Granted, I have not had any of the high-profile gigs or even any of the training that your big-name professional announcers have. But how many famous announcers, or even semi-famous announcers, can say that they have had the honor of announcing robotic combat events? A small handful? Okay, how many semi-famous announcers can say that they've announced live robotic combat events? None? Please say none. I want to feel important here.
Well, one thing that I have over those semi-famous announcers is that I got the job without having to go through the stress of auditioning or waiting for callbacks or any of the unfun things that usually come with voice work. Success through lack of initiative -- that's my goal.
A couple of months before the second ComBots Cup, I received an e-mail from David Calkins, founder of the event. In the e-mail, he noted the dates of the event and asked if I would like to attend and "maybe announce?". I was surprised, naturally, but I replied that I would be honored to do so.
It was the classic show business story of a new talent being "discovered" because the producer happened to come across a web site the unknown person had made exhaustively chronicling a new sport. David Calkins (or as I now call him, "Sir") had found my pages detailing all of the things that happened at the first ComBots Cup. Impressed that I appeared to have some idea as to what was going on, he decided to take a chance on inviting me up to announce the second Cup, based solely on my ability to type thousands of words about mechanized combat and complain about featherweight wedges.
This was quite a gamble on his part -- he was inviting me up to be the announcer without knowing anything about what I looked like, what I sounded like, or whether or not I had Tourette's syndrome. And when for my identification badge, he received a picture of a young-looking nerdy guy, he probably began to worry.
But I was worried, too -- on more than one occasion, I've been... well, less than complimentary about some of the announcing that I've witnessed at robotic combat events. And one of the rules that I try to live by is, "If you can't say something nice, then you'd better be darn sure that if you ever have to do the thing that you're criticizing, you do it so people can't make the same criticism about you." It's easy for me to be critical of the announcing when I'm sitting in the stands, saying nothing more interesting than "Yay flipping bot!", but now I was going to have to put my money where my keyboard was.
The thing that I've said, over and over again, is that the audience needs to understand what's going on behind the Lexan. Not just, "Look at these two crazy wheeled things break each other!", but actually understand what the robots are and what they're trying to do. It's easy to draw a crowd of interested spectators -- they've probably never seen anything quite like it live -- but to keep them interested, the announcer needs to indicate why what they're watching is worth watching continuously.
Therefore, I was determined to have not only interesting things to say about each of the robots, but also about robotic combat itself. I also had to keep in mind that this second ComBots Cup would be held at the Maker Faire, a large collection of exhibits about making various things. Which meant that many of the spectators may never have seen live robotic combat before, so I would need to explain the basics of what was going on. This turned out to be a good thing for me.
So before the event began, I spent some time writing on index cards. Lots of index cards about lots of different things. First, I made a card for each robot scheduled to attend the event. Then I worked on my time-filler cards -- cards containing information about every facet of robotic combat that I could think of. Tournament rules, facts about the arena, weapon types, illegal weapon types... and because this was a fair devoted to making things, I decided to make a card describing what goes into making a robot, even though I personally had no idea how all of those various parts come together.
My goal was to not only have relevant things to say about the competitors, but about the sport in general -- I knew that there would be stretches of time when the robots were being repaired that I would need to talk while nothing happened in the arena, and I'm not witty enough to be able to make entertaining things up out of whole cloth.
So after staying up too late to finish my cards on a Thursday night, I left on Friday morning to travel up to San Mateo, California (near San Francisco) for the event. The event wasn't going to begin until Saturday, but I knew that in order to have interesting things to say about the robots, I was going to have to go into the pits and find out what these robots could do. I had an index card for each robot, but all that was on each card were the basics like the team name, the RFL ranking, and maybe a sentence or two such as "Angry Asp took second at the 2005 Nationals." So when I arrived on Friday afternoon, after meeting David Calkins for the first time, I wandered through the pits, introducing myself to the builders and gathering interesting facts about each robot, such as what materials it was made of, how powerful the weapon was, and so on. This was very important to me -- too many times, I've heard an announcer not know which robots were in the arena, or audience members guess completely wrong as to what the robots could do. I was going to do my best to not let that happen under my watch.
Competitor attendance at the second ComBots Cup was lower than anticipated (most likely because RoboGames was only one month away), so there were only 22 robots spread over three weight classes that I needed to be familiar with. On the one hand, the small number meant that I would be able to ease myself into announcing, not having to keep track of dozens of different robots. On the other hand, the small number meant that there wouldn't be as many fights, so I was going to have to fill a lot of dead air.
Even with only 22 robots in attendance, I still had to stall a couple of times as I watched a fairly generic-looking rammer being brought into the arena and I couldn't remember which one it was. So if you're a builder, I beg of you: don't bother worrying about such trivialities as whether or not the drive train is functioning properly. Always make sure your robot has its name or some distinguishing characteristic painted on it. That's the most important construction step of them all.
So anyway, Saturday afternoon came around, and it was time for me to stop pacing nervously through the pits and actually get on the microphone and announce. And boy, was I glad I had my time-filler cards. I think I went through a solid three-quarters of my robotic combat facts just in my introduction, to get the audience acclimated to the sport. And that's including the semi-lengthy pauses I kept taking for the purposes of both deciding what to talk about next and to drag things out as long as I reasonably could.
Now that I think about it, of course, while it was nerve-wracking for me, it was also exactly what I should have been doing -- informing the audience of what was going to happen, so they knew exactly what was taking place once it actually took place. I was doing it at the expense of possibly running out of things to say later in the day, but still, I was accomplishing my goal.
Finally, some robots entered the arena and the fights got underway. The fights themselves are now a blur to me. All I remember is that once I saw two robots go into the arena, I would pull the appropriate index cards and start reading facts off of them at random until the referee gave me the sign that it was time to fight. Then I would try to think of relevant things to say for play-by-play as the robots got to destroying one another.
As a spectator, I've always preferred fights where there's an active weapon involved. But as an announcer, I really prefer fights where there's an active weapon involved. So long as there's at least one active weapon of some type in the arena, you can talk about the strategies each robot may be considering, even if the robots are playing things conservatively and not hitting one another. But when there are two wedges or rammers in the arena -- even if they're constantly wedging or ramming one another -- you run out of things to say very quickly. There are only so many ways to talk about how crucial driving is to the sport. And of course, those are the fights that last all three minutes. (At least if the active weapons have been broken earlier in the fight, you can talk about what happened for the weapons to break.)
Another challenge in announcing is to think of things to say once the fight has ended. Once you've recapped what took place during the fight (which, again, doesn't take long with two wedges) and reminded the audience that the judges are splitting six points for damage and five points for aggression, it's a matter of waiting for the official score to come in. As much as I want to talk about how I would have scored the fight, I don't want to potentially influence the judges or confuse the audience if the scores don't reflect what I saw in the fight.
But announcing the scores is one of the most fun parts of the job. Especially if the judges' decision is for an exciting fight in which both robots showed excellent control. The best part is that the score goes from the judges' table directly to the announcer -- the builders aren't told the result. So not only am I informing the audience of the winner, I'm also informing the builders, who obviously have a vested interest in the result of the fight. And usually, I'd be given the score while the builders were in the arena, shutting down their machines, so you could see their reaction. "The judges have turned in a split decision -- 17 to 16 -- for the winner..."
By this point, both teams have stopped whatever they were doing in the arena so they can hear the result. And when the fight is so close that the result could go either way, I always pause for about a second before announcing the winning robot. One second doesn't sound like much, but when you're waiting to find out whether you've won or lost, it feels like an eternity. I'm sadistic that way.
"...SJ!" Hopefully, the audience is applauding, but I'm too busy watching the winning and losing builders' reactions of utter relief and gracious resignation, respectively, to notice. Getting a reaction from the audience is one thing, but it's the reactions of the builders that make the results interesting.
Speaking of influencing the audience, at the two events that I've announced, the results of the grudge matches were decided by audience vote. And one thing that I know is that when you're asking the audience to vote for a winner by making noise, the last competitor to be announced nearly always gets the loudest response. So one of the other things that I found to be fun about announcing is that as soon as the fight ended, I could decide who I thought the winner was and then list the robots in an order that allowed for the greatest possibility of my choice to win. Hey, the grudge matches were five minutes of nothing but wedge driving (since, understandably, who wants to take unnecessary damage in a grudge match?) with nothing to talk about -- let me have my fun.
Since there were so few robots at this ComBots Cup, the event took several breaks throughout the weekend. Fortunately for me, I didn't have to stick around and fill an hour's worth of time -- I could just tell the audience to be back at 4:30, then go rest my voice. This also gave the spectators a chance to go see the other exhibits at Maker Faire -- from what I understand, pretty much every time the fighting robots got underway, attendance at the other exhibits dropped significantly. It was certainly packed around the arena.
When the break was done, I'd get back on the microphone and spend anywhere between five and ten minutes once again going over the basics of robotic combat. In my mind, I was thinking that each audience was new, so it was necessary to get everybody familiar with the sport. Now that I look back, I'm sure the audience was practically the same every time, so I was being incredibly redundant. But hey, the more times I pound into their heads how fights are judged, the better they'll understand things, right?
It was also that Saturday that I learned that I should never assume which robot was the winner of a fight unless I was explicitly told so. There was no light tree or similar computer system installed in the arena for the tournament -- the way I knew how much time was left in the match was by the referee and I activating stopwatches simultaneously after I announced "Three, two, one, fight!" There was also no tap-out button -- tap-outs were indicated by the driver literally tapping (or, more accurately, pounding) on the Lexan door in front of them. Usually, it made enough noise and lasted long enough that I, on a perpendicular side of the arena, would look up from the fight, identify which driver was pounding, and correctly declare the winner of the fight. But pounding on the Lexan is also sometimes performed as an act of celebration after a big hit, so I always had that element of doubt as to whether a driver was celebrating or surrendering -- the condition of each robot in the arena wasn't always a clear indicator.
And then there was the fight with the result that I didn't expect -- Brutality versus Last Rites. Two heavyweight robots with extremely dangerous horizontal spinning bars. As I said before, the fight itself is a blur now -- things were progressing as one might expect from a fight between two spinners. Then the spinning bars collided with one another and after the sparks cleared, a large chunk of Brutality's spinning bar was lying on the floor. As I was screaming into the microphone that Brutality was injured, I heard pounding on the Lexan. Assuming that the hit was so large that Brutality's driver had tapped out (after all, the robot's weapon was severely damaged and Last Rites had the more intimidating weapon to begin with), I declared Last Rites the winner by knockout. The audience cheered and I got ready to do a little post-mortem and then send the audience on their way, as it was the last fight of the day.
While I was doing that, someone came over to inform me that the fight had actually gone to a judges' decision, and that Brutality was the winner (it had shown more aggression before that monster collision). So I had to inform the audience that I was wrong -- both robots must have been incapacitated simultaneously and Brutality was in fact the winner. I had broken my own rule of making sure that the audience was always correctly informed of what was going on. It was especially bad because nothing confuses an audience more than changing the winner after a fight ends. I suppose it can be chalked up as a rookie mistake, but I'm still upset that I did it.
Even worse, after the audience left, I found out that I still was wrong about what had happened. It wasn't that both robots had been knocked out at the same time, as I had assumed -- when Brutality's bar had been snapped, the broken piece flew into the Lexan, cracking it and breaking a corner off so that there was an arena breach!
Fortunately, nobody was hurt. The Lexan had performed its job as designed -- it absorbed the entire impact of the large hunk of metal, so the chunk of Brutality's bar ricocheted safely back onto the arena floor. It absorbed the energy so well, in fact, that the broken piece of Lexan didn't even go flying -- it just plopped down onto the table where the officials sat. But of course, an arena breach instantly means that the fight is over and it goes to a judges' decision. I didn't even see the broken panel of Lexan until the audience was leaving. Luckily, it happened during the last fight of the day, as it took a couple of hours to replace the broken piece.
Having learned valuable announcing lessons on Saturday, I came back Sunday and handled myself less awkwardly -- since it was the second day, we were all in more of a groove, so everything progressed more smoothly. By the end of the day, I was relatively comfortable in my role as announcer, just in time for the tournament to end. The builders seemed to like the job I did, and so did David Calkins, who asked if I could come back the next month and announce RoboGames.