It was the first Robot Wars -- the birth of robotic combat. On November 12 and 13, 2005, Fort Mason once again saw radio-controlled machines and their builders gather in front of bleachers full of spectators to fight one another. Only this time, the fights were a whole lot more violent.
It was time again for the Robot Fighting League's annual Nationals championship. The best of the best, fighting it out to determine which was the best of the best of the best. Robots from all of the weight classes, from 150 grams to 340 pounds. But there could only be one champion. Per weight class.
The idea behind the Nationals is to have one event each year where in order to even enter, a robot has to have made it to the finals in a prior event. This way, everyone would be assured of quality bouts, since each competing robot had taken first or second place earlier in the year. Or third, if one of the robots that took first or second place already qualified at a different event. Or fourth, if two of the robots qualified at a different event. Okay, so it's not a perfect system.
The point is, by the end of Sunday, certain teams would be declared national champions. And given the quality of the competitors, it wouldn't be easy to earn that title.
The 2005 Nationals were being presented by ComBots. But because a Nationals championship isn't really enough to fill the weekend (a lot of qualifying teams were located on the opposite side of the country without the funds to ship everything to San Francisco -- again, it's not a perfect system), ComBots was also holding an open tournament for middleweights, heavyweights, and super heavyweights. This would give the audience more fights to see, which would make for a more entertaining event.
But let's face it -- it's no secret that since the hundreds of television shows that simultaneously covered the sport have disappeared, robotic combat has not been a profitable venture for anybody. It's gradually losing popularity, and something needs to be done to get folks more interested in it.
Enter the ComBots Cup. While, technically, all three of the weight classes in the open tournament were competing in the ComBots Cup, all of the attention was on the heavyweight class. For, you see, the winner of the open heavyweight tournament would receive a prize of $10,000 in cash! These heavyweights weren't just competing for bragging rights -- they were fighting to win some serious money.
Due to the greater expense of maintaining larger robots coupled with the low number of arenas capable of safely containing them, heavyweights have been in decline over the past couple of years. But for this tournament, they were out in full force. Fifteen heavyweights showed up for their chance at the $10,000 (I know that doesn't sound like many compared to the BattleBots days, but it's a lot more heavyweights than an event has seen recently), including some veterans that haven't been competing as much since the TV shows went away. And of course, the teams that have been honing their robotic skills over these leaner years arrived, too. There may have been an official Nationals tournament going on, but this was the big event.
The high-stakes tournament brought out the builders, but did it attract the spectators? That will remain up for debate, not because the stands weren't packed (it was standing room only on both days), but because Dave Calkins always does a spectacular job creating buzz about his ComBots events. I suspect he would have filled the seats even if the event consisted of three small robots competing for a pack of chewing gum.
I traveled the deceptively long distance from Los Angeles to San Francisco early Saturday morning. After arriving at Fort Mason, I took the obligatory tourist photo of the Golden Gate Bridge and made my way to the pavilion in which the event was being held. Once they let people past the barrier to the arena, I planted myself in the second row of the bleachers and didn't move for the rest of the day. I was not going to miss a moment of robotic fighting action.
Being in the stands all weekend, I had the chance to observe how normal people who don't obsessively follow the sport viewed things. For one thing, I noticed that there were a lot of kids there. Things at this event were geared much more toward the entire family than, say, things at your average football game. I also heard a lot of misinformation being passed around as the spectators tried to figure out what was going on. Both kids and adults getting basic facts (basic to you and me) about the robots and the rules completely wrong. It's strange to be at a heavily attended event and hear incorrect things about what you're watching being passed along as truth. It would be like attending a baseball game and overhearing the conversation, "Hey, what's the shortstop?" "Well, if a player wants to run past second base but doesn't think he can make it to third, he can stop at the shortstop, between the two bases." "Oh, I see."
I cannot stress this enough -- as much as those of us who already know get bored of hearing these things over and over, the audience needs to be informed of the basics of what's going on. I overheard audience members say that you received points for performing certain aggressive actions -- for example, slamming your opponent into the wall earned you two points. I even overheard someone say that Megabyte could shoot flames out of its mast. If we want to keep people interested in the sport, then they have to understand what's really happening.
I hate to say this in every event summary that I write, but I get worried when before an event, I do more homework than the announcers. By the time we neared the end of Sunday and there was a three-way grudge match, I could identify all three of the robots, whereas the announcers could name only two. The ability to consistently say, "This robot is named blank, and this is what it does" is vital to get spectators past the initial "this is something different" superficial attraction of robotic combat and really get them hooked on the sport.
Anyway. On with the event summary. ComBots purchased Steel Conflict's arena, so the robots were fighting within a familiar perimeter of I-beams that kept them away from the Lexan walls. There were no hazards or pits in the arena -- only the skills of the robots would help them win. If both robots proved skillful enough to last the entire three minutes, then three judges would split a total of 33 points to determine a winner. I'm not sure on what criteria the points were awarded -- I initially assumed it was the usual "6 points for damage, 5 points for aggression" system, but the announcers kept saying that judging was based on control, aggression, and damage. The brackets were standard double elimination, with the exception of the final fight, which would determine the champion regardless of whether the winners bracket or the losers bracket robot won (this exception was excepted in the $10,000 heavyweight tournament -- for that tournament only, double elimination applied to the finals, too). For the tournaments with a total of five or fewer robots (super heavyweight and featherweight), robots fought round robin, and I have no clue how an ultimate winner was determined. There was a poor turnout for the super heavyweight and heavyweight Nationals (three robots per weight class, and they were all entered in the open tournament, as well), so I don't think the Nationals for those two weight classes were even held. Unless they based Nationals champions on the open tournament. I don't know.
A smaller arena was set up to house the fights for the fairyweights, antweights, and beetleweights. The big arena contained the hobbyweights, featherweights, lightweights, middleweights, heavyweights, and super heavyweights. With so many people in attendance, getting any kind of a view of the small arena was next to impossible. And since after you see the big bots fight, the antweight fights aren't very interesting, I didn't worry about summaries for the tinyweights.
You will, however, receive summaries of every fight that took place between robots that were 12 pounds and heavier. To get to those summaries, please proceed to the next page. Let's crown some champions!