I Play Roller Derby: Here's What I Reckon of Roller Champions

By Laura Kate Dale on at

With Ubisoft's E3 2019 press conference now fewer than two weeks away, airing at 9PM UK on Monday 10th June, we are starting to see little hints at announcements planned for their presentation begin to leak out. A paid subscription service called Ubisoft Pass Premium was briefly listed on the Ubisoft website and seems to be a paid way to play lots of the company's games for a monthly fee, Ghost Recon Breakpoint had its name leaked ahead of its official pre E3 reveal, and the most recent leak is of an upcoming game called Roller Champions.

While fake leaks are definitely A Thing these days, this one has produced key art for Roller Champions and in-engine footage of tracks, so it seems plausible enough that I couldn't get it out of my head. Why? Because I play Roller Derby on a regular basis, and I've been itching for a Roller Derby-inspired AAA video game for years now. I have strong opinions, and I need to share them.

So what is Roller Champions? If the leaks are accurate, it's an online-only multiplayer game where two teams of five skaters compete on a circular banked track, which is raised towards the edges and flatter in the middle. The game will retain the contact elements of Roller Derby as a sport, but feature a somewhat liberal interpretation of the sport's rules, as shown by many elements in the alleged key art.

For anyone not in the know about Roller Derby as a sport, it's essentially a mix between rugby and middle distance sprinting on roller skates. Two teams of five skaters start out on track, with each team designating one player the jammer, or points scorer. The jammer, designated by a fabric star cover on their helmet, can score points by successfully passing the other team's remaining four players, scoring one point for each player they pass. if you can get back around to the back of the pack and pass them again, you can score points for each one you pass again. Teams play in two minute bursts, or until the jammer in the lead calls off the round early, with the remaining players on track trying to create openings for their jammer, block the opposing jammer, break up the other team's defense, and help ensure their jammer is the only one scoring points.

There's some specific rules about how and where you can legally initiate contact with other players, and there's a player called the pivot who can take over as the jammer mid-round if the jammer is stuck unable to get through and score points, but that's the basics of the real-world sport this game is being based on.

I've been a player in the UK's WFTDA league, the Women's Flat Track Derby Association, for a few years now under the derby name Blue Bomber and, while I'm no amazing player or anything, I understand the rules and appeal of the sport well enough to have a pretty good idea of where Roller Champions might be going.

Taking the purported piece of key art, there's a lot to unpack, perhaps most obviously the presence of a ball being held by the lead player at the front of the pack. Speculation, but my guess would be that this ball likely replaces the helmet cover generally held by the jammer as the scoring marker. Presumably the player with the ball is able to score points, with the ability to pass the ball around being similar to a 'star pass' in roller derby, which is when the jammer passes the helmet cover to the pivot.

Additionally, as previously mentioned, Roller Champions appears to be set on a banked roller derby track. This is not uncommon in America, where lightly banked tracks are the standard for roller derby, but the primary UK roller derby standard is flat track style, which will be somewhat of a change if you're a UK derby player coming to this game.

The key art for Roller Champions also shows off, as best we can tell, a mix of male and female players on track at the same time, which is not unheard-of in roller derby but certainly is not a common reflection of the sport as a whole. Roller derby is an overwhelmingly female-dominated sport, with the WFTDA estimating that around 98% of active adult roller derby players are women. This is notably high for a contact sport, and even with male-centred leagues and teams beginning to pop up over the past few years this balance really hasn't shifted significantly.

Typically, most roller derby leagues advertise themselves specifically as women's leagues, while being very open and welcoming to trans and non-binary competitors regardless of whether their transition was social or medical, at all levels of competitive play. The WFTDA is explicitly in favour of allowing trans and non binary skaters to take part in their league, but typically do not support male-identifying skaters. The far less common male roller derby leagues do tend to support mixed gender skaters, allowing female or non binary skaters to join their league, but mixed gender roller derby is far from common.

This makes the Roller Champions key art particularly interesting. For such a female dominated sport to feature a masculine appearing character front and centre in its key art, and a mixed gender team on track together, is not unheard-of but is also not what I would have typically expected from a game based on such a female-dominated sport.

Based on the skater in red and black leggings' body position, moving towards their opponent with their upper arm flat against their side, but their forearm out the way across their body, it looks like we might see the game follow the legal contact rules of real world roller derby, which is pretty exciting as a skater. In WFTDA rules, as with many roller derby leagues, you're not allowed to use your forearm, from elbow down to fingers, to initiate contact with the opposite team. Keeping your arm to your side, with your forearm to your front, means players must use the upper arm to make contact, and no elbows or forearms.

From there, let's move onto the choices of skates. We see a mix of quad-style skates (four wheels in a rectangular formation), and inline skates (multiple thinner wheels in a straight line under the foot) used on track at the same time. This is probably more aesthetic in the context of the game than practical, but is certainly unexpected, as pretty much every formal roller derby league requires that players skate exclusively on quad-style skates. While I personally had a preference for inline skates before starting to play roller derby, the mandatory move to quads makes total sense in the context of this being a contact sport. If you're going to constantly get bashed and forced to the side, with hits hard enough to leave huge black and purple bruises up your torso, you need the stability of two parallel sets of wheels to stay upright. On a single line of wheels, you're more prone to falling. It's like the difference between a car and a motorcycle: one of them is much more likely to stay upright if clipped by another high-speed vehicle from the side on.

The Roller Champions key art also features one character in the rear of the image appearing to do some kind of boosted jump off the top of the banked track. This is, obviously, a video game and so probably contains boosts and other fantasy mechanics feeding into the playstyle. That's no surprise, this is an adaptation rather than a simulation, and playing fast and loose with the source material in a way that seems fun will probably make it a better game. And it's not like this is completely from left field: fast enough roller derby players can already do a move called Jumping the Apex, where they leap over the track boundaries with enough speed and distance to land successfully back on track, avoiding touching the ground while out of bounds to get ahead of the competition, which seems like some real-world equivalent to using a speed boost to jump past another player.

Fun factoid: You see in the key art image right up the top of this article there is a sign on the track that says "fresh meat"? That's a reference to the roller derby term for new players who have yet to pass their minimum skills assessment and prove they can safely move up to play contact games with the main team. Another fun term in roller derby is "big sister", typically used to refer to an older and more experienced skater who is given a newly graduated fresh meat skater to mentor and look after. It's a lovely bit of bonding that's a big part of building the family dynamic within roller derby teams. The latter isn't relevant to the Roller Champions key art, it's just a cute fact I wanted to share

Lastly, let's talk about the wide variety of outfits on display in that key art image. While most of those outfits would obviously not be legal on track in a competitive game due to their lack of helmets and full joint pads, they do capture the importance of outfit customisation in real world roller derby. Roller derby is a really diverse sport in terms of aesthetic, age, size, and outfit design, with a much broader set of diverse looks than seen in most sports teams. It's not uncommon for a roller derby team to have a uniform top, but for legs, helmets, pads, hair and skin to make different players easily recognisable at high speed, even from a distance. Your favourite player might have purple hair, a tattoo on their right arm, and gold booty shorts. Maybe they're short, with a long black ponytail and robotic leggings. The ability to look however you want on track, showing off your personality with helmet stickers and wheel colours, is a key part of knowing who's who at a glance, both as a player and spectator. Different players have wildly different skills and weaknesses, and knowing who is where on track is vital and it looks like Roller Champions really gets this aspect of the sport.

While it's going to be a few weeks before we really know the ins and outs of how Roller Champions is shaping up, I am tentatively very excited. Yeah it looks exaggerated, and it's not a direct representation of the sport, but it seems to at its heart have all the elements I love about it. Five-person teams of customised skaters taking part in a fast-paced contact sport, where women get to be a predominant part of speeding around and bashing into people while crowds cheer. Ubisoft: bring it on.