Television
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Chicago gamer boxes 'bots in Syfy's 'Robot Combat League'

Keisha Howard's wildest video game fantasy came true as a contestant on Syfy's new competition series "Robot Combat League."

The 28-year old Lakeview resident was recently chosen as one of a dozen "robo-jockeys" for the show, which pits 8-foot-tall, half-ton humanoid robots against each other in a series of arena-style boxing matches to compete for a $100,000 prize. The bot-on-bot action resembles Hugh Jackman's hit movie, "Real Steel"—the shadowboxing moves of exo suit-wearing operators directly translate into metal-on-metal jabs.

"Robot Combat League," hosted by WWE wrestler Chris Jericho, debuted Feb. 26 and drew 1.3 million total viewers. It airs at 9 p.m. Tuesdays on Syfy.

Howard is used to duking it out with virtual bad guys on Xbox and PlayStation, as the founder of a female gaming organization in Chicago called Sugar Gamers. But nothing could truly prepare her for this grown-up version of "Rock 'Em Sock 'Em Robots."

"I'd never really done anything like this before. I'm not a fighter, I'm a gamer," Howard told RedEye. "It sounded a little bit like the [Xbox motion controller] Kinect, where it mimics your movements, but it's a totally different experience once you're actually doing it."

The hydraulic-powered machines are actually operated by teams of two: a fighter ("robo-jockey") and an engineer ("robo-tech"). Howard was the one throwing the uppercuts for Team Game Over, while Swedish robotics engineer Annika O'Brien controlled the bot's legs and fixed up broken wires and leaking fluids between rounds like a tech-savvy corner man treating a boxer's black eye.

The 12 robots featured in "Robot Combat League" were created and designed by robotics expert Mark Setrakian ("Hellboy," "Men in Black"). Each machine boasts its own unique design, strengths and weaknesses. "Medieval," for instance, was fitted with chain mail coverings and metal crests so that it resembles an armored knight from medieval Europe.

Howard was initially worried that her all-female team would be stuck with a "pink, super-girly robot," but the automaton, also named Game Over, is a hulking steel creation with a static-filled video monitor as a head.

"I loved it. It could not have been more perfect in concept," Howard said. "It was one of the biggest and tallest and the screen made it feel a little creepy, in a good way."

The 24 contestants had about two weeks to prepare for bouts, which included participating in some challenges against small sparring bots.

"I also played some fighting [video] games like 'Soulcalibur' to practice fighting and see moves being executed on screen," Howard said.

Each fight in "Robot Combat League" consists of three rounds. Judges observe and crown a winner based on points or a technical knockout that renders a 'bot unable to move. In Tuesday's premiere, a robot called Steel Cyclone takes on Crash, a 'bot controlled by a pair of Portland-based software engineers. Howard is seen doing drills with a sparring robot, but she and Game Over compete later in the season.

"It's crazy when you're in there," Howard said. "Seeing the sparks fly and the hydraulic fluid fly around and the noise from the crowd out there cheering ... It was epic."

Besides the tech engineers and the gamers, some of the other robo-jockeys chosen were a race car driver, a National Guard helicopter pilot, and former Olympians and athletes--including "Star Wars" creator George Lucas' daughter Amanda, a Mixed Martial Arts fighter. The athletes had the physical advantage, Howard said, but robot fighting rendered that edge somewhat moot.

"Those guys are used to physical feedback that tells them if they are getting hurt or hurting their opponent," said Howard. "This was more like gaming, where you fight without the feedback and it's more about focus and hand-eye coordination."

Howard wasn't ready to spoil the ultimate winner of the "Robot Combat League," but she did say that the show was a perfect fit for her.

"I didn't want to be part of a reality show where it's like 12 girls competing for one penis," she said. "I wanted to be part of something that required skill and intellect, so this was perfect."

"This wasn't 'Jersey Shore.' The show is full of nerds and a lot of very accomplished people."

Howard is hosting a viewing party beginning at 8 p.m. Tuesday at Cuna, 1113 W. Belmont.
Ryan Smith is a RedEye special contributor.

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Copyright © 2015, RedEye
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