A Rookie on the Inside
Updated: Apr 27, 2021
The following is an attempt to capture the highlights of what it’s like to be a BattleBots rookie with Team Witch Doctor. The experience was much more than what’s written here, but these are definitely the most impactful parts for me.
I first met Mike and Andrea from Witch Doctor in Detroit, MI during the 2017 Power Racing Series (PRS) held at the Detroit Maker Faire. Our mutual friend, Jason (Tantrum), had invited them to check out the madness and add them to our Lazy Gecko racing team. I did my best not to flood them with questions as I felt I had to “play it cool” in front of these people that have very interesting backgrounds and hobbies. Towards the end of our first race there was talk of getting the Lazy Gecko crew down to the next PRS race at Maker Faire in Orlando, FL. That’s where I really started to get to know Mike and Andrea.
After the first day of racing in Orlando, Mike and Andrea asked about my interest in competing on BattleBots. At that point in time I never would have imagined that I would have an opportunity to do something like that. Much like committing to the Orlando race, I jumped at the opportunity. I had only talked with Mike and Andrea over a couple days while hanging out at the track, but I knew I had met some good people. From there, we coordinated with the whole team through group calls to hand out sub-tasks to each member. My first task was to design a controller to interface to the fire system Paul had been working on. Paul and I passed some designs back and forth and I set out to make the fire barrel.
I met most of the Witch Doctor team in person during a build weekend marathon at their MakeMIA Makerspace in Miami, FL. The two main objectives of the weekend were to test out the prototype fire barrel and get most of the robot put together. I had a major case of imposter syndrome when I arrived, as I had only competed in a smaller, cardboard-based combat robot tournament once before. What did I know about building a 250 lb mayhem machine? When I arrived at the Witch Doctor shop in Miami after my flight I jumped at whatever I could help with. I ended up tapping holes for about 5 hours that first night. I had my old electrical mentor’s voice in my head telling me “Don’t you mess up my threads!’’ The next day I started out helping Chiri, our chief of all-things-spray-paint, with prepping parts to paint. The entire weekend I got to find out more about these new friends and I also got a glimpse of what was to come with us hanging out for two weeks straight during BattleBots filming.
After a couple of months, I met back up with Witch Doctor on location to film the show. It was impressive walking into the pits for the first time and seeing a visible fog indoors because the building was so massive. It took me a couple days to adjust to being in the place I had seen on TV for so long. In those first couple days stumbling around trying to get my feet under me without people noticing, I started to learn the cadence of the competition. I learned what time we arrived, what gets worked on first, what isn’t a big deal and what IS a big deal in terms of damage on the bot, how the lunch system works, where the cleaner restrooms were, when matches where on, who to gab with, and that Andrea always has a good idea of what is going on, whether it’s with our team or the show schedule. There were moments when we were focused on the robot and time flew by, and other moments that felt like an eternity because we were just hanging out and waiting for something to do once the robot was put back together.
The time between matches was something that stood out to me the most. The closest experience I’ve had to BattleBots is 10 years of First Robotics Competition (FRC) experience as a student and mentor. In FRC, your turn-around time from match to match could be 8 minutes if you were unlucky, or up to 45 minutes or sometimes even longer. At BattleBots, you would have maybe a match per day until the end tournament picked up its pace, at which point you’d be fighting multiple times a day. It took a while to come out of spectator mode and realize that I was helping make something I’ve always enjoyed watching on TV. It hit me that I was there on the ground, helping make repairs, reassembling, filing, and cleaning off one of the most recognizable robots in the tournament. And I still struggle with that realization to this day.
When you’re finally queued for a match, you get to sit in a section of seats almost underneath the audience, but still behind them. You get a monitor with a feed of the match, and you feel the energy of the fans and the bots that collide in the box. While waiting for your match, you sit with your opponent who’s in the next match with you. I don’t know what I expected, but I was caught off-guard by how friendly the teams were. I started to get a good sense of the community that ties the bot builders together. Most of the teams have been competing with each other for over 10 years, and they always run into each other at events. This made matches more interesting. I got to see the friendships before the matches, the hard competitive drive during the match, and the camaraderie after the results and the cameras panned away.
For one of the matches, I got the chance to operate the arena hammers. You get a giant red button to press and the hammers fall. There’s a bit of a delay, but knowing you got to influence the match - even a tiny bit - was amazing. My 9-year-old self was cheering me on every time the hammer connected with the opposing robot.
At the end of the day, the Witch Doctor team always ate as a family. And like most families, choosing where to eat was always interesting. I would help pick out restaurant options and find something on the menu that each person would probably eat. For me, food is a way to experience a new location and I try to pick restaurants that I can’t experience back at home. (Rick’s Food Reviews in a later issue will cover all the places we ate and where I would go back).
When I’m asked “What do you do on Team Witch Doctor?’’ it’s hard for me to come up with something other than “I spectate an amazing group of people as they turn their passion into reality, and occasionally I add some small projects into the mix.” From everything I’ve been lucky enough to do with Team Witch Doctor, becoming a part of the VooDoo family has got to be the best part. Their straightforwardness and crisp feedback is refreshing, and if you can handle the momentum of the feedback you’ll ultimately get to a better solution. I think this philosophy is applicable not only to engineering but to the continuous improvement of the human experience. I know that it’s helped me.
Watch a video of a Witch Doctor build day at