Rock Em! Sock Em! Sue Em!

Legal battles decked the wildly popular Robot Wars competitions. Now a challenger has arisen to save the sport.

A Robot Wars Forum appeared on the Internet, moderated by Carlo Bertocchini, a robot builder from Belmont. Among the postings about wheels and Vantec speed controllers were discussions about Profile and the dispute. Plotnicki's attorneys contacted Bertocchini, asking to enlarge the Web site's disclaimer that explained it was not officially connected to Robot Wars. Bertocchini refused, saying his existing disclaimer was sufficient.

A posting went up on the forum, announcing a new event called Robotica, produced by Bay Area roboteer and computer programmer Gary Cline, scheduled for August 1998 at the Cow Palace. Builders started registering their robots and booking San Francisco plane flights and hotel reservations.

Another posting appeared in July, announcing a 1998 Robot Wars event in August at Fort Mason, to be produced by Mentorn, the British production company that licensed Robot Wars for the U.K. Three weeks later another posting announced it was canceled, due to lack of support.

Between matches, members of Team Minus Zero perform surgery on Frenzy.
Don Lewis
Between matches, members of Team Minus Zero perform surgery on Frenzy.

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To Plotnicki, Cline and Bertocchini were infringing upon the Robot Wars name, taking over its goodwill. Both men were veteran competitors in Robot Wars events. Bertocchini's Biohazard robot, a titanium-covered marvel of simplicity, was the reigning heavyweight champion, and very popular among both crowds and builders.

Plotnicki sued them both.

Bertocchini settled out of court, and gave up the Internet forum. He does not want to talk about the case.

Cline insists he did nothing wrong.

"It was a party. That's all. I was sponsoring it. I charged no admission. Everybody loved it. People just wanted to have an event. I was the sponsor. The fucking asshole sued me for $30 million. It's like, forget it, you know? He blames everybody else for his bad reputation."

With one week to go before Robotica, Cline canceled it, and settled the lawsuit. He ended up spending $15,000 out of pocket, some of which went toward printing up Robotica T-shirts.

"I'm sure homeless people are wearing them right now," he says.

Whatever antipathy the robot community might have previously felt toward Plotnicki was now more solidified than ever. These lawsuits weren't just directed at Marc Thorpe. Now it was personal. How could he sue people like Cline and Bertocchini? They helped create the very sport. Do you need permission from the NFL to throw a football in your back yard? Disgusted, some participants turned their back on the sport entirely. Others, like Team Blendo, opted to wait until the dust settled. Builders expanded their personal Web sites to include more information about Profile and the ongoing legal actions.

Model builder Jim Smentowski started following the conflict, and constructed a comprehensive Web collection of legal documents and Internet postings. His site includes an anonymous forum, where robot people log on, call each other names, and bitch about Plotnicki and the fate of Robot Wars. From his position as unofficial chronicler, Smentowski sees that the community is still buzzing.

"Everybody that's out there is either they don't care, or if Marc's gonna be involved, they want to be involved. There's been a lot of people who said, 'Screw it.' It's unfortunate. Robot Wars was getting to the point where it was going to be huge."

Unable to meet his debts, and still facing $8.9 million in legal actions from Plotnicki, Marc Thorpe filed for bankruptcy.

With no Robot Wars events on the horizon, the Robot Wars Web site remained frozen. The official Robot Wars Forum was listless and boring. Roboteers wondered what was going to happen next. If anything.

In February of this year, Trey Roski incorporated the name BattleBots, opened an office South of Market, and drew up his own set of rules for another robotic combat event. An early Robot Wars competitor, Roski had also designed the Robot Wars Web site and helped promote the events at Fort Mason.

Now he was going to save the sport he loved, and Roski had the resources to do it. His family claims to be the largest real estate developer and property owner in Los Angeles, and owns portions of the Los Angeles Kings and Los Angeles Lakers sports teams.

The following month, a court finally approved a settlement between Thorpe and Plotnicki. The primary points were these: Thorpe had to give up all interest in anything Robot Wars, was not to compete in any robotic events for five years, and was told by the court to serve as an ambassador of goodwill. He was obligated to promote Robot Wars, disclose all competition of which he was aware, and in a particularly bizarre clause was ordered to rehabilitate the reputation of Plotnicki and Robot Wars, an impossible task for any one man. (Although the litigation is settled, Plotnicki believes Thorpe's bankruptcy is phony, and continues pursuing those people who loaned Thorpe the necessary money for him to file bankruptcy, including Trey Roski.)

Plotnicki then sent out a release, optimistically announcing the settlement, the formation of Robot Wars LLC, and the plans for a San Francisco Robot Wars event in August.

At approximately the same time, Roski announced he was producing the first-ever BattleBots event, to be held in Long Beach, one week earlier than Robot Wars.

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