Geek Games Go Mainstream
by Gareth Branwyn for Digital Living Today

When you think of ESPN2, what do you think of? Tennis? Sure. Soccer? Maybe. Extreme Games? All too often. Workout shows? Every afternoon. OK, so ESPN2 may be the place for odd and second- or third-tier sports, but imagine my shock when I tuned in the other morning and saw the "Magic: The Gathering World Team Competitions." I almost lost my Cappuccino. You heard me right: Magic: The Gathering, the Dungeons & Dragons-like card game was being given the ol' Wide World of Sports treatment, with stripe-shirt referees, an eww-ing and gasping bleachersfull of spectators, hushed-voiced color announcers, the works. These players are now pros, with endorsement deals, sponsors and big-money purses.

This would be amazing in and of itself if you weren’t part of a larger trend of geekly pursuits being turned into mainstream entertainment. Last year, PBS ran Robot Wars, televised bouts between miniature radio-controlled robots that try to kick each others' titanium butts. TLC followed up with Junkyard Wars, a British import where two teams of geeks and gearheads are let loose in a junkyard and given an assignment to build a competitive machine within ten hours. One show had two teams trying to build a device on a floating platform that could raise a submerged mini-bus and deliver it to shore, another involved a flying vehicle, while another, the final episode, gave two teams the difficult task of building walking vehicles that could run a race with the teams on-board. Given the fact that the two teams where both comprised of surly bikers, this was no small feat. Junkyard Wars was a huge hit for TLC and is slated to come back in December.

Finally, in our roster of geek games is BattleBots, Comedy Central’s heavily promoted, heavily rotated answer to Robot Wars. Obviously nervous about the limited market for a robot fighting show, Comedy Central has tried to expand the audience to include the wrestling crowd with two annoying thick-necked ex-football announcers, a "Baywatch Babe," and a tuxedoed "in-this-corner" fight announcer.

If you’re as intrigued with these shows as we are (OK, so the Magic show is a little like watching paint dry), here’s a guide to some cool companion Web sites:

  • Comedy Central

    This is the official page for Comedy Central’s BattleBots program. Includes a few clips, the rules, profiles of cast and some of the bot builders, the latest standings — pretty basic stuff.

  • BattleBots

    Most people may not know that Battlebots existed long before Comedy Central got hold of it. This is the original Battlebots site and it’s loaded with goodies. It not only has pictures and background info on the bots, but it has links to all of the robot teams’ Web sites, making it a veritable fighting robot portal. There’s even a builder’s forum for talking shop and links to several building tutorials.

  • Junkyard Wars

    The official site has some RealVideo clips of some of the competitions, the rules, info on the second season, and a link to the original British site.

  • The New England Rubbish Deconstruction Society

    A great site by one of the favored Junkyard Wars competitors. Also has oodles of links to other competitors’ sites.

  • Robot Wars

    Batlebots may be getting more attention, but the folks at Robot Wars started the whole sport. Their site has similar content to Battlebots, but also includes streaming video of robot matches. There’s also a link to the TV show’s Web site.

  • Magic: The Gathering

    If you didn’t get enough blistering fantasy card wielding action on ESPN2, you can get all your hard drive can handle on the official site. Look out though: "The Phyrexians have invaded Dominaria!" I have no idea what that means, but it sounds ominous.

See also: