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The darkened skin color that I had gotten at Steel Conflict 4 when I forgot to apply sunscreen had finally faded away, which meant that it was time for me to go see another combat robot competition. But I was a seasoned pro at this kind of thing now. Sure, I could go see any old robot competition. But would any old robot competition be up to my level of fandom? No, I couldn't just go to a competition -- I needed to go to a championship.

So on April 24, I traveled to the Anaheim Convention Center in (where else?) Anaheim, California for RCX 2004. Rumor had it that the Radio Control Expo might be featuring some kind of robot fighting championships. Specifically, the Southwest Division Championships. And sure enough, it was!

I think the reason the event was billed as a championship was because nearly every RFL-sanctioned weight class was competing in a collaboration between Steel Conflict, BotBash, and SozBots. I mean, it was similar to any other event, just bigger. Also of note was that the top two winners in each weight class would eventually go on to the RFL 2004 Nationals later in the year. But that's true of a lot of events.

But forget about semantics. This was a really big tournament with a lot of robots at a function that would have a lot of potential spectators. And it was relatively close to where I lived. How could I not attend?

Since I take, take, take from the world of robotic combat and never give anything back in return except for web pages that always interfere with your Google searches for useful information about specific robots, I decided that it was high time for me to volunteer at one of these events. So I did.

So this story really begins the night before the event took place, when I drove down to Anaheim to pick up my identification badge for the event. I picked up the badge, and since I was there as a volunteer with no idea as to what I should be volunteering with, I asked if there was anything for me to do. I was told that I wouldn't really have to go to work until the fights started to take place, so for the time being, I could just wander around the pits if I wanted to.

I'm still not entirely sure it actually happened, but I, a person who has used a wrench maybe twice in his life, had access to the pits! Talk about your kid in a candy store! Every single competing robot (except for the ones that hadn't arrived yet) within walking distance, close enough for me to breathe on and touch, which I would have done had I not realized how rude it would have been to exhale upon and fondle other people's property.

So I paced through every aisle of the pits, soaking in as much information as I could comprehend ("That's a robot!" "That's another robot with what appears to be a lifting weapon, or maybe not!" "That's a builder making some kind of adjustment to a robot!"). When I got tired of devoting so many muscles to plastering a huge grin on my face and of creeping out the builders by lurking in the background, I went home to get ready for the big day.

On Saturday morning, I was there, ready to volunteer and earn that neato all-access pass to the competition. Nora Judd, who was in charge of getting the next competitors lined up for their fights, told me that the event needed another person to help keep track of the frequency clips, so I was assigned to that for the weekend. The first order of business was for Nora to introduce to me the man who would be in charge of handing out the frequency clips, Stephen Felk. As if I didn't know who Stephen Felk was. The second order of business was for me to learn what this frequency control deal was all about.

As you presumably know, all of the robots are controlled through various radio frequencies and channels. And if somebody else is operating their transmitter while your robot is on (and if you're both on the same channel, of course), then their signals will be received by your robot, causing it to go berserk. And when your robot carries a weapon that's designed to destroy titanium, this could pose a slight safety risk.

So the trick at any robotic combat event is to make sure that a maximum of one person is using each channel at any given time. At BattleBots, this was accomplished by confiscating everybody's transmitters and allowing competitors to use them only if nobody else was using the same channel. At this event, however, they implemented a simpler system of trust. All competitors were allowed to keep their transmitters, but nobody was allowed to turn them on. This also sped up the tournament, since everyone had to forfeit because they couldn't operate their robots.

I'm kidding, of course. Actually, for each robot, a team was given a clothespin with the robot's name and pit table number printed on it. At the frequency table (a table in the middle of the space rented by the competition) was a board with many brightly-colored clothespins attached to it. Each clothespin had a channel number written on it. If you wanted to use a particular channel, you would walk up and ask one of the frequency coordinators for the brightly-colored clothespin that corresponded to the desired channel. If it was on the board, and nobody was planning to use it in the near future, you would trade the wood-colored clothespin with your robot's name on it for the brightly-colored clothespin. You would then attach the brightly-colored clothespin to your antenna and turn your transmitter and robot on to engage in whatever activities you had planned. Meanwhile, the frequency coordinator would place the wood-colored clothespin on the board under the number of the channel you were using, so if that channel was needed for a fight, they could see that you were using that channel, go to your pit table, and ask you to give the brightly-colored clothespin back. Even though it was physically possible for anyone to do so, it was understood (and required by the rules) that no person was to turn on a transmitter or a robot unless they had possession of the brightly-colored clothespin with the appropriate channel number.

To aid in the enforcement of this rule, a man (named Travis) carried around a homemade radio frequency locator. He would point it in various directions, and a display would tell him which channels were in use, along with the approximate direction in which each functioning transmitter was located. If he discovered a channel that still had its brightly-colored clothespin on the board, he would follow the signal until he discovered which builder had been disobeying the rules. Actually, in practice, when the builder saw Travis walking toward them, they would always quickly stop using the channel before he could pinpoint where they were. Which is amusing until you realize that a person transmitting signals without permission could cause somebody else to be seriously injured.

Usually, under this system, if a builder wanted to quickly test their robot, they would check out the necessary clip, take it back to their pit table, and do their thing. There were enough channels on the board that the builder could probably keep the clip for a little while before it was needed for a fight. At least, that's how things worked for a competition with only one arena in a somewhat secluded location.

However, this competition was taking place with two simultaneously active arenas, which meant that several robots would need frequency clips at one time. And it was taking place at an expo celebrating all things radio-controlled. Other exhibitors needed some channels to operate their RC machines, too. So at this event, only a handful of channels in the 75 MHz range (the most popular for RC transmission) were available to the competitors. Which meant that there was a darn good chance that the frequency a competitor was looking for was being used in a fight.

As a result, we had to be a little stricter at the frequency table than usual. First and foremost, no builder was to remove a clip from the board themselves. We were the only ones allowed to give out the clips in order to make it easier for us to keep track of where everything had gone. Second, the testing of robots prior to fights was nearly nonexistent. Since there were so few channels for us to work with, if builders kept taking the clips back to their pit tables, we would have spent the entire day walking to and from the pits, retrieving clips needed for upcoming fights, which would have delayed everything. So testing was restricted to the area right next to the frequency table. With the weapons and wheels restrained, of course. I guess the organizers didn't want to give robots the chance to run free in the crowded convention center. Spoilsports.

The places for the robots to run free, of course, were the three -- count 'em, three -- arenas. For the super heavyweights, heavyweights, and middleweights, the Steel Conflict arena was up and ready. Robots in the Steel Conflict arena competed in a double elimination tournament under Steel Conflict rules. For the lightweights, featherweights, and hobbyweights, BotBash's arena had pulled in. Those robots competed under BotBash rules, playing KillBall on the first day and competing in a single elimination tournament on the second day. Finally, to fill the gaps when neither the Steel Conflict nor BotBash arenas were being used, SozBots was ready with their antweight arena and a double elimination tournament for the one-pounders. And while the event was organized so that only one fight was going on at any time, it would have been next to impossible to see every single match in person. It was simply that jam-packed with robot competition.

Of course, even though I had to focus primarily on juggling frequency clips, I still wanted to do a write-up for this site. And as a result of there being so many fights right after one another, I decided to focus my attention on the Steel Conflict arena. I had to pretty much ignore any action inside the BotBash arena -- I think I saw maybe five fights in there. Still, the fact that I was able to do a somewhat decent write-up of the tournaments for the three heaviest weight classes speaks of all of the work Stephen Felk did in keeping the frequencies in order. I know that he didn't get to see nearly as many fights as I saw. Sorry for being so greedy about fight-watching, Stephen.

So now that all of my extraneous personal experiences at the event are out of the way, let's get down to recapping some fights. As it was before, the Steel Conflict arena was a big, Lexan-enclosed square. About a foot or so away from the Lexan walls was a square of I-beams designed to absorb the many slams the robots would perform. Fights lasted for three minutes or until incapacitation. If a fight went the distance, three judges would each split five points for aggression and six points for damage to determine a winner. One change to the rules this time was that touching the Lexan did not result in an automatic knockout to the offending robot. Robots could be pressed against the Lexan all their opponents wished -- if they fell back into the arena, they could still fight.

But the big change to the Steel Conflict arena for this tournament was the addition of a shallow pit to one of the corners, in front of the I-beams. As is usually the case when pits are placed in an arena, robots were encouraged to push their opponents in to aid in their winning. However, being placed in the 4-inch-deep pit did not result in an automatic knockout. Once a robot went into the pit, its opponent had to move away. The pitted robot then had 15 seconds to try to get itself out of the pit. If the robot remained in the pit after those 15 seconds, then the fight ended and the pitted robot lost. But if the pitted robot freed itself, then the audience cheered and the fight continued. In order to cut down on the number of robots that would drive themselves into the pit, around the edge of the pit there was a lip about of an inch above the floor. So you can get an idea of the way the arena was laid out, here's a crude drawing of the floor plan, complete with the many colorful starting arrows painted on the floor (only the blue and green arrows were used in this tournament).

The tournament was double elimination, which I think I'm starting to understand, but maybe that's only because I have blank ladders that I can print out that give me detailed instructions on how to fill them in. To keep me confused at this tournament, each of the weight classes followed a slightly different modified double elimination format. For example, since there were only seven functioning heavyweights, they used a standard double elimination ladder, with the exception that the final fight would determine a champion regardless of which robot lost. With a few more super heavyweights in attendance, their losers bracket ended a bit earlier, with two of the losers bracket robots being inserted into the winners bracket to create single elimination semifinal and final fights. The middleweight ladder was cut even further, with four of the losers bracket robots moving back to the winners bracket for single elimination quarterfinal, semifinal, and final fights. If you'd like to follow along, or if you understand this modified double elimination thing as much as I do, just click on one of the weight classes in this paragraph to see its starting line-up.

So now that you know what's going on, let's get to some fights!


Day one