Sponsored by Kloeckner: The Nostalgic Nerdy World of BattleBots
At the turn of the millennium, the early aughts held a special place for American pop culture. Before everyone got smartphones and social media accounts a few years later, we still shared a special connection to music, movies, and television. That was the beginning of the end of simpler times when we all gathered around the small screen to watch weekly episodes of our favorite shows before the instant gratification of binge-watching everything ruined us all.
Robot Wars Leads to First Wave of American BattleBots
In 2000, networks like Comedy Central reigned supreme for niche audiences, offering titles that came with more left-of-center content than the others. They also played with reformatting shows they hoped would resonate with its fringe base. One show that captivated the engineering, tech-savvy demographic was about robots. It was adapted from the San Francisco Robot Wars that had already been picked up in the UK. That’s how BattleBots was born, and Comedy Central trailblazed celebrating geek culture in a mainstream space over a five-season run.
As I was researching and learning more about the history, I was thrilled to speak with Al Kindle, an OG Robot Wars engineer from 1995 and current leader of the Blacksmith BattleBots team. Before he made his mammoth footprint in the combat bots space, he was just a guy who enjoyed radio-controlled truck racing with friends. It was when he saw a segment about Robot Wars on one of his favorite techie shows, The Next Step, that he became hooked, “This is the coolest thing I’ve ever seen.” He’s been building ever since, but he admitted when his team did compete on the Comedy Central version in 2000, “The bot was terrible, and we didn’t make it to air.”
While I was a fan of many Comedy Central shows, I wasn’t part of the BattleBots craze. When I got to sit down and talk with Jamison Go, an Additive Manufacturing Engineer, and leader of the SawBlaze BattleBots team; he reminisced about being a little boy who was quickly enchanted by the robotic combat program. For Go, he maintains he felt an instant excitement and love for watching them fight that led to a curiosity about how they were built. In many respects, tuning in each week fueled his passion for becoming an engineer, and he finally got his chance to bring his bot to the ring when ABC rebooted the series.
Blacksmith Becomes Kloeckner’s First BattleBots Sponsorship
Al Kindle spends his days as a Production Supervisor at a lab equipment company, though he claims the BattleBots commitment is a second, full-time job for him and his teammates. They began competing in the reboot in 2016 with no sponsors, “Our first bot was 4130 Chromoly square tube, welded in my driveway. It would have been next to impossible to repair.” When I asked how they came to us for sponsorship, he said they decided to build with AR500, and someone in the community told him, “Kloeckner Metals always has that in stock.”
After picking the closest branch and a random email address from the Kloeckner website, Kindle had unknowingly reached out to the perfect person for the job, Dave Schott, who’s the Regional Fabrication Manager at Kloeckner York, Pennsylvania. It was the 2018 season, and Kindle says that in working with Dave, he just asked if there was any hope for a sponsorship. He mentioned that the current Blacksmith model “costs $12,000 in steel alone and $30,000 altogether.”
Schott put Kindle in touch with Steven Nghe, Kloeckner’s Head of Marketing and Communications, who was “the driving force in making the sponsorship happen and now our bot is 99% Kloeckner steel.” Three years into their sponsorship, Kindle says, “So we send everything to Dave, and he fixes what we screw up…I consider him a good friend now.”
Robot Buddies, Tournament Repairs, and the Future
Kindle seems to have picked up a few other friends over nearly three decades, calling them “the old-timers,” himself included. He joked with a bit of honesty, “You don’t get into this for the money, but enough of my friends were dumb enough to say okay, and the problem is we keep saying okay… it’s an obsession, it really is, and you don’t know what works or doesn’t work until you’re there.”
This insight into cost brought us to the repairs they make during the two weeks of filming, and I told Kindle that I just imagined a bunch of guys fixing their robots in a hotel parking lot. Not quite, Kindle said the vendors and sponsors at the event set up shop for them.
When it comes to the equipment, “Everyone brings their tools and are willing to help each other out, even if it’s the person you’re going to fight next.” Al bragged on a few big names, “Lincoln Electric is an event sponsor, so they’ve got a team there with grinders and plasma cutters.” He added, “Haas brings in reps and tools, too. They had three or four big CNC Mills, which is fascinating to watch.”
When Kindle thinks about where his full-time hobby will take him, he told me there have been talks about “doing a live show in Vegas, so who knows how it will evolve.” He candidly went on, “It would be awesome if someday I could do this for a living. We have great sponsors now, but what if it turns into something like NASCAR. Who knows, you just have to do what you love while you can.”
SawBlaze Goes from Kloeckner Customer to Being Sponsored
The other Kloeckner sponsored Battlebots leader I got to chat with, Jamison Go, got involved in the reboot in 2016, but a desire to build a more robust bot in 2019 brought him to Kloeckner Metals as a customer. Knowing that Kloeckner doesn’t typically offer short order steel, I asked him how he was able to order from us. He quickly enlightened me, “We’re using a lot more steel than you think; with the damages and the way these things destroy each other, you have to build multiple copies of the same bot.”
“We started by purchasing 2-D cut steel and were so happy with the experience,” Go raved. Go also detailed how Dave Schott had once again put his consultative methods to work in the bot building world for SawBlaze. With Schott’s guidance, the initial request became a much cleaner process. Essentially, Schott became part of the team, recommending laser cutting, forming, and delivering options for more intricate parts through Kloeckner’s wide range of value-added equipment. With that rapport and Al Kindle’s blessing, Go said, “SawBlaze was able to jump on an opportunity to approach them [Kloeckner] about a sponsorship for the next season in exchange for advertising and sharing our experience with a variety of different audiences on social media.”
An Outsider’s Appreciation
As an outsider, I mentioned how impressed I was with SawBlaze’s savage win over Minotaur in the 2021 Discovery premiere, and I asked how they made the robot seem to dance in head-spinning, victory circles at the end of the defeat. Go rattled off something about “physics” and “gyroscopic precession.” We both laughed as I admitted that I was out of my depth, but when I told him my appreciation came from seeing the machines as art, he agreed, calling them “kinetic sculptures.” I thought that was beautiful.
Go encouraged my artist soul, “Creating an identity is part of the memorability. Uniqueness is celebrated in the design and the people involved; it’s not just about the performative qualities of the bot.” When I asked about the people, he quickly brought it right back to his nostalgia for the Comedy Central BattleBots era he grew up in, “This community grew out of a worldwide friendship that started 20 years ago. It’s all about fun and the love for building the machines.”
Who knows when BattleBots will end, or if it will evolve into something like NASCAR so Al Kindle can make a living playing with robots. It’s not something that had taken up any space in my mind before I started writing this article, but as someone who enjoys learning the quirks of different subcultures, I’m touched that Al and Jamison made time to teach me something new. I’ll be streaming their episodes on Discovery+ to root for the Kloeckner home teams, and I encourage you to do the same, or watch as it unfolds on Discovery. As I found out, it’s much more than a nerdy show about fighting robots. It’s an artform much different than my own, but understanding the chaotic repairs and watching them in the ring is electrifying for anyone who recognizes the intricacy that goes into the work.
Lauren manages internal and external communications at Kloeckner Metals, spearheading different programs that facilitate conversation throughout the entire organization, while enhancing company reputation across digital mediums. Lauren has 7+ years of experience in social media management, as well as copywriting for big brands from an ad agency position. She’s a graduate of the University of South Carolina, an AmeriCorps alumna, and a published storyteller.