One week ago, university students from across China gathered in Shenzhen to compete in the finals of the 2017 RoboMaster competition.
The competition, in case you didn’t infer by now, is a team-based robotic fight to the death. There hasn’t been much interest in robot fighting in the US in recent years, but I remember being glued to the TV screen with my brother in the early 2000’s, watching BattleBots with untainted fascination. The cybernetic carnage of the lifeless machines, goring each other with axes, drill saws, and flamethrowers was everything a kid in that time could hope for.
If I’m being honest, at first comparison, RoboMaster seems kind of lame. There are no weapons. There are no robot knockouts, where one bot succumbs to damage and bursts into flames. The fighting is all done by beams and sensors, essentially reducing the 21st century gladiatorial spectacle of a robot deathmatch to a game of laser tag. But there are some elements that make RoboMaster interesting and unique in its own right.
Right off the bat, the team-based competition structure is worlds away from the one-on-one no holds barred robot fighting of my youth. There are five kinds of robots: hero, standard, engineer, base, and aerial. Hero and standard do the bulk of the damage, engineer can pick up obstacles and use them to hamper opponents, base is like a stationary turret that your team has to protect, and aerial is a drone. You didn’t think China would let this shindig go off without drones, did you?
So it’s not the MMA (mechanical martial arts) battle of my childhood that I look back on so fondly. But it is managing to tap into some of the major currents affecting Chinese youth today – things like e-sports, technology, money, and the struggle to elevate oneself to a position of unique respect among one’s peers. And drones.
China Global Television has an on the ground look at the finals, which you can check out above.