This story is over 5 years old.


BattleBots Is Sports All Right, And It's Amazing

In the most basic sense—the one in which it's a competition, albeit a fight between robots—ABC's "BattleBots" is sports. At a deeper level, it's even more so.
Image via

Ask a robot fighter—just one term for the people who make robots, and then make those robots fight—if what they do is a sport, and you will get a referendum on what the word means. "There are a ton of different definitions," says Wendy Maxham, who is the proud co-owner of a delightful robot named Stinger the Killer Bee, and one half of Team Plumb Crazy with her husband Matt. "One of them is 'a source of diversion.'" She also notes another definition, which includes the phrase "something tossed or driven about, as if in play."


The two laugh as Wendy reads these words over the phone. The two laugh a lot; they do a lot of emotive things a lot. This is why they are some of the more memorable on-screen characters in ABC's "BattleBots," a TV show that is the latest—and most mainstream yet—attempt to solidify robot combat in the American imagination. Argumentum ad definition is not always the best look, but watching the Maxhams hug as their robot does battle, watching Matt pound his fists against the walls of the fighting arena—which this iteration of the sport calls The Battlebox—it's hard not to agree with them. The tension, the relief, the levity, the glory… Yes, you say to yourself, pumping your arms along with Maxham at home. These robots kicking the robo-shit out of each other, this must be sports. So let's go ahead and start there.

To Greg Munson and Trey Roski, the founders of BattleBots, there is nothing abstract about these semantics. They see the designation as essential to their mission. "It's a sport for smart people," Roski says. "People who don't like to get hit, or physically injured. I'm a big guy, fairly strong. Nobody's ever hit me. That's mostly me be being intelligent, and saying, 'I don't want to get hit. I don't want to hit anybody.' I look at some sports as being not the most intelligent. It seems stupid to me to go out there and get hit. I think we're beyond physical violence. I think we've evolved beyond that."


Read More: Inside The Blast Furnace, Or Scenes From American Ninja Warrior

BattleBots is very violent, and not in an abstract sense. Maxham notes a British robot that missed the TV cut, but which delivered a blow worth about 700 G's to other fighters with its kinetic-energy weapon. "That is far above what military electronics are rated to survive," he says. The violence of BattleBots just never occurs to humans, and is instead visited upon anthropomorphized objects that each represent great feats of STEM imagination. The absence of that human-on-human violence is a tonic, and alleviates much of the guilt that goes into sports consumption—the kind that visits us during a deadly NASCAR crash, or in every moment of caring about the NFL.

This, too, is important to Roski and Munson, who note that their product is both full of carnage and suitable for all ages. No person gets hurt. But the things that people make, that they paint and dote on and name—these get destroyed in the most vicious possible ways.

Not supposed to be levitating.

Kinetic-energy robots, more commonly known as "spinners," are one of the three most utilized modes in contemporary robot combat, and easily the most violent. Along with so-called flippers and wedges, spinners are so popular and effective that they threaten to whittle the competitive nature of the game down to a Rock-Paper-Scissors trichotomy. Peter Abrahamson, an "old-timey builder" Munson mentions, coined the term "Robot Darwinism" as a name for this long trend.


The current state of robot combat has some fearing a bland, uncreative landscape for the sport. But since BattleBots is on prime-time TV and trying out for a second season, the market has imposed its own cruel logic on which robots receive screen time. It's not strictly meritocratic—Munson and Roski definitely seem keen on maintaining variety, and recognize that weirdness matters, and helps. Tourney participant Derek Young is a robot-fighting "bad boy," a former champion of the sport, and the leader of the punk-disco-looking Complete Control—a bot who went viral without winning anything, simply for pulling a dastardly trick with an illegal net.

"I don't think you'd end up with such a wide array of designs [as you would] if it was a more pure competition," Young says. "It's a TV show first and foremost, even more so than in the past." Young knows that he has to play this game, which is the only game there is in robot combat. "I definitely care about the aesthetics," he says. "I put about five hours into the paint job when I should've been testing it. Probably a mistake on my part. But I wanted it to look cool."

Robot combat, indeed, toes a singular line between sport, design, and art, and not only because of its production staff's latest prerogatives. Builders have long struggled with the challenge of making robot combat into something that is both competitive and pleasurable to view. "It's the hardest part of BattleBots, for sure," says Bite Force driver Paul Ventimiglia. "I've struggled with that for 15 years."


Team JACD, purveyors of the angular Gehry-esque monster Overhaul, are particularly weary of solely effective robots, which tend to become boring in their quest for efficient destruction. "We called it a brushless penis race," says Overhaul's Adam Bercu. "Because once these advanced technology motors got into the game, weapon power went through the roof, like nothing people had seen before, and it became a competition of who could put the biggest motor in their robot. It lost a lot of the fun. It was just whiz, bang, match over. Whiz, bang, match over. So we wanted to build funnier, artistic robots. We called them 'assbots.'"

Just Bottin'. — Image via

The starkest contrast between evolutionary forebear and lol-would-ya-look-at-that exists, perhaps, within one man's portfolio. Ray Billings, driver of overdog spinner-bot Tombstone, keeps his personality and his competitive urge separate. Tombstone is maybe the most feared kinetic-energy bot ever made. It toys with opponents during ABC broadcasts before shredding them with its mammoth spinning blade. Then Tombstone hunts down the maimed shards of its dying enemy, and sends them flying to the walls of the BattleBox. The robo-limbs hit the arena's walls so hard that fans in the nosebleed seats wince. "People have accused me of playing with my food," Billings says, not without a little bit of pride.

But Ray also tells of a very different kind of product. "If I go into the personality aspects," he says, "I've already made up my mind that the robot is there to put on a show, not to be competitive. One of the heavyweights I competed with prior to BattleBots was The Great Pumpkin. It's a very simple wedge with a big plastic pumpkin on top. It's there for being showy." Some cursory YouTube research reveals that Billings, a former guard at Folsom Prison, where he "damaged [his] back and neck," is also the possessor of a spooky sense of humor.


Lisa Winter, another builder, is more kin to the spirit of Team JACD, and aims for a happy confluence between fighting skill and artistry in her bots. Her critter from the Comedy Central version of BattleBots, which is now well over a decade in the rear-view mirror, was Tentoumushi. Driven by Winter when she was a pre-teen, it was a thoroughgoing assbot at first glance, a big flapping plastic ladybug-themed sandbox cover on wheels. But it used that seemingly benign childhood item to envelop its enemies in frustrating fashion, to swallow them up and bring them closer to its hidden circular saw, which it used to destroy them, because that is how this all works.

Winter's newest bot is Plan X, one of the more unique specimens in this tournament. It has a totally cosmetic brain, and comes equipped with a "a pillow of titanium that keeps opponents away from the main chassis.

"I like to balance both function and form," she continues. "There's no way I'm going to put something in the arena that's not creative." But in a parable of the sport's struggle between and efficiency, Winter and Co. fell quickly against the business-like Bronco, whose pneumatic flipper threw them into oblivion. Score one for the taskmasters.

While Bronco makes only the slightest of hints at animal qualities, others take their theme-work to much higher levels. Team Busted Nuts Robotics, the owners of Witch Doctor, come damn close to cosplay with their entry, and Ventimiglia suggests that his own bot is made to "look something like a Happy Meal." If there is an explanation for how the backhandedly adorable Bite Force came to do a raise-the-roof gesture—and get the crowd totally stoked—after an early victory in the tourney, that populist spirit is probably it.


There's much of this fun and lightness on the show, for TV reasons and because people generally prefer getting at least a side order of people with their robots. A referee told Billings to "do a dance" before one match, to which he responded, while barely moving his machine at all: "That is my dance. All I need to do is make sure she runs." There is also the desire for a family-friendly tone, although the ABC version of BattleBots seems far more concerned with selling you on its seriousness than the previous incarnation on Comedy Central ever was. The former is selling it as a sport; the latter aired it on a channel whose name begins with the word "comedy."

Still, the tonal shift is jarring in retrospect, as a look at their two logos—the old one is on the left, as you could probably tell—reveals.

The change in branding also mirrors a more general shift in sports symbology, in which a bunch of previously amiable mascots have all become extremely fierce and self-serious. The studio space that announcers Kenny Florian and Chris Rose share with ever-cheery host Molly McGrath is, similarly, perhaps too futuristic for its own good. BattleBots, and ABC, want to make sure you know you're watching sports. There is a way that sports generally looks when it's on television, and so they dress the show up that way, replete with inane statistics:

Ah yes, "93."

Of course, the sport side of robot combat, while perhaps being its key to a broader audience, is only part of its story, and maybe its least interesting chapter. The act of building unique robots, not the ruin to which they reduce each other in competition, makes this world quite distinct from the usual sports we see on television.


While BattleBots often banks on the same folk heroism we see during Olympics human interest montages—"I used to work with other peoples' poop," says Maxham, a former plumber, "and I got tired of it."—those who rise in its world do so by combining a vast knowledge of engineering and combat principles with a little creative flair. This all has far more to do with the brain than the body.

Is it perhaps a bit on the nose? Yes perhaps it is.

"We have a paraplegic," Roski explains. "He designed his robot using his head, that's it. He drives his robot using his chin. He didn't do real well, but the design was inconceivable. That's my hero. The accomplishment is in just getting the robot there. When you hear 'robot activate,' you've succeeded. The fight doesn't matter at that point. You feel the reward. You can always rebuild it. If you make something, you can make it again."

Roski and Munson express an eagerness to help the sport expand, or explode. It's their wish that builders and thinkers can attain the glory that comes to athletes who use their actual meat-bodies in competition.

"Who's more important in our world today? At any point?" Roski asks. "The boxer, the basketball player, the football player who's making how many umpteen millions of dollars a year? Or the engineer who's going to come up with the idea to take us beyond where we are today, or make it so we don't need fossil fuels?"

If the answer to this is a matter of earnings, then it's a rhetorical question. The founding principle of BattleBots is that this is not the end of it. "BattleBots wants to reward the intelligent people of the world, to make heroes out of the smart people who can save the world," Roski says. "And not focus so much and make heroes out of these guys who are hitting each other."

People are still competing against each other, here, of course; BattleBots' prove-yourself-in-the-arena fervor is essentially no different than the most overheated NFL pomp. This is sports, and what we like about them. Which means that BattleBots is sports, in the end. It's just a different way of doing it—one that's maybe less human, but which invites much different humans into the arena. There is a fight, and there is a winner. There is nothing, really, to argue about.