Can armoured robot combat become the sports league of the future?
By Clive Ramroop, Contributor
In summer 2015, the challenge was issued: “You have a giant robot; we have a giant robot. You know what needs to happen.” The setting: A steel mill in Japan. The showdown: The world’s first giant robot battle. The combatants: MegaBots, Inc. of the US versus Suidobashi Heavy Industry of Japan.
The event streamed via Twitch on October 17 and was later shown on other online channels, featuring not one, but two battles. While the fights themselves garnered mixed reactions, MegaBots’ Gui Cavalcanti said in a post-match interview, “I think it’s time to make this a sports league.”
Robot combat competitions go back farther than one might think. The Denver Mad Scientists Society held the oldest known such contest with its “Critter Crunch” tabletop event at Colorado’s 1987 MileHiCon. Four years later, Atlanta’s Dragon*Con launched its own “Robot Battles” competition. But its popularity exploded in the late ’90s and early ’00s with televised robot battle shows like BattleBots and Robot Wars, and a 1999 BattleBots pay-per-view broadcast. While these events were held in arenas with set rules and weight classes, the contestants’ robots were often the size of a housepet—not the towering mecha reminiscent of the old MechWarrior franchise.
Suidobashi Heavy Industry’s take on the trend appeared on the web in 2012, unveiling its 13-foot-tall, anime-inspired Kuratas robot and demonstrating it at Japan’s annual Wonder Festival that year. In 2014, Gui Cavalcanti and Matt Oehrlein co-founded MegaBots with the aim of establishing a worldwide piloted robot combat league. The company’s Kickstarter campaign to launch an international tournament had unfortunately failed to reach its goal. Its next best option: A one-on-one challenge to another country famous for its strong robotics expertise. MegaBots’ champions in this duel would be two models of its 15-foot-tall Mark II: the Iron Glory, and the heavy-duty Eagle Prime (or ‘Mark III’).
Though the Giant Robot Duel didn’t have a live audience on site, the event was presented like a boxing or UFC show, complete with a commentating booth, pre and post-match interviews, and a “tale of the tape” (or “tale of the tech”) on the robots’ respective dimensions and weaponry. The first fight was barely a 30-second appetizer; after Iron Glory’s cannon seemed to malfunction, Kuratas easily dropped it with one punch. The fight against Eagle Prime went longer, though briefly paused when the two robots were tangled in a standstill. There were some odd, logic-defying moments—Karutas deployed a small drone, presumably as a distraction tactic; Eagle Prime yanked a lighting fixture from the floor, then spun its own arm like a rotary-blade shield against Kuratas’ automatic paintball cannon. The battle ended when Eagle Prime cut through Kuratas’ armour with a chainsaw arm.
Reception of the duel was uneven. Some observers claimed the event was scripted—a few moments in the commentary felt less than authentic—and the slow pace disappointed viewers expecting an all-out brawl after two years of built-up anticipation. On the other hand, The Next Web called the event “a fun way to show off robotics and STEM for audiences of all ages.” As the first real-world meeting between giant robots in combat sport or exhibition, it’s unfair to expect anything like Gundam, Macross, or Pacific Rim right away, but it does have the potential to catch on as an innovative new spectator attraction, even as simulated-combat exhibitions in the early going. Improvements can come over time in future presentations, should any other robotics enthusiasts be interested in joining the fray.
However, serious safety measures need to be implemented if it does grow into a fully-fledged fight league. Human casualties make the worst PR of all.