Marin County, Calif., 1992. The Internet has yet to take hold, Jay Leno is the fresh new face of "The Tonight Show," Bill Clinton has just shown off his saxophone bona fides on "Arsenio Hall," and Comedy Central is four years away from the premiere of "The Daily Show" starring Craig Kilborn.
Meanwhile, the best and brightest engineering minds that money can buy gather at Skywalker Ranch, the creative compound filmmaker George Lucas built with his "Star Wars" money, and the nearby headquarters of Industrial Light & Magic. The various departments of Lucas' empire are incestuous and without many barriers; employees cross from one department to the next as easily as Darth Vader crushes necks with his mind. Besides ILM and LucasFilms, a newly created LucasToys division is charged with creating toy replicas of your child's favorite on-screen heroes. Among the toy designers is 44-year-old Marc Thorpe, who prepares a new product pitch for a meeting with Mattel.
Marc Thorpe: I presented an idea that would involve vehicles that had weapons. Hammers and saws and things like that. And Mattel looked at the idea, and their comment was, "Somebody's going to figure out how to do this." And that was that. Meanwhile, I was pursuing an idea of a radio-controlled vacuum cleaner, something to make vacuuming fun, and it wasn't going anywhere. So when I got turned down in the toy presentation, I decided to take the vacuum cleaner off my radio-controlled tank and put weapons on. Then, I decided to stage an event: Robot Wars.
Mark Setrakian, visual effects artist for Industrial Light & Magic: Marc told me the idea, fishing around to see how much interest there was and if I wanted to be involved. Peter [Abrahamson] and I had actually planned on doing an event.
Peter Abrahamson, high school friend of Setrakian and robot building partner: Monster trucks with weapons. We had certain rules we were setting up, explosive bits and little flamethrowers that were going to shoot each other. Then Marc Thorpe said, "Hey, this is what I want to do," and we leapt on it. I remember Setrakian showing me this little flyer, and it had the chainsaw mounted onto a tank.
Marc Thorpe: I put an ad in ArtWeek. I put an ad in a radio-controlled car magazine. And I applied for a trademark.
After a two-year period of false starts, announcing and canceling events after not being able to find the necessary start-up capital, Thorpe sent his promotional material to Wired magazine. They decided to run a one-page story.
Charlie Tilford, competitor and beloved "BattleBots" personality: My wife got me a copy of Wired, and there was Marc Thorpe and an army tank with a gasoline-powered chainsaw. And I thought, oh, that's a neat-looking concept.
Dan Danknick, physicist and roboticist, participant in "BattleBots" and host of TLC's "Robotica": I ripped the page out and put it on the wall of the cubicle of the software company I was working at, and just dreamed about what Robot Wars was going to be like.
Charlie Tilford: We checked out tickets and I think they were $30 apiece, and there were five of us. But it said if you build a robot, the price was $50. And I thought, well shoot, we have enough crap in the garage. We can build a combat robot.
With the Wired article comes an unprecedented level of interest in the fledgling sport of robot combat. But despite the interest, Thorpe still could not raise enough money to put on the initial competition.
Marc Thorpe: The show cost an average of $100,000 to $140,000 an event, so I was looking for sponsorship. At a certain point, I started talking with Profile Records and one of the executives of that company, Steve Plotnicki.
Plotnicki and Thorpe struck a deal to fund the first event at the Fort Mason Center in San Francisco.
Greg Munson, co-creator of "BattleBots": My friend Mark [Setrakian] paged me—we all had pagers back then, right?—and he says, "Greg, I got two tickets to this thing. You got to check it out. You'll like it."
Mark Setrakian: Peter and Greg and I went to high school together.
Peter Abrahamson: We made a lot of stop-motion movies in high school. And we blew up a lot of stuff. I'm sure we'd be considered terrorists today.
Dan Danknick: I talked three of my buddies into driving all night to San Francisco.
People embraced this thing like it was the answer to the primeval questions of life and death.
On Aug. 20, 1994, 18 competitors and more than 1,000 spectators turned out for the first annual Robot Wars competition. While rules divided robots into weight classes and focused on basic safety regulations, the path to victory was primal: Destroy the opposition.
Greg Munson: It's crowded, I can't see what's going on. The bleachers are blocking my view. And I walk around the edge, and there's an opening. And I hear this mayhem and banging noises and smell this weird smell. And I turn the corner and, BOOM, there's these little remote controlled car robots with weapons crashing into each other, smashing into each other, essentially killing each other.
Dan Danknick: I thought, this is what I was made for.
Mark Setrakian: It felt very underground.
Marc Thorpe: It had the feeling of a cockfight, but one that was politically correct. There was a lot of theatrical value. I was very careful with the lighting. I had traps and hazards that energized the space. I came up with a bowling ball that would swing continuously [over the arena]. That graceful, silent motion was the great counterpoint to the frenetic, intense action that went on in the arena. People embraced this thing like it was the answer to the primeval questions of life and death.
The first event was completely experimental, an open forum for fledgling robot designers to craft and test remote-controlled weaponry for the first time. But in that initial round of combat, one creation stood above the rest.
Peter Abrahamson: People were showing up with plywood and buckets and wheels attached to that. It was crazy what somebody would think of.
Charlie Tilford: I had some lead sheer, and we figured if we could swing those around that would be a weapon, so we put some nails in 'em so they were like spiked balls, and I took some copper tubing and put that across the top with a little motor in it.
Morgan Tilford, Charlie's son and building partner: We got this little washtub. And maybe we can add some armor? And it was like, how are we going to speed control it? And my dad was like, we can just do light switches or something. It wasn't very sophisticated. It was a little sloppy.
Mark Setrakian: No one really knew yet what was going to be the best winning formula, so people were trying all kinds of different stuff. I decided I wanted my robot to be very weapon-oriented. So I looked in the McMaster Carr catalog and found the most tripped-out looking thing I could find, which was a gas-powered cut-off saw, like what firemen use to cut a car in half.
Marc Thorpe: Mark [Setrakian] was the star of those events.
Greg Munson: Mark's a genius. There's talented people, then exceptionally good talented people, and then there's singularly talented people. That's what Mark Setrakian is. Mark's robot came out, which was called The Master. And it was a cut above everyone else's.
Mark Setrakian: They were concerned about the safety of the saw blade, so we brought the robot out to the pier, fired it up, and they viciously beat the blade with a two-by-four as hard as they could to see if it could shatter. Bear in mind, in those days there was no real protection for the audience, just a little one-foot tall wooden railing around the perimeter.
Dan Danknick: He stood on it and rode it into the arena. This is the kind of stuff that doesn't happen in real life. When I got back home, I bought a vertical mill and a welder and set up my machine shop in my garage and started working on my first robot.
Peter Abrahamson: I coined the phrase "Robot Darwinism," because in the arena it truly was about only the strong surviving. The most adapted would survive. Robots were going to evolve. Somebody was going to figure out how best to fit the niche that was being devised in the arena. And next year, they showed up with the perfect wedge.
II. The Rise Of La Machine
The second Robot Wars competition in 1995 was bigger and better, including 49 creators and their machines and a professional announcer. Attendance nearly doubled. Most importantly, with a year of combat and practice under their belts, designers focused on perfecting their methods of destruction. Ingenuity took a quantum leap forward. It's ironic, then, that the robot that made the biggest impact that year lacked an actual weapon.
Greg Munson: Peter calls me up and says, "Greg, you should build a robot." So that night I stayed up with my friend and chatted about the different designs we could make. And I went downstairs to take out the garbage and my neighbor Gage Cauchois was down there. And he says, "I'll build one with you." And so Gage and I formed a team, and I thought we have to get Trey (my cousin) involved. Trey has always been the kid who can drive the remote control car the best. If you go fishing, he can drive the boat perfectly, dock it perfectly. Trey was driving before 16, and now he flies a helicopter. He's always had this uncanny ability to control machines perfectly.
Trey Roski, co-creator of "BattleBots": Somehow, my brain is really good at controlling other objects.
Greg Munson: And Trey had access possibly to some cash. That was enough to get us going.
Trey Roski: The robot itself cost maybe around $600. That was all we could afford.
"Keep it simple, stupid. Form follows function."
Greg Munson: I had about 20 ideas, crazy ideas like a spinning robot, or a rolling robot. And I told them all to Gage and he pooh-poohed them. He's one of these classic engineers, where's it's, "Keep it simple, stupid. Form follows function. Don't make it too complicated." So he said, "Let's build something simple, something to get underneath and flip them over." The wedge. It was ugly. It looked like a doorstop. But Gage was a brilliant engineer and we powered the crap out of that with, basically, a car battery.
Trey Roski: It was out of my buddy's car, the one we drove to the event, his Honda Civic. We pulled the car battery out, stuck it the robot, drove it for a fight, pulled it out, and stuck it back in the car. [The robot] was called La Machine and weighed about 80 pounds. It was kind of a joke. It was made out of wood and a little bit of aluminum.
Peter Abrahamson: It was a horrible thing. The control scheme was so insane, because you were using a radio control to drive a servo, which would fit in a relay that just dumped energy into the motors. All battery energy, then and there. No variation in speed control. Just "on" and "off."
Marc Thorpe: People were saying, "What's your weapon?" They had no visible weapon.
Greg Munson: People were almost laughing behind our backs. One of the teams from, I think, UC Berkeley, had this crazy gas-powered machine with all kinds of motors, and they were giving us these sympathetic looks. Like, "Oh, you poor guys ..." But this thing hauled ass and Trey drove it brilliantly … with such gusto and personality, it came through better than most people. His driving techniques were really expressed in the robot. It gave the robot a personality.
Trey Roski: I would back up and slowly twist and turn, like a bull. And get it up to about 15, 20 miles per hour.
Greg Munson: We'd get underneath them, flip them over, push them into the side of the arena where they would get incapacitated. We won our first battle, then won our second battle, and our third, and our fourth. And we won every battle in like 30 seconds.
Peter Abrahamson: One of the great things that Greg and Trey were doing was spraying Pam, the cooking spray, on the wedge. That was the secret weapon. Robots would slide right up them. Trey would just scoop them up and tip them over the edge or drive them into a wall.
Marc Thorpe: They won the middleweight face-off event, and we were starting the heavyweight melee.
Greg Munson: It was called "The Rumble," where all of the leftover heavyweights fight to the death.
Charlie Tilford: There was no time limit on this one. The rule here was the last robot [that] was still moving was the winner.
Greg Munson: And the audience wanted La Machine to come into The Rumble … it was a little bit like the hockey team from the 1980s Olympics, they started chanting, "La! Machine! La! Machine!" They loved the robot. Trey heard this, comes and gets me, and says, "We got to get the robot into the ring."
Marc Thorpe: I said, "You guys will get creamed, you'll get destroyed." They said, "We don't care." So I ran through the crowd to the [PA] announcer and told them to hold on. It was all very dramatic. And the announcer said, "Ladies and gentlemen! We have a new contestant!" The audience jumped out of their seats.
Greg Munson: In [The Rumble] was Thor, a robot built by Schilling Robotics, this advanced engineering firm that gets these contracts from DARPA [the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, part of the U.S. Department of Defense focused on new military technology]. It had this hydraulic hammer, but the head of the hammer was more like a blade, like fangs.
Trey Roski: They made hydraulic arms that would grab things on submarines for the military. Somebody said Thor cost close to $70,000.
Mark Setrakian: This hammering titanium sort of Viking masthead would slam down with ridiculous force. At one point when it hit The Master [his robot, in a previous bout], it had so much force it sheered this curl of stainless steel off the wheel and it glowed white-hot for an instant.
Greg Munson: Trey just outmaneuvered it. Got underneath it, and put it into the edge of the area.
Marc Thorpe: La Machine dominated.
Trey Roski: The crowd loved it. It was this little ugly kind of joking robot that nobody thought could do anything, and it ended up beating these very fancy, sophisticated robots.
Greg Munson: We came out of there superstars. The media was all over us, people from different countries and newspapers and little TV shows from all over the world were asking us about our robot. Unfortunately, it also ushered in this design trope of adding a wedge to your robot. Everyone started doing it.
Mark Setrakian: It was the wedge that launched 1,000 wedge clones.
Peter Abrahamson: Now people were thinking, how do I defeat that type of robot?
III. Lawyers, Bots & Money
As Robot Wars grew from an ad hoc competition to a full-fledged business, the complexity of the operation began to match the increasing intricacy of the fighting robots. Questions of ownership between Thorpe and investor Steve Plotnicki were on their way to creating a legal quagmire.
Marc Thorpe: During that time, there were a lot of people who wanted to license the property and get involved—Henson, Tiger Toys. [Plotnicki] didn't want to make those deals, but we made one TV deal with Mentorn Media in the U.K.
Greg Munson: We go out to London on the BBC's dime to be part of this pilot. We're giving them ideas, and they're loving it. We play robot soccer. Trey is driving La Machine, and instead of just putting the ball in the goal, he picks up all of the other robots and puts them in the goal. The BBC executives were smiling, the Mentorn guys were grateful that Trey had done that awesome move. I don't know if it did, but that might have green-lit the show for them.
On Feb. 20, 1998, the television program "Robot Wars," modeled on the San Francisco competition, aired on BBC Two, marking the first time the sport of robotic combat was broadcast on television. During its successful five-year run, hosts of the show included WWE personalities Mick Foley and Joanie Laurer [actress and professional wrestler Chyna]. But back in San Francisco, things were not moving along so smoothly.
It was just a disaster. These two guys just sued each other to death.
Mark Setrakian: It was just a disaster. These two guys just sued each other to death.
Marc Thorpe: [Plotnicki] was an entrepreneur and I had this property. He put money into it, but I put time and energy into it. He felt the money was more important than the time and energy and creativity I put into it.
Greg Munson: My dad came to that first competition, and Plotnicki and my dad were sitting next to each other having a great time. My dad thought that guy was great. He could be very personable if you meet him, he has a nice charismatic personality.
Dan Danknick: You realize there's two sides to every story, and maybe three because there's always the truth. The biggest friction point was that Marc was an idealist and didn't have a lot of capital, and Steve was a New York businessman and he did have a lot of capital. So if things didn't go Steve's way, he spun off his lawyers and carnage ensued.
The 5 Most Notable Bots
1. La Machine
Description: The original wedge design.
Weaponry: Nothing, just a wedge on wheels
Creators: Greg Munson, Trey Roski, Gage Cauchois
Record: 10-2, both losses to BioHazard for the Heavyweight Title in '96 and '97.
Description: A low-to-the-ground box with wedges built in on all sides.
Weaponry: An electric lifting mechanism that scoops robots off the ground.
Creator: Carlo Bertocchini
Record: 35-5, including six heavyweight championships.
Description: A gas-powered spinner, almost like a remote-controlled floor buffer.
Weaponry: Two small pieces of metal and the spinning power give it a saw-like quality.
Creator: Jamie Hyneman
4. The Master
Description: Two spherical wheels with an arm in the middle that would "thwack" against opponents.
Weaponry: Options for what to include on the central arm included a spinning saw blade, an electric lifting spike, and a chain whip.
Creator: Mark Setrakian
Description: A full-body spinner, engineered almost like a top, in various incarnations.
Weaponry: The extreme power of the spinning, to the point where it was almost uncontrollable.
Creator: Charlie and Morgan Tilford, among others.
Record: Too many versions were competed to get a completely accurate assessment, but 10-7 is close.
Mark Setrakian: We were all sort of expecting the next Robot Wars [competition] to come out, and then there was this letter from Plotnicki sent to all the builders. It implied something along the lines of we didn't know the event was going to happen, that we wanted to maintain the quality of the event.
Peter Abrahamson: There was constant talk of whether or not it's going to happen. People were definitely freaking out. They were like, "Oh my God, I'm investing all this energy in building a robot and I have to have a place to do it!"
Charlie Tilford: We had builders who wanted to build … have the techno music, get the crowd, get the ego boost, the 15 minutes of fame. And we couldn't because of this legal pissing contest.
Greg Munson: Robot Wars can't have a competition because this guy Steve Plotnicki and Marc Thorpe are now having this legal dispute? If you look up his history, you'll see with Profile Records he sued his main moneymaker, which was Run DMC. He would sue people in order to take control over what they're doing. Get Marc Thorpe out of it and reap the rewards from the BBC show. Which also meant toys and video games, all that stuff.
Trey Roski: At the time, that was Plotnicki's business. He did business through the court system and sued people into giving up their intellectual property.
Marc Thorpe: I was forced into bankruptcy.
Trey Roski: I tried to lend Marc some money to help pay for some of the bills, and that didn't seem to do anything. He [Plotnicki] just kept suing. It was a real eye-opener, that somebody could just sue somebody and if you don't have money to protect yourself, you could lose everything in your life.
Dan Danknick: There was just a lot of anger. Like, "What the hell man? This is our ball. You can't take this ball and go home."
Peter Abrahamson: I wrote [on the Robot Wars’ online forum] not to give up just because there isn't a venue to fight. I think we lit a fire that isn't going to just die and disappear.
Trey Roski: A lot of us would get together under freeways and underpasses, or go to old, abandoned Air Force bases and fight our robots on the runway. We'd send out emails that would say, "Hey, meet you at Hamilton Field at 8 o'clock Sunday morning," and just show up and do crazy kinds of stuff.
We were just fighting for fun. No money, no audience.
Greg Munson: We were just fighting for fun. No money, no audience.
Dan Danknick: During the dark years, there was a guy named Gary Cline and he tried to put on a similar event called Robotica, and he was going to hold it at the Cow Palace. And he got a cease-and-desist from Plotnicki about two weeks before. Which is probably another reason why there's a lot of anti-Plotnicki vitriol still lingering in the air. He did it at the last minute to, I guess, not give anyone time to countersue. Typical business stuff.
Greg Munson: And then Plotnicki ended up suing Carlo [for starting the Robot Wars-based online message board].
Carlo Bertocchini, creator of the iconic robot BioHazard: It was just unfortunate that that happened. Add lawyers to anything and it's less fun. That’s all I can really say about it.
Peter Abrahamson: Trey called some of us together at his house in Petaluma, and we're sitting around, drinking beer, and Trey goes, "I'm thinking about starting my own event."
Greg Munson: He said, "You know, I want Marc to succeed, I want Marc to get Robot Wars back. But it's kind of tied up, and it's at the point where I should try to start my own thing ..."
Peter Abrahamson: [Trey said] "I have a fairly rich father, and I have a fairly sizable trust, and I want to go and invest and make a show happen. What do we want to do?" We all said, "Fuck yeah. Let's do this."
Trey Roski: And then [Plotnicki] sued me.
Greg Munson: Bing, a lawsuit's sprung on us, alleging there was a conspiracy with Trey and Marc Thorpe to steal the goodwill of "Robot Wars" and make it this other show, "BattleBots," and blah, blah, blah. Anything Marc did or said could be used against him in that lawsuit, so he had to withdraw from the community, and we had to withdraw from him.
Morgan Tilford: It came down to, "Is this a sport or a game?" Because, if it's a game you can own that as intellectual property. If it's a sport, you get to keep it as a sport.
Trey Roski: They just made up all of this fictitious stuff.
Peter Abrahamson: They wanted to bring Marc in because he was the godfather of the thing, but there was a no-compete clause in the Robot Wars contract so he couldn't join "BattleBots." It was just devastating. It was ruthless on his [Marc Thorpe’s] health. Plotnicki claimed he owned the rights to robot combat, the whole concept.
Trey Roski: He (Plotnicki) was used to people settling. A lot of court cases don't go to trial because it's expensive, so most people settle.
Peter Abrahamson: Up until that point [he was always suing] rap artists and musicians and then Marc Thorpe, who he could bully. But Trey had the full backing of Ed Roski, his dad, and his law firm, so Plotnicki is all of a sudden up against someone who could fight back.
Dan Danknick: Trey's dad has a gagillion-and-a-half dollars [Editor’s Note: According to Forbes, Ed Roski’s net worth in March 2013 was $3.7 billion], is a huge developer in Los Angeles, and he talked his old man into lending him his legal team.
Trey Roski: We actually ended up having a jury trial, the whole works. I fought him in court, and he lost. If you ever pull up the lawsuit, the last comment from the judge was pretty funny.
District Judge Jed Rakoff, presiding judge in Robot Wars LLC v. Roski: As already mentioned, the bulk of the evidence suggests that, rather than attempting to confuse consumers into believing that "BattleBots" is affiliated with "Robot Wars," defendants have affirmatively attempted to portray themselves as a distinctly superior alternative to "Robot Wars."
Greg Munson: It drained "BattleBots" of money, though. All of the great rewards we were having basically got pissed away from the lawyers having to fight the lawsuit.
[Despite repeated attempts over multiple email addresses, telephone, and even Facebook, Steve Plotnicki did not respond to requests for comment.]
IV. Hooray for Hollywood
With the blessing of the inner-circle of robot designers, and the legal quandaries of Thorpe v. Plotnicki seemingly behind them, Munson and Roski immersed themselves and their ideas in some of the most treacherous waters of all: Television production.
Greg Munson: When we decided to start "BattleBots," the first thing we had to do was have a show. So we went down to the University of Long Beach where they have this cool pyramid shape basketball arena [the Walter Pyramid]. Trey was an alum, and the price was right, so we rented it and had a show. About 60 robots came. The audience wasn't that great, it kind of sucked.
Dan Danknick: Everyone brought their 1998 robot from Robot Wars because that's what we all had lying around for the last couple of years. No one wanted to build anything new.
Greg Munson: But the great thing that happened was there was this guy in the audience named Lenny Stucker, this TV guy. His claim to fame is he did all of the "Friday Night Fights" for HBO. He's a New Yorker, Italian guy, almost like he's from "The Sopranos." And before he talked to us, I think Lenny talked to Plotnicki and instantly thought he was an asshole.
It was sports for the nerdy person. And we thought it would fit.
Lenny Stucker, television producer: I thought it (robot combat) was hip. I love creating things and I happen to be a gadget freak. I had spoken to Plotnicki when I was looking at the different robot shows. I invited him to come to my office and see the successful shows I had. I personally hold 10 Emmys in my work in television, so I'm not a has-been. I've handled everything from Riddick Bowe all the way through [Mike] Tyson, as far as Pay-Per-Views I've been very successful. And he started laughing to me on the phone, telling me I was nothing but "smoke-and-mirrors."
Greg Munson: But then "BattleBots" came and Lenny thought, oh, I got to check that out.
Lenny Stucker: So much for smoke-and-mirrors.
Greg Munson: We had a webcast of the Long Beach show, and this was in the days when no one had webcasts, and we had something like 40,000 streams, which is crazy. We had a good audience online.
Lenny Stucker: But it wasn't conducive for television. They were doing it more for their own entertainment, their own fun. They ran a five-minute round, they had double eliminations. I saw it more like boxing. I changed it to a three-minute round, one elimination. I put three judges in. I created the red corner and the blue corner, just like boxing. I changed it a lot from what it originally was to make it more conducive to television. In the beginning, [Trey] was very amenable to that. In the beginning, we were actually a very strong team.
Trey Roski: We pitched the show to all of the networks, and they would laugh and say, "Yeah, we're going to put together a show where robots are fighting to the death." And the door would slam and hit us on the ass on the way out. CBS and NBC laughed at us and told us we were crazy.
Lenny Stucker: Some of the meetings were people looking at us cross-eyed. I took it to HBO, Showtime, CBS, NBC. They really didn't get it. They couldn't conceive how things were going to look. So I brought it to Pay-Per-View, where my strength lied.
Greg Munson: We had a Pay-Per-View right before Christmas, we did it in Las Vegas. The Pay-Per-View didn't do as well as it should, but it basically gave us a working pilot. That was the pilot, and we were pitching it around town.
Lenny Stucker: The offers were coming in left and right when people were better able to understand. The phone was ringing off the hook. Comedy Central was one of the networks that bid on it.
Trey Roski: At Comedy Central, there was one lady there in charge, Debbie Liebling, who kind of looked like Peppermint Patty from the old [Peanuts] cartoons. And she was laughing more than anything else. She got it.
Debbie Liebling, Former Senior Vice President of original programming at Comedy Central: Who would've thought, right? It was nothing like anything on television, which was always a big draw for me. It was really funny, and really nerdy. The Internet was not a big thing yet, so the nerd culture wasn't so celebrated. It was sports for the nerdy person, I guess. And we thought it would fit our demographic.
Greg Munson: We now had a budget, we could have cool graphics, we could have a giant "BattleBots" banner literally draped over an entire warehouse building that the helicopter captured as it came over the Bay Bridge. We had the budget for that. So that was very exciting. The only bummer about Comedy Central, and it's not really a bummer ... it's a bittersweet thing—let's call it a two-edged sword: The show had to be funny.
V. Growing Pains
Season 1.0, which was built around a tournament held over a weekend in San Francisco, began airing on Aug. 23, 2000. While Roski and Munson forced Comedy Central to show the actual robot battles unscripted and without any manipulation, their power did not extend to the comedic interstitials between the bouts.
Marc Thorpe: The format was not my format. They chose to appeal to a younger audience and, in my opinion, they made it into a TV show dressed up as a sport, whereas I was producing a sport that could become a TV show. There's a rather subtle difference you might say, but it was not subtle to me.
Debbie Liebling: It was sort of a parody of a sports show without being a parody, because it delivered the real goods of competition at the same time.
Marc Thorpe: It was all tongue-in-cheek. The original was genuine, there was no bullshit.
Greg Munson: There was just a purity and honesty to those early Robot Wars days.
Trey Roski: Comedy Central was a mature network. They geared their ratings from [ages] 18 to 24, that was the rating they were looking for. We actually skewed much young and much older. And the kids who were watching were kids. And Comedy Central had, you know, slutty chicks, half-naked sitting on a desk, showing her ass, boobs hanging out.
Peter Abrahamson: [Former Playboy Playmate and "Baywatch" actress] Donna D'Errico was really amazing. She'd spend a lot of time and energy researching robots and builders, so she knew their background. But there were a couple who were just dumber than a bag of hammers.
Greg Munson: They kept on throwing bigger and better hot babes at it. We gave them notes, but they rarely listened. I kept saying we need attractive geek girls, someone like [actress] Olivia Munn, good looking, but also funny and who could talk shop with these guys. Finally it got up to Carmen Electra, who really didn't do anything to help ratings.
Peter Abrahamson: She was just the worst.
Debbie Liebling: We thought we needed a hot girl for the show, as shows on male-skewing networks often do. Carmen Electra was pretty hot at the time.
Trey Roski: Comedy Central definitely pulled some stuff that wasn't necessarily appropriate. The show was inherently hysterical. One time Jamie Hyneman, the "Mythbusters" guy, walked up to the guy he's going against and starts asking him questions about the robot. Then he goes back to his table and pulls out this file, and starts sharpening the teeth on his robot. And I think he put an Alka-Seltzer in his mouth, so he's drooling this bubbly drool, it's just pouring out of his mouth. He looks over to the guy, just drooling and holding his breath so he's red. It was this mental game he was playing. He was trying to win the match before the event started. It was hysterical. They didn't need this fake element between fights.
Greg Munson: On the one hand, comic relief is great. "Breaking Bad," which is the best show ever, has comic relief. "The Sopranos" has comic relief. "Mad Men" has comic relief. The original "Star Wars" had comic relief. The next "Star Wars" had shitty comic relief. So, thank God for comic relief. The bad side of comic relief is they make what we took as a very serious sport look a little silly.
Mark Setrakian: Occasionally, the hosts would ask me inflammatory questions and try to get a rise out of me. Usually I was just so caught up in just getting the goddamn robot to work. I was like, "OK guys, I have to get this to work. Yes, the robot has genitals, there they are. Can I go back to work now?"
Greg Munson: Jonathan Ritter—a brilliant engineer. They put him in a diaper and made him fight sumo against a giant sumo wrestler. Totally out of left field from robot combat. Maybe not the most appropriate thing.
Mark Setrakian: Sometimes, it worked though. There was a bit with Carlo. He's a very straight-laced guy, seems very reserved, and he and his wife did this segment that I still laugh about today. They've got their cat, and he's talking about how his cat was hit by a car so it lost the use of its back legs, but they have this little robotic cat carrier. And they show the cat, and it was like this box with this cat's head sticking out and it looks like it's ready to burst a blood vessel. It was so freaking funny.
Carlo Bertocchini: It actually went semi-viral. Got a lot of views on YouTube.
Charlie Tilford: We weren't the lead team in winning, but we were probably the lead team in terms of Comedy Central personalities. We were always good for a quote. One time, I did an interview in a chicken suit. A combination of combat robots, various models, and a guy in a chicken suit. What's not to like?
Trey Roski: The one thing I say about Comedy Central that was cool was, yeah, they added the comedy, but we filmed our show. They couldn't touch the fights. The person who wins is the person who wins; it didn't matter if you were Jay Leno or a 13-year-old girl. There was nothing manipulated, there was no favoritism.
Greg Munson: For me, "BattleBots" was more professional. [Robot Wars] was like a boxing match in a shitty, little gym in Philly, and ["BattleBots"] was like, you're in Vegas with the announcer in the tuxedo, and the mic coming down from the ceiling, and the sexy girls holding the cards, and the guys in the front row with their babes.
Debbie Liebling: It was bigger than we thought it would be.
VI. All Grown Up
The hype around the show continued to permeate into the social consciousness. On Oct. 25, 2000, "BattleBots" contestants Christian Carlberg and Lisa Winter were welcomed as guests on "The Tonight Show." Host Jay Leno, impressed with the challenge, even built his own robot, Chin-Killa, for season 2.0, a weekend-long tournament held in Las Vegas that included four weight classes and over 130 robots in all, both all-time highs. In season three, the growth continued.
We were actually number one for a while. We beat "South Park."
Peter Abrahamson: Season three was when it all just exploded.
Lenny Stucker: Ratings were excellent. We were actually number one for a while. We beat "South Park."
Peter Abrahamson: The amount of competitors that started to show up were huge. People in the middle of South Dakota were saying, "Oh, can I do that?" People showed up that had never soldered before in their lives, but here they are, learning how to solder, learning how to weld, just so they could build a robot for "BattleBots."
Lenny Stucker: Everything has its moment, and at that moment it was very hot. The sponsors came in. The Army was actually one. Toy companies wanted to make toys. McDonald's put it into Happy Meals.
Carlo Bertocchini: Got one of my shelf looking at me now. Several different kinds of BioHazard toys were in Happy Meals, which is kind of a kick.
Lenny Stucker: We had a three-year run where a lot of TV shows came to us to license the "BattleBots" name. They put us in "Malcolm in the Middle." One of the big detective shows used a BattleBot that somebody created, a robot that actually killed someone.
Mark Setrakian: Occasionally I'd be somewhere and people would, "Hey, you're that robot guy." People would recognize me from the show.
Charlie Tilford: I remember once I was up at Fort Mason judging an event, and this young man, maybe 22 or 23 years old, saw me, and his jaw sort of dropped. He came right over to me, extended his hand, and said, "I've worshipped you since I was 12."
Mark Setrakian: One of the problems I always had with it was that it's an expensive hobby. You were basically asking people to build robots with their own money, show up at the event, actually pay an entry fee, and then the robots would get wrecked. Trey and Greg, much to their credit, extended TV royalties to the competitors.
Trey Roski: My whole model was … how would I want to be treated? Let's say you come up with a toy idea and you went to a toy factory, Mattel or Hasbro, and you sold it. You might get one percent. You might get one percent.
Greg Munson: A lot of the builders made enough money to purchase a house, start businesses, start families, etc., etc. We were really serious about protecting these trademarks, not just for us, but also for them. Builders of these robots got 15 percent of anything that "BattleBots" made. So, if we made a deal with Hasbro, we get a percentage and you get 15 percent.
Trey Roski: If you were on TV, you got paid. If you were on toys, you got paid. Some of the contestants made over $100,000 a year.
Lenny Stucker: Poor Marc Thorpe. He's the nicest human being you can meet. "BattleBots" went on to make millions and millions of dollars, and [Thorpe] really ended up with zero. He just hooked up with the wrong person and in the end he just got royally screwed.
Peter Abrahamson: I did fairly well in residuals. And [since then] I've gotten many calls from Hollywood to say, "Hey, we're going to do a television show and we want to do a robot thing and can you supply the robot?"
Trey Roski: There were quite a few [other robot fighting] shows because of our success.
Lenny Stucker: It was very successful. There's always someone that will try to copy. Even when we tried the "BattleBots" toys, there were one or two people that tried to hop on the bandwagon. It goes with the terrain.
Greg Munson: When we got popular, companies were ripping us off left and right, stealing robot images, stealing our name. MTV and TBS bought old "Robot Wars" episodes [from the BBC]. TLC started "Robotica," which was more of an obstacle course. That petered out really quickly because it was kind of lame compared to "BattleBots."
Dan Danknick: I was approached by all of those organizations to work with them in some capacity. And when I signed on to do color commentary on "Robotica," that didn't go over well with Trey. Trey wanted to be the only game in town. He didn't like any of his competitors going anywhere else. I think he had a real, "Dance with the one that brung ya" attitude. So in 2002, I was not invited to "BattleBots." And that's fine. It seems a little juvenile, but no problem. I think that was the year they had Gary Coleman or somebody there [Coleman appeared as part of "Team Nightmare" and had a featured broadcast role]. So I'm sure they did much better with Gary Coleman than Dan Danknick.
Lenny Stucker: As it got more and more popular, Trey wanted to have more say it in. And things changed.
VII. Growing Down
On February 3rd, 2002, an estimated 86.8 million viewers watched the New England Patriots defeat the St. Louis Rams in Super Bowl XXXVI. While plenty of fans stuck around to watch the thrilling end, all were certainly tuned in for the first highly-anticipated commercial break.
Greg Munson: Out of the blue, on Super Bowl Sunday, one of our robots is in a commercial.
Dan Danknick: It was the first commercial spot after the kickoff, which from what I understand is the most expensive spot you could buy.
Peter Abrahamson: I remember calling up Greg and saying, "This is going to be the greatest thing ever to happen to our sport."
Debbie Liebling: They literally took the show and made a commercial out of it.
Dan Danknick: I thought, "Man, this is great." We want some legitimacy to our sport, we want sponsors.
Peter Abrahamson: And Greg says, "We're thinking about suing." And it was like, "What the fuck are you talking about?"
Greg Munson: It was disguised, it had a little hat on, but it was clearly one of the robots that was under contract. We had all the robots under trademark. We were advised by the attorneys that we needed to protect the trademark. So we sued Budweiser.
Dan Danknick: It was like, talk about short-term thinking. Don't you know how much exposure this brought us in a positive way? It was just so shortsighted. You have to think long term.
Peter Abrahamson: I understand why. I understand needing to protect your IP (intellectual property). But this is one you should let go. A: You don't want to fight Budweiser. And B: All this does is make us look good as many times as it airs.
Greg Munson: In retrospect, it probably wasn't the best idea [to sue]. We should have just told the public, "Yeah, that's 'BattleBots' in the commercial!" Just take ownership of it. Bud was using us to sell beer, so let's use them to make "BattleBots" even more of a household name. But, again, lawyers were there.
Dan Danknick: I remember hearing in 2000, and this is all hearsay, that Microsoft offered "BattleBots" $100,000 if they could rename the box in the arena the Xbox. They thought it would be a great tie-in. And from what I understand, I don't know if it's true, Trey wanted $500,000. So he turned down a large amount of money because he couldn't get a ridiculous amount of money. And the pattern just continued.
We got to the point in the sport where there weren't a whole lot of new designs.
Season 5.0 of "BattleBots" began airing on Comedy Central on August 20th, 2002. But with the Budweiser lawsuit hanging over their heads and the network about to sold, cracks in the sport's foundation began to show.
Greg Munson: Things slowly, but surely got homogenized, where it became a game of Rock, Paper, Scissors. The sport had gotten more and more perfected, which unfortunately showed less and less creativity.
Peter Abrahamson: Once you took the wheels of a wedge away, they're helpless. So even La Machine would be defeated by a lifter robot. And a lifter is delicate and would get destroyed by a spinning robot. But a wedge could get under and scoop the spinner. So, it was lifter defeats wedge, wedge defeats spinner, spinner defeats lifter. Those three types.
Mark Setrakian: You have these three archetypes if you want to win. We got to the point in the sport where there weren't a whole lot of new designs.
Trey Roski: And then Comedy Central was sold to MTV. They decided to take Comedy Central back to its roots and stick to comedy. A robot show wasn't part of that.
Lenny Stucker: The network just got tired of it. Like anything else, you can only demand so much and then it becomes unreasonable.
Dan Danknick: "BattleBots" was very minimally architected, and they hoped [it] would be good enough for TV. And in the beginning, it was. But at the end of the day, they're shooting a TV show, and you had to meet a minimum criteria to be on the show. If your robot doesn't work, you delay the event by a half hour, you just cost the production $7,000. They don't put up with that too often.
On Sept. 10, 2002, Munson and Roski announced that Comedy Central decided not to renew the show. In all, "BattleBots" lasted for five seasons, 94 episodes, and made untold millions of dollars in merchandising.
Trey Roski: We've been fighting like crazy to get it back on the air ever since. We've done just about everything you could imagine. We tried teaming up with Mark Burnett and James Cameron to get it back. James Cameron, he hated TV, but back then he would turn on his VCR and record "BattleBots." He just loved it.
Greg Munson: We've pitched to every network probably more than three times, with various incarnations and various producers and various show-runners and production companies, and we're still doing that.
Mark Setrakian: I've been waiting for Trey and Greg to do something new for quite a long time. I'm devoted to those guys. They've been so generous and such good friends, if they said, "Mark, we want you to come do something," I'd do it.
Lenny Stucker: I could have brought it back, but Trey and I just didn't agree on things anymore and I went onto other endeavors.
Dan Danknick: I went on to do "Monster Garage," which was a lot more fun anyway.
VIII. The Next Generation
Without the network TV presence to draw publicity, interest in the sport of robotic fighting began to wane.
Carlo Bertocchini: The TV show was the big generator of interest and drew people into the sport.
Trey Roski: It kind of took TV to make it move. It's like baseball and Little League. You can't have Little League unless you have pro baseball, and you can't have pro baseball unless you have Little League.
Greg Munson: So we need to make Little League. And we could kill two birds with one stone by also educating the next generation of engineering and manufacturing. Our engineering is tremendously lacking from the days in the ‘50s and ‘60s where astronauts were heroes and it made kids want to get into engineering. Now, rock stars are heroes, basketball stars are heroes. There's no hero engineers anymore.
Robot Wars was a chance for nerds to become rock stars.
Marc Thorpe: [Robot Wars] was a chance for nerds to become rock stars.
Mark Setrakian: Maybe it's just the current generation seems to have a certain feeling of entitlement to technology. You're talking to people that have always had the Internet, who've always had cell phones, who are taking things for granted. In my dad's generation they had this phrase, "What'll they think of next?" Nowadays the common vernacular is, "Where's my jet pack?"
Trey Roski: My dad said engineering was for garage mechanics. That's for people who work on cars. I didn't quite believe that, but when you're going to college and your dad pays for it, you kind of do what he says.
Mark Setrakian: The thing I loved about the "BattleBots" model was that you build a robot, you bring it, you compete. It is such a compete dose of reality when you show up, stick your robot in, and if you're unprepared or made some mistake or don't fully think it through, it becomes extremely apparent. It's so incredibly educational.
Trey Roski: Back when school was invented, summer break was so kids could go and work on the farm. When there was a tractor out there, and they had a one-ton plow and had to switch it to a two-ton plow, and had to pull out the 18-toothed gear sprocket and switch it to a 12-toothed gear sprocket, then the pi equation from school made sense. The kids remembered it. Today, they just teach it and expect you to learn it and don't explain what it's for.
Greg Munson: So I went to Trey and said, "We need to start a youth program." We decided to call it BattleBots IQ, and we got Nola Garcia to run it for us.
Nola Garcia, National Education Director of BattleBots IQ: They said, "Listen, we've gotten so many requests from parents who said when their kids watch wrestling they want to beat each other up, but when they watch 'BattleBots,' they want to build a robot."
Greg Munson: In 2002, we had our first BattleBots IQ event with high schools students at the University of Florida. And a lot of these are girls. Thirty percent of our competitors are girls.
Nola Garcia: Girls and women just flock to this stuff. There's no sex lines between who we are as males and females. Like in football, boys have a definite advantage physically because they are generally bigger and stronger than girls. In this type of arena, you're using your mind and imagination, and that levels the playing field.
Trey Roski: There was this pair of 9- and 10-year-old kids. They built this one that starts as one robot and breaks into two during the fight, and they had duct tape in between. They were playing a team of professors from MIT who spent, I don't know, probably $60,000 or more on theirs. They had virtual reality goggles to drive, it had front legs that went in and out of it, it was very sophisticated. And the kids go out, separate the robot, spread out this duct tape, and this $60,000 MIT robot goes right into it. And the kids circle it, and keep circling, and this $60,000 robot is now just this wad of tape. The guys are lifting up their 3-D glasses, and the two kids are just high-fiving.
Dan Danknick: There's a camaraderie that I'm not sure how many sports really have.
Nola Garcia: You'll see teams working really hard in the pits and they'll blow a speed controller. And the team they're up against says, "Here, use ours," instead of saying, "Oh good, the other team is going to forfeit." There's no honor in that.
Trey Roski: The last event we had about 600 robots with literally millions of dollars of parts. And we never had anything stolen. That's really something special.
Dan Danknick: In that very first "BattleBots" show in Long Beach, my buddy Peter Abrahamson called me. He was behind the ball on his very complicated tank drive robot, and he asked if I could come and help. And I said, sure. So I drove up there on a Saturday and spent the whole day helping him build parts.
Peter Abrahamson: It wasn't like there was a dry spell once "BattleBots" went away. There was plenty of stuff happening. It just didn't have the slickness and professionalism. A lot of the smaller ones (competitions) were just plywood arenas. People just wanted to fight. But everybody's kind of waiting. There's communication between members of the community, but none of them are billionaires able to go and make an event happen.
Marc Thorpe: I would love to bring it back. I would like to do it right.
Greg Munson: Robot combat how it is in traditional "BattleBots"-style needs some help. It needs a spark. It needs a bit of a game change.
Dan Danknick: I don't think anything will revitalize robot combat. We got lucky. We picked a hobby that could help build our skill set. I'm not the only systems engineer at the company I work for now, but I'm sure I'm the only one who can weld, machine, and drive a forklift. But the technology and the desire and the effort, and really a motivation for doing it, just doesn't exist right now. It was new, it was fun. I had spare time, the future seemed bright, I was still wearing shades. Would I do it now? No. There's better things I'd do now.
Peter Abrahamson: We were pulled tightly together, which you can obviously tell as we're still together. That's the way it's always been. Somebody was running camera, somebody was running sound, somebody would have to animate, somebody would have to act. We were our own little film crew. "BattleBots" was just another thing we did together. Mark and I were robot builders, while Greg and Trey provided an arena. But it required all of us to make it happen.
Epilogue: Game Change?
On Feb. 26, 2013, SyFy cable channel premiered "Robot Combat League," a series created by Mark Setrakian. The twist in this latest incarnation of robotic combat is two-fold: First, all of the robots are bipedal humanoid robots that stand eight feet tall and weigh close to 1,000 pounds, similar to the classic MechWarrior design. Second, instead of the robots being designed and built by independent teams, Setrakian himself creates them all.
The sport, then, has evolved from one based on an engineering challenge, to that of an operational challenge similar to auto racing. As Setrakian explains, "In professional racing, when the driver gets out of the car, you don't assume he built it." Some view the competition as a window to the future of sports, providing sports fans guilt-free entertainment in an environment currently littered with worries over concussions, PED use, and other ethical issues. But that remains to be seen.
While the entirety of the robotic fighting community is happy for Setrakian's success, and hope that despite spotty ratings thus far, it succeeds, many don't believe this is what robot fighting should be. The challenge with robots, they contend, is more elemental, in some way, more fundamentally human; to build, maintain, and run your own robot out on the battlefield, for the sport to celebrate individual initiative and creativity, rather than the equivalent of robot drones.
As Trey Roski puts it, "Ever see grandma's dog, and it kind of looks like her? Robots are kind of the same thing."
Author’s Note on Sources: Brad Stone's book-length retelling of the various legal issues surrounding the birth of robotic combat—and there's a whole lot more that I couldn't get into here—Gearheadswas a vital resource. If that particular section intrigued you, pick up his book. This timeline of robotic combat put together by Jim Smentowksi was also extremely helpful.
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