I feel like you don’t trust me: Battlebots and manufactured drama


Yay! Battlebots came back, after over a decade, and I couldn’t be happier to be watching just about the only televised sport that I ever set aside time every week to catch. Don’t get me wrong, I do love catching the odd rally or road race on TV, but that’s more of an opportunistic thing–I rarely schedule time for them, or make sure the DVR is set.

ABC did a decent job of bringing me the Battlebots that I remember and love, with familiar drivers and rookies and even a few familiar bots (which can’t be easy after 13 years of mechanical evolution in a sport designed for engineers).  The comedy was dialed down and the show generally took itself seriously, which was also an improvement over the previous incarnation.

Except when it took itself too seriously.

Reality TV has left an indelible stamp on shows like this, in this apparently unquenchable need to manufacture drama.  There’s go to be a story, and rather than letting it evolve naturally (which would appear to be the whole point of documenting a real competition) the producers seem bound and determined to tell me what it is and force it down my throat. I noticed it throughout the bracket here and there, little hints of “dun dun DUNNNN” thrown in that were frankly ridiculous, and an inordinate number of pregnant pauses before announcing the judges’ decisions, but it didn’t really bother me until the final bout.

Let me break down why.

Going into the semifinals, there were four robots left, of course.  And naturally, I’ve watched them all and listened to the commentary on them and made my own predictions–and based on them, the final bout looks like it’s actually going to be boring as hell.  On one side of the semis, we’ve got Tombstone and Bronco.  Tombstone_ABC2015Bronco_team-1140x760

Tombstone is a spinner with a 90-pound blade that has literally torn to pieces just about every bot it’s faced so far.  Bronco has an insanely powerful flipping arm that has also literally flung most of its opponents out of bounds, or up against the walls, or just several feet in the air, and a bot can only take so many violent falls before it breaks.  These are the two strongest bots in the entire field.  On the other side of the semifinals, Ghost Raptor is facing Bite Force.  Ghost Raptor was a spinner, but it broke its main weapon in its very first bout, and has been making it by with a lot of creative welding, last-minute evolution and luck ever since.  It’s taken a beating every time and is looking pretty rickety at this point.  Bite Force is a decently well-designed but low-key bot with a clamping arm.  It’s a slow, methodical thing, with lots of vulnerable-looking pieces exposed.


Effectively, the way this has shaped up is that the final bout is going to be an anticlimax.  It doesn’t matter if Bronco or Tombstone wins, because both of them hopelessly outmatch Bite Force and Ghost Raptor.  Not to say that either of those is a slouch, but they both appear to have been built without any thought given to facing a bot that can throw them six feet into the air, or one that can explode bowling balls with its main weapon.  It’s pretty obvious how this is going to end.

But hey, I enjoy watching and I wanna see what happens, so I don’t tune out just yet.  Tombstone defeats Bronco, taking a few flights along the way, and Bite Force makes short work of Ghost Raptor, and we’re looking down the barrel of the most destructive bot in the entire bracket facing down a slowish machine with exposed treads.  Oh, dear.

But then, they go to the pits to interview both drivers.  Tombstone’s driver is cocky, as he’s been throughout the season, with good reason.  Bite Force’s driver just shrugs calmly (such an engineer, I love hanging out with guys like this) and says they’ve fought Tombstone before, and takes out a spare front wedge that’s designed to deflect and absorb the impacts from that massive blade.

Wait, whaaaaaat?  At no point in the competition have they hinted that any of the drivers are familiar with Tombstone.  It has been played up that this monster-bot was sprung on everyone at the beginning of the tournament, and so many of the fighters (poor plastic-bodied Radioactive, and complicated Counter Revolution) just had no concept of what they were facing.  They made it clear that some of the drivers were experienced, but there was no mention of who knew whom.  And as it turns out, Bite Force’s designer and driver has actually beaten Tombstone in the past, with another bot, so he knows full well what he’s getting into.

This changes things completely.  Now, listen, Battlebots producers–if I had known that from the start, I would’ve been a lot more interested in the entire process!  I didn’t need a dramatic underdog story to keep me riveted, and the “underdog makes good” story evaporated pretty quickly as Bite Force absolutely dominated the match with Tombstone.  (And really, the #3 seed versus the #1 seed in a bracket of 24 is a much closer fight than you’d think.)

And that’s the thing.  Battlebots decided what the story was going to be for me, instead of letting me know the story as it unfolded, and in the end that was really, really annoying.  Why did Bite Force have to be an underdog?  A Cinderella story is great, but only if it’s real. These guys knew what they were doing all along.  Feh!

This wasn’t the only example, either.  A disagreement between two teams about a late hit was blown out of proportion into a Major Feud.  A competitor known for skirting the rules in an attempt to cheat was invited to participate and–what do you know?–he skirted the rules in an attempt to cheat.  The announcers were a little bit too prone to histrionics every time they saw sparks during a battle (you guys, that’s what happens when metal hits metal. It’s normal).  There were attempts to produce rivalries when really, the vast majority of the competitors were good-natured and enjoying the challenge, but not taking it seriously. If you’re looking for catty, abrasive personalities and people who are going to pick fights, perhaps a moderately close-knit group of professional (and amateur) engineers having some fun in their spare time isn’t the place to look for it, is all I’m saying.

Anyway, I enjoyed the short season and hope Battlebots returns.  Next season maybe they’ll be more inclined to treat it like a proper sport and give me all of the information up front, is all.



(P.S.:  For the record, I was rooting for Witch Doctor and Stinger.  Witch Doctor totally would’ve taken Tombstone out if not for rotten luck and the lack of a self-righting mechanism!)