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[Editor’s Note: I originally wanted to write this article in the aftermath of Robogames 2023 but time got away from me and I just let it go. Then some dumb shit happened again at Robogames 2024 and I made it a point to finish this article this time. I work just over full time now however and finding the free time to research and put this post together took a while. I realize the incident this article focuses on happened a month ago but it is still important to me to use this platform and its reach to further bring awareness to the safety issues currently plaguing Robogames and, by extension, the American robot combat scene.]

Robogames, formerly known as Robolympics and I think even “ComBots Cup” at some point(?), is an independent event held annually in California. It features a number of contests for all kinds of robotic exploits but it is most well known for showcasing combat between robots of a variety of weight classes. Robogames started in 2004 following the original demise of BattleBots in 2003 and was one of the few places that was able to provide an arena for robots in the 60 – 250 pound classes to compete. Since its inception 20 years ago Robogames has been coordinated by Dave Calkins who had worked previously as a fight judge for BattleBots during its run on Comedy Central.

Last Rites (Tombstone) fighting some variant of VDD in the 2010’s.

For 20 years (mostly, there was a hiatus in there somewhere) Robogames has played host to some of the most pivotal and iconic moments in the history of the sport. It’s where 3-time BattleBots champion Biohazard met an untimely end at the hands of Megabyte. It’s where Ray Billings first unveiled the spinner version of Tombstone that would eventually go on to win a BattleBots championship. It’s where Ziggy, later evolving into Lucky, stared down the hammer of The Judge and won by KO. The event even had a TV special on Science Channel in 2011 that was hosted by the late Grant Imahara. He wasn’t dead at the time, though. That happened later. Nowadays Robogames is the place where contemporary BattleBots competitors go by dumb nicknames to circumvent BattleBots’ ownership of their likenesses to do battle with each other alongside other robots that didn’t make the cut into BattleBots.

Recently however Robogames has found itself at the center of a very significant controversy in the robot combat world. Collectively we are on a crash course toward a major incident leading to injury or worse and it appears the person who has the power to handle this, Dave Calkins, is content with doing literally fucking nothing about it.


Basically the goddamned Dust Bowl in there.

Our story starts on April 7, 2023. Robogames is being held in Pleasanton, CA and after an absolute disaster of an opening day on the 6th that saw a nearly eight hour delay and resulted in the event only having time for a half dozen fights in an arena dustier than the goddamned Sahara Desert the show was recovering and moving on with the remainder of the fight cards. There was an official livestream on the Robogames Twitch channel anchored by former BattleBots competitor Stephen Felk and another guy whose name I did not commit to memory but I distinctly remember him fruitlessly plugging some podcast about fast food that nobody wanted to hear about. By the start of the third day I wanted to slap some sense into him because there are podcasts native to the robot combat scene that are exclusively about exactly that and even those get zero traction, like hell anyone wants to hear about how shitty the burgers are at Red Robin. Also if you’re the type of person who eats at Red Robin despite being aware of the cringey “yummm!” in all of their commercials then you deserve to be laughed at even if you’re going there specifically to mock the food.

With the exception of the disastrous first day of Robogames the rest of the event seemed to be going on without any trouble whatsoever. I neglected to mention this earlier but apparently the 2023 event was the first Robogames after a half-decade long hiatus? In other words the newly revived BattleBots was absolutely eating Robogames’ lunch and Dave Calkins had only recently found the shit in his pants to revive his dead gay robot event. Robots were fighting in the Robogames arena for the first time in five years. That’s… kind of a long time? The arena was apparently just sitting in storage disassembled until it was needed again this whole time. Also this arena was nearly twenty years old in 2023. I don’t actually know if the polycarbonate panels that comprised the outer wall were two decades old – I hope not – but even if they were new(ish) they were still only as thick as the panels from 2004 because they had to slot into the existing frame. These panels were supposed to shield the audience from robots whose designs were far more advanced than they were back when we’d just recently launched Operation Iraqi Freedom. [Update 5/12/2024: I’ve been informed by a person who attended the drivers’ meeting at Robogames 2023 that the reason the event came out of hiatus was a benefactor made a significant investment in the arena. The wall panels were allegedly all new material and the panels that used to comprise the wall were moved up to the ceiling.]

I don’t even know how this is happening, Manta doesn’t have forks.

As the day goes on we eventually reach Terrortops versus Manta, a fight between a BattleBots reserve competitor and a design that didn’t make the cut. Manta, formerly known as Drago, failed to qualify for BattleBots World Championship VII. Robogames 2023 was the team’s first opportunity to show the world what their creation was capable of in an era before BattleBots’ own “Proving Grounds” mini-events. The team behind Manta was not aware of this at the time but people involved with the production of BattleBots were present at Robogames to scout for potential new blood. A good showing from Manta would essentially guarantee it a spot in the next BattleBots event. Nick Dobrikov, the builder and driver of Manta, wasn’t going to hold back. Terrortops just did not stand a chance against the massive Minotaur-esque spinning drum of its opponent and in a matter of seconds the lifter/spinner hybrid was on the back step getting shoved around and taking some big hits in the process. One of these hits clipped Terrortops’ left fork off and flung it into the arena ceiling.

Before I touch on the inevitable let’s rewind a bit and take a history lesson. Robot combat arenas have walls of bulletproof plastic surrounding them thanks to Jamie Hyneman’s Blendo demonstrating the potential for shrapnel to be thrown into the audience at one of the first US Robot Wars events in 1995. Arenas also have a ceiling on them because of Jim Smentowski’s Nightmare, famously armed with an absolutely massive spinning vertical disc, which posed the threat of debris being ejected from the arena by way of going over the walls. In Nightmare’s 1999 BattleBots debut the robot was forced to spin its weapon downward to avoid throwing debris too high and a ceiling was added after the event allowing Nightmare to fight normally at the next one. Despite this Nightmare would ironically be the cause of the only major breach in BattleBots history when during a heavyweight rumble in 2003 it struck another robot and lost one of the teeth on its disc. The tooth was flung upward and penetrated the polycarbonate landing in the audience stands. Nobody was injured by the debris, however with the integrity of the arena in question BattleBots officials chose to cancel all further rumbles and end the event early.

Video still from an audience recording showing Terrortops’ fork outside of the arena.

So Terrortops’ fork gets torn off and thrown violently upward by Manta’s drum. Gravity gets to work on the piece of metal and it eventually falls back down to Earth… outside of the arena. The fork hit the roof so hard that it broke a soccer ball sized hole in the polycarbonate and left the containment of the box landing a mere couple feet away from a spectator who was standing by the arena walls filming with their phone. The person records the hit and moments later pans to the right where Terrortops’ fork is just chilling on the floor outside of the box. The teams immediately knew something was wrong and the commentators were interrupted by their microphones being cut followed by the livestream switching over to a “be right back” logo screen while the situation was being dealt with. This incident was significant as it marked the first time in twenty goddamned years (to the best of my knowledge) that a piece of shrapnel breached the arena at an American robot combat event, the last incident being the aforementioned one involving Nightmare in the BattleBots rumble from 2003. Robogames has had other notable safety incidents in the past such as a 2016 incident where Raging Scotsman, armed with a flamethrower, had its fire escape through cracks around the arena wall panels. The following year Touro Maximus (Minotaur) blasted Whoops (Duck) into the wall hard enough to dislodge an entire fucking polycarbonate panel necessitating the fight be stopped. Despite the apparent severity of the events nothing that was capable of causing bodily harm to someone actually left the arena. Even when the panel fell off it did its job by reflecting Whoops back into the box as it gave way.

“Somebody open a window, it’s hot in here.”

Note that these incidents began in the middle of the 2010’s when the Robogames arena had reached an age of about 11-12 years. It couldn’t safely contain the level of heavyweight robots that existed back then and you mean to tell me this aging relic was still being used well into the 2020’s? No wonder that chunk of Terrortops escaped through the roof. The fight between Terrortops and Manta was stopped and believe it or not the Robogames officials were considering allowing the fight to continue with a giant hole in the fucking roof. The Terrortops team elected to throw in the towel and forfeit the match to Manta both because they knew they were going to lose anyways and because the absolute lack of safety protocol probably offended them.

So that’s it, right? A chunk of a shitty dinosaur-themed robot left the arena? Oh, you sweet summer child. You see, once this happened several competitors felt a sense of uneasiness because they all knew that the Robogames arena couldn’t contain their machines. They had probably known this for a while but without any major incidents such as this they were content to collectively just put on the horse blinders and continue to compete, though now there was a reason for concern. Nobody actually dropped out or withdrew in protest when Robogames 2023 continued so ultimately the concerns of the competitors were toothless because no one said “fuck this I’m out”. What happened next at Robogames 2023 shouldn’t have happened at all because there should’ve been a goddamned mutiny by the competitors that they would refuse to fight over safety concerns. Remember, 20 years prior to this a chunk of Nightmare left the arena at BattleBots and didn’t hit anybody. Rather than continue the show BattleBots’ event coordinators recognized that there was a massive safety issue with their arena and they ended the whole show early and cancelled all of the other rumbles. Dave Calkins gave the heavyweight division at Robogames 2023 the green light to continue without any modifications whatsoever.

Screenshot showing the brief moment where a ceiling panel (circled) falls onto the floor.

Later that day Manta returned to the arena to battle Malice who, for licensing reasons, had been renamed to “White Rabbit” and given a slightly different paint job. The battle began and the robots fought normally with White Rabbit getting its shit pushed in because in general I don’t think it’s that good of a robot. Also Manta is just straight up fucking nasty. White Rabbit and Manta meet weapon-to-weapon at one point and Manta’s drum shears the bolts attaching one of the steel teeth to White Rabbit’s solid aluminum weapon hub. Much like the fork from Terrortops this piece of debris is also shot into the arena ceiling at a ridiculously high velocity. This time an entire fucking panel of polycarbonate from the roof falls from the rafters and lands in the arena. Curiously the stream was cut almost immediately when this happened so viewers only got to see a split second of the carnage. This tells me one extremely important thing about how seriously Dave Calkins takes safety at his event: he was 100% expecting this to happen. How do I know? Because after the first breach he knew the likelihood of it happening again was high especially with Manta still in the tournament. Either Dave or someone on his behalf specifically told the person in charge of operating the stream to have their finger hovering over the “off” button just in case something bad happened again. He knew the arena wasn’t safe and he gave specific instructions to the stream manager in some vain attempt to do damage control in the event another breach happened. If Dave Calkins had a dollar for every time he gave a shit about safety he’d be broke because he doesn’t give a shit.

The stream went down again. Surely – surely – this would be it, right? We just saw an entire fucking panel of polycarbonate collapse down into the arena. Time passed and everyone watched with bated breath to see what would happen when the cameras were turned back on. At this point the moderator(s) of the Robogames channel on Twitch were actively perma-banning everyone who was rightfully calling them out on their absolutely unacceptable disregard for safety. I’ll concede that a lot of these people ate bans for using colorful language like “absolute fucking retards” to describe Dave and the organizers but still we just saw not one but two breaches at the same event in the same fucking day. The mod(s) of the stream chat reported back that the giant panel of plastic that fell into the arena wasn’t actually part of the ceiling itself but an inner panel or something like that? I guess it was covering lights or something? Accounts from people who were at the event stated that the panel we saw fall into the arena was part of something akin to a T-junction at one of the seams in the middle of the ceiling. This technically wasn’t another full breach as it was just a piece of miscellaneous polycarbonate that was shattered. People seem to conveniently ignore however that if White Rabbit’s tooth had the ability to bust through this non-vital piece then it could’ve just as easily gone through the actual ceiling too because the thickness of the two panels was the same: half an inch, allegedly.

“A fork left the arena? Hold my beer.” – White Rabbit

The camera feed comes back on. White Rabbit and Manta are still sitting in the arena where they were when the fight was stopped and the stream cut suspiciously fast. They resume fighting. You have got to be fucking kidding me. This cannot be reality. Thanks to an aging arena Manta has single-handedly set safety at US robot combat events back two decades and they are still letting this thing fight? At full power? I have no idea why White Rabbit’s team didn’t also forfeit the fight like Terrortops’ team did. Their robot just lost half its goddamned weapon and White Rabbit maneuvers around about as well as a crippled person in a powerchair trying to buy hemorrhoid cream at Walmart. The robot’s not going to be able to get away from Manta or do anything to it but yeah no let’s just go ahead and resume the fight. I’m certain nothing bad will happen.

The fight resumes and – big shocker here – Manta absolutely blasts its opponent and sends it flying into the ceiling. As White Rabbit hits the arena ceiling it dislodges an entire section and bows it out. This happened right next to the edge of the box. If White Rabbit had caught another foot of air and had its trajectory been a few degrees different the entire fucking robot would’ve left the arena. Not a fork. Not a weapon tooth. The whole goddamned thing, all 250 pounds of it. An eighth of a ton, thrown out of the arena like it was nothing. This prompted White Rabbit’s team to finally give up and cede the win to Manta. Manta was supposed to fight Mad Catter (or whatever it had been renamed to) in the finals but Mad Catter had been too badly damaged in a previous fight to continue to the finals were forfeited and Manta was crowned the overall champion of the heavyweight division surely cementing its inclusion in the next season of BattleBots, arena integrity be damned.

Oh… wait a second. I’m leaving something out; there was another massive safety incident at Robogames 2023. It didn’t involve debris leaving the arena, though. During a fight between two middleweights one of them, some piece of shit armed with spinning square blades that weren’t long enough to reach beyond the edge of its chassis (Bad Dog), suffered critical damage to its lithium-polymer batteries. This resulted in a fire complete with the thick plumes of white smoke that sorta act like a liquid as they run along the floor because their contents are heavier than the air around them. That smoke is very different from the regular ass stuff that comes off of burning wood and as such you probably should not breathe it in. Whenever there’s a battery fire during a BattleBots fight Trey “The Man” Roski himself usually enters the arena alone while wearing a self-contained pressurized respirator to bring in a giant vacuum tube to set next to the affected robot and suck out all of the smoke while the arena’s ventilation system does its thing on the rest of it. So how does Robogames handle a battery fire? Literally some fucking guy just walks into the arena dead ass wearing absolutely zero safety gear, drops a fire blanket onto the robot, loads it onto a dolly, and wheels it out of the venue to let it finish cooking itself outside.

An example of how a battery fire is handled at BattleBots, note the vacuum tube.

The smoke from a lithium-polymer battery is uniquely dangerous because we are still learning what actually comprises the fumes. This is important information to have because with the rise of electric vehicles, most of which use this battery technology, firefighters need to know what they are dealing with so they can protect themselves while extinguishing a Tesla whose autopilot malfunctioned, plowed through a line of children in a crosswalk, posted something antisemitic on Twitter, and then slammed into a brick wall killing everyone inside. Right now contemporary research states that hydrogen fluoride is a primary component of battery smoke and a reputable firefighters’ resource website claims that a lithium-polymer fire can contain concentrations of the substance as high as 600 ppm (parts per million). To put this number into perspective exposure to hydrogen fluoride is defined as “immediately dangerous to life and health” at a concentration of just 30 ppm. A battery fire contains twenty times that. When exposed to water this gas forms hydrofluoric acid and if you want to see how nasty that shit is just look it up on YouTube because there are dozens of videos of backyard scientists using it to dissolve literally everything from raw chicken to light bulbs.

An example of how a battery fire is handled at Robogames. I rest my case.

I have to assume the people handling the battery fire knew of the dangers of being exposed to the fumes. If they didn’t then upon seeing their dumb ass waltz into the arena without any sort of protection someone else would’ve flagged them down and told them to get the fuck out of there. But no, no such thing happened. I’m led to believe there was just no safety protocol for handling the extremely likely situation of a battery fire at Robogames. I know Robogames doesn’t have the combination of Disney/ABC and Discovery Channel “fuck you” levels of money that BattleBots has so I understand that the event cannot afford to have a giant ventilation system installed in the ceiling of its arena but as I write this I’m looking on Amazon for “supplied air respirators”, which is what I think is the bare minimum you need in order to safely deal with a battery fire, and I’m seeing listings for systems that cost only a few hundred dollars. These supplied air systems look near identical to what Trey wears when he handles fires on BattleBots and there are several of those during a given day of taping the show. Point is there’s no excuse for someone to walk into an arena that’s rapidly filling with extremely toxic smoke without even so much as putting their fucking shirt over their nose to deal with a battery fire.

Robogames 2023 came to an end and it left a bad taste in everyone’s mouths because of the sheer ineptitude regarding event safety. Many participants gave lip service to the notion that they were done with Robogames and would not compete again, some of them for good and others out until Dave Calkins increased safety protocols to an acceptable level. In the immediate aftermath of the event I began writing the first draft of this post but as I said at the start of the page time just sorta got away from me and I never finished it. Months passed and I think collectively people sort of just forgot about how bad safety was handled at Robogames. As the 2024 event approached there was some idle chatter around the robot combat community regarding what modifications to safety, if any, were made. It seemed as though Robogames was on track to run again and curiously many builders who said they were “done” with the event wound up returning in some capacity. Hm.


The admin account of the Robogames Twitch channel literally lying to viewers in the aftermath of the Terrortops fight from 2023.

Something of note that made Robogames 2024 differ from the previous year is word got out just a couple weeks before the event that there would not be an official livestream. My initial reaction to this news, as well as the reactions of numerous other people, was that this was an intentional move by Dave Calkins as a way to try and stem the flow of information in case something bad happened again. If there’s no livestream that, for example, shows a whole ass panel of polycarbonate come crashing down from the ceiling then most laypeople would be none the wiser that some shit just went down. I wholly believed there were sinister intentions behind the lack of a livestream but in actuality the real reason is kind of funny. Allegedly when that chunk of Terrortops flew through the arena roof it made contact with the actual roof of the venue and damaged it. Whoever owns that property found out and this pissed them off to the point where they banned Robogames from ever returning there forcing Dave to find a new venue. (I should stress that this particular piece of information, that the fork from Terrortops damaged the roof of the 2023 venue, has not been substantiated. It is community conjecture fueled by Robogames’ sudden pivot to host its event elsewhere.)

Dave Calkins signed a deal with the San Jose Convention Center. At the time this agreement was finalized he was apparently completely unaware that the people who work in that venue are all members of various California unions. In the event that Dave wanted to run a livestream he would not be allowed to bring in his own crew, he would instead be obligated to hire members of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE) union. You might not know who they are but you’ll probably recognize their logo, it’s the one from that one They Might Be Giants album that sold really well in the early nineties. Anyways hiring union workers meant paying them union rates and Dave was absolutely not willing to deal with that shit so as a result there just wasn’t going to be a livestream for 2024. For all the shit I heap on Dave Calkins for his massive fuck ups at his own event this is the one thing I am willing to come down to his level on. One of the members of a team competing at the event offered to pay for the union workers and rather than accept the offer Dave not only rejected it but banned the person who made the offer from showing up at Robogames. I believe he also may have attempted to ban the people from the actual union itself too but I couldn’t find a clear answer on that.

Manta, aka “Public Enemy Number One”

As competitors began to trickle in to the Robogames 2024 venue they brought with them robots possessing the capacity to cause serious damage to each other and, more than likely, the arena. Despite the absolute shit show that was 2023 I cannot for the life of me find any kind of official communication from Dave or Robogames that acknowledged their safety shortcomings and laid out what they planned to do about it. Dude just straight up powered through the drama and assumed that after a year of relative radio silence everyone would forget. You want to know the fucked up thing about all of this though? That actually kind of worked. Manta, who won the heavyweight division in 2023 by way of destroying its opponents and the fucking arena in the process, returned with its full team. Terrortops was also among the returning competitors and so was Jackpot of BattleBots fame, however in accordance with those dumb licensing rules the robot was given a black and white paint job and renamed “Black Jack”. Bullion (that big two-wheeled silver brick that basically drove in a straight line and completely cooked its electronics) was also in attendance and I even sponsored that fucking robot this year and Dave fucked me because since there wasn’t a livestream the number of people who saw that sponsorship was astronomically low. Thanks, Dave.

It seems like absolutely nothing changed, however following the event from the sidelines of the internet proved difficult because no one could watch it live. A couple of absolute heroes streamed a large chunk of the show from their seats in the bleachers but other than that all everyone had to go by were photos and videos posted throughout the weekend by people who were there. One day into Robogames 2024 a picture was posted to the /r/BattleBots community on Reddit that showed a couple of people who’d climbed a ladder to reach the top of the arena where they appeared to be patching something with duct tape. People began speculating that another incident had occurred which turned out to be true; Manta was allowed back into Robogames without so much as a fucking tip speed limit and the first thing it did was blow a piece of newcomer Magnitude off and hurl it into the roof. However, there was now a second layer of polycarbonate on the arena ceiling and while the inside layer failed the layer behind it successfully deflected the shrapnel. I’ll give credit where due, this was a positive change and the two layers of 1/2” polycarb may have successfully prevented another goddamned piece of Terrortops or whoever from escaping the box…

Like throwing a (five dollar) hot dog down a hallway.

…is what I would be saying if that’s what wound up happening this year. Yeah, it happened again and wouldn’t you know the robot whose shrapnel broke loose was Terrortops. I know it’s not their fault but I’m reminded of that Phineas & Ferb quote about having a nickel for every time something out of the ordinary happened. You might be wondering how this piece of Terrortops left the arena then if I just got done telling you that the roof was like a dolphin’s asshole – watertight. As it turns out the entire perimeter of the arena was a time bomb waiting to go off from the start. When Terrortops was getting its shit pushed in by Black Jack its opponent landed a nasty hit that cleaved into the dino bot’s front end and blew off another one of those problematic forks. As the fork collided with the arena wall it made contact right on a seam where one polycarbonate panel ends and another one begins. The impact from the fork caused one of the panels to shift leaving a two inch gap in the wall. It was through this gap that the chunk of UHMW plastic connected to Terrortops’ fork escaped the arena and this time the debris hit someone.

Ironically the person hit by the debris was Bunny Liaw who was near the arena wall along with members of the Terrortops team (one of whom was also hit by the same debris). Thankfully she was not seriously injured and sustained only a bruise on her arm where the chunk of plastic hit her. You might recall Bunny as being the team captain of Malice (masquerading as White Rabbit). After what happened in 2023 she said she was washing her hands of Robogames. According to her account she had no plans to attend Robogames 2024 but was “forced to” (her wording) by her husband because he was involved with running/managing the tournaments for the smaller weight classes or something like that. (Several people raised concerns with Bunny’s choice of language to describe her obligation to show up to Robogames 2024 but she clarified that it wasn’t as serious as her words implied, just in case the phrasing of “forced to” raised a red flag for you like it did for me and many others.)

The Jedi mind trick did not work on Bunny.

What happened next is complicated because there are a couple of directions I want to take this write-up but I can only do one thing at a time. Let’s go with how Bunny reacted. Upon being struck with a piece of a heavyweight robot she immediately went to tell Dave Calkins that there had been a breach. This absolute shining example of what it means to be a caring human did the right thing upon hearing this news: he doubted Bunny’s report. She had literally just been clocked by a chunk of a robot moments prior and this motherfucker has the balls to say “I don’t believe you”. Actually I don’t even think saying Dave has the balls to reply in that manner is applicable here because his response is 100% a thing that would come out of the mouth of someone who did not have a dick and balls at all. I don’t know what his problem is. Genuinely. I don’t know if his response was a sexist thing or if he was dumb enough to fully buy into the idea that the perimeter walls were 100% impenetrable. We know they’re not because half a decade ago Whoops was drop kicked into the wall hard enough to fucking break it. Dave didn’t consider the possibility of a breach actually happening until Bunny chased down someone else – someone who had a penis this time – to also tell Dave that something bad had happened. The fight was stopped but Dave was later spotted on Facebook claiming that no breaches happened despite there being actual fucking video proof of one. What a piece of shit.

I have no fucking clue how someone can be told in no uncertain terms “I was just hit with something that flew out of the arena” and their immediate reaction not be “holy shit shut it all down”. Dave was there when Nightmare’s tooth left the BattleBots arena in 2003, he was a judge! He saw firsthand how a real robot combat event that’s actually worth a shit handled its business and it definitely did not involve Trey Roski cooly claiming that Nightmare’s tooth was still in the box while staring directly at it sitting in someone’s hands. This fucking clown is so – so – goddamned lucky that Terrortops’ fork broke apart and it was only the plastic that hit Bunny. If it was the other way around and the metal part left the arena instead she could’ve been seriously injured. We’ve all seen that video clip of the Indian kid catching half of a shattered bar spinner with his fucking face at an event where the arena wall was literally a chain link fence. (I’m not linking Liveleak-tier content from this blog, sorry. The kid survived though.) That’s exactly the kind of shit that happens when you don’t take arena safety seriously. Black Jack’s attack opened up a tiny two inch gap in the Robogames wall. The actual chances of something hitting that exact location and breaking loose are astronomically low but that tiny ass chance is still a number.

Blendo, the original liability.

To my knowledge this is the first time that someone has been directly hit by shrapnel leaving the arena in the entire history of American robot combat. We had a perfect record until Dave Calkins shit all over it by cheaping out on his event’s arena recycling the same old shit since W was in office. Last year Terrortops’ fork left the arena and landed on the floor without hitting anyone and that was the first arena breach at an American event in 20 years, ending another record run of safety. Back in 2003 when Nightmare’s tooth left the BattleBots arena it didn’t actually hit anyone either. To the best of my ability I looked into Blendo’s participation in Robot Wars and there’s an unsubstantiated claim that it may have “grazed” a spectator with something but no further detail is given; I think Blendo just frightened the event organizers because of the likelihood of something like that happening because in the source I found more attention was given to the fact that another piece of debris allegedly landed right in front of a lawyer. So yeah, this is the first time that someone’s been hit with debris ejected from the arena at an event on US soil. Good job Dave, you just won the BattleBots Update Giant Washer Award for Biggest Fuck Up in the Whole Ass History of American Robot Combat. I cannot articulate how pissed off this makes me because I have followed this sport since Bill Clinton was getting blowjobs under the table in the Oval Office and something of this magnitude has never happened before. It shouldn’t have happened at all. It’s 2024 not the goddamned Dark Ages, access to methods to suitably contain what happens in the arena and protect spectators from it is easier now than it ever has been. There is no excuse. None.

You know what really chaps my ass about this the most though? (I am actually straying way off topic now but like I said there’s only one direction I can take this at a time.) Builders – multiple builders – came out to loosely defend Robogames citing that because Dave had added a second layer of plastic to the ceiling that it demonstrated that he was taking safety “seriously” and was willing to adapt and keep up with the times. That sentiment was usually followed with some BS about safety protocols at robot combat events being an organic thing that evolves and changes over time. No, I don’t buy that absolute horse shit. Safety is not reactive. Safety is proactive. The Robogames arena prior to the 2023 event sat in storage for five years. Components deteriorate, polycarbonate weakens, shit like that happens. The likelihood of a breach was extremely high and there were a number of avenues Dave could’ve taken to reduce the chances of one happening. He of all people should’ve known that his 20 year old dollhouse wasn’t capable of containing robots of today’s caliber. The design rules of the event could’ve been amended to change the heavyweight class to have a tip speed limit (like BattleBots and most European events) or change the class to sportsman robots only (no high energy kinetic weapons) but Dave didn’t do either of those.

Flex Tape memes are still funny, apparently.

Not only did he not do a single fucking thing to take into consideration the condition of his arena but when the inevitable eventually did happen rather than change the trajectory of the event he allowed everything to continue forward without fixing a single thing while the arena itself betrayed his wishes by way of the giant fucking hole in its ceiling. His idea of tightening up the integrity of the event was to have the stream operator always be ready to cut the feed in case something else bad happened. And the second time the arena ceiling was damaged by shrapnel? He didn’t do a fucking thing either. By the time White Rabbit bumped an entire ceiling panel out of place the event was nearly over. So yeah, the guy laid an extra layer of polycarbonate down on the roof for 2024 but did he inspect the integrity of the perimeter panels and the framework holding them in? I doubt it. I’ll even go as far as to bet the arena framework is probably the same shit that was there in 2017 when Whoops knocked a panel loose. But I guess it’s not right of me to retroactively blame Dave in hindsight for not being aware of the problems with the perimeter wall. Safety is an organic thing after all. It evolves.

It would be shameful enough if the problems ended at the breach but this is Robogames we’re talking about here so you know it’s just going to get worse. The fight between Terrortops and Black Jack was eventually stopped and despite there being a goddamned gap in the wall (I assume the offending panels were adjusted back into place) the match was allowed to continue. For some reason unlike last year the Terrortops team didn’t immediately bow out of the match over safety concerns despite this year’s incident being remarkably worse than 2023’s. Black Jack spun its weapon back up to speed and landed another hit that critically damaged Terrortops, slicing into its armor several inches deep and striking its batteries. As you’ve probably guessed by now this resulted in another lithium-polymer battery fire that filled the arena with carcinogenic smoke. Did Dave use his Amazon Prime subscription in the off season to get free two day shipping on a respirator? Dave claims he did in a post he made to Facebook in one of the few times he’s responded to the accusations of running an unsafe event. The problem he claims is the people responsible for handling the battery fire just simply didn’t make use of the safety gear and went into the arena without it.

I don’t know what to make of the statement. On one hand I feel like Dave Calkins is an unreliable narrator because he has an incentive, I guess, to try and cover his ass now that people are actually getting hit by shit at his event. But at the same time I know there are people out there who are fucking stupid and will enter a dangerous situation (whether knowingly or unknowingly) and put themselves in harm’s way because of it. Do I believe there was safety gear present and it was ignored? In a way, yes. But do I also believe Dave is lying and there wasn’t any safety gear just like last time? Also yes. I wasn’t there, I didn’t see any of this pan out in real time. Apparently nobody else can corroborate this one way or the other so what we have here is Schrodinger’s Respirator, it is both there and not there at the same time in a sort of “superposition” until it is observed. Regardless of the status of the possibly non-existent safety gear there should’ve been a huge safety meeting after the 2023 event where the dangers of dealing with smoke from a battery fire were laid out in no uncertain terms. A pow-wow such as this would’ve prevented another unprotected trot through the arena in 2024 and we wouldn’t be having this conversation at all.

Black Jack’s power lights illuminating through the battery smoke.

Some of the builders and the more technically-savvy members of the community criticized the order of operations in how the battery fire was handled. To make a comparison to BattleBots again, because I know Dave just loves it when people do this, any time a person has to enter the arena for absolutely any reason at all whatsoever the first thing that is done is power is cut to the robots by way of their mandatory safety switches. Also, only one person is allowed in the arena when this is being done. When the fight was stopped again to deal with the fire Black Jack’s driver turned the robot toward the arena wall so that its most dangerous side wasn’t facing something soft and squishy like a person. Rather than shutting off Black Jack whoever it was that went in to handle the battery fire completely ignored the heavyweight robot and left it alone off to the side and focused on removing Terrortops from the arena instead. I think we’re beyond the era where everyone used 75 MHz airplane radios to drive their robots, which were subject to potential interference that could cause a robot to spontaneously come to life if it was powered on, and advancements in technology have significantly diminished the likelihood of interference happening. But there’s still a prescribed way of doing things that has been refined and followed for a quarter of a century and to disregard that, intentionally or accidentally, is just asking for trouble. Nothing came of this oversight thankfully but I agree with those criticizing the order of operations, it’s better to err on the side of caution 100% of the time.

Also because there is absolutely no ventilation system whatsoever at Robogames, not even one of those little portable wind tunnel things that BattleBots uses when someone first enters the arena, the smoke from Terrortops permeated the entire venue and exposed every single person in the audience and around the arena to toxic smoke. There was no evacuation protocol carried out, the safety of everyone who bought a ticket and paid to be there wasn’t considered in the slightest. People at the event who knew better such as builders and competitors left the venue and many of them on their way out cautioned the people in the audience around them, especially those with children, to do the same.


As Robogames 2024 mercifully came to an end there was an even larger ground-swelling of criticism from the robot combat community as a whole regarding the lack of care towards safety. Someone is going to get hurt. Hell, the circumstances for that to happen literally actually played out in their entirety this year; the only reason someone wasn’t seriously injured is because they were hit with a chunk of plastic and not a razor sharp piece of hardened steel. If something does not change then things will only continue to spiral further and further out of control. Robogames is an absolute disgrace and a blight on the robot combat circuit. In a sea of people throwing shit at each other online it was Dustin Esswein, builder of Deep Six and Depth Charge, who came forward as the voice of reason. In a Facebook post to the Robogames builders group he stated the following:

Builders are part of the problem, every builder knows that the Robogames arena is not okay for heavy spinners. Even with reduced tip speed, the Robogames arena cannot handle heavyweight spinners. We have to stop competing just because it’s fun to compete regardless of the danger. It is not just your life, it is also the spectators.”

Words of wisdom from the 2023 stream chat.

You know what? He’s right. This is the guy who isn’t allowed to participate in BattleBots because the monstrosity he designed caused too much damage to their fucking million dollar arena. He also built a robot that famously nearly breached the wall at an NHRL event. If anyone knows the real danger these kinds of robots pose it’s him. Every single person who continues to participate in Robogames – especially from this point onward – is complicit in promoting and supporting an event that demonstrably does not give one single iota of a shit about the safety of anyone there. I am one of the people included in Dustin’s post, I am not invulnerable to this. I witnessed for myself in real time the appalling lack of safety at Robogames in 2023 and do you want to know what I did about it? I criticized the event at the time and then later on made social media posts telling people to tune in to Gatorbox this year because I’d be hosting another commentary restream of 2024’s show. I also sponsored one of the robots competing at Robogames this year to promote the aforementioned streaming channel. I’m part of the problem, and I’m not the only one.

Change starts with the builders, the life blood of any robot event. If nobody shows up to fight then there isn’t going to be much of a show now is there? I get that there isn’t anywhere else to fight a heavyweight robot in this country aside from traveling to Las Vegas to do BattleBots’ Proving Grounds thing (which didn’t even exist at this time last year). But the Robogames arena shouldn’t even count as a place to fight heavyweight robots for the sole reason that it’s simply not safe. It’s not an excuse. It’s simply not okay to chuck safety to the side because of “muh heavyweight robot combat” and I will not entertain the drivel of anyone who claims otherwise. I’m with Dustin, I won’t be fucking with Robogames in any meaningful way from this point onward. No more BattleBots Update restreams, no more sponsorships, none of that. I implore you, each and every one of you, to do the same in the ways that apply to you. If you’re a builder, don’t compete. If you’re a podcaster, don’t give any lip service to this event. If you’re a content creator, don’t promote Robogames. And if you’re a fan who wants to experience robot combat live? BattleBots Proving Grounds is still happening as of the publication of this article. Yeah, the Proving Grounds versions of popular competitors are kind of dialed back and maybe it’s “not as exciting” but at least there isn’t the risk of grave injury or fucking death at BattleBots. Also Bil Dwyer is there, that’s a plus.

Anyways this article has gone on for long enough and I’ve said what I wanted to say on the matter. I accomplished what I set out to do which was to intimately highlight and step through how badly Robogames fucked up in 2023 and 2024 and have a bigger discussion about just how terrible this is for all of robot combat. This was a very different thing for me to write and I know it’s going to piss off a lot of people because I have Opinions™ about something divisive. I don’t really care. This blog has almost 5,000 followers on Facebook and this is something I feel so strongly about that I want anyone who’s still listening to hear. I know I’m burning bridges and goodwill especially among builders who are (or were, I guess) a fan of this website, but it’s been nearly a decade since BBU launched and honestly it’s probably near the end of its life. I’ll go out with a bang using the last of this project’s dying relevance to take Robogames down with me.

Until next time.

– Draco