Machine battle reality show set to make debut. Wang Kaihao reports.
A competitor debugs a robot during the Roborave Asia 2018 held in Beijing. (HOU YU / PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)
The fighting arena weighs up to 230 tons, boasting bulletproof glass that can withstand the blast of a bazooka and reinforced steel protective plates.
Visitors are repeatedly reminded not to take photos, adding to the secretive nature of the surroundings.
But this is not a military base or sci-fi movie set - the studio on the southern outskirts of Beijing is actually the site of Clash Bots, an upcoming reality show featuring battles between robot combatants.
More than 30 teams of up to four people each from home and abroad are gathering for the program by iQiyi.com, one of China's major video-streaming media platforms.
Some people may think that playing with these robots is only for men. I don’t think so... It’s more about brains and agility than physical strength
Angelababy, Chinese actress
While the show is set to go online in March, its producers are still keeping most of the details under wraps. But there are clear similarities with US TV series BattleBots, in which competitors design and operate remote-controlled armed and armored machines to be top gun in battles lasting three minutes.
Still, Chen Wei, vice-president of iQiyi and chief producer of Clash Bots, wants to develop something new for Chinese audiences, many of whom have little knowledge of what the games are like.
The Chinese arena, for one, is said to be larger than its US counterpart.
"I'm only a few months earlier than the general public in China to really know what robot combat competition is about," Chen says, smiling. "But it's worthwhile to have a shot because the game can help showcase young people's struggles and their energy."
In April 2017, when Chen's team first contacted the US side to express interest in the show, those in the West had their doubts. "Do you have robot combat in China?" one of them asked.
Chen himself was surprised to find out there were already dozens of teams ready for robot combat all over China.
"Robot combat may have decades of history in the United States and Britain," Chen admits. "But we don't want to copy others' established models."
BattleBots in the US premiered in 2000 but it was suspended in 2002 after five seasons amid changes in audience tastes. But when its sixth season returned in 2015, Chen says its audience ratings rocketed and revived huge interest in the sport again.
Actor Lin Gengxin and actress Angelababy are among competitors on the arena of Clash Bots, an upcoming reality show on iQiyi. (PHOTO PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)
IQiyi is not the only one to ride the revival. Zhejiang TV first aired a similar show, King of Bots, in January. Youku.com, another main Chinese video-streaming media provider, is also set to roll out its This Is Bots program later this year.
King of Bots has a format close to the US show. Its crew has invited action superstar Jet Li as the guest and Huang Jianxiang, one of China's best-known sports anchors, as the commentator.
The first episode of the show, which offers a quick pace and fierce fighting scenes, received a modest 0.3 percent audience rating, according to statistics from media research group CSM.
"Women still dominate Chinese audiences in variety shows," Yang Zhifan, a Beijing-based TV commentator, wrote in an article in January.
"It'll take time for female audiences to get used to combat robots in China."
Yang considers Kings of Bots to be a "good beginning" and he expects upcoming shows like Clash Bots to develop more diverse and expressive formats.
Chen from iQiyi is certainly confident of creating new genres for Chinese variety shows.
"It's easier to organize a competition," he says. "But a reality show needs more stories, which can also be the more interesting part."
Chen reveals that cameras in Clash Bots will also be placed in competitors' room to offer a closer look at how they design machines, draw up combat strategies and size up opponents. The players are like the characters in storylines who take on different roles so that people can become more attached to them, he says.
Actor Lin Gengxin. (PHOTO PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)
To better attract young viewers, the show is also banking on some star attractions - actors Li Chen, Lin Gengxin and Sheng Yilun; as well as actress and fashion icon Angelababy, also known as Yang Ying, will be invited to join the teams.
While the four celebrities are all fans of computer games, they are new to the machines, which weigh at least 110 kilograms each. Unlike the privileged position of coach or judge offered in other reality shows, they will have to rely significantly on other players for help to control the robots.
"When you control a robot, it's like adopting a child," Lin says. "Emotional links have to be nurtured between me and the robot. I can only play better after that."
"Some people may think that playing with these robots is only for men," Angelababy adds. "I don't think so. Gender doesn't matter and I've met many talented female players here.
"It's more about brains and agility than physical strength. We're at the same starting line."
In the flesh
The production team also wants to give equal play to ordinary competitors, to allow them to tell their stories. Most of them are simply interested in machinery - students, blue-collar workers or farmers - who became diehard fans of robot combat.
Zhao Lixin, a veteran actor for both stage and cinema, is the anchor for Clash Bots. He cites the Welsh team Princess of Wales, comprising a 12-year-old girl and her father, as an example. The girl, the youngest participant of Clash Bots, showed great creativity and talent by designing a pink, dragon-shaped shell for her robot, he says.
Combating a robot called Atomic Bomb, Princess of Wales was soundly beaten and the girl was devastated. But Atomic Bomb circled around the "pink dragon" and chose not to give it a final death blow.
Zhao asked the player controlling Atomic Bomb later why he stopped attacking his opponent.
Actress Angelababy. (PHOTO PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)
"The player told me that because he found the father comforting his daughter, it would seem too cruel to topple it (Princess of Wales)," Zhao recalls. "He felt that participating in the game was like a gift given by the girl to her father, and she deserved some space to keep her dignity.
"At that moment, I understood what robot combat was about. Not just about fierce fights, but also the warmth and gentleness from kind hearts," says Zhao.
Yang, the TV commentator, considers the program to be a good attempt at broadening the appeal of combat robots, by adding more content that draws out people's emotions and to understand the competitors through their personal stories.
But focusing on the battles is still key, he says, because the robots are the main stars of the arena.
A robot must fight up to 19 game sets before it can win top spot but the machines will almost certainly not get through more than five sets before it needs major repairs, or be totally remade, he says.
"That will definitely add to the challenge," Chen says.
A smartphone game, online drama series, movie and theme park will also be developed from Clash Bots soon, he adds.
Perhaps even a machine hero like the tenacious boxer Atom in Real Steel, a 2011 Hollywood film starring Hugh Jackman, will rise in Chinese cyberspace later this year.
The producer also expects his upcoming show to trigger young people's aspirations for Chinese manufacturing. While the custom-made steel in robot combat can be produced in China, Chen confesses that many competitors prefer foreign electric engines for better stability and control.
"China is still lagging in some industry sectors," he says. "If the game becomes popular and more people get inspired by it, our technology will probably also improve."
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