Robot Combat League

Ready for the next generation of robot combat? Syfy has greenlit and shot the first season of a new show where eight-foot-tall state-of-the-art humanoid robots will rock ’em and sock ’em in a boxing cage until one is defeated.

The future-shock new series is called Robot Combat League and the project has been kept under wraps until today. The action resembles a real-life version of last year’s hit movie Real Steel, with large menacing robots pounding away at each other in a satisfying shower of sparks and gushing hydraulic fluid. And just like in the film, the ‘bots will be controlled by shadow-boxing operators whose movements are translated into metal-on-metal punches. WWE wrestler, author and Dancing With the Stars veteran Chris Jericho will host.

Though Real Steal is the most obvious recent reference, Robot Combat League has cable network forebears like BBC’s Robot Wars (1998) and Comedy Central’s Battle Bots (2000). But older shows featured small, squat robots rolling across the ground and attacking each other, like evil Roombas. “It has always been our desire — and it’s really come around perennially — to update and do Battle Bots for the new century,” says Syfy president Mark Stern. “Can we do Real Steel? Are we at a place where you can do real bipedal robots? Every time we tried to to do it, [the project] was stymied by the technology.”

You want another photo? Of course you do! Story continues below…

Credit: Lewis Jacobs/NBC

Here’s how this show got started: Last year, veteran reality producer Craig Plestis teamed with robotics expert Mark Setrakian to pitch Robot Combat League to Syfy. Setrakian’s resume includes developing life-saving robotic systems and creature effects, animatronics and control technology for such films like Men In Black, The Grinch and Hellboy. One early test featured a robot attacking a Volkswagen Beetle that was hung in the air. “The robot was hitting it, it was tearing the mirrors off and breaking the windows,” Stern says. “At every step we got closer and closer.”

Syfy won’t reveal how much the 1,000-pound robots cost (“a lot,” Stern says) and there is one obvious design differential that keeps the bots from Reel Steel-like autonomy — a stabilizing bar that prevents the top-heavy machines from toppling over during fighting and help controls their movement across the ring. Stern hopes that “version 2.0” of Robot Combat League can ditch the bar.

Still, from what we’ve seen from a presentation reel on the show, Robot Combat League (which debuts Feb. 26) delivers what’s promised — robots pounding on each other. “Up until we actually saw them in the ring fighting, we didn’t think it would work,” Stern says. “Setrakian created a robotics system that can mimic a human’s actions and movements. We’ve had robots decapitated, we’ve had robots cut in half. It was truly spectacular.”


Robot Combat League will have 12 teams. Each consists of a fighter (dubbed a “robo-jockey”) and a robotics engineer (a “robo-tech”). The fighters and techs are from various backgrounds, such as a race car driver, an Olympic athlete, a National Guard helicopter pilot. One of the robo-jocks, for example, is MMA fighter Amanda Lucas (Star Wars visionary George Lucas’ daughter). Each team is paired with its own unique robot, all designed by Setrakian, that will have unique strengths and vulnerabilities. And, of course, the robots will have a colorful names, such as “Steampunk” and “Sgt. Smash.” (If there’s a second season, I hope Lucas gets to control a giant gold robot named C-3POW).

Fights consist of three rounds, with the winning team advancing to the next competition. The winning team claims a $100,000 prize. Jericho will set up each fight and provide play-by-play commentary. “They are complete boxing matches,” Stern says. “If a robot is disabled, the team has 20 minutes to get it functional again and back in the ring.”

The project might eventually have some competition. Discovery Channel earlier this year announced it’s developing a next-generation robot combat show called Robogeddon, produced by heavy hitters James Cameron and Mark Burnett. Robot Combat League is ready to go, however, having just wrapped production on its first season last week.

Now look at this next bot, photo below. Cylon Ver. 1.0? Skynet, the beta test? Either way, I, for one, welcome our new robot overlords.

Credit: Lewis Jacobs/NBC
Robot Combat League
  • TV Show