A couple of years ago, I wrote a story for Sports Illustrated about something called chess boxing. It’s pretty much like it sounds - people box for a couple minutes and then switch to playing chess for a few more minutes. This goes back and forth until someone gets knocked out or checkmated. I affectionately referred to it as “Fight Club for Nerds.” I stand corrected. That title really should belong to the ABC series BattleBots.

The show, which is a reboot of the old Comedy Central program of the same title, is a competition between robots (and their drivers) that look to pulverize each other into fine bits of shrapnel while throngs of fans scream in excitement. And when you consider each robot costs around $14,000, that’s some expensive shrapnel. It’s as wacky as it sounds. Nerds like me inexplicably watch it because…that’s what we do.

Anyway, BattleBots is back for its second season on ABC starting tonight at 8 p.m. ET/PT. In it, 48 teams will compete in a tournament for the coveted “Giant Nut” trophy (insert sophomoric giggle here) and a top prize of around $50,000.

HitFix spoke with the show’s co-creator Greg Munson, himself a one-time robot warrior, about the program’s very unique history, technology changes in the sport, what makes for the ultimate BattleBot, and what it’s like when The Simpsons does an episode based on what they do.

Here’s what he had to say…

How do you get involved in the world of fighting robots?
It’s 1994, I literally get a page on my pager from my high school buddy and he says, “You’ve got to come down to Ft. Mason Center (in San Francisco). You’ve gotta see this thing I’m working on.”…And I walk through the Ft. Mason pavilion through kind of like this smoky, dark environment…I can hear a crowd rumbling and I hear strange motor noises and I smell this weird, smokey smell, and I’m like, “What is this?” And as I turn the corner around the bleachers, I see what the audience of about 500 people are looking at, it’s little remote control robots beating the crap out of each other.  And I’m like, “Oh my God, this is the coolest thing I’ve ever seen.” That was Robot Wars: San Francisco.

Fast forward to ’95, Trey Roski (the show’s co-creator) and I build a robot called “La Machine” for the ’95 Robot Wars. It was a piece of junk. It was just a wedge. It looked like a doorstop. It had no visual appeal. But Trey was a great, great driver…and he had this uncanny ability to imbue this metal machine with personality…We won that whole competition.  

So how does this transition into your own TV show, BattleBots?
[In the late 1990s] Trey and I started organizing underground events, literally under freeway overpasses like in…Novato, California…We would just get our buddies out there and smash robots into each other. And then the police would come and we would quickly run away. At one point, after doing one of these contests, our friends looked at us and said, “Guys, why don’t you just do a show?” And Trey and I looked at each other and said, “Yeah, Let’s do a show.”…BattleBots was born in 1999. We did our first show in Long Beach…From there we attracted a New York production company who helped us land a deal for a pay-per-view…Then Comedy Central caught wind of it and said, “Hey guys, we want you to have a series on out network.”

How have changes in technology improved what we’ll see on the show?
Fifteen years ago, the only way you could get power to your weapon was to have giant, heavy, heavy batteries. These robots have a weight limit, so if most of your weight is tied up in batteries, you can’t have strong defense. Or if you want to have strong defense, you can’t have a really kick-ass offensive weapon. So the robots back then were kind of weak…For the ABC show, we have small, robust…batteries that are super light weight and deliver tons and tons of power. And just that battery advancement alone has enabled robots like Tombstone, robots like Witchdoctor, robots that can literally obliterate the other robot into teeny, little pieces. Every robot has to have an offensive, robust, active weapon…You can have flamethrowers. A lot of people think [flamethrowers] are just gratuitous eye candy…but they are strategic. They can really freak out your opponent…We [also] allow projectiles now.

Why does this show resonate with audiences? Is it the destruction, the back story of the contestants or both?
I think it’s a little bit of both. Ultimately, the audience and the people who build these robots and compete in these competitions, they enjoy the destructive nature of it because it’s just fun. It’s fun to see giant sparks, big flames and see stuff get wasted.

What makes the ultimate robot?
There isn’t one. That’s the beauty of the sport. The sport is really Rock-Paper-Scissors. So the wedge is always going to do well against the spinner. The spinner is always going to hurt the lifter. And the lifter is always going to get the wedge. And so it becomes that battle of ideas for modifying your robot between rounds…and coming up with modular weapon systems…and using helper robots, which we’ll see in Season 2. If there was an ultimate robot, it’s going to be someone with modular weapon systems, maybe dual weapon systems, and that takes advantage of the new weight limitations so maybe they can have a helper bot.

What have you done to up the ante this year?
We upped the weight class. It used to be 220 [pounds], now it’s 250 [pounds]. That gives every robot builder 30 more pounds to have fun with. Some, like Witch Doctor, will build a partner robot, Shaman, who will just spit green fire all over you…and distract you, while Witch Doctor comes and then tears you up. Other people, like Bombshell, will use that extra 30 pounds to create a flying, flame-spitting attack drone which will land upon you and spray fire all over you.  

What’s it like when The Simpsons do a show basically about what you do (Season 15, Ep. 9: “I, D'oh-Bot”)?
That’s huge reward for us. CSI did a spoof on us. Malcolm in the Middle, The Simpsons, Big Bang Theory did a spoof on us…[That] we’re part of popular culture is really satisfying for us, that this little thing that started under a freeway overpass has inspired the writers of The Simpsons to have Homer Simpson put on a metal trashcan and fight for his honor. That’s amazing. That’s awesome.


BattleBots kicks off Season 2 with a two-hour special June 23 at 8 p.m. ET/PT on ABC.

David Eckstein is a writer living in Los Angeles.