When you’ve got caged robots trying to kill each other in front of screaming fans, you don’t need to add comedy to make it must-watch TV.
From 2000 through 2002, over 94 episodes, Comedy Central’s BattleBots showcased the gnarly and exciting world of robot wars, becoming one of the highest-rated shows on basic cable, averaging 1.5 million viewers per episode in its initial season. But when the network was sold to MTV in 2002, BattleBots, like so many of the defeated robots that went to the mat on the show, was dead.
Or not. For years afterwards, the show’s founders, Ed Roski and Greg Munson, “pitched and pitched and pitched,” Roski, (known as Trey), recalled, even as they kept on producing robot combat events. “TV’s a hellacious business,” Roski says. Producers “laughed at us, even though we’d done good on Comedy Central. They just didn’t get us.”
Then, last December, ABC got serious. Although Roski said the Disney-owned network laughed a little bit as well, it ultimately gave BattleBots the green light. And this Sunday, boosted by regular promos during the just-completed NBA Finals, BattleBots will be reborn, kicking off a six-episode run where 30 teams will vie for more than $100,000 in prizes. It is, Roski and Munson hope, the beginning of big things to come. It’s also, as one of the show’s announcers says in the official BattleBots teaser video, “the intersection of design and destruction.”
“When BattleBots was first pitched to ABC, we were intrigued right away,” Robert Mills, ABC’s senior vice president for Alternative Series, Specials, and Late Night, tells Fast Company. “It kept us at the edge of our seats capturing all of the savory tenets of great sports and reality competition: high stakes, compelling storytelling, and pure spectacle. We were immediately captivated by these mechanical gladiators and the passion behind their builders. We couldn’t wait to see their journey and find out who would be able to go the distance.”
Last month, standing next to a jumble of large ventilation pipes inside a giant warehouse in Vellejo, Calif., about 45 minutes northeast of San Francisco, the 50-year-old Roski, with red curly hair and wearing cargo shorts and a T-shirt, recalled how he and Munson, his cousin, “fell in love” with robot combat.
Back in 1994, he told me the day before the BattleBots competition was taped, the two went to a Robot Wars event in San Francisco, bringing along their hastily built featherweight robot, the 80-pound “La Machine.” “We went up against robots twice our weight,” and won.
“Everybody was chanting, ‘La Machine, La Machine,’” he remembered. “We were hooked.” The ownership of Robot Wars became entangled in vitriol and lawsuits, but Roski and Munson soon launched BattleBots. After going through a carousel of networks, the show landed at Comedy Central, where it lived happily until it didn’t. According to an SB Nation oral history of the origins of the show, MTV, which acquired Comedy Central in 2002, decided the network needed to focus on comedy. “A robot show wasn’t part of that,” Roski told SB Nation.
Roski knows he owes Comedy Central a lot, but he also feels the network added unnecessary comic shtick. ABC knew it didn’t have to. After all, there’s something inherently funny about 200-pound robots trying to destroy each other in the ring.
“We’ve got robots fighting to the death,” said Roski. “We don’t need to make it up. It’s real.”
Angie Bamblett is standing in “The Pit,” the cavernous space where 30 BattleBots teams are toiling away, utilizing their $8,000 budgets bestowed on them by the show’s producers, and making their robots as fierce and powerful as possible at several rows of workbenches.
Everywhere you look are drills, gears, toolboxes, and cans of WD-40. There’s also a skeleton mask, several NASA stickers, and robots painted with things like the angry faces with fangs and scowling eyes you always saw on the business end of fighter jets.
Bamblett, a mechanical engineer by trade, is part of Team Icewave. Their robot features a spinning blade, and is designed to “be fast and do damage across a plane.” The last robot standing after multiple rounds of combat earns its team the BattleBots crown.
Icewave may be unique among the battling bots, she says, with its actual combustion engine, instead of an electric motor. That gives it more torque, and it’s also more fun to work on. She knows Icewave faces tough competition for the BattleBots crown, but she’s full of confidence when she tells me, “I think we have a good chance. We wouldn’t have brought [Icewave] if we didn’t. With our five-inch blade, it’ll be tough to reach us.”
Although women are in the minority at BattleBots, the gender disparity is not what you might imagine. As cofounder Munson put it, there are multiple teams led by women, or that have women playing key roles. All around The Pit, women and girls as young as pre-teen are hard at work, getting ready for combat.
There are also combatants ranging in age from their teens to their sixties, as well as bald men, a guy with blue hair, some with lab coats, or fedoras, or gold lame. One demographic, as far as I can see, is not well represented: people of color.
It’s hard for Munson not to heap on the hyperbole when discussing the BattleBots teams. But given that these are the best of the best, groups of robot experts who have been kicking ass for years in other robot fighting competitions, he knows who he’s dealing with.
“This is no exaggeration bullshit,” Munson tells me. “The people in this room are the people who will…inspire the people solving the problems of the world.”
To Roski, there was something appropriate about ABC’s promotion of BattleBots during the NBA Finals: The audience may very well be the same.
“We’ve always held the show as a sport,” Roski insisted. “It’s 100% a sport.”
Walking around the San Francisco Bay Area during the NBA playoffs, won by the hometown Golden State Warriors, I saw more basketball hoops in driveways than I could ever remember. Watching the best players in the world inspired kids and adults alike to grab a ball and go shoot hoops. Robot combat is no different, Roski argued.
“The beauty of BattleBots is that people watch it, and say, ‘I can do that. I can go do it better,’” he tells me.
It may be a stretch to say that building a killer fighting robot is as easy as shooting a basketball, but Roski and Munson both believe that BattleBots is really about education, teaching the many kids who will watch the program to build things, and accomplishment. It’s about, Roski says proudly, “succeeding at something that’s not easy, but [which is] a hell of a lot of fun.”
There’s also no shame when you watch a robot get destroyed, Roski says. We all have a little Hunger Games in us–an instinct for violence, a kill-to-survive mentality, and many of us satisfy that by watching football or car crashes. “But then you feel awful, you feel guilty,” Roski argues. “With BattleBots, there’s no guilt.”
Science seems to support Roski’s notion.
“Aggression occurs among virtually all vertebrates and is necessary to get and keep important resources such as mates, territory, and food,” Craig Kennedy, a professor of special education and pediatrics at Vanderbilt University, told LiveScience. “We have found that the reward pathway in the brain becomes engaged in response to an aggressive event and that dopamine is involved.”
To make the playing field level during BattleBots, the rules require a single class of bot that’s about 250 pounds of killer android, and which has a built-in weapons system. In the past, robots could dispense with weapons and seek victory by using a wedge to flip and render their opponents helpless. That won’t fly this time around.
Wedges “ended up ruining the sport,” says Roski. “It stopped creative, crafty ideas.”
Maybe more to the point, it wasn’t good TV.
Now, robots need something to try to destroy the opposition. A hammer, perhaps. Or giant 60-pound blades. Or a crusher that spits fire. Or maybe two weapons, like Team Shenanigans & Co.’s Hypershock, which features a giant spinner, and a two-arm manipulator, both of which are designed to wreak havoc. Every team took its own approach to killing–and survival.
Befitting the fact that BattleBots is on ABC, a partner network to ESPN, the competition took place inside a cage, the BattleBox, made from a polycarbonate called Lexan that’s nearly 1.5 inches thick.
“It’s basically a bombproof box,” Roski says.
As robots fend for their lives, under control by their teams behind the Lexan, they’ll randomly encounter a new challenge, or “Hellraisers.” These devices, which look like menacing, spiky, radioactivity symbols, will pop out of the floor, Roski explains, making life horrendous for robots that still use wedges. There’s also kill saws, giant blades that emerge from the floor and “basically launch robots,” as well as big silver mallets on the side of the BattleBox that teams can deploy when they want. Oh, and pinball-like flippers that are meant to knock robots into the saw blades.
That’s all on top of whatever weapons are mounted on the robots themselves.
Essentially, it’s robot mayhem, with hundreds of screaming audience members on bleachers behind the Lexan, and telegenic announcers in fancy clothes–including NASA’s famous “Mohawk Guy” and Jessica Chobot, from the geek-tastic Attack of the Show calling color and play-by-play from a big SportsCenter-like set below a giant neon BattleBots logo. A Merchant Ivory production, this ain’t.
You’d think with a hundred grand on the line, BattleBots teams would only care about winning. Deep down, that may be true. But Roski believes the real success comes from simply entering the ring: The fight doesn’t matter, and win or lose, the teams will all go have beers together afterwards.
True or not, there’s definitely a camaraderie amongst the contestants. Many have built bonds by competing together before, like athletes in other leagues, or have themselves long been fans of robot wars.
“It is probably the biggest honor and greatest experience I’ve been part of,” says 21-year-old Alex Mattaway of Team Shenanigans & Co. “I’ve been doing this since middle school. I grew up watching these guys. Now all of a sudden I’m thrown in the mix with these heavy hitters.”
Still, there will be winners, and losers. As for the Battlers themselves, Munson says the victorious will be the ones who can fix damage in between rounds, and who can adapt their robots for the next battle, “all under time constraints that will showcase resourcefulness in an amazing, amazing way.”
“They have to fix and adapt, or die,” he says. “It turns these people into the best engineers ever.”