The Evolution of Rollerball

Let’s face it: most fictional sports created for the screen or page tend to come across as contrived, silly and, well, fictional.

“Rollerball” is not one of them.

The futuristic game of Rollerball has achieved a rare state among fictional creations. In the 1975 movie starring James Caan, the filmmakers were effectively able to convince an audience they are somehow watching a real sport. (In fact, some of the stuntmen and athletes who appeared in the original film actually looked into starting a league and playing for real after the movie was a hit.)

I had always been fascinated that someone could make up an imaginary game that seemed so believable, and over the years I tried to track down the rules and how the game had come about. That it was a dangerous sport which combined roller derby, motorcycle racing and hand-to-hand combat, only added to the appeal.

• • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • 

Rollerball was invented by author William Harrison in his short story “Roller Ball Murder,” which first appeared in the September 1973 issue of Esquire. Mr. Harrison was a professor of English and Creative Writing at the University of Arkansas and was inspired to pen a “little experimental story” after seeing a fight break out on the court during a college basketball game. The fans went wild, the home team was energized and came back for the win, and afterwards Harrison began to wonder just how violent sports in the future might become.

He pictured men “on a great roulette wheel, dodging huge metal balls fired out of cannons, while they skated around slashing at each other with spiked gloves.” He later added motorcycles and explosions, and imagined what sort of society would encourage such a sport.

The game described in “Roller Ball Murder” is deliberately improbable and over-the-top, with the rules constantly changing to increase the mayhem to the point were it is impossible to survive a game. [Complete RBM rules can be found here.] The sport itself, while central to the action, isn’t the point of the story — this is a cautionary tale about a corporate-controlled future and its corrosive effects on society.

Harrison, who is not a science fiction writer, was a surprised as anyone when his science fiction story sold, and even more surprised when it was optioned for a motion picture. He wrote a treatment for the film, describing the game in greater detail, and eventually went on to write the screenplay.

The sport in the initial script is similar to the one in the short story, with a few basic changes, but still keeping many of Harrison’s original ideas such as multiple balls in play and passengers on the cycles. During preproduction, Harrison worked with Producer/Director Norman Jewison and the set designers, and the screenplay began to mutate to fit the practical needs of filming, and the requests of the movie studio. “Great attention was paid to the game,” said Harrison.

Now here’s where it gets interesting.

According to a speech the writer gave in the late 1970s, the director quickly lost control of the shoot to its star, James Caan, who began to make up his own lines. The stuntmen, some of whom were friends with Caan, began to demand their own lines and even rewrote one of the scenes. The whole set apparently became quite competitive and a “kind of jock atmosphere prevailed.” Even when they weren’t filming, the stuntmen would often play on the track, coming up with their own rules for the game. In the Special Edition DVD of the film, Jewison said the cast played the game over and over until they figured out how it should work.

By the end of filming, much of Harrison’s dialog had fallen by the wayside, and the game continued to mutate beyond his initial design. After the movie was edited, additional voiceovers were created for a sports announcer who isn’t in the shooting script. Eventually, someone in United Artists’ marketing department collected together the various rules to be included in the press kit that went out to the media when “Rollerball” was released in June 1975.

Copies of these “real” rules have been difficult to find and have never been posted online until now. [Complete Rollerball rules can be found here.]

The movie was an international box office hit, and generated a great deal of press regarding the violence it portrayed. ABC’s “Wide World of Sports” did a segment on the movie — and by extension, the growing concern over violence in sports in general — and Sports Illustrated gave the movie a 4-page spread and discussed the possibility of a real league.

Over the years, even as the sets and futurism of “Rollerball” became dated and cheesy, the action scenes of the game were still exciting to watch — and still feel like you’re watching a real sport.

• • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • 

The first rule of Rollerball is: Nobody talks about the “Rollerball” remake.

Okay, well, I guess if I’m going to do a complete history of the game, I have to write about the disastrous 2002 remake.

25 years after the first movie was released, Director John McTiernan decided it was time to update the original. The initial response from the public was “why?” In the intervening years, the 1975 film had become one of those movies that had such a distinct feel, and captured a particular time, most people didn’t think it needed to be “re-imagined.”

However, if anyone could probably pull it off, McTiernan (who had directed both “Die Hard” and “Predator,” two of the best action and sci-fi movies of the past 20 years) was a likely candidate.

It turned out to be an unmitigated mess, a disaster worthy of skewering on “Mystery Science Theater 3000.” The remake was delayed almost a year after test audiences laughed it out of the theater, and when the studio finally dumped it in the dead of winter, it was universally panned — and a certified box-office bomb. Critic Roger Ebert said he would love to see a book about what happened behind the scenes: “My guess is that something went dreadfully wrong early in the production. Maybe dysentery or mass hypnosis.”

It is difficult to take the game presented in the remake seriously, as the filmmakers certainly didn’t. Players are in costumes that wouldn’t make the cut in the pro wrestling world (come on, tutus?) and they don’t even bother to follow the few rules that are presented. [The rules of “8-track” Rollerball, such as they are, can be found here.]

In some ways, the game track in the remake is not unlike the one in the original short story (oval, not round), and the idea the game is made more dangerous to increase audience interest is reintroduced — but there the similarities end. Whereas Roller Ball Murder is an improbable sport, the one presented in Rollerball 2002 is impossible. There is no way the players could perform the actions we see them doing unless they were on wires.

Still, one good thing came out of the remake debacle: it is perfect to show to film students on how NOT to make a movie.

And it did lead to a resurgence in interest in the original movie — and the rules of the game. 

Originally published in 2006, updated in 2016.

“The Mutations of Rollerball” by Willam Harrison, courtesy of the University of Arkansas

Rollerball: Fact Sheet and Rules of the Game, United Artists Corporation

“Return to the Arena: The Making of Rollerball” documentary on the Special Edition DVD release of the 1975 film, MGM’s remake website

Rules of The Game: Rollerball

Here they are at last: THE official rules for the sport of Rollerball, as seen in the 1975 movie. These were transcribed — typos and all — directly from a 13-page press release in the movie’s original press kit from United Artists.


ROLLERBALL: Fact Sheet & Rules of the Game


Productions Designer — John Box

Track Architect — Herbert Schurmann (Olympic Track Architect for Rome, Mexico and Munich)

Skating Consultant for Track Design — Peter Hicks



Top circular dimensions — banked area:

Circumference — 547 feet (167.863 metres)

Diameter — 175 feet (53.426 metres)


Lower circular dimensions — banked area:

Circumference — 312 feet (96.113 metres)


Banked Surface — track area:

Width — 40 feet (12.30 metres)


Flat surface — track area:

Width — 19 feet 8 inches (6 metres)


Infield area:

Circumference — 190 feet (58.434 metres)


Top of bank from flat floor level:

Height — 12 feet 2 inches (3.71 metres)


Degree of banked track:



Two doors — built into banked area of track:

Outside dimensions of doors when closed

–Length: 22 feet (7 metres)

–Width at top: 7 feet (2.20 mtres)

–Width at bottom: 6 feet (1.90 metres)


Size of opening when doors are open

–Height: 6 feet 6 inches (2 metres)

–Width: 6 feet 0 inches (1.90 metres)


Pneumatically operated. (Open to let players and game personnel in — closed during game).

The track area — both the flat and banked portion — have a smooth wood surface.

Surround the top of the track there is a 3-foot-high 6 inches thick steel barrier. Attached to the barier [sic ] is a 2-inch steel hand-rail covered with rubber.

Surrounding the track on the top of this steel barrier is a 4 feet 4 inches high steel mesh fence.

Surrounding the bottom of the track there is a 3 feet high 6 inches thick steel barier [sic ] with 3 feet wide player entrances at opposite ends of the Infield.

A 6-inch gutter surrounds the bottom of the track. If the ball goes into the gutter, it is a ‘dead’ ball.



Each team comprises seven (7) Skaters, plus three (3) Motor-cyclists. There are eight (8) Substitutes on each team. These Substitutes, players and motor-cyclists, are positioned in the Infield area during play until called into action.

Players — each team:

Skaters — 5 players (Combination Offensive & Defensive)

Skaters — 2 ball catchers

Motor-cyclists — 3

[total ] — 10


Skaters — 5 Substitutes

Motor-cyclists — 3 Substitutes

[total ] — 18


Infield — each team:

Team Executive — 1

Team Coach — 1

Team Trainer — 1

First aid men — 2

Motor-cycle mechanics — 2


Uniform & equipment:

1. Studded motor-cycle helmet with face guard

2. Cotton jerseys with team numbers

3. Ice hockey shoulder pads

4. Leather pants

5. Adapted baseball catcher shin guards

6. Motor-cycle boots for Motor-cycle drivers

7. Skate boots for skaters

8. Spiked leather gloves

9. Ball Catchers used adapted ice hockey goal-keepers glove.

10. Various protection pads: elbow, back, knee, etc.



Each team has three motor-cycles in play and three substitutute [sic ] motor-cycles. The motor-cycles used are Honda CB 125’s, which have been specially adapted by the addition of steel protection pads on the front and sides, plus a steel towing-bar at the back, which the skaters hold when being towed.

The cycles travel counter-clockwise when in play. They are capable of very high speeds and during a game can reach a speed of up to 50 miles per hour.




Pneumatic powered (compressed air)

P.S.I. (Pounds per square inch) available — 600

Maximum power ever used — 400 P.S.I.

Firing velocity — 0 to 135 miles per hour

Cannon fired by computer from Controller’s Bubble



3 ½” Diameter

Weight — 21 lbs.

Made of solid resin core with an outer steel skin.

The ball is fired from the cannon clockwise around the track.


Method of Firing — cannon and ball:

The cannon is positioned on top of banked area of track, which opens up mechanically to fire, then closes. The firing of the cannon has been worked out by a computer which has been programmed. Only the computer and the Controller know when the cannon will fire. Only one ball is in play at a time. If it is not picked up and reaches the gutter around the inner barrier (Infield), the ball is ‘dead’ and a blue light flashes signaling the fact. If a player drops the ball and it rolls down into the gutter or reaches the gutter for any reason whatsoever, the ball is also ‘dead’, or out of play.



(1) Game Controller:
The Game Controller is stationed high in the centre of the Infield, in a glass-enclosed revolving bubble, from which he can see the whole game laid out before him. He is seated in a mechanically-swivelled chair within the bubble; a small computer console built into the chair arms shows the speed and velocity at which the cannon will fire the ball. The Controller operates the signal light tower which hangs from the arena roof over the bubble in full view of the spectators and players.

Yellow flashing lights indicate — Cannon has fired, ball in play.

Blue flashing lights indicate — ‘Dead’ ball

Red flashing lights indicate — Goal scored

Green flashing lights indicate — A penalty has been called


(2) Game Referees:

Inside the Infield are two Game Referees, each with his own elevated station, from which he supervises one-half of the track. The Game Referees are audio-connected to the main Controller, and their chief function is to call penalties and enforce the rules of the game.


(3) Team Executive:

The Team Executive is the General Manager of the team, and is responsible for all the operations of the team on and off the track.


(4) Team Coach:

The Team Coach is second-in-command to the Team Executive and assists him in all team operations.


(5) Team Trainer:

The Team Trainer is responsible for the physical fitness of the team players and the maintenance of the team equipment.


(6) Team First Aid:

First aid personnel are positioned in the Infield area. They are equipped with portable first aid equipment and stretchers. They deal with the injured, getting them as quickly as possible off the track. Those players seriously injured are placed in the elevators (lefts) which take them below the stadium for expert medical attention.


(7) Motor Cycle Mechanics:

These are similar to the First Aid teams. They deal with motor-cycles in the same way as the First Aid personnel deal with the players.



The two magnetic goals are positioned on top of the banked track area above the steel barrier. The goals are mounted into a glass back board 8 feet 4 inches wide and 4 feet 10 inches high. The goal is a cone-shaped opening in the back-board, 21 inches in diameter.


There are two large score boards positioned above the spectators behind each goal. The score boards contains the following information:

Team Names

Players’ Numbers

Goal Score

Period of Play

Time Clock



This is an Information Centre located in a glass booth high above the spectators in the Stadium. The game is completely recorded on Multivision screens from remote Multivision cameras positioned in the stadium, and simultaneously transmitted to the Multivision sets throughout the world. The Multivision Broadcasters watch and describe the game from here.



The game is formulated on the basic fact that the team picking up the ball has to get round [sic ] the track with the ball and put it in the opposing team’s goal within three laps of the track.

A team gets one point for every goal scored. When a goal is scored, the red lights flash, a klaxon sounds, and the score board registers the point.



Behind each goal on the banked track is a 6-foot-wide red area in which a player must be in order to make a try at scoring a goal. If the ball carries attempts to score from outside this area, it is disallowed and a ‘dead’ ball is called.



(1) Play time — three (3) periods, each of twenty (20) minutes.
After each period, there is a two-minute rest period. If the score is tied after three periods, an overtime period is called and played until a team scores.

(2) The skaters and bikers can only move counter-clockwise around the track.
If a skater or biker is seen moving clockwise by the referee, a two-minute penalty is called against the offender. The player is sent off the track and cannot be replaced during the penalty period.

(3) After gaining possession of the ball, the offensive team cannot try for a score until the ball has traveled one revolution of the track. This revolution starts from the point of pick-up by the ball catcher.

(4) In the event that the offensive team ball carriers have been unable to try for a score within three revolutions of the track, the ball is considered ‘dead’ and must be guttered. A new ball is then fired from the cannon.

(5) The ball carrier is not allowed to deliberately hide the ball from the defensive team. The penalty for doing so is for the team to forfeit possession of the ball (the ball must be guttered).

(6) No more than ten (10) players per side can be on the track at any one time. Of the ten players on each team, only five are allowed to score goals. The three motor-cyclists cannot handle the ball. The two ball-catchers can only field the ball after it is fired and pass it to one of the five skaters, who can pass it to one another and attempt to score.

(7) No permanent goalie or goal defender is allowed in the scoring area. Defensive and offensive players can only be in the 6-foot-wide red scoring area when an offensive ball carrier is making a try for a goal.

If the ball carrier passes the red scoring area, the defensive players who are in the red scoring area must go after the ball carrier.

(8) The motor-cyclists are not allowed in the top half of the red scoring area. If a biker is seen in this area by the referee, a three-minute penalty is called against the offender.

(9) A motor-cyclist must not deliberately injure a skater. If he does so and is seen by the referee, a five-minute penalty is called against the offender.

(10) A skater must not deliberately injure a motor-cyclist. If he does so and is seen by the referee, a five minute penalty is called against the offender.

(11) The ball must not be used as an offensive weapon. Penalty: three minutes.

(12) The Infield personnel of each team are required to remove from the track as soon as possible injured players and damaged equipment.

(13) A defensive player is allowed to intercept a ball being passes, or pick up the ball that has been knocked out of the offensive ball carrier’s glove and can try to pass or score with the ball — providing the ball is on the track and has not reached the gutter.

(14) Each team may substitute players as long as there are not more than seven skaters and three motor-cyclists on the track at one time. This, however, does not apply to players removed from the track for penalties (there is no substitution allowed.)



The teams in formation on the track: the Controller fires the ball by acting on instructions from the Game Computer. The teams are spread out in order that the two catchers of each team can cover as much of the track as possible, while still being protected by the other skaters and bikers.

Once the ball is fired by the cannon, the teams pick up speed to be in a good fielding position when the ball comes off the rail. Any of the two catchers on either team can field the ball and move forward as fast as possible in order to pass the ball to one of the offensive players; once the ball is held by an offensive player, the balance of the team forms in order to allow the offensive carrier to move once around the track (360¡), then to try for a for a score in the opponents’ goal.

The carrier has as choice of trying to score or make another circuit of the track, in which case the opposing defense must brake and make another circuit also.

The players on defense move around the track circling with and against the offensive team, trying to get possession of the ball. As the skaters move around the track, they alternate positions in defending the goal. The motor-cyclists assist in defending by towing skaters as on offensive play, and using their speed to move between the patterns of the offensive team.



Notes & observations:

This was everything in the press release. I declined to edit or correct the transcript in the interest of completeness, even if some paragraphs were confusing and contradictory.

Clearly there are a few items “missing”, at least as far as explaining certain events seen in the film. For example, do the series of small, white lights next to a player’s number on the scoreboard mean anything? I always imagined that — like in basketball — a player could only have so many penalties before “fouling out” of the game, and that these lights kept track of the number of infractions. No explanation is given for the lights (other than the dramatic effect they have in noting players who are disabled and killed), and their in-game purpose is still a mystery.

Also, early in the movie, the Madrid team is upset when a referee does not see Moonpie strike a player who is obviously stunned and just getting to his feet. It seems clear by the actions of the characters that there is some rule against attacking players who are down (think late hits in football) yet this restriction does not appear in the above list.

Finally, if you read my article “The Rules of The Game: The Evolution of Rollerball,” you will discover that, yes, they really did make up the game as they went along. Given the chaos of the shoot, and the number of people involved in creating and marketing this movie, it is highly unlikely that a complete and comprehensive set of rules were ever written down. The above is as close as we will ever get.

Rules of The Game: Roller Ball Murder

ROLLER BALL MURDER: Description and Rules 

Taken from the short story of the same name by William Harrison, originally published in Esquire in September 1973.



The track is oval, fifty yards long and thirty yards across, and is described as “high banked.”


Each team consists of twenty players: ten roller skaters, five motorbike riders, and five runners (or clubbers).

Runners have heavy leather gloves and carry a lacrosselike paddle, which are used to either field the game ball or bash opposing players.

Each team has five bikers, riding on 175cc motorbikes. Bikers are permitted to give runners a lift.

Players — each team:
Skaters — 10 players

Runners — 5 players
Motorbikers — 5
Total — 20

There are no substitutes.


Firing velocity — Over 300 miles per hour

About the size of a bowling ball

Weight — 20 lbs., and made of ebonite.
Balls are fired counterclockwise around the track, in the same direction players move.

Later in the story, the shape of the ball is changed from round to oblong, to randomize its movement and increase the likelihood of players being struck

The cannons are positioned on top of the banked area of track. If a ball goes to ground on the infield or strikes a player, another is automatically fired.

At the start of the story, only one ball is in play at a time; additional balls are added throughout the season until, in the All-Star Game at the end, 4 oblong balls are in play simultaneously.


(1) Judge:
One judge keeps track of the points scored.

(2) Game Referees:
Two Game Referees on the track, “whose job it is to see nothing amiss.”


A point is scored when a team’s runner manages to pass the opposing skaters, pick up a ball and pass it to one of their bikers.


(1) Play time — two hours. There are no rest periods or breaks. By the end of the story, there is no time limit and games go until there is no one left to score points.

(2) The only penalty mentioned in the story is: if a player fails to keep up and is lapped by his own team, he is forced to remove his helmet.


“The bikers ride high on the walls … and swoop down to help the runners at opportune times. The skaters, those of us with the juice for it, protest: we clog the way, try to keep the runners from passing us and scoring points, and become the fodder in the brawl. So two teams of us, forty in all, go skating and running and biking around the track while the big balls are fired in the same direction as we move — always coming up behind us to scatter and maim us — and the object of the game, fans, as if you didn’t know, is for the runners to pass all skaters on the opposing team, field a ball, and pass it to a biker for one point.”  — Jonathan E in “Roller Ball Murder”

Rules of The Game: Rollerball 2002

15 years ago next month, the Rollerball remake was unceremoniously dumped in theaters to universal derision. It was so bad it effectively ended the career of director John McTiernan. In the interest of covering all things Rollerball, I’m reposting the stats of the game as presented in the movie. 

ROLLERBALL 2002: Description & Game Rules

Information taken from the now-defunct movie website and DVD of the 2002 remake. If they sound silly, it is because they are.



The track is a figure eight, about 40 yards long and maybe 20 yards across. There are two raised islands in the middle of the track — called “pods” — where the two teams sit.

The surface of the track has smooth tapered curves, like those found in a skate park, and the entire track is surrounded by a vertical plexiglass wall.

There are a series of ramps on and over the track that allow skaters to enter play in dramatic fashion, or to jump to an elevated platform and tube that is directly above each team’s “pod.” Think Hamster Habitrail, and you get the idea.

On either side of the center of the track, there are two large elevated gongs that must be successfully targeted to score a point.


From the DVD: “The Ball makes a baseball look like a wad of marshmallow fluff. Be fast or take a blast from this chrome globe as it flies from glove to glove to goal.”

Balls are fired straight down from an air gun into a tube, and have a 50/50 change of moving either clockwise or counterclockwise around the track.


It is impossible to determine exactly how many skaters and bikers should be on the track during a game, and it is never stated how many players are on a team.

However, it does appear each team fields at least 2 motorcycles and 5-7 skaters at any one time. Frequent substitutions are allowed.


A team must capture and carry the rollerball over their pod and through the players tube (aka “the rabbit hole”), they must then make one lap around the rink to score.

If another team has fulfilled requirement 1, the opposing team may capture the ball and score without fulfilling it. Any player — biker or skater — may score.


An American announcer tries to explain the Rollerball rules: “There’s only one way to score and that’s when a player takes one of the balls and flings it at one of the iron bowls hard enough to set off the pyro. As for the rest of the rules, well, the rest of the rules are Russian and complicated…”


Several referees are seen on the track during the games, and they do appear to call penalties, but it is unclear what the infractions are. Later in the movie, when all penalties are removed to make the game more “exciting,” there is no visible difference in the way the game is played, or the way the characters behave.