The Quarantine Stream: ‘Battlebots’ is a Joyous Ringside Seat at the Exciting World of Combat Robotics

(Welcome to The Quarantine Stream, a new series where the /Film team shares what they’ve been watching while social distancing during the COVID-19 pandemic.)

The SeriesBattlebots and Battlebots: Bounty Hunters

Where You Can Stream It: Discovery+

The Pitch: Ladies and gentlemen…it’s robot fighting time! Folks from around the world gather for one purpose and one purpose only: to see if they can best opponents in the ring using 250-pound robots they built specifically to fight other robots. Some robots smash. Some lift. Some flip. Some are slick and gorgeous to look at. Some look like they were cobbled together in a garage. Some are made by people whose entire lives are based about robotics. Others are the work of people who have made this niche sport their very peculiar hobby. But one thing unites everyone: they all love building robots…and using those robots to break other robots.

Why It’s Essential Viewing: No one gets into “combat robotics” hoping to get rich or famous. Despite the existence of this slickly-produced series (which has run off and on for over two decades across several networks), this is essentially an underground sport fueled by passion. This means Battlebots is somehow one of the purest shows on television. The people building and breaking these robots are on this show – and investing their blood, sweat, tears, and money – because they love doing this. There’s literally no other reason to build a combat robot. What this means is quietly profound: this is a televised competition with no ulterior movies and no cynicism. It’s just people who really love robots, using their robot to compete against people who also really love robots.

Don’t get me wrong: Battlebots still presents this fringe sport with all the theatrics you’d expect from a traditional competition series. There are ringside commentators, experts called in for analysis, a seasoned interviewer who speaks to the teams as they toil away to prepare for their next bout, and judges to determine a winner if both ‘bots are still working when the timer runs out. There are rules, damn it. The people who make this show, and the people who make the robots, take this all very seriously.

But that seriousness is in support of something that is undeniably strange – if you tell someone you love watching robots fight in a gladiatorial contest, you may receive a peculiar look. So imagine what the actual builders, who often invest tens of thousands of dollars into their robots, must feel. But also imagine what it must feel like to actually be at a competition surrounded by hundreds of people who share your incredibly specific passion. Imagine the joy of that feeling. It’s that joy that quietly hums beneath Battlebots, giving the entire experience a quiet heart beneath the robot carnage.

I often think about Witch Doctor, a staggeringly impressive competitor whose low-key builders offset their shy intelligence by wearing outrageous costumes ringside. I dwell too often on Tombstone, whose builder loves playing a “bad guy” on television but who has developed a reputation for being a thoughtful competitor and cheerleader for the sport off-camera. This season, I’m obsessed with Mad Catter, a ‘bot built by a community college professor who sees this show as a chance to live out his greatest professional wrestling fantasies.

Yes, I love watching the robots smash each other. It gets the blood pumping on a visceral level and analyzing how the builders approach a fight is as thrilling as any other sport. But over the years, as I’ve started learning the builders’ names and knowing their stories and where they come from, I’ve realized that I love the stories between fights just as much. Seeing a mediocre robot turn into a great one over the years says more about the people creating it than than the robot itself. Watching legendary teams forced to go back to the drawing board because the game they redefined has caught up with them is genuinely tragic. I have shed many tears watching Battlebots, because damn it, the most joyous victories do not come with gobs of fame or truly life-changing cash – it’s just someone doing something they love for an audience of people who love watching them.

I generally find Battlebots to be as relaxing, as affirming, as The Great British Baking Show. I like being invited into this unique world full of passionate people engaging in an oddball sport that requires so much intelligence and grit. There is no external bullshit in the world of combat robots. This is a show about people doing what the love, because they love it. And that thing happens to be building robots who fight each other. How great it that?

Note: The bulk of this article was written before the most recent episode of the series, where the Hydra team displayed unsportsmanlike conduct that has already created a major rule change for upcoming seasons. And honestly, the cruel and calculating onscreen attitude of that team has already proven a consistent sour note in a show that I otherwise find joyous. In a show where several competitors cheekily play bad guys, Team Hydra has taken it upon themselves to behave like actual assholes, so much so that I here I am, adding a last-minute paragraph about how crappy they are and how I have to include an asterisk next to all of praise above. Battlebots producers, take note.

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