This past Sunday night was the first really frigid night of the year, a night with the kind of weather that left the streets barren and delayed flights at O’Hare. But folks of all sorts, many even in costume—including a guy in a full-on purple-velvet Mad Hatter suit and top hat—crammed into Emporium Arcade Bar in Wicker Park to witness the return of Robot Riot, an event that its organizers describe as “the backyard wrestling of robot fighting.”
The rules are pretty simple: robot builders bring in their homemade creations, remote-controlled battle bots that are small enough to duke it out on a tabletop. The robots engage in one-on-one fisticuffs, a sort of “robot sumo” where the object is to knock an opponent off the table or render it immobile. If the one-minute round doesn’t produce a clear winner, one is chosen by the volume of the crowd’s cheers, though with the shocking amounts of beer being consumed by everyone in the room, it was hard to keep track of who the cheers were for.
It was the first Robot Riot in Chicago in about a year, so excitement in the room was especially high. The event’s organizers, Adrian Choy and Joe Piro, had spent the bulk of 2018 traveling with the Museum of Science and Industry’s hands-on Robot Revolution exhibit, spreading their robotic obsessions with kids all over the country. Now the two are stationed in Chicago again and ready to make Robot Riot a regular occurrence. This weekend was the sixth since 2015, and judging from the packed, rowdy room, it’s an understatement to say that it’s grown from its humble beginnings.
Choy hosted that first battle at the now-closed Geek Bar in Wicker Park. He built six of the eight robots that went at it that night, handing them out to random people in the small 20-person crowd. He describes the genesis of Robot Riot as a way to combine his love of creative technology with his interest in Chicago’s “weird underground-events scene,” citing the Windy City Rollers and the Chicago Lady League of Arm Wrestlers as inspirations. Choy also says that he started Robot Riot because he “needed something cathartic to deal with the baggage in my life.” It doesn’t get much more cathartic than crushing beers and watching miniature robots smash the snot out of each other.
There was a lot of ingenuity on display on the battle table at Emporium. Robots used wedges, nets, hammers, and glitter cannons to incapacitate their foes. But no fighter used advanced technology quite like Cheat Day, a tower-shaped bot topped with a doughnut. Cheat Day’s movements weren’t steered by a remote control like the rest of his competitors, but by wires attached to a pint of beer and a doughnut held by its creator. When the snacks reached the operator’s mouth, Cheat Day would move.
The problem was that all the beer in the pint was gone before the round’s 60 seconds was up, leaving Cheat Day unable to properly function and vulnerable to a beating from its opponent. Clearly not a winning strategy, but based on the uproarious crowd reaction, Cheat Day was the night’s clear fan favorite. It’s too bad it didn’t take the championship though, considering one of the grand prizes was a $30 gift card to Stan’s Donuts. That honor went to Nature Bot, built by Carlos Garcia and piloted by Ken “Filipino Flair” Seli, a team-up that Choy describes as “a force of nature.”
Now that Choy, Piro, and Robot Riot are back in Chicago, they’re looking to move things to another level. “I like the dirty-basement punk rock aesthetic we got going on, but I want to see how big and loud we can make this show,” says Choy. “I want to get the complete Wrestlemania vibe at some point—smoke machines, lasers, intro music, the works.”
For as rowdy and over-the-top as the energy of Robot Riot is, Choy sees it as an educational community event. “I want to make sure that we create an inclusive environment and continue to draw in amateurs who want to build robots but never have before,” he says. “I want everyone in the crowd to think, ‘I can do this too.’ Most of our competitors don’t have any experience coding or soldering circuits, but we do what we can to hook up would-be fighters with resources so that they can turn their drunken bar-napkin doodles into combat robots.” v