In 2011, Hugh Jackman starred in a film based on Rock-em Sock-em Robots. That sounds like a terrible concept, but the movie, “Real Steel” was actually really good. Jackman played a robo jockey that controlled a large robot that boxes other robots for sport. With an underdog bot, it’s essentially “Rocky” with robots. So when word got out that the Syfy channel was developing a show based on this concept, I was very interested. “Robot Combat League” debuted in February.
It became clear pretty quickly that this wasn’t going to be as cool as the movie. Instead of jockeys entering their own robots into a tournament, robotics expert Mark Setrakian built all of them for the show. The contestants are a mixture of robotics people, scientists and athletes. Each team has a jockey who wears an apparatus that allows the fighting robot to mimic their movements, and a pilot, who controls where the robot moves. They then compete in a bracket style tournament until a winner is decided.
Each episode consists of a fight or two with the contenders smack talking each other for a contest that they actually have very little control over. The robots move forward at a very slow pace and the jockeys end up just waving their arms around as the robot fists bounce off each other. The robots are pretty incredible in their own right, but it’s apparent that the technology necessary for this type of show isn’t quite there yet. Some of the fights have ended with severe damage, but nothing like one would hope. The issues are almost always actuators being broken off and hydraulic fluid spilling everywhere. The biggest “knockouts” have been what host Chris Jericho, of WWE fame, describes as the fighting robots being broken in half. To me it looks like they get bumped around to a point that they collapse on themselves. The robots sure aren’t breaking each other over their knee or anything impressive like that.
Jericho does his best to build tension during the fights and does a decent job doing so. In fact, even with its many flaws the show is still relatively fun. Without a ton of information, the audience is able to decide which players we like better from how they handle the buildup to the fights. Some of the robots look cooler than others so that can play a part too. If the show went into more depth regarding the mechanics of the robots, it could possibly gain more interest from the science crowd. If the fights were more realistic, they could appeal to the combat sports crowd. As it is, I don’t know who is watching. Entertainment writers I suppose.
With only a few episodes remaining, the “Robot Combat League” has teams left that may, kind of, sort of know what they’re doing enough to make their robots fight how they want. But it’s very hard to listen when the contestants talk about how they dominated an opponent. Viewers have to take it all with a grain of salt. It would be easy to play the skeptic and question whether or not the show is authentic. There could be a guy in the back pushing a button that breaks off a piece to make the fights more exciting. But I imagine if that were the case we’d see something different than broken actuators and hydraulic fluid spilling out every time. “Robot Combat League” airs Tuesdays at 10 PM on Syfy.