The Box is locked. The lights are on. It’s ROBOT-FIGHTIN’ TIME!
The robot combat event/TV show known as BattleBots started its life in the midst of legal wreckage, when a deal to make a US spinoff of the UK series Robot Wars fell through in 1997. The American bot builders, left without a televisual home, started BattleBots in August 1999 in Long Beach, California. They eschewed Robot Wars‘ House Robot model, instead designing an arena called the BattleBox that gradually presented more and more dangerous hazards as each 3-minute battle wore on, starting with screws and hammers and culminating with floor spikes and killsaws. But the hazards are largely incidental – the biggest appeal is and always has been the promise of mechanized carnage, a gladiatorial clash with not flesh and blood on the line, but gears and wires. Their initial tourney was live-streamed on the internet and garnered over 40,000 views, no mean feat for the dial-up era.
The show attracted the attention of Lenny Stucker, a boxing telecast producer. He remade the presentational aspects of the show to mimic those of boxing, with a red corner and a blue corner and a ringside announcer, and attempted to sell the package to various cable and broadcast networks. After a PPV show in Vegas, someone finally bit: the burgeoning Comedy Central, which had recently expanded on the back of South Park‘s success and was hungry for new programming.
While the actual competition remained unchanged by the unexpected new owner, the telecast became a strange chimera, a sports show and a send-up of sports shows in one, with wrestling-style sketches but serious competitive bouts. Carmen Electra was famously enlisted as a co-host despite having no apparent interest in robot combat. With single-elimination tournaments running across four weight classes, the series made no attempt to provide a comprehensive look at what went down in the live event.
Nevertheless, BattleBots quickly became a cultural phenomenon, briefly surpassing South Park as CC’s highest-rated program during its third season in 2001. (This season, incidentally, concluded on 9/11). Iconic bots like Nightmare, BioHazard, and Diesector started to become household names. Well, in certain households anyway. In 2002 there was even a line-up of BattleBots Happy Meal toys! I owned some!
Unfortunately, the country’s infatuation with robot combat was not to last. Basic cable knockoffs started to dilute the brand. And the metagame of BattleBots drifted towards a homogenized style which encouraged powerful wedge bots that devoted all their weight to armor and drive. They were strong, invulnerable, victorious… and deadly dull to watch, causing every bout to devolve into a shoving match. In 2002, due to declining viewership and a desire to return to their comedy roots, CC cancelled BattleBots after 5 seasons.
But nothing’s ever really dead so long as network suits think that someone possibly might remember its name, so in summer 2015 BattleBots came back with a tentative 6-episode order on ABC! The new version of the show ditched the comedy elements and the weight classes, focusing solely on the superheavyweights – bots weighing in at 250 lbs. To avoid the boring wedges that had come to dominate the sport, they fiddled with the rules to make active weaponry (i.e. stuff that moves and hits hard) a prerequisite for entry. Each episode featured only four fights and a lot of human-interest flab, but for summer programming, it was a reasonable hit. When it came back for an expanded 10-episode second season in 2016 the show really dialed it in, producing a ton of great fights including the famous Minotaur vs. Blacksmith bout, which became ABC’s most-viewed YouTube video of all time, and remains their #4 to this day.
But ABC was the wrong fit for the idiosyncratic series, and some rough scheduling against the 2016 Rio Olympics seriously hurt the ratings and left the show once again in the lurch. All of 2017 went by without any word of a new season.
However, in 2018, a new savior emerged – the Discovery Channel! It should probably have been BattleBots’ home all along, but at least now they’re finally together, and the show is being presented the way it always was meant to be: as a serious competition, not a joke or human interest reality series, but still conscious of the childlike joy of seeing carefully engineered machines smash each other to bits. And boy do they smash – modern lithium batteries and brushless electric motors make the bots several times more powerful than they were in the CC days.
The 3rd/8th season features a whopping 20 episodes, each with five fights, consisting of a long series of qualifiers that let every bot mix it up and see what they can do as they vie for spots in a sweet sixteen single-elimination final tournament. Among the 55 competing bots there are flippers, spinners, crushers, lifters, grapplers, saws, hammers, a cannon, and a giant cheeseburger.
The season is entering its home stretch, currently airing every Friday on Discovery and the following Wednesday on Science Channel with a bonus segment. The season pass is also available for purchase on Amazon, where new episodes go up every Saturday (I’m probably watching last night’s episode on Amazon as this OT goes up). If you’re at all interested in the world’s dorkiest sport, I suggest you check it out!