It struck me, as I sat watching the Western Regionals on WFTDA.TV at a viewing party at Cardinal Skates in Toronto, that this was the first time—ever really—that the sport being played in the WFTDA playoffs wasn’t in the midst of a major, controversial evolutionary change in the way that it is being played. From 2006-2008 the game was still figuring itself out, both on and off the track. By 2009, when the slow game was introduced in a big way, flat track truly found itself as a sport. In the subsequent seasons, the advancements have been reactions to this Great Leap Forward: wall-breaking mastery, “no-derby” starts, and finally taking a knee popped up in 2010; passive offense was a further development along this line in 2011. Each evolution brought with it controversy and a predictable wave of doomsaying cynicism about the state of the game. But just like the trapping and isolation of ’09 led to wall-breaking/stationary defense innovations of ’10, every controversial change strategy quickly has its opposite counterpart.
But in 2012, while there is still pouting about passive offense strategies, there is no major change in the game of flat track roller derby. The games are faster, harder hitting, and more intelligently played than they were a year ago, but nonetheless, take a look at game tape from last year’s playoffs and compare it to the games we’re watching right now, and things will look essentially the same. Now take a look at the 2009 video.
It just barely looks like the same game.
But, of course, that is not to say that the game is not changing, and that it is not surrounded by controversy. It’s just that a lot of these controversies are now occurring off the track.
I watched the WFTDA.TV feed of the Western Regionals. I bought a feed myself, but watched the final games of the tournament at a viewing party. Although I heard about problems with some feeds, I managed to luck out in both my viewing experiences. Aside from a few dropped feeds (rectified quickly), the picture was clean and clear: extraordinarily so, at times. Led by a rare editorial on Derby News Network, there has been a large wave of anger over the decision to charge for the high definition feed. While DNN mostly took the stance that the cost (unarguably) dissuades casual or new fans from stumbling upon it, others just seem ticked that there is a charge at all. While I happily paid the more-than-reasonable $12 fee, I can see at least part of the argument against it (the lack of accessibility and problems that arise with that–although the complete archives have been made available for free days afterwards), though I wonder how many people, historically, have actually stumbled upon the playoffs and discovered derby in this way?
One off-track controversy that has had an impact on the track is Transfergate. The Oly Rollers’ decision to roster Atomatrix, Joy Collision and Hockey Honey from out of the town and fly them in to practice just in time for playoffs (on top of the previous transfer of Psycho Babble, Ecko and On Da Sligh) has caused not-even-muted outrage from many corners of the derby community; while I think that the way in which they went about it—at the 11th hour, yanking all competitive hope from an Arizona team that was obviously in over its head once the games began—is a little suspect, and I tsk-tsked right along with many others when I first heard about it, I have to admit that the nerdy fan in me was bursting with glee.
While short-sighted, navel-gazing arguments about strategy decisions and rule changes do very little to advance the game off the track (despite being painfully necessary at this point in the game), a well named (Transfergate!), well timed (cusp of the playoffs!) roster controversy involving some of the game’s first generation of superstars (Atomatrix! Psycho Babble! Together!?) couldn’t be better. It says something about the state of the game and foundation of the sport when particular players garner such universal interest. Most people I’ve spoken with have been outwardly complaining mightily about the injustice of it all, all the while rushing to purchase airline tickets to Atlanta and salivating at the thought of an Oly, Gotham showdown at the WFTDA finals.
But something interesting happened at this weekend’s Western Championship tournament: Oly didn’t look like an unbeatable, roller derby goliath after all. Indeed, the argument could easily be made that Denver was actually the better team in the final, all the while playing Oly’s up-tempo style game. Of course, this was the first opportunity for Oly to play together, which does make their wins look much more impressive, but they have a long way to go if they are serious about challenging Gotham’s dominance, although they should do fine against the other top-seeded hit-and-run teams like Windy City and Minnesota (without the fire power to keep up, unless these teams shift to a much slower and strategic approach to the game, they—to put it bluntly—don’t stand a chance). To Oly’s full credit, they seemed to relish their role of villain, going so far as to cheekily encourage the rain of boos that enveloped them whenever they were on the track (and their Oly Rollers “Sold Out” t-shirts are pretty awesome as well!).
Another thing that struck me was that the popular nickname of the tournament “Besterns” also has a new meaning for me. Perhaps it was because at North Centrals I was up-close to the action, but for the most part, I found the style of derby much less interesting at Westerns (something others have said as well). The (general—but not universal) insistence in the West on skating forward and hitting hard over slower, more strategic styles of derby—and the misguided, generalizing assumption that this is “the right way to play derby” and “what derby fans really want”—started to bore me halfway through day two. While I’m no fan of an over-use of passive offence, in other regions (as I’m sure we’ll see in the East this coming weekend) they are more accepting of it, therefore more comfortable with it, and, logically, respond better to it (and hopefully have some strong counter-strategies in place or in development to deal with it).
Just as it was once short-sighted to think that Denver’s use of isolation and trapping strategies in 2009 was going to destroy the game (and many people did, and weren’y shy in saying so), the same can be said of the insistence that passive offense will spell the end of flat track roller derby. It is not the end of the game, not the end of anything, really.It’s simply another step—one in the many that have been taken and that still remain—in the progress and development of the flat track game.
****Read the Nerd’s thoughts on the North Centrals.
****For complete-game recaps head over to the Derby News Network where Justice Feelgood Marshall captured the blow-by-blow action.
North Central Region