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Are Giant Robot Competitions the Next New Thing in Sports?

In front of an industrial warehouse in Hayward, California, Gui Cavalcanti and Matt Oehrlein, co-founders of MegaBots, are overseeing the testing of weaponry that will be fitted onto a 16-foot high combat robot they’re building. At their direction, a tester deploys a variety of tools to cut, grind and bore at a prototype of their opponent. Finally, an industrial-strength grappler grabs the hulk’s metal arm, rips it off, and tosses it on the ground.

“I did not expect any of that to happen,” says Cavalcanti. “That’s pretty cool.”

The weapons—which include tree shears, a carbon-tipped buzz saw and something called a trencher—will be the fighting part of Mark III, a robot they are building to go up against a Japanese robot as part of a nation-to-nation face off. They hope the clash will launch a multi-billion dollar sports entertainment industry built around giant robot combat—in essence, video games translated into real life.

“The idea of robots coming to life and fulfilling these sci-fi fantasies is a hugely, hugely popular one,” says Cavalcanti, pointing to the success of the Transformers franchise.

To demonstrate a proof of concept for their new sports industry, they threw down the gauntlet to a Japanese robot company, Suidobashi Heavy Industry, in a June 2015 video. It featured Cavalcanti and Oehrlein, draped in American flag capes, operating Mark II, a 15-ton, paint cannonball-throwing robot, and it has garnered more than 7 million views. It was the first step in a process that will lead to a televised death match between the two companies’ robots, most likely next year.

The idea for giant robot competitions is the brainchild of company co-founders Cavalcanti, a graduate of Olin College of Engineering, and Oehrlein, a University of Minnesota alumnus. They both have backgrounds in engineering large hydraulic systems such as those at the heart of large mechanical warriors like Mark III.

They envision a future in which giant robot teams compete in the same way NFL and NBA teams compete currently. The teams will develop fan bases and brands of their own, sparking a cascade of related businesses—TV deals, movie rights, merchandising and toy sales, among others.

MegaBots will earn some money making robot kits for the teams to assemble their own robots and by staging competitions. The big money, though, is in the related businesses.

“Really, we’re setting up our marketing streams right now,” notes Cavalcanti.

To build excitement the company has hired a video production crew to document the process of building the Mark III, the robot that will fight the Japanese competitor. That robot, dubbed Kuratas, is a passion project of Japanese artist and blacksmith Kogoro Kurata. It is available on Amazon Japan for just over a million dollars.

MegaBots is planning a ten-episode season of videos, like the weapons-testing video, to be released on YouTube and FaceBook. The videos they have released so far have garnered upwards of a million views per episode on those platforms.

Cavalcanti is a 2009 graduate of Olin.

“This feels very Olin,” says Cavalcanti. “It’s an incredibly tough technical challenge combining arts and humanities in a very, very real way. The success of the company is not linked to the technical success of the robot, it’s linked to the entertainment we can generate from a successful robot.”