or to be uncompetitive. Every team would love to have a home or interleague schedule that ensures super-equal teams play each other to guarantee a thrilling contest every time out, but that’s unlikely.

Faced with this reality, leagues try to make the inevitable average-or-worse games as viable as possible, so that fans won’t be too deterred by the blah games while they wait for the WOW games to come around. They often try to do this by investing in bout production, keeping fans entertained during the downtime of games.

However, only so much can be done if the game result has been determined after only a few minutes of uptime. If the blah games become so boring that they become BLAAARGH games, new fans may lose interest quickly. If these valueless matchups are too common, even semi-regulars will start shying away.

This need not always be the case. Leagues that play by non-WFTDA roller derby rulesets have been discovering that in games between competent but mismatched teams, a lopsided final score doesn’t automatically make for a  BLAAARGH game that may turn away repeat business.

This is because not all blowouts are created equal.

To show what I mean, take a look at the following two games. One is from WFTDA Championships 2014, and the other from the final women’s game at USARS Nationals 2013. These are very different games played under very different circumstances, but are similar in an area where we can make a pertinent comparison between the two.

WFTDA Champs 2014

(#3) Bay Area  238
(#6) London  148

– 90 point difference
– Score ratio 62/38%
– 386 total points scored
– 45 jams at 8.57 PPJ

USARS Nationals 2013

(FTS #17) Oly Rollers  163
(FTS N/A) Port T’Orchard  26

– 137 point difference
– Score ratio 86/14%
– 189 total points scored
– 45 jams at 4.20 PPJ

The WFTDA game was between two very powerful teams that were extremely close in rank. The USARS game was a mismatch between Oly and a talented but outclassed opponent. The WFTDA game was closer, in both absolute (points) and relative (ratio) terms, but the USARS game was lower-scoring on a per-jam basis, as well as across the entire game.

If you had to guess which one of these blowouts were the “better” game, on paper the easy choice would be Bay Area/London. But you don’t play roller derby on paper: You play it on roller skates, on a roller derby track.

There is one important place where they share a similarity. The total number of points scored in each, as well as each game’s corresponding PPJ value3, matches up quite well with the expected total and per-jam scores for an average game played in each ruleset. That is to say, the number of points put up in either game would not be considered overly extraordinary for each style of play.

The rate of scoring in WFTDA roller derby is generally double of that seen in the USARS game. Knowing there is nothing abnormal about our example games, and that they match the 2:1 scoring ratio quite nicely, we can examine similarly important jams in each of them to see what’s actually happening on the track.

Understanding this is important to help make typical blowouts occur less frequently, and become easier for the average fan to stomach if they should happen.

Let’s look at a typical “big” WFTDA jam from the Bay Area/London game. This happened on the very first jam, as a matter of fact:

After waiting around for 7 seconds after the start of the jam, Bay Area’s Chantilly Mace takes on the London defense all by herself, finally breaking through for lead jammer after another 22 seconds. Two London blockers get sent to the box while London’s Kamikaze Kitten attempts to push forward and break through the B.A.D. 4-wall. Excellent forward cycling by Bay Area blockers thwarts her efforts at the times where she almost gets out.

Meanwhile, the remaining London blockers are seemingly ineffective, spending most of the jam in a position where they can only watch their trapped jammer, not able to engage Bay Area from the front with the same force as their jammer is applying from behind. The result is a pack that hadn’t even completed one lap of the track and a 20 point jam for Chantilly—who could have went for more, since Kamikaze was still mired in her initial pass and there were still 41 seconds left on the jam clock.

If a “big” jam in this WFTDA game is 20 points, then if follows that a proportionately equal “big” jam in the USARS game is 10 points, or half the value of the jam from the WFTDA game. Here’s a such a jam of similar magnitude from the Oly game, showing typical USARS action.

Both teams spring off the line to try and gain forward position, a position Oly (in white) gains in part due to a T’Orchard (green) blocker sitting in the penalty box. Exiting turn 2, Oly’s two front blockers slow down to engage, disrupting the T’Orchard front enough to allow Mad Medic to jam around the outside and pick up lead after one lap and 12 seconds. After that, Oly works on controlling the speed of the pack and containing both the PTO jammer and pivot—either would be eligible to score should they break free.

On Oly’s first scoring pass, T’Orchard attempts to keep a goat so as to get their pivot free on an out of play call up front, but excellent blocking by Oly keeps the pack together long enough to put T’Orchard out-of-sync. With the pack starting its third lap 40 seconds into the jam, both the PTO jammer and pivot start attacking the Oly defensive front. Oly keeps them contained. Medic works her way through the pack again after receiving an offensive seal block at the rear and a positional block at the front. Once clear, she calls it off for 10 points—but she could have gone for more, since there were still 31 seconds left on the jam clock and Oly had good position in the pack.

Here we have two jams with similar circumstances played under different roller derby rulesets. You have a team at full pack power going up against an opponent with blockers in the penalty box. The lead jammer is scoring big (20/10), but could have scored much bigger (maybe 30/15) had they used all the available jam time. And as said before, relative to the total number of points scored in the each game, both these jams had a similar influence on the respective final scores.

On paper, there isn’t a huge difference between these two jams in these two games. But potential fans don’t watch roller derby on paper. They see what they see with their own two eyes.

Comparing what is actually happening on the track during these scoring plays exposes the real story.

In the WFTDA game, note how little interaction there is between the blockers of both teams, and how often players have to wait in order to engage the opposition.

.

There other jams in the Bay Area/London game where there are higher levels of interaction between teams. But in most jams where the significant and important scoring takes place, and in most WFTDA games where the participating teams are not at a top level, many players on the track from both are waiting passively, not actively acting.

And to think, this still regularly happens in games that feature two of the top six WFTDA teams in the world!

In the USARS game, after lead jammer is established most if not all players on both teams find themselves with plenty of ways to stay occupied, either offensively or defensively. Or both, as usually happens.

usars-blowout-jam-example-diagramWith some exceptions for too-fast packs, this game had jams that were pretty much all like this. It takes a player but a moment to find an opportunity to directly engage an opponent in a meaningful way. It doesn’t matter where they are in the pack. It doesn’t matter that there was a great skill discrepancy between the teams. All that matters is that both of them always had a chance to use what skills they had regardless of the game situation.

And even if one team is scoring all the points, it still must engage and be engaged in order to score them.

Even if these two jams from these two games resulted in big points that had similar influences on the final score, the way those points were earned were very different. One way sees a lot of action between the two teams in all areas of the pack. The other? Not always a guarantee.

This difference is significant when it comes to making typical games more salable to the general public, and making that crowd more available to buy tickets, purchase merch, or be more likely to contribute to a crowdfunding campaign. Fans will find more substance and value in financially (and emotionally) engaging in a roller derby league if the on-track gameplay it puts on has constant action between more players.

This can still be the case even if a game is between two average but unequal-strength teams. If the eyeballs of someone are quickly and constantly jumping from Blocker A to Jammer B to Pivot A to Blocker B to Jammer A because all of them are doing different offensive or defensive things at once or in rapid sequence on every jam, the fact that one of the teams may be blowing out the other does not change what is actually taking place on the track: A lot!

Picture the opposite scenario. If two equal teams full of min-skillers were to play a WFTDA-rules game, you will understandably have a lot of penalty-heavy, passive-action easy scoring  situations. If both teams are trading points during these sequences, you will get a high-scoring close game that will also happen to be extremely lacking in action. Boring in spite of the close score, basically.

If leagues occasionally have games that feature a last-jam thriller, the WOW type finishes, it won’t do much to keep a general audience interested in the long term they need to sit through too much uneventful blah or BLAAARGH gameplay to get to the good stuff.

Even in high-level WFTDA derby, you will always see disengagement and a disproportionate amount of effort being applied by the players when they do engage one another. There is no better example of this than the last jam of the 2014 WFTDA Championships, the one where Gotham made a last-gasp comeback to snatch the Hydra away from a Rose City:

There were a few WOW moments here—OMG WTF with the heroic 1v1 block on Scald Eagle up front, followed by Sexy Sladie finishing her off—and the effort by the few players doing something can be appreciated by any outside fan. However, those same outsiders simply cannot ignore how often the other six, seven, or even eight players become tackling dummies on roller skates during such an important, game-deciding phase.

I was following this game on Twitter as it was happening, shitting my pants at the idea that someone might finally beat Gotham. But I knew all the way through to the end that there would be a big points swing with no on-track action to show for it, that a bunch of BLAAARGH gameplay would be the deciding factor during the singular best moment of the WFTDA playoff season between two of the best teams on the planet.

This is the kind of stuff that was rampant during the worst of the slow-derby era. Despite some out there convincing themselves the problems have been fixed with better teams and a better ranking systems, it still persists between top-ranked, well-matched teams.

It can be argued that a bad4 WFTDA game can be the result of a bad ruleset, because even if the matchup is very good, you can have games that are lacking action and wind up with points spreads of 50 points or more very easily.

This is opposed to the gonzo observation at the top. claiming that a bad USARS game is the result of a bad ruleset. That’s clearly incorrect, since in that case the real reason was a bad matchup. If you have a better pairing of teams, the game being played would be much more salable to fans even if games weren’t as competitive.

To prove this theory, look at the final scores from the 2014 home interleague season of the Chicago Red Hots, one of the more prominent USARS teams in the country. They won three games and lost the fourth:

  • 96-45 (51 point difference, 68/32% score ratio)
  • 138-49 (89 pts, 74/26%)
  • 137-51 (86 pts, 73/27%)
  • 91-31 (60 pts, 75/25%)

If those 3:1 score ratios happened during the WFTDA playoffs, we’d be looking at an equivalent score differential in the 150~200 point range. On paper, none of these games are what most people would consider close. You might even judge them as blowouts.

But we don’t judge games on paper.

The Red Hots began their second season earlier this month, and in only their fifth public game, without a close game to hang their hat on, they attracted well over 1,000 fans.5 In only their fifth game! After four blowouts! And look how into it they all are!

Needless to say, the club is having no problems attracting repeat business and sponsors to help fund themselves.

Other teams are starting to take notice. A lower-level league in the Phoenix area made the switch to USARS this season. After just their second game, they’ve noticed an immediate improvement in several aspects.6

That last observation is the key to keeping blowouts reasonable, should they happen. According to those that play by them, USARS rules “keeps the points consistent and each team works for each and every one” of them.

That work translates to real action between the two teams on the track. That action means a league has a much easier sell to new fans to get them to come, get them to stay, get them to return, get them to attract sponsors, and ultimately get them to primarily fund a league.

As leagues playing by non-WFTDA rulesets are quickly discovering, the most effective way to raise funds is to play a style of roller derby that’s always action packed, even if the game being played isn’t close or doesn’t have world class talent. That’s a much better proposition than continually asking skaters to dig deeper into their own pockets and invest more and more time in fundraising.

Such is why all blowouts are not created equal. If you’re going to have to have a mismatch, it’s better to play a style of game where both teams consistently battle each other on every jam, rather than have alternating moments of good and bad.

Even though plenty of leagues using WFTDA rules have found ways for the good to overcome the bad, it makes a lot more sense to get rid of the bad from the start, playing a style of game that only showcases the good both teams can do together—no matter how bad one of them may be in comparison.

  • How about addressing the ridiculous premise that “USARS rules are designed to keep scores close”? The only type of rule set that’s designed to keep scores close is one that awards points at random. Any rule set that awards points based on skill will naturally result in a blowout when one team is much more skilled than the other.

    • M_Bison

      Exactly. Windyman (as usual) completely missed the point of my post (I am Steve Dixon). My comment was not a complaint about the blowout itself as much as it was about this ridiculous selling point used by USARS that they ruleset somehow eliminates blowouts. I hear this argument endlessly and it is an absolute joke.

    • TheOriginalDonald

      When you have teams of equal skill and talent levels…Gotham shouldn’t be blowing out Texas, ne c’est pas?

  • R0dn3y

    That Oly PTO jam is what you use as an example? The Oly jammer was only touched, touched not even blocked, by a PTO player once the entire jam. I guess if you prefer bump racing….. this is fun to watch? Sorry I came to this page again, I do so every few months and every few months I can’t believe you’re still kicking and screaming.

    • In football, when a team’s offensive blocking is very good, the running back goes through the opposing defense completely untouched. For example:

      Of course the Oly jammer was virtually untouched in that jam. The Oly blockers didn’t allow the PTO blockers to get near her. Granted, this was very easy to do for Oly given that the PTO players weren’t nearly as skilled as they were. But as I explained and showed in the diagram, the PTO blockers had ample opportunity to engage offensively on their own. (Did you not see that big hit a PTO blocker landed on lap 2 to slow the pack down?) They were unsuccessful, however, because the Oly team defense was just as good as their team offense was.

      Good offense by Oly, good defense by Oly. Good roller derby by Oly, though against an obviously weaker team. What’s the problem here?

      By the way: Chantilly went through several scoring passes in the example WFTDA jam without being touched, either. However, she did this with virtually no direct offensive assistance from her blockers to help clear the London defense out of the way. The Bay Area blockers played good team defense, but no real team offense.

      In the WFTDA example, the jammer did all the work on offense and the blockers all the work on defense. In the USARS example, the jammer didn’t have to do much work on offense, because the blockers were doing all the work on offense and defense simultaneously. Which is what a roller derby team should be doing, because that’s what you do in roller derby!