Science fiction-turned-pop culture cable channel Syfy wants to create a lasting sports franchise. So, naturally, it’s turning to robots. The channel’s newest show, Robot Combat League, premieres on February 26 and features eight-foot-tall humanoid battle robots controlled by teams of athletes and engineers. The athletes wear full-body suits which control the robots, while the engineers handle the robots’ technical aspects. Hosted by Chris Jericho, Robot Combat League is the latest in a long line of television programs that replace human athletes with robotic proxies. But will Syfy’s attempt be the one that lasts?
When Co.Create spoke with Jericho, the pro wrestling legend was excited about the show’s possibilities. In between talking points designed to steer the public to watch, he talked about robot fighting as a viable sport. "Each episode takes a good six hours to film. The program includes a lot of setup, there are three rounds, and at the end of each round the robots have to be fixed within 30 minutes," Jericho says. "This technology really exists, it’s like The Terminator. I would have run away when one of the robots started walking at me if it hadn’t stopped. When the robots fight, they get broken hydraulics, carburetors, and other problems. If a robot loses its arm and it can’t be reattached, the fight is over because it takes five to six hours to repair."
Robotic combat has had a long and illustrious history. Beyond the visceral kicks of explosions and metal parts flying all over a room, robots have certain advantages over human athletes. They’re less expensive, for example. Professional boxing and mixed martial arts (MMA) are filled with fighters who become fan favorites, and whose income and perks rise with their success and fan base. Robots don’t have that problem; while not cheap to build, they are cheaper over the long term than human beings for sports purposes. This is one reason why both television channels and the gambling industry are interested in the future potential for robot fighting.
In 2011, Syfy rival Science channel aired a pilot called Killer Robots: Robogames 2011, hosted by Mythbusters' Grant Imahara. The program featured content from the similarly named (and now, interestingly enough, largely defunct) Robot Fighting League. Earlier in the decade, Comedy Central ran a much-loved program called BattleBots, which featured many future Mythbusters stars and Robot Combat League robot-builder Mark Setrakian. In the 1990s and 1980s, both the real-life BattleBots and the similarly robotic apocalypse-obsessed Survival Research Laboratories were regularly featured on television.
And while the robots featured on Robot Combat League are cheaper than in-the-flesh athletes, they’re still frighteningly expensive. Setrakian, a special effects legend best known for his work on Hellboy and the Men In Black movies, recently told us that each robot costs hundreds of thousands of dollars to build, and that they are designed for long-term use. All of the show’s robots are designed with particular identities and personas; Setrakian is especially proud of one particular prototype.
"I built a prototypes robot called Hades in 2011 that took between three to four months to build; it was a proof of concept that trashed a Volkswagen with its horns. For the series, the bots were built over four months. We built the giant machines and moved production into a warehouse called Spectral Motion. Most (of the team) works in the film industry; they are experienced machinists who build things that move in an organic way," Setrakian said.
Watching the show itself is an exercise in Syfy’s attempt to brand robot fighting as a legitimate sport. Alongside the robots, both the "jockeys" who perform the physical fighting in special suits and the technicians are prominently featured. In terms of format, features, and the flow of the half-hour show, it differs little from boxing or MMA.
Mark Stern, SyFy’s president of original content, says that is purely intentional. Stern says that the channel had been pursuing robot fighting opportunities since it first entered the unscripted reality space. Although SyFy had been considering robot fighting shows for a long period of time, the channel’s interest was piqued by the fact that life-size humanoid robots similar to those in the movie Real Steel are now a reality. "We wanted it to mimic athletics rules in terms of ranking, competition, and seating. Our development team worked very closely with the Robot Combat League team to determine the rules," Stern said.
The teams themselves come from a variety of backgrounds. Many of the jockeys come from mixed martial arts. Technicians come from blended engineering backgrounds. There is also the father-daughter team of Dave and Amber Shinsel (who both work at Intel as engineers), MMA celebrity Amanda Lucas, and other athletes whose stories are used as material for the non-fighting portion of the show.
Although Robot Combat League's eight-foot-tall battle robots are impressive, they’re not ready for prime time as live entertainment in Las Vegas or local arenas yet. The relatively high cost of the robots (even compared with conventional athletes) makes them prohibitively expensive to show live on a regular basis. If a fighter wearing a control suit punches or kicks too hard, their robot could effectively knock the limbs off another robot, causing time consuming, headache-inducing repairs for technicians. The editing and controlled environment of a television program, however, is the perfect platform for broadcasting robot fighting. Besides, let’s just face it: Robot fighting matches are awesome.