A demolition derby on steroids for nerds and brainiacs, BattleBots has found its groove and then some with a new spinoff show coming to discovery+ on January 4. The new series is BattleBots: Bounty Hunters, and there is a twist.
Chris Cowan is one of the primary producers behind this phenomenon that pits really smart people in build teams against one another in a glorious smash ’em up of remote-controlled costly military-grade hardware outfitted robot gladiators that weigh more than the average man boasting unique weaponry designs to beat the other bot.
Competitors come from all types of backgrounds – from families to university students and everything in between. Every machine is homemade and constructed from a variety of materials with custom-built weaponry to destroy the competition.
If you have never witnessed a BattleBots competition, it’s a life-changing entertainment event that celebrates the brawn of the machines and the brains behind their builds.
Created by Ed Roski and Greg Munson, the show is produced by BattleBots, Inc. and Whalerock Industries’ executive producers Chris Cowan, Edward P. Roski, Greg Munson, Tom Gutteridge, and Aaron Catling.
In each episode, challengers will compete for the right to become the Bounty Hunter and fight a Legend. The prize is a unique place in BattleBots history and the major share of a $25,000 cash prize payout in every episode. And, just like the regular season of BattleBots, each episode highlights the design and build of the competing robots and profiles the teams behind them.
Cowan spoke to Monsters & Critics during the holiday break about this fun competition that salutes the smart kids and celebrates engineering excellence. He explained the new series spinoff where the top robot legends including Tombstone, Bronco, Witch Doctor, Son of Whyachi, Beta, and Icewave will assemble to battle it out against a BattleBots legend in the ultimate robot combat.
Monsters & Critics: What it is about BattleBots when you describe it to someone who has no idea what the show is, how do you sell them the show to get them interested to watch?
Chris Cowan: Fantastic question. Listen to me, BattleBots is the sport of the next generation. it combines everything that you love about combat sports and puts it into a package that is visceral and kinetic and violent, and nobody gets hurt. And it really pushes a lot of really interesting problem-solving campaigns, the STEM initiatives that are included within it are incredible.
So from the standpoint of entertainment for the whole family at a very broad audience, it just couldn’t get any better as far as I’m concerned. And it’s just full of tons of kinetic action and energy and explosions and destruction. And that it’s just so much fun that way.
M&C: Okay, BattleBots: Bounty Hunters, how does this differentiate? How does this show differentiate from the mothership for discovery+, the new streaming service from Discovery?
Chris Cowan: So if Battlebots is a marathon, Battlebots: Bounty Hunters is a sprint. What ends up happening is you have this legendary bot that has proven itself over the years to be one of the most successful and most destructive in the history of the sport. They sit on top of the hill and eight competitors sign up to try to take them down.
Those eight competitors have to face off against each other, and in many tournaments, whoever wins that tournament has earned the title, Bounty Hunter, and the right to face the legend and try to secure a place in history and take down the lion’s share of the $25,000 purse. So it’s very different in the whole thing kind of like lives and dies in one night. And it’s a crazy event. It’s fantastic. You have to be able to survive five fights or four flights to win the whole thing. And you have got to get through a field of competitors who all want to face the legend. It’s just really knock down, drag-out Intensity.
M&C: Explain to me how the show is evolved. It’s been on for a while. How many years has it been on?
Chris Cowan: So it had its initial run back in the late 90s. I think it was three or four seasons on Comedy Central. I was a fan of the show back then, but I thought the language of the show was a little off. As a producer, you kind of look at shows and you say, boy, I could do that in a better way or, with a different spin.
I just felt like they were being too condescending to the builder and to the competition. And it was really a little bit more farcical where I thought what these guys were doing was as legitimate as any other sport out there. I mean, so there’s a bunch of people running around trying to throw a ball in a hoop or trying to kick all in a net or whatnot.
It’s glorified in a way that they are billion-dollar industries and these people will become heroes. Well, these guys are building robots and doing a chess match and having equally interesting combat. It is a sport that deserved a little bit more credit and a more serious voice. So we didn’t want to take the fun out of it, but we wanted to lend more credibility to it and make it something that you could really follow.
That’s when we re-imagined the show, we talked to the original creators and we all kind of had a meeting of the minds and agreed on how we wanted the voice of the show to change. Now, the robot builders are more heroes and professionals and people to be admired and serious competitors.
And the competition while though a ton of fun is it’s a serious endeavor to try to go win a championship. That’s really what we wanted to do in re-imagining the show.
M&C: How do you find your cast? What’s that process like?
Chris Cowan: So, they come to us, we don’t really have to put out a big casting call, the team at BattleBots are being basically pilloried all year long with people who want to build, and we have fairly stringent selection criteria. so they have to submit designs. They have to kind of fill out a full questionnaire. They have to tell us why they think we’re going to be competitive.
They have to kind of attest to their bonafides as engineers and builders. And for us, the whole key is that we’re trying to put a stable or a field of robots out into the arena that are reliable and create great action and tons of entertainment. That’s what we’re looking for.
We’re getting thousands of submissions annually, and we just cull those down to the most imaginative or the most interesting and the most reliable to try to put together a field that creates a great tournament and a great competition.
M&C: COVID, how has production changed if you can walk us through what used to be, and what is now, what’s the new protocol?
Chris Cowan: So it was a big change, obviously. We were set to shoot the series in April. We usually shoot it in the spring, across spring break because we do it in front of a live audience. We have such a huge volume of young adults and kids that love to come to the tapings, that we had an audience of 1500, that audience has gone. You just can’t do it safely in this environment.
When we shut down in April, we began our real quest to put together a playbook that allowed us to restart the show and host the tournament safely. So after four or five months of planning, had our protocols in place, essentially testing was a big key. We did over 4,000 tests, you had a three test minimum to get into the production.
So you would start by getting a test before you traveled. Then you would do a test when you landed, and then you would do another test to gain access to the set.
If you pass those three tests, then we felt like you were clear to come in, and then you were tested every 72 hours. So, we had that as one layer, we had another layer of protocols where you would get a questionnaire on a daily basis.
It’s just really a reminder for you to be checking about your own health. If you had any of the symptoms that we listed, then you were asked not to show up on set. so assuming that you answered no to all the questions that we sent you, then that was sent out to everybody the night before production, and you would then be able to come to the location where you then have to pass through a screener and they would do a temperature check.
If you pass the temperature check, then you would get a wristband that would give you access to certain zones because we broke the entire production up into zones. So you only had clearance to stay within your zone, that allowed us to stop people from kind of co-mingling or cross-pollinating.
We didn’t have too many if, in the event that we had an outbreak, we want it to be able to contain it through contact tracing. So by limiting people to zones, it stopped us from getting a total shutdown.
If we did come up with a positive, and we had COVID compliance teams on set monitoring everybody’s behavior, everybody was masked behind the scenes.
We added new air ventilation systems and built air ventilation systems around the bots, and around the builders’ suites so that they all had clean air where they were standing. It was just a massive, massive endeavor.
M&C: Are you guys involved in any kind of STEM educational foundation charity or awareness?
Chris Cowan: Nothing necessarily specific, BattleBots itself is a brand that has a long history of promoting STEM initiatives. And there actually is a program called BattleBots IQ, which was around for about a decade…in the early 2000s that we’re looking to restart.
Which essentially is that you’re helping to start robotics clubs, you’re funding robotics clubs, and you’re promoting build camps, and doing build camps. So that’s something that we’re moving forward as an initial initiative right now. And, there’s a bunch of other things on tap that we’re really excited about.
M&C: Terminator the film was a prophetic warning that the robots are going to take over. Do you ever worry that the robots are getting so good that we’re really going to make ourselves obsolete? Does that ever cross your mind?
Chris Cowan: [laughs] A.I. is beginning to play a much bigger role in the robots as they move forward. And, this year it’s been moving forward in an initiative also called walkers and chomp, which is a robot which we’ve had in previous seasons that has completely re-imagined itself as a 500 pound Walker.
So listen, we’re getting…[laughing] we’ve definitely set the path. I think that we just have to hope that the guard rails of humanity will protect us.
They’re still being human-operated, but every day I think we do step a little bit closer towards autonomy and walking robots within the arena. I’m hoping that we don’t bring this sci-fi nightmare to life, but it’s possible!
BattleBots: Bounty Hunters premieres Monday, January 4, on the launch of Discovery’s Streaming Service discovery+