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You Can Talk About Robot Fight Club

‘BattleBots,’ the show that brought robot fighting from the underground to U.S. television sets, has returned for a new season in its third home. Its producers are hoping this time’s a hit—in more ways than one.

Elias Stein/Getty

Tombstone’s primary weapon hits with 50 times the force of an AK-47, but before Ray Billings can test it, he must Shop-Vac his driveway. Tombstone, Billings’s legendary BattleBot that is 15-2 in competition, tosses 250-pound robots like rag dolls. It can turn wood to pulp, smash cinderblocks to dust, and snap titanium plates used to stop .50 caliber bullets in half. Here’s what happens when an early version of Tombstone meets a bowling ball.

Tombstone’s blade, a 70-pound solid brick of aluminum, steel, or titanium depending on the matchup and its creator’s mood, spins up to 400 miles per hour at top speed. Billings tunes it down to the BattleBots maximum of 250 mph in competitions (you know, for safety), but even at that slower speed, the blade is fast enough to create a wind vortex akin to standing behind a jet engine. Rocks, gravel, and anything else in the vicinity gets sucked into the air, and whatever hits Tombstone’s blade becomes shrapnel. Billings vacuums his driveway to provide some peace of mind that he won’t harm himself or his loved ones, but the weapon is scary enough that he musters the courage to test it at home only once a year with the blade attached.

“It’s an obscene amount of energy,” Billings says. “If you’ve never watched it live, it’s hard to put it in context how much energy is being unleashed.”

The same applies to BattleBots, the robotic combat show akin to the UFC, WWE, and Formula 1 having a baby, and then that baby spending two hours a day watching Twitch and drinking Monster. The Discovery Channel premiered BattleBots Season 4 on Friday, and episodes will re-air on the Science Channel on Wednesdays at 8 p.m. ET. BattleBots features dozens of remote-controlled robot gladiators—each weighing up to 250 pounds, costing tens of thousands of dollars to create, and constructed with military-grade hardware—attempting to destroy each other in a single-combat tournament by using an array of weapons that would make John Wick blush. There are saw blades, hammers, knives, axes, air cannons, clamps, jaws, drills, drums, catapults, and plows. Those weapons can be featured on different designs, including pushers, grabbers, flippers, spinners, slashers, springs, wedges, thwackbots, lifters, crushers, and chuckers. There are massive fidget spinners. There was even a flamethrowing drone that got bested by a garden rake.

“These machines weigh 250 pounds, and they get tossed around like they’re made out of paper,” says Andrea Gellatly, the team captain of Witch Doctor, whose bot created so much upward force against Billings’s Tombstone in 2015 that Tombstone’s blade snapped into two pieces.

Even the arena is weaponized. Each corner features a 30-pound stainless steel hammer called a “pulverizer” that is operated by one of the two teams. The center of the arena sports 20-inch titanium saw blades called “killsaws” that emerge from the ground like the tigers in Gladiator. Two sides feature 6-foot-long, 156-pound corkscrews that scrape and gnaw any robots thrown against them. The floor carries gashes from saws, scrapes from shrapnel, burns from various explosions, and the smell of smoldering steel.

The entire affair is so dangerous that the showrunners spent more than $1 million on the bulletproof Lexan glass that encompasses the arena. BattleBots executive producer Tom Gutteridge says it’s a necessary cost because without it, “we wouldn’t have much of an audience.” The arena in Long Beach cost roughly $5 million to build, not including rent (the warehouse is Boeing used to make airplanes here big) or the 23 cameras that capture the action through the glass (if the cameras were placed inside the arena, they’d quickly be destroyed by shrapnel). Asked about the show’s insurance costs, Gutteridge lets out a nervous laugh.

Viewed in the right light, BattleBots looks like the perfect 21st-century content.

“It’s the ultimate excitement—carnage, destruction, noise, violence—but nobody gets hurt,” Gutteridge says. “That’s underlying some great family values, sporting values, and everything else. What’s not to love?”

For starters, watching robots fight on TV is a tough sell on a Friday night. For many people, it’s a tough sell on any night. That’s a major reason the concept has been passed on by just about every network this century. The two that picked it up—Comedy Central in 2000 and ABC in 2015—both declined to renew it after just a few years. Now the show is in the second year of its third iteration, and it turns out that making a good episode of BattleBots presents a similar challenge as trying to win a BattleBots fight. For Ray Billings, it doesn’t matter how powerful Tombstone’s blade is if it misses the target. Like Tombstone, the sport has an obscene amount of energy, but the only way for the show to hit is if it puts that energy into context.

The sport traces its roots back to the mid-1990s, when underground robot cockfighting rings were thriving in abandoned warehouses along the San Francisco seashore. A 1-foot wooden railing was the only thing that separated the audience and the action. Jamie Hyneman and Adam Savage, who would later star in the TV show Mythbusters, used a lawnmower and an old wok to build a robot so powerful that they had to withdraw it because it spewed too many pieces of opposing robots into the crowd.

These events were called Robot Wars, and in 1995 Gutteridge saw a home video of one of these fights and thought it was the coolest thing he’d ever seen. Gutteridge, a British television producer, decided to buy the production rights. But when he tried to sell the show to British broadcasters he was met with unanimous dissent.

“I got all these letters from broadcasters saying fighting robots will never make it onto mainstream TV,” Gutteridge says. For motivation, he kept the letters in his bathroom and read them on the toilet.

Gutteridge finally finagled a meeting with the BBC, and just minutes into the sit-down, he asked an executive to follow him across the street, where Gutteridge had organized a competition for a crowd of 200 people who had been given a lot of wine. Gutteridge handed the executive a glass and told him to enjoy.

“He watched for five minutes,” Gutteridge says, “and he turned to me and said, ‘I guess we better do it then.’”

The stunt cost Gutteridge about $140,000, but three years later, in 1998, Robot Wars made it to TV in the U.K. The show was given a miserable Friday night airing, a time known as the Death Slot. But on Saturday morning after the first airing, Gutteridge says, he got a call from Mark Thompson, then head of the BBC (and now the CEO of The New York Times). Robot Wars had gotten 2.5 million viewers, outpacing the popular show TFI Friday on the rival Channel 4. “I want as many as you can make, as soon as you can make them,” Gutteridge recalls Thompson saying. They went into production on 26 shows a year for the next seven years.

The show was a hit in the U.K., but the American version took longer to get off the ground. Robot Wars founder Marc Thorpe, the Brad Pitt of those early underground robot fight clubs, had become embroiled in a nasty lawsuit with Steve Plotnicki, the partner who had put up the money to fund Thorpe’s vision. So while the TV show Robot Wars was thriving across the Atlantic, Robot Wars events had little chance of making it to the air in the United States, and attempts to organize alternative competitions in the U.S. were quickly shut down because of the lawsuit. Without any formal fights, the original gang from the early days began holding competitions just for themselves. No cameras. No audience. Definitely no safety equipment. Just robot Fight Club going back underground.

“We would go to Novato, California, underneath the freeway,” says Greg Munson, now the chief operating officer of BattleBots Inc. “We’d just bang our shit together and have a fight and have some beers back at Trey’s house.”

“Trey” is Munson’s cousin, Trey Roski. Munson, Roski, and a neighbor entered their first Robot Wars competition in 1995 and, despite building a glorified doorstop on wheels, won the whole thing. They became addicted. Trey, whose father is the billionaire Ed Roski Jr., decided he had enough money and the right lawyers to launch another combat-robot competition. They branded a new company called BattleBots, and, after shopping the show around to several networks who laughed them out of the room, eventually sold it to Comedy Central. The network shoehorned gags, sketches, and scantily clad women into the broadcast (they even shelled out for Carmen Electra and had a running bit on The Daily Show). But Comedy Central was being reevaluated from the top down (Viacom, which owned half of the network, would soon pay $1.2 billion to AOL Time Warner for the other half of the company). BattleBots was expensive to produce, and before long, the quality of the fights had stagnated. (The New York Times reported that fans wanted flamethrowers.) In September 2002, Comedy Central declined to renew the show, ending its run after five seasons and 94 episodes.

More than a decade after it went off the air, the show was finally revived on ABC in 2015—with big help from Lloyd Braun, who green-lit the pilot for Lost. They tapped Gutteridge to serve as executive producer after he had made Robot Wars a success in the U.K. But Season 2 aired in the summer of 2016 and their ratings were bashed by the Summer Olympics and the U.S. presidential election. ABC decided the show was too costly and canceled it, but the re-runs did so well on the Science Channel that the network contacted Munson and Roski about doing more episodes. Science Channel’s parent company, Discovery, decided to join the party, and BattleBots was reborn. But Munson, the 53-year-old COO who has been building combat robots for half of his life, has the attitude of someone who understands how quickly these things can come to an end.

“I’m this far away from working at the UPS,” Munson says. “So if this all goes to hell, I’ll be the guy wrapping tape on your package.”

You can feel the action at a robot fight, and not in a metaphorical way. Attending is akin to sitting in the front row of a hockey game in which players can send their opponents into the glass as fast as they hit a puck on a slapshot. Billings illustrates this point using the example of Tombstone ripping a tire off of another bot and sending the wheel flying into the glass (fairly routine by BattleBots standards). Even something small like a 6-pound tire coming at your head at 200 mph—roughly a football field per second—hits the glass with a tremendous amount of force. The Lexan glass absorbs energy but reverberates back and forth like a drum.

“You feel the pressure wave come off the arena at you when you’re sitting there,” Billings says. “You can’t portray that in video. Reality bends through you while you’re sitting there.”

Discovery

At 11 a.m. on a Tuesday morning in mid-April, the bleachers for BattleBots’ filming are packed. Just like the mid-1990s, the robot fights take place in a warehouse (this time in Long Beach, California). But in 2019 the show has $1 million of bulletproof glass instead of a 1-foot wooden railing, a ring announcer, two TV commentators, referees, judges, and 67 teams competing for the trophy (the unfortunately named Giant Nut). The lights go down, the giant hammers rise, and the crowd stands. Then the audience begins chanting.

Fight! Fight! Fight!

Crowds chant fight at fights. It’s what they do. But this crowd is mostly made up of families with young children. Men in their 40s are screaming for violence and shaking their fists in unison with daughters younger than 10.

One of the people in the crowd in April was Roger Bennett, a 65-year-old former boxing coach from West Texas. He came to Long Beach to visit his daughter and grandchildren, but when he realized the trip coincided with the BattleBots filming, the whole family attended so he could get his fix. Bennett said the most surprising aspect of watching live—other than how much bigger the robots are in person—was how it reminded him of stepping into the ring.

“The crowd’s cheering, kind of like gladiators getting ready to go in,” Bennett said. “Plus, there wasn’t anything I’d be afraid to bring my kids to here.”

It’s a bloodthirsty crowd, but BattleBots doesn’t spill any blood, and that’s a major part of the appeal.

”It’s violent, but it’s not necessarily like watching a fight, like a human fight, boxing or wrestling,” says Glen Manglicmot, who came with his wife and two children from Santa Clara for the event (they also found time to squeeze in Disneyland). Their 9-year-old son Dylan’s obsession with BattleBots spurred the trip, and while they hope that love translates to an interest in science (no progress on that yet), Glen and his wife, Eunice, see the violence as harmless for their kids.

“They understand it’s just robots and that’s an object,” Glen said. “Whereas hurting a human being vs. human being ...”

Kenny Florian, the BattleBots color commentator and a former MMA fighter who went 14-6 in his standout UFC career, says that watching robotic combat weighs ounces on the soul for many viewers, while human-on-human violence weighs tons.

“There are people that have brain damage because of mixed martial arts,” Florian says. “In BattleBots, you can get that same feel and no one is going to get hurt.”

None of the contestants get hurt, but none of them make any money, either. Bots can cost between $5,000 and $50,000 to build, and they are mostly constructed by regular people doing this as an incredibly expensive hobby. Teams get sponsors, but that money is to cover costs, not to turn a profit. Building the bot is step one, but repairing it is a science unto itself. A single match can inflict a silly amount of damage, and when tens of thousands of dollars have already been sunk into the bot, one broken $500 component won’t mean calling it quits. Those costs add up quickly, especially when there are seven or eight matches. That’s before calculating the cost of taking time off of work and travel expenses. Paul Ventimiglia, the captain of the Bite Force team that won last year’s Giant Nut, says that even with sponsorships and the grand prize (which Gutteridge and Ventimiglia both said was small), his team still lost money during its championship runs in 2015 and 2018.

“BattleBots is not a thing to try and make money off of,” Ventimiglia says. “It’s a labor of love for sure.”

Without money as an incentive, teams find their own motivations.

“All I need to be satisfied at an event is one good match,” says Ventimiglia, who is 33 and has been doing combat robots since he was 13. “I don’t care if we win or lose overall, as long as we get one match where it’s a lot of destruction or everything just worked really well.”

Five seconds of pure destruction can justify five months of work and a $50,000 investment. It’s a proof of concept that lives on in their memories, but also on YouTube, GIFs, television promos, and framed photos for their living room and the reception desk at the offices of their sponsors.

Some teams aren’t just concerned with winning, losing, or destroying. Meet Team Witch Doctor.

Discovery

Their robot, Witch Doctor, shoots green flames to match their color pattern, but captain Andrea Gellatly says that the flamethrower—like their outfits—is 90 percent for show. More important for them than winning is making STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) look cool. Women make up a disproportionately small fraction of STEM fields, both in college and in the workforce, and the gender wage gap is even wider in STEM than it is in non-STEM industries. That’s before diving into the racial disparity of black and Hispanic workers being underrepresented in STEM jobs. Gellatly is one of five or six women captaining a BattleBots team in 2019 compared to five dozen teams captained by men. She says those odds create immense pressure, but sparking young minds is more important than sparking the other robot aflame (though doing both is ideal).

“If [Witch Doctor is] just a big, rusty, intimidating looking machine [kids are] not going to look at that and say, ‘I can make that,’” says Gellatly, a biomedical engineer who got into combat robots because of a robotics program offered at her all-girls Catholic school. “But if we go out there with top hats and jackets and a fun-looking robot, they’re going to want to do that.”

Teams like Witch Doctor are key to BattleBots’ success. Rooting for a robot to win a fight is not as instinctive as rooting for a person. The natural solution is to get fans to invest in the people building the robots, but that leads to one of the show’s biggest challenges: turning the builders into stars.

“There’s a lot of really interesting personalities here,” Billings says. He holds out his hand with his palm to the ground, rigid. “Put a camera on them and they go …” Ray curls his hand so it goes flaccid.

Indeed, many of the builders are camera shy, and the ones who aren’t are often camera thirsty (it’s unclear which is worse). But acting natural hasn’t been a problem for Billings, the best trash-talker on the circuit. He’s feared for Tombstone’s dominance and hated for his cockiness.

“I just don’t give a shit,” Billings says. “I’m not any more interesting than any of these guys. I just don’t care. So it tends to come across that way.”

He doesn’t care how he comes across, but he cares a great deal about winning. For all of scientific knowledge and mastery of intricate details that go into building these machines, Billings says that the secret sauce to winning a championship in BattleBots is the same as any other sport: mental toughness.

“If somebody is fighting me, and they’re pretty sure they’re going to get their ass tore up, they’re probably going to get their ass tore up,” Billings says.

He will sometimes walk up to the pit area where another team is working, point to a piece of their robot, laugh, and walk away. He’s seen teams argue for an hour trying to figure out what Billings thought was funny.

For a show hoping to turn the builders into stars, Billings shines brighter than BattleBots’ flamethrowers. That’s why when the season premiered on Friday, Billings was chosen to headline the two-hour episode in the main event against Lock Jaw, a robot known for its durability. The bots met immediately, and Lock Jaw sent Tombstone flying. The two collided a second time, and Tombstone was thrown even farther. But as Tombstone retreated, Billings showed Lock Jaw the exposed back of the bot—the equivalent of a boxer showing their chin. As Lock Jaw went in to tear Tombstone’s rear end a new one, Billings whipped Tombstone around in a 180-degree spin, shearing off the side of Lock Jaw, including its tires, and rendering it immobile. The match lasted less than 20 seconds.

“If there was any question about it, Ray Billings is back,announcer Chris Rose screamed.

It’s a fitting metaphor for BattleBots as a whole, which is also back. BattleBots misfired at Comedy Central and had an even tougher time on their second go at ABC, but now producers are hoping the third iteration of the show can be as dead-on as Billings’s third collision with Lock Jaw. As Billings told Florian in his post-fight interview, you never know what’s going to work.

“It all comes down to just that right hit in that right way.”

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