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INSIDE STORY

The Rock 'Em, Sock 'Em Robot King

BattleBots Promoter Trey Roski Helped Turn a Passion for Robotic Ultra-Violence Into a Cable TV Smash. Appalled? Oh, Lighten Up.

October 08, 2000|KATE COLEMAN | Kate Coleman is a freelance writer based in Berkeley. This is her first story for the magazine

Down on the killing floor, with the 8,000 fans in San Francisco's Fort Mason Center Festival Pavilion agitating for combat, a large man with a large head and full red beard is wrestling a 312-pound robot. Trey Roski moves around Ginsu, trying to get the mecha-beast into its starting position without injuring himself on the jagged circular-saw blades that give the robot its lethal charm.

If this were just another super-heavyweight bout of fight-to-the-symbolic-death mechanized mayhem, Roski wouldn't be nearly as nervous. But this June event is more than just a test of the robot he built with his cousin and business partner, Greg Munson; it's the first time Roski's pet-project, BattleBots (imagine an invention convention orchestrated by the World Wrestling Federation), will reach a national television audience on something other than a pay-per-view basis.

Cast and crew from Comedy Central are on hand to tape the event, which will be edited into 13 ESPN-style half-hour episodes to be aired at a later date. If all goes well, Roski knows, the ultra-violent, if bloodless, sport of robotic combat could become The Next Big Thing--a guilt-free alternative to the violent films and video games denounced last month by the Federal Trade Commission.

Roski's more immediate concern, though, is Ronin, a formidable 307-pound contraption created by a Burbank roboteer. It looks like the love child of a Sherman tank and a commercial sawmill. Ronin is festooned with black Japanese battle flags--something right out of a Kurasawa epic--and is waiting inside the "BattleBox." That 48-square-foot arena, smelling of hot metal and scorched rubber, is surrounded by 20-foot-high Lexan walls that protect the audience from the inevitable shrapnel of a BattleBots bout.

Throbbing industrial music floods the crowded spectator stands, where the growing frenzy suggests that Roski has indeed tapped into something primal. The fans clamor for action, pumped up by previous bouts in which smoke, sparks and parts flew through the air, and bot after bot was pummeled by sledgehammers, stabbed by spikes, chain-sawed, flipped, crushed, plowed, crippled, maimed and otherwise thrashed into the robotic equivalent of unconsciousness. Roski anxiously fingers Ginsu's remote control.

He is, by all accounts, a gentle man. But he also knows that the fascination with violence "is inbred in all of us, even if we don't want to admit it. I hate violence and people getting injured--hated it my whole life. [But] people want this for some reason. Why else would they love the WWF--the dumbest show I ever saw. In football there's serious injury and anger. I don't like it, I don't believe in it, but people need it. It's instinctual."

Roski subscribes to what human-behavior experts call the "cathartic theory," suggesting that robotic combat offers a healthy channel for natural aggression--equal parts creative engineering, applied technology and barbaric weaponry in the service of stress relief. "I wanted to do something that would get out the road rage without hurting anything," he says. "It's a game and it's fun."

The match begins. Working his remote control from just outside the Lexan arena, Roski maneuvers Ginsu toward its opponent. Ronin leads with its single 20-inch saw blade, flying across the arena floor on tank-like treads. The two robots collide, and Ronin plows the behemoth Ginsu toward the wall of the BattleBox. Within seconds, Ginsu is impaled on short metal spikes that line the wall's low perimeter. Roski's robot dies pathetically as its creator struggles to restart its motor. The judges declare Ronin the winner and Ginsu "incapacitated."

A disappointed Roski drops his large head to his chest. He'd wanted to impress his father, Los Angeles developer Edward Roski Jr., his mother Gayle, wife Coleen and sister Katrina, who cheered his robot from just outside the BattleBox. But even Ginsu's swift and stunning defeat can't obscure the fact that Trey Roski, as co-founder and majority owner of BattleBots, Inc., is helping pioneer what may be the world's coolest spectator sport.

*

BEFORE COMEDY CENTRAL BEGAN AIRING THE FIRST OF THE "BattleBots" episodes taped that June night, Tony Fox knew that his upstart network had struck a nerve. "When we first made the announcement, a lot of news outlets and networks were talking about 'BattleBots' because it's so unique and different," recalls the senior vice president of corporate communication for Comedy Central. "We had high hopes before it hit the air. This is the kind of concept show that can break out in basic cable." (The concept, as described by a deadpan co-anchor in an early episode: "These robots are going to beat the crap out of each other for our entertainment pleasure.")

And break out it did. "It was just a matter of hours [after the first show aired in August] before we committed to the next 13," Fox says.

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