A National Havoc Robot League photo from Sept. 2022. A National Havoc Robot League photo from Sept. 2022.

The National Havoc Robot League had its first event of the year on January 28, “New Year, New Bots.” However, that event wound up attracting much more attention over the following month-plus, thanks to clips from it taking off on TikTok. NHRL executive producer Michael Kane spoke to AA via email about that, and said TikTok has been a key part of growing not just their audience, but also their competitor pool.

“TikTok has expanded our social audience, and attracted new competitors to our events,” Kane said. “The thing about NHRL and combat robotics is that there’s a huge untapped audience out there—once they discover us on TikTok they join our community and grow with us. People of all ages love the action, the fire, the explosions, and the sheer brilliance of our competitors.”

Kane said TikTok was always on the radar for the NHRL, but they’ve recently expanded their focus on it.

“We always knew our sport was a perfect fit for TikTok. As our builder base grew and resources became more available, our team was able to package content specifically for TikTok regularly, which has led to exponential organic growth on that platform.”

He said TikTok is a particular fit for them given the way it emphasizes early-in-clip moments.

“TikTok is about instant gratification. Our content captures your attention within the first 2-3 seconds, and it’s highly shareable. Our TikTok has organically grown by 10X in the past few months. We will continue to tailor our content to each individual platform.”

Here’s one of those TikTok videos from the January event, which has picked up more than 106,000 likes to date:

@norwalkhavoc (Mildly) aggressive booping as a weapon. 2022’s Sparky award winning Rookie of the Year Tom Farkas came to January’s 2023 event with the cutest collection of cat mechanical creation: Pawsitively Hissterical. All robots must have an active weapon to compete at NHRL, and it seems booping qualifies. #cat #nhrl #boop ♬ original sound – NHRL – Robot Combat League

Kane said that January event stood out for more than just TikTok, though, as it’s a recurring “New Bots” event, and one that’s long drawn interest from both builders and fans.

“New Bots is one of our most popular events of the year. It’s so much fun for builders and spectators. You can see the genius of the builders come out in unexpected ways because you have to start from scratch whether you’re a new or more experienced builder. There’s room for anyone who wants to compete and it’s a showcase for intelligence and innovation as key components to the sport.”

@norwalkhavoc “What kinda Looney Tunes sh*t is that!?” One massive hit from EVA is powerful enough to knock off the wheels of Squire and win the 30lb Final at January’s NHRL. “We’re gonna see that one on replays forever” #nhrl #battlebots @SportsCenter NEXT ♬ original sound – NHRL – Robot Combat League

With viral clips, there are often questions about how to make that work for an organization in a tangible way going forwards. Kane said TikTok success is useful to drive people to the NHRL website, and that in turn helps promote upcoming events, such as their “March of the Bots” on March 18 (streaming live on YouTube at 10 a.m. ET).

“TikTok is one strong tool for discovery that consistently leads users to our website where we have all of the event and streaming details, and information to help new competitors get involved in the sport. We will use all distribution channels to promote our events, including the March of The Bots event on March 18th.”

@norwalkhavoc This is Hotshot. A 30lb fighting robot based around a jet engine. You might remember the first version of this robot: Flameout. It’s had a huge upgrade, now has armor and a full drive system. It’s designed to blast other robots away whilst doing lots of heat damage to their internals. It still needs further upgrades but it’s an assault on all the senses in real life combat. #nhrl #jetengine #fyp ♬ original sound – NHRL – Robot Combat League

Before taking this NHRL role, Kane spent two decades in the media world, including work at CNN and NBC Sports. At NBC Sports, he founded that company’s Sports Idea Lab. He said his past experiences have been incredibly helpful in growing the NHRL, and they’ve taught him the need to serve both existing fans and new fans.

“I’ve been very fortunate in my career to work alongside the best in the business, and utilize the best techniques and strategies in production and programming. We approach NHRL’s live stream and content capture as a traditional sports event. We’re engaging our loyal fans through longform and make it easy for new fans to discover us on social. The typical response for someone who hasn’t watched us before is a bit of ‘I need to know more about this, it’s amazing.’ Then, they’re hooked.”

NHRL executive producer Michael Kane.
NHRL executive producer Michael Kane.

While there are many robot combat events out there, Kane said the NHRL stands out thanks to the quality of its builders and its events (a photo from a September 2022 one is seen at top).

“NHRL features the best builders in the world. Period. What sets us apart is the experience. Builders come from all over the U.S. and travel from countries like the UK and Brazil, just to compete in our state-of-the-art facilities against top competition. The community is growing so quickly we’re becoming a live spectator sport–fans know they will have an amazing experience that brings them up close to the action.”

And he said their overall approach includes working towards different distribution deals.

“Everything we do in the production of NHRL is building towards the future. We are going to grow the league well beyond its current state. You’ve seen a bunch of upstart sports leagues in the past decade find success, and most have found homes on various linear and streaming distribution platforms. What we offer is something fresh, compelling and exciting. We believe we’ll be well in the mix of the next wave of sports content, both with our professional combat robotics events and in the unscripted space.”

About Andrew Bucholtz

Andrew Bucholtz has been covering sports media for Awful Announcing since 2012. He is also a staff writer for The Comeback. His previous work includes time at Yahoo! Sports Canada and Black Press.