It’s a tale as old as time: A group of engineers meet up in a former steel-working plant, and decide to build a giant robot.
California-based Gui Cavalcanti and Matt Oehrlein didn’t want to be Silicon Valley stereotypes, toiling away on some product that may never see the light of day. They wanted to do something fun and different, like develop a robot that a human could use to fight another robot. Like orchestrate robot fights so compelling that humans would want to watch them.
It took a year, but by June 2015, Cavalcanti and Oehrlein—founders of MegaBots Inc.—were ready to invite their first fight. The duo issued a public challenge to a giant robot built by Japanese artist Kogoro Kurata and his company Suidobashi Heavy Industry.
“Suidobashi: We have a giant robot, you have a giant robot. You know what needs to happen,” Oehrlein said in a video uploaded to YouTube. “Prepare yourselves and name the battlefield—in one year we fight.”
It’s been 19 months since MegaBots issued that challenge. While Suidobashi has agreed to the duel, and the video has been watched more than 7 million times, no robot fight has taken place, or been announced. Cavalcanti and Oehrlein say it will happen this year, but they’re also already thinking ahead—far ahead. Not just to the robot fighting league they plan to launch, and not just to the robot kit they hope will spur other tinkerers to get in on the game. MegaBots’ plan for total domination also includes becoming a multi-pronged media empire: running robot-fighting competitions, filming robot-fighting shows, selling robot toys, and maybe even making some robot-fighting movies.
It’s an ambitious plan—sort of like trying to combine the UFC, Battlebots, Transformers, and Hasbro—and its chances of paying off hinge mightily on what MegaBots produces over the next year.
Epic robot fights
Before you can take a robot into battle, you must build it. When the MegaBots team issued their challenge to Suidobashi, it was with the Mark II, a 15-foot tall, 12,000-pound robot that could fire giant paintballs from its arm cannons (and that Quartz tried out in 2015). But Cavalcanti and Oehrlein want the actual dueling to be done by an entirely new model, one they’re calling Mark III and plan to build from scratch. Mark II’s dismantling, and preparations for its successor, are being documented in a web series that MegaBots is currently airing on YouTube and Facebook. The episodes are reminiscent of the Discovery Channel’s MythBusters—an irreverent mix of explosions, fires, and scientific method.
“We’re starting to see a lot of engagement,” says Cavalcanti. “We just did a weapons-testing video [where] we presented five different weapons and asked people what their favorites were. The debates just raged on. It was like: ‘Oh no, the drill is crap! Oh no, the drill is great, but the spear is crap!’ Our audience is really starting to buy into the story as we open up ways for them to engage, which is pretty great.”
A new “episode” is released every month, and so far each one has averaged around 100,000 views on YouTube and closer to 1 million on Facebook.
The web series may be a way to maintain hype ahead of MegaBots’ first fight, but it’s also a proving ground for the idea of a media empire founded on dueling robots. The hope, Oehrlein says, is to train fans to “see the robot, know what it means, and have this expectation of what it’s supposed to do—and it’s supposed to have epic robot fights.”
As seen on TV
Cavalcanti and Oehrlein have raised a fair amount of capital to get MegaBots off the ground: more than $500,000 through a Kickstarter campaign (they sold robot merchandise like posters and 3D-printed figurines) and $2.4 million in venture capital. They say they’ve been approached by multiple networks about repackaging their existing content for television (and the inaugural fight), but remain wary of losing creative control.
“By relying on a network to popularize us, they would own part of our brand,” Cavalcanti explains. “We are genuinely going through our own version of film school to learn how to make this content. We need to be doing this so that when it actually comes time to talk to a network we can say, ‘OK, sure, we’ll be co-producers—we won’t be talent, we won’t be owned by a production company.'”
This is all assuming people actually want to watch robot fights, and robot-fight preparations, on television. Other companies trying to create a spectator sport out of technology—see: drone racing—are struggling for mainstream appeal, and even ABC’s Battlebots, currently on its seventh season, had to take a 13-year hiatus.
Of course, Cavalcanti and Oehrlein expect TV to be just one part of their dominion. “There are two halves to the equation,” Oehrlein says. “There’s the live-entertainment sports-league half—and that involves live events, ticket sales, [plus] selling t-shirts and posters and things of that nature—and then there’s the entertainment property half that’s more like TV deals, movie deals, toys, [and] videogame licensing. Something like Transformers, Star Wars, or Marvel—properties of that nature.”
Except those franchises have had decades to develop—a TV show eventually led to a movie, or a movie to a toy line, but rarely did everything happen at once. MegaBots is trying to launch everything pretty much at the same time, while also still garnering an audience. It’d be an unprecedented and impressive feat, if they manage it, but developing a fully-functioning battle robot might eat up more of MegaBots’ time and resources than expected.
Weren’t giant fighting robots awesome?
The feasibility of MegaBots’ aspirations will start to become clear this year, because the company has an aggressive timeline. Cavalcanti and Oehrlein plan to finish their YouTube series before the end of 2017, and Mark III along with it. Oehrlein says the location and circumstances of the fight with Suidobashi are settled, though currently subject to a nondisclosure agreement.
“And then we can turn to the world and say, ‘Weren’t giant fighting robots awesome?'” he says.
Next year is even more packed: That’s when MegaBots aims to launch its fighting-robot league. To foster the league’s success, the company plans to connect venture capitalists (“the Mark Cubans and the Richard Bransons of the world,” Oehrlein says) with engineers that want to build robots. They’ll also develop what they call a “Giant Robot Kit”—for an undisclosed fee, the kit will help teams build a robot from scratch in about six months.
These robot teams can then join MegaBots’ league relatively quickly, and spend the off-season making money through public appearances and amateur bouts. “Then, when you hit an annual release cycle,” says Oehrlein, “you can do things like release a new videogame, and a new toy line right before Christmas, and you can optimize for an entertainment world that runs on that sort of release cycle.”
MegaBots’ robot evangelism also extends to getting children interested in careers in science and engineering. “One of our goals is to inspire the next generation of scientists and engineers,” Oehrlein says. “That’s kind of why we want people to buy into the characters and attach to the team, and look up to engineers and scientists and builders as role models. We think that’s an important direction for the country to take right now.”
It’s a lot of ambition, especially for a company with no current revenue stream outside of venture capital and the occasional trade show appearance. Whether MegaBots’ grand designs will end up working out—check in on GoPro to see how a tech company that figured itself a media company has fared—is a big question, and one that can’t be answered until Mark III officially steps into the ring.