The Untold Truth Of BattleBots

It only makes sense that throwing robotic pugilists into a ring and letting them slug it out would make for good television. "Battlebots," the show that pits teams of roboticists against each other to see who can build the most lethal fighting robot and knock out the competition, has been on the air in various forms for over two decades of homemade, robotic mayhem.

Greg Munson — one of the early pioneers of robot combat — summed up the popularity of the sport in a simple, accurate way during an online question and answer session with fans hosted by The Washington Post in 2000. "The appeal of the sport is universal — People like to see things get destroyed," he said.

Over the years, various iterations of "BattleBots" have made appearances on television around the world, but the somewhat underground robot fighting scene predated the first version of the show by about a decade.

The history of BattleBots started before it appeared on television

While some pop culture phenomenons start in unexpected places, the pre-"BattleBots" robot combat scene started where a lot of people probably expected: at a science fiction convention in the final days of the 1980s (via Servo Magazine). The competition was called the Critter Crunch, and it was the first of its kind, taking place in Denver, Colorado, at The MileHiCon science fiction convention in 1989.

The idea for the competition came from mechanical engineers who combined aspects of other robot competitions, like one hosted by MIT that had builders vying to see who could build a robot that would pick up the most ping-pong balls. These robots were smaller than those that would be seen on television a decade later, and the fights took place on a folding table with sci-fi convention attendees in close proximity. This limited the weaponry that could be (safely) used, but it didn't stop some people from sneaking in some of the more dangerous weapons, like flamethrowers and pneumatic rams.

The Critter Crunch was a success and hugely popular with fans, so much so that word about it spread across the country, and other conventions started hosting their own robot events.

One man recognized the business potential of robot combat

In 1992, Marc Thorpe was an animatronic designer who had also done special effects work on some of the original "Star Wars" films. He had an idea for an event much like the one several years earlier at The MileHiCon, but Thorpe realized the potential of the idea as a business. He came up with the name "Robot Wars" and eventually got the event up and running in 1994, according to Servo Magazine.

The event made its debut in San Francisco, with Thorpe realizing the marketing potential of fighting robots, offering attendees the chance to buy posters, T-shirts, and more with the Robot Wars brand. The inaugural Robot Wars event featured some notable competitors, including Caleb Cheung, who went on to invent a less lethal — but arguably creepier — type of robot that became a hit toy in the later 1990s: Furbies. Another competitor was the inventor of "The Sims" video games, Will Wright. Thorpe continued hosting Robot Wars events until 1997, but the biggest mainstream break for the world of robot combat happened on television.

Robot Wars debuts on British television

Robot Wars became an international phenomenon when the idea made its way from the United States and across the Atlantic Ocean to the United Kingdom. The series — also called "Robot Wars" — premiered in 1998 on BBC Two. What may have seemed like an odd idea for British TV turned out to be a hit. 

In an interview with Outline, the program's presenter, Craig Charles, mentioned having concerns about the show before its premiere. "Well, the first day, I was in the dressing room and looking in the mirror and looking down at the arena. And they were pulling the robots into the arena on an invisible twine because nothing was working," he said. "And I was thinking: 'Oh my God, what have I done with my career?' And you know, within the blink of an eye, it was the most-watched show on BBC Two."

According to Servo Magazine, though the British show had the same name, it differed from the original San Francisco events in that the competition was comprised of three different rounds, the final one most clearly resembling the head-to-head combat that became the trademark of the American version of the series: "BattleBots."

The Original BattleBots Debuts

In the United States, some of the original robot designers put on a show at the University of Long Beach. According to SB Nation, it wasn't an overwhelming success by any stretch, but the event did catch the eye of television producer Lenny Stucker. Stucker was an Emmy award-winner who had produced boxing matches for HBO, and he brought that know-how to the table and realized the idea in the realm of television as "BattleBots." The series aired on Comedy Central and featured several aspects borrowed from the world of boxing: three-minute rounds, red and blue corners, and a panel of judges, to name a few.

According to Greg Munson in his fan question and answer with The Washington Post in 2000, the show was a hit. "We're doing very good, better than the network originally anticipated. We were the highest premiere in Comedy Central history," he said. The show became a sensation and launched lines of merchandise and toys while making stars out of some robots like Mauler and BioHazard. However, the show was canceled in 2002 after Comedy Central was acquired by MTV, and the company decided to focus the channel's programming strictly on comedy.

BattleBots returns more than a decade later

According to SB Nation, there were many attempts to bring "BattleBots" back to television over the years, but the popularity of robot combat as a sport declined without the attention brought by the TV series. In 2015, the series returned for two seasons on ABC, according to The Daily Brief. That wouldn't be the end of the franchise, and fortunately for fans, they wouldn't have to wait very long to see the sight of metal shrapnel flying around inside a plexiglass robot fighting ring.

The latest iteration of "BattleBots" premiered on Discovery Channel in 2018. This iteration saw the return of Tombstone, the champion from the 2016 season that aired on ABC. The robot was a fan favorite, illustrating that the star-making power of the original "BattleBots" series is still around. This version of the show is from the creators who had a hand in the original series for Comedy Central.