The winding road to BattleBots

It had been ages since I watched them. Small, hefty robots dashing across the polycarbonate cage, either whirring menacingly or tensed and ready to grab, flip, or bash. When BattleBots first debuted I was barely a young adult, still enamored by the rugged fledgling sport of MMA, particularly the UFC and Pride FC spectacles of that bygone era. Watching those death machines tear into each other was unquestionably exciting and I likely watched every episode before its cancellation, yet didn’t think much of it afterwards with other outlets available.

These days my enthusiasm around MMA has been tepid, and unbeknownst to me the mechanical competition returned in 2015. I loaded up a random match and 3 hours later had satisfied that itch that I should probably see a therapist about. Was Kenny Florian right all along? Is this where the real action is?

I’m not sure if this is the initial shine that only a (sorta) new toy can produce, but the technicians seem to have greatly evolved from the earlier days. It isn’t unusual for a bot to get launched a dozen feet into the air or across the entire cage, to see a massive explosion, or watch one get shredded in half. Bots seem to move faster and with more agility. Competitors are also allowed to make tweaks to configurations ahead of each fight, which keeps opponents on their toes.

This was emphatically demonstrated in the most recent season, World Championship VII, that just concluded.

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The wild chaos that only 56 bots can create

I have yet to watch everything since the 2015 reboot. I watched all of season 7 (2016) and then skipped to the most recent season since it was ongoing. It was a perfect transition, minus the spoilers for the seasons I plan to go back and watch. 

For those less familiar with the competition, BattleBots could be broken down into 3 categories: design (meta); tactics (config); and performance (driving/attacking). You have the initial bot creation, which will attempt to optimize itself within the current meta. Then as the season and matches are defined, teams will use the ability to customize features with the hopes of maximizing their chances against a scheduled opponent. Lastly, you have the execution within the match. 

I’ll try to minimize spoilers here, but be warned they will start to crop up, especially when linking to bots or videos.

The meta and the driving are the most interesting parts to me. Bots are broken down into certain categories, such as “vertical spinners” or “flippers”. There’s definitely an archetype that has taken hold, while also allowing for ingenuity in the qualifying rounds. That creativity is really spectacular to watch. Even if it often fails, when success occurs you can’t help but be impressed with the mindset that led to a creation. 

There were two particular robots that encapsulated this in 2023: Huge and RIPeroni. Dramatically different bots with ingenuity that I still don’t fully grasp. 

Huge is unlike any other bot out there, and when I first saw it I’m sure I had a perpetual stink eye/quizzical expression on my face. It floundered in its earlier years, but through iterative development it became a masterpiece…albeit one that never shed its ugly duckling feathers. 

RIPeroni was a physics marvel, and evidence of why the meta is only the starting point and not the Endgame (excuse the pun, for those in the know). There’s a lot of understandably clunky interactions when these massive bots get into the cage. RIPeroni masterfully mitigated a lot of these forces to evolve design in ways that I am sure will have a big impact on future bot designs. 

Which brings us to the actual contests between 56 bots. While some matches will encounter technical glitches or exhaust themselves to a slow death, it is impressive to see how many are competitive, interesting, and/or destructive. The season, where each bot competes 4 times, does a good job of establishing those worthy to enter a 32-bot elimination bracket. Once you get into single elimination, the tragedy is that a fluke issue can arise and end the momentum of a bot on a tear. The two brackets I’ve watched so far felt like the best bots largely won due to their own performance, including the champions. 

And speaking of tear, here’s a demonstration of just how ridiculous these things can play out, courtesy of Hypershock

But will this really scratch that itch?

The cost of building and maintaining these robots is, quite depressingly, probably more than the cost of employing a human to enter a cage and compete (not including the actual costs fighters will incur). For that reason and others, I don’t see this rising to the level of MMA in the near future. But as a fan who considers the true costs of any sport, the lack of CTE concerns or quality of life degradation allows me to get caught up in all of the excitement without a hard dose of reality interfering.

Especially when a 250lbs bot is launched 16’ into the ceiling. 

Of course there are downsides. Much like other fringe competitions, such as the surprisingly engrossing Physical 100, it is treated more as a reality show than sport and therefore has a lot of filler and annoying commentary and editing. The arena still looks low budget though it seems solidly designed where it counts (by, you know, making sure people aren’t impaled by flying parts). Bots can get stuck on the floor or along the edges in ways that can detract from the match. Yet despite all of that, matches are often competitive and interesting, if not outright thrilling. 

There’s also the general sportsmanship that seems more prevalent. Many teams seem interested in testing their bot, just as much as winning the competition. This was especially noticeable in SMEEEEEEEEE vs P1, which I highly recommend watching before continuing.

SME is a unique bot that, while I question how well it can compete overall, I absolutely love the ingenuity in its design. That said, P1’s mobility and strategy was executed not only to perfection but in glorious fashion. Right from the first lift you can see it in action, and the efficiency with which it worked is palpable on its controller’s face. It could have stopped after the very first slam into the grinder, but P1 elected to keep the action going. From this point on, it’s as good as any scripted pro wrestling match.

BattleBots will never produce the storylines and euphoria that, say, the potential close of the Adesanya-Pereira rivalry at UFC 287 did. But it does create a forum for strategy, tactics, and on the fly adjustments without the health perils. It might be worth another look for you as well.

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About the author
Casey Cannon
Casey Cannon

Not truly an author. An ol' fogey who watched MMA from the very first UFC, where a fighter from my hometown walked into the cage wearing the shirt of my favorite pizzeria. Wistful of the days when fighters were allowed personalities.

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