Looking Back at 'BattleBots,' the Best Robot-Combat Show Ever Made
With a reboot coming this summer, we tracked down some of the creators of the original's most fearsome metal contestants.
Two robots face each other from opposite sides of the utilitarian arena, a metal cage designed to keep the 200-plus pound fighting machines focused on each other. On one side, a giant vertical spinning blade sits on top of a squat three-wheel chassis; we're told the thing is named Nightmare. On the other side, a Roomba-esque metal box with no discernible weapon. It's called Biohazard.
The match starts, and as Biohazard zips across the arena floor and smashes into Nightmare, its weapon becomes obvious: The thing rams, and it rams hard. Biohazard wedges itself underneath Nightmare as its theoretically dangerous blade spins idly, a useless decoration. The smaller bot then pushes Nightmare into one of the "booby traps" that litter the arena—in this case, a buzzsaw that popped out of the arena floor. Biohazard backs up with impressive speed and rams its opponent again. Nightmare's lone weapon slows, then stops completely. It's helpless. Biohazard, by dint of its apparently superior design, has neutralized its opponent and won the match. Biohazard's operator, the unassuming Carlo Bertocchini, smiles like a proud father. His baby has just won the Heavyweight Quarterfinals. It would eventually win the championship.
This, of course, was BattleBots—a TV series about grown men fighting with remote-controlled robots. When the show premiered in 2000, it was the lone sports program on Comedy Central and the network's first attempt at sports programming since the forgotten ESPN parody Sports Monster. It was also their first show about robots fighting one another.
At the turn of the century, there was nothing like BattleBots. The idea of advanced robots was still, more or less, a futuristic fantasy. The fact that the show focused on the incredibly young sport of robot fighting meant that everyone was just figuring it out as they went along, like baseball in the 1870s but with pneumatic sledgehammers.
I watched BattleBots in high school and I always loved the chaos of it. Not just the chaos of the literal robot fights, but of the robot builders' plans—throwing everything against the wall trying to figure out how to win the thing. A washtub with a bunch of buzzsaws? Or a mini Gravitron with spikes? Fuck it, how about we just make a giant door wedge on wheels? As long as it wins, who gives a shit?
It was all amazing—especially in the early 2000s. YouTube didn't exist, and watching actual, functioning robots in action was a novel, let alone robots beating the shit out of each other. It was advanced, but at the same time so very amateur. It was a combat sport that did no lasting damage. (For the most part—more on that later).
After five seasons, BattleBots ended in 2002. Most of the competitors simply went back to what they had been doing before: namely, working in Silicon Valley. Will Wright, who competed with a robot called Chiabot and had previously invented SimCity, went back to working in the field of human-robot interaction after his stint on the show. Christian Calrberg—who piloted the bots Knee-Breaker, OverKill, and the popular Minion—started building an "open-source light." Jim Smentowski, who built Nightmare, moved to Florida and opened up an online store called RobotMarketPlace for aspiring bot builders.
Some of the people who had appeared on the show went on to become big names in science education television: Bill Nye (the show's "technical expert"), Grant Imahara, and both Jamie Hyneman and Adam Savage from Mythbusters. But robot fighting, in the context of the show, was mostly left behind.
Until now. In February, ABC announced that the network would be rebooting the show, to premiere this summer. It's been over a decade since the original BattleBots aired on Comedy Central. I wanted to know how some of its competitors had been changed by the show. I wanted to ask this old guard about how their lives had progressed since BattleBots ended over a decade ago, and how the state of robo-fighting had changed. That's how I met BattleBots champions Charlie Tilford and Gage Cauchois.
Charlie Tilford was living and working in Silicon Valley before he piloted his robot Mauler, which quickly became a fan favorite on BattleBots. Even before that, actually, he had appeared on BattleBots' precursor, the British Robot Wars.
"We were at the first fight, the heavyweight championship," Tilford remembers. "I had read about it in Wired magazine. I saw a picture of the [Robot Wars] founder Marc Thorpe with a gas-powered chainsaw mounted on [a remote-control chassis]." At the time, Tilford's two sons were ten and 14, and they were thrilled. "There was a ten-day event. If you paid the $50 entrance fee, you could have a team of four people. So we could just build something in our garage" to compete at a Robot Wars event in nearby San Francisco.
Tilford was hooked. With his reliable bot Mauler—a spinning disk retrofitted with flails and crudely spray-painted to resemble what looked like an angry day-glo carp—he stuck around through the Comedy Central series. Though he only won a single televised fight, it was a great one, with Mauler defeating the aforementioned Nightmare. (For what it's worth, Nightmare did amass a respectable 8-8 record during its tenure on BattleBots.)
Mauler wasn't a perennial champion like Biohazard or some of the other robots that crushed time and time again, but due to his personal popularity, success in the sport came relatively quickly for Tilford. One year, he made $28,000 in toy royalties alone, and he earned more from a lucrative Seagate sponsorship. At the same time, Tilford was cultivating a fan base of science-minded kids, all while enjoying the approachability that comes with cult celebrity. " BattleBots was really neat that kids could not only watch something on television but actually talk with real people," he told, referring to young fans' penchant for approaching their team at events to talk shop.
And Tilford loved talking about bots. He still speaks proudly about an appearance on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno and the Baha Men. He kept fighting robots until BattleBots ended.
"One of the last things we did, we went up against someone that had the rim of a tractor trailer made out of forged aluminum alloy about three-quarters of an inch thick," he said. "We smashed into it and put two holes in it you could put your fist through. That's a lot of fun."
Not everyone reflects on the series with such unabashed pride, though. Tilford's contemporary Gage Cauchois took a far more bittersweet, mercenary view of the whole BattleBots experience.
Cauchois was very successful as a competitor, winning three championships in total. His final design, Vladiator, won the superheavyweight division in season three thanks both to its uncanny ability to flip other robots on their backs combined with Cauchois's skill at the controller. His robots, Vlad the Impaler and the subsequent Vladiator, were among the most popular in the sport's history.
When Vladiator went up against a robot called Techno Destructo, it became clear how dominant Cauchois's design could be. Early in the fight, Techno Destructo flipped Vladiator on its back. The flat four-wheeler was equipped to handle a setback like this though, and remained just as mobile—in fact, about 30 seconds later it flipped Destructo akimbo with a well-timed ram, leaving it helpless against the wall. Vladiator backed up and rammed Destructo again, then again, destroying the back plates that protected Techno Destructo's delicate guts. And that was the match.
Cauchois doesn't seem to care much about his accomplishments in the sport of robot fighting though. "I was doing it for the money," he told me. Championship bonuses were hefty, and coupled with sponsorship deals (the robots were usually plastered with ads like NASCAR stock cars) competitors could theoretically live off of the money they made from BattleBots. (It doesn't seem like many of them did, though; most kept a day job or at least did freelance design work on the side.) For Cauchois, the pursuit of winning became more and more demanding, and as the sport got more competitive, robot fighting became an increasingly more expensive.
Then Cauchois sustained a serious injury when his hand was crushed by a piece of metal from his robot, Vladiator—the fault, he said, of an inept crew member that the show insisted he use. The tendons in his hand were severed. "I had to go to hand surgeon to get it properly repaired. BattleBots paid my deductible, [but] they weren't even liable for anything," Cauchois said. "They offered to pay, but made it sound like they were doing me a favor. I didn't find that particularly generous, since it was their guy who dropped the robot."
Still, when he reflects on his BattleBots experiences, there are moments he seems especially proud of. "My robot broke the floor, which was a goal of mine," he remembered. "They said the arena was indestructible but nothing's indestructible."
According to Deadline, the BattleBots reboot—slated to air this summer—will have "a greater emphasis on the design and build elements of each robot, the bot builder backstories, their intense pursuit of the championship and the spectacle of the event." In other words, expect less robot fighting and more manufactured human drama. (I reached out to executive producer Ed Roski to ask about the reboot, but he did not respond.)
It definitely doesn't sound like the BattleBots I watched. At its core, the show was a utilitarian design competition—and the best designers don't always make the best reality show personalities. When I mentioned the show's reboot to Cauchois, he said, "I wouldn't like that at all. I'm kind of introvert. I don't want a lot of people nosing around. Get the Kardashians."
Tilford isn't coming back for the ABC reboot either, but for different reasons—he wants to turn it over to younger participants, a new generation of robot enthusiasts.
A lot has changed in the field of robot technology since Tilford and Cauchois were building robots. They both agreed that the detail that would most transform the show in from 2002 to 2015 was battery size. Batteries are now lithium polymer, and according to Cauchois would be a tenth the weight of the older ones. As Tilford put it, "with the lighter batteries you can do a helluva lot of damage."
I asked Cauchois what he'd like to see on a BattleBots revival. He had a pretty clear list: "You'd want to have an electronic driving assist. You'd want to have something on robot where the robot has a targeting system that would steer it and correct. You just push a 'launch' button. That would be fun," he said. But the new contestants on BattleBots were only given two and a half months and $7,000 to build their robots from original designs—so who knows what sort of machines that process will result.
The new BattleBots seems likely to more of a reality show about robot builders than the original, and though the two shows share the same name and the same DNA, it'll be a different animal. But however it's formatted, the program is bound feature robots destroying robots, which is really all anyone can ask. "It'll be interesting to see what people come up with," Cauchois said. "Thirteen years later? That's a long time."
Thumbnail photo via Flickr user Thiago Avancini.
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