Motorball: Understanding Alita: Battle Angel's Gladiatorial Game

One of the central elements in Alita: Battle Angel and its original manga source material is the violent, spectator sport Motorball. Popular among the citizens of the Western District of Iron City, the game is a gladiatorial race akin to a roller derby crossed with the robot-fighting competition Battle Bots, with often lethal consequences. Cyborgs race and battle within an arena filled with cheering audiences, the sport giving them a welcome distraction from the constant rigors of their dystopian society even as its popularity fuels much of organized crime in the city. Considering it plays such a prominent role within the film's story, including Alita's personal character arc, we're breaking down what you need to know about the brutal, futuristic sport.

The way to win Motorball is relatively simple: Either be the first player to carry the heavy eponymous ball over the finish line, or be the last player left standing. Given that the ball itself weighs 40 kilograms, or approximately 88 pounds, most players forego the usual finish line option to victory and prefer to embrace the sport's alternative of violent combat. In fact, if there are only two players left standing in the arena, it is not uncommon for both to dismiss the ball entirely and fight to the death instead.

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Outside of the winning strategy, there are a handful of standard rules to Motorball which officials enforce through time penalties and potentially disqualifying players. Like roller derbies, players must constantly be moving forward and are penalized for moving backwards or stopping for at least 30 seconds. Only weapons fitted on cyborgs are allowed for use within the arena with exploding weapons banned entirely. Finally, no propellant boosters and flight enhancements are permitted, players must rely on the standard speed skates for movement.

Arenas are often constructed with their own respective course hazards, endangering players beyond the standard threats their competitors pose. Similar to stock car racing, players are allowed to exit the main arena to temporarily stop in a pit area for on-the-spot repair work. But given the high-speed racing nature of the game and risk of rushed, sloppy repairs, stopping for repairs comes with its own set of drawbacks. Audiences sitting ringside at the very real risk of being struck by debris from the competition, while those in first-person simulator seats can observe the competition through the cybernetic eyes of one of the players and feel electric jolts based on feedback from the level of activity from the player.

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Apart from the amateur, unsanctioned street-level competition in the back alleys of Iron City, there are three ranked leagues of Motorball. The third league is an entry-level ranking with its semi-professional players often resorting to violence to win and advance rather than the greater emphasis on sophistication and strategy seen in higher leagues. The second league is where Motorball begins to become truly competitive, with added gimmicks and gameplay types, while the players themselves employ a wider range of combat techniques and strategies. The first league is the top-tier level of competition, with matches broadcast throughout Iron City as the highest ranked Motorball players engage in high-level gameplay with superior strategies and weapons.

As Alita's means to capture the hearts of the citizens of Iron City in her desperate bid to reach the rich, sky city of Zalem, Motorball provides Alita: Battle Angel with more than just its standout action sequences but also plays a major role in the overall plot. Informing much of the story, the hyperviolent sport serves as a backbone of sorts to the film itself and will leave audiences cheering along with their cinematic counterparts as Alita moves through the ranks to discover her place in the arena.

Directed by Robert Rodriguez, Alita: Battle Angel adapts Yukito Kishiro's popular manga Battle Angel Alita. It will arrive in theaters on February 14. The film stars Rosa Salazar, Christoph Waltz, Jennifer Connelly, Mahershala Ali, Ed Skrein, Jackie Earle Haley, Keean Johnson, Michelle Rodriguez, Lana Condor and Eiza González.

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