Many folks fondly remember Skee-Ball from childhood forays to Chuck E. Cheese, neighborhood arcades, trips to the beach or county fairs - the inclined ramp, the sound of the wooden balls rolling down and clicking together after dropping in a token - the thrill of rolling the balls into graduated target holes and receiving a payoff in tickets for redemption at the prize counter for all manner of schlocky rewards - candy, Chinese finger traps, stuffed animals - or if somebody was really good at it, perhaps a portable radio.
Although the game has many names and variations on the machines, the brand Skee-Ball turned 100-years-old in 2009, and the company partnered with Hasbro to create games based on the timeless machines. And, yes, there is an app for that. In 2010, Gameloft struck a multi-year licensing deal with Skee-Ball to produce Skee-Ball for mobile phones, which bowed in January.
But the iconic arcade game isn't necessarily just for kids anymore.
An unexpected trend is growing in North America that is taking things to the next level. In several cities, Skee-Ball is now a competitive and social sport being played in select bars across the country. A crop of leagues have appeared on the scene, with compelling names such as Brewskee-Ball, SkeeNation and United Social Sports - taking the game out of the realm of the arcade setting and into a decidedly adult situation. Any game that can be played with one hand on a beer in a bar is a good thing, right?
We have seen the popularity of Silver Strike Bowling, Cornhole, Beer Pong, Team Trivia and Barroom Bingo take hold on the Grand Strand - and pool and dart leagues abound. Could Skee-Ball be the next evolution in bar games here? There is no shortage of Skee-Ball lanes - or beer taps - here already. If league play is as close as Wilmington, N.C., or Charleston, could Myrtle Beach be the next whistle stop?
BREW MEETS SKEE
One summer, friends Eric Harris Pavony and Evan Tobias of New York City got the itch to play Skee-Ball. "We thought that Coney Island was our best bet," says Pavony. "After playing competitively down there, we realized that it was something we wanted to do on a more daily basis. Looking into the situation further, there were no machines locally or a place that was conducive to playing Skee-Ball on a social level."
They took it upon themselves to bring a couple of refurbished classic Skee-Ball lanes into a bar in Manhattan. "One lane came from Coney Island, it was a broken lane they were getting rid of. The other one came from a closing arcade on the Jersey Shore. We got the proper new parts needed, restored the old parts and cleaned the hell out of them. Got them looking quite sharp, rented a truck and brought them home."
That, according to Pavony, was the first-ever marriage of brew and Skee and this turned into Brewskee-Ball.
The pair formed the Brewskee-Ball league [www.brewskeeball.com] in 2005 - but before they started, they developed a structure, rules and terminology for competitive Skee-Ball, and recruited friends to try it out. "It was also friends of friends and a few weirdoes found out about it somehow and joined in that first 'skeeson' - as we call it."
Brewskee-Ball has grown like wildfire, branching into cities including San Francisco, Austin, Texas, and Wilmington, N.C. "That first skeeson proved one very apparent thing," he says. "Playing Skee-Ball in a bar is a blast - and playing it competitively in a bar is even more of a blast. It was our mission to turn this childhood game into a bona fide sport."
As the league expanded, it became apparent that Brewskee-Ball needed a permanent home and a national championship. Enter Full Circle Bar in Brooklyn, which played host to the first Brewskee-Ball National Championship [BBNC] in February 2010. "We needed a national home of Brewskee-Ball - and we were able to build a venue around the concept as opposed to making the concept work at a venue that wasn't ours and that we didn't have 100 percent creative freedom." Pavony, Tobias and Michael Doherty opened the bar in 2009 - a skeeball-themed venue right down to the name. Making all nine balls into the 40 point slot for a score of 360 is known as a full circle. The BBNC II will take place this weekend, bringing in the best rollers from participating cities.
"We have incredible interaction between the Brewskee-Ball cities," says Pavony. "Now all of the rollers know each other because of the championships. It really is a social network, very much like Facebook but in the real world. It is a vehicle for like-minded young people to meet each other. The sports element is there, and people take that seriously, but at the end of the day it really is about friendships."
What would it take for Myrtle Beach to get involved?
In the spring of 2006, Brian Farrell formed a league called SkeeNation [www.skeenation.com] in Charlotte, N.C., but the idea got off to a rocky start. In 2005, Farrell drove to the headquarters of Skee-Ball in Chalfont, Pa. "I had a meeting set up ahead of time with the CEO [of Skee-Ball, Inc.], Joseph W. Sladek, but he stood me up. I had driven five hours that morning and had my awesome suit on and a PowerPoint presentation ready to rock. To say I was frustrated and disappointed would be the understatement of the decade." He managed to speak with Skee-Ball's director of marketing, and after his presentation she looked at him and said, "Oh, well that's a cute idea."
"To believe in something and put all of this effort into it, only to hear the powers that be brush it off was super heartbreaking," he says.
Some time later, Farrell found himself chatting late night with the owner of the now-defunct Joe's Raw Bar in Charlotte - telling of his dream to start a Skee-Ball league. The bar owner was listening, and soon afterward brought in a machine. "I rounded up about 30 friends and every Wednesday night we would meet up and play competitively. The Charlotte Skee-Ball League was born."
He did the same thing in Raleigh, N.C. and Charleston. Friends started leagues in Atlanta and most recently Louisville, Ky. - all under the banner of SkeeNation. "We're working on Chicago and Boston by the end of the summer," he says.
Farrell lived in North Myrtle beach for a time, and considered starting a league here, but moved back to Charlotte before it came to fruition. "If someone were to approach us and wanted to start a league [in the Myrtle Beach area], we'd be happy to entertain that idea."
Although this started as what Farrell calls a venture, he admits this has grown into a much more meaningful purpose. "It's like this crazy family we're building - all amazing people and just genuine good-hearted folks. It's what gets me out of bed in the morning and keeps me going."
Broadway Louie's at Broadway at the Beach offers two lanes called ICE Ball - a different brand with the same basic concept as Skee-Ball. We can imagine kids hurling balls down the lanes, scooping up tickets - but what about grownups?
"We see a lot of older people playing because it's the games they grew up with," says manager Teresa Skaff. "That's why a lot of people come in here anyway - because we have Pac-Man and Pop-A-Shot games from back in the day." And when it comes to the tickets, some folks have asked her if they can redeem them for beer, which never fails to amuse her - and the answer to which is no.
Although nobody ever brought up the idea of league play for ICE Ball, Skaff has seen her share of quirky tournaments. "People wanted to do a Dance Dance Revolution tournament and a Pop-A-Shot league thing during March Madness - and we've done pool for the Surge Bar Olympics."
She cites a recent tournament held by Budweiser. "They had a rock, paper, scissors tournament in here. Basically they made a bracket and people played - and whoever won got shipped off to Vegas to play in the Rochambeau nationals. That was hilarious."
The idea of Skee-Ball league play doesn't surprise Skaff. "We do a lot of crazy things if people want tournaments - and for the college crowd, it's about anything you can tie in with being competitive and you get to drink while you're doing it."
Skaff speculates that leagues would be good for businesses that have Skee-Ball or similar machines. "You'd have people constantly coming to play - buying drinks and food and playing other games while they are waiting for their turn. We would definitely open our doors to it as long as it was organized and not complete chaos."
Ultimate California Pizza Game Zone on Restaurant Row boasts three ICE Ball lanes, but general manager Dennis Onken says he has not heard anything about the growing league phenomenon. "We also have a Highway 66 mini-bowling game, and we have tournaments on occasion with large groups, but we have not had anyone mention anything about Skee-Ball leagues."
He can, however, envision such a concept as being a lot of fun. "I think you'd have to have a number of lanes, so to speak, to be able to handle something like that. In our case, we have big screen televisions and have, of course, the machines - so it's something we will probably look into."
We mentioned the benefit of bar games people could play with one hand and a drink in the other. "That's why Cornhole is so popular - and Skee-Ball is way more fun than that," he says.
Ron Nesbitt, owner of Nesbitt's Jackass Saloon in Calabash, N.C. has hosted APA and Brunswick league pool tournaments for ten years. He has Golden Tee Golf, Silver Strike Bowling, Pot 'o Gold machines and other games available in the bar itself and in the recently opened addition, The Smoking Jacket, next door.
He had not heard about Skee-Ball league play and nobody approached him about the concept, but when we spoke to Nesbitt initially, he took the bull by the horns and looked into Skee-Ball. "I got ahold of McDonald's Amusements, and they told me they didn't even have Skee-Ball machines. I told them to start checking into it to see if I can get some in here, because I think it's a great idea. It could work."
The implication is that Nesbitt is not one to wait around. "There would be an opening for it," he says. "All I would do is get the games in there and see how much interest there is in it - and see if I could get a couple of other guys at other bars in a rotation."
And he sees value in the concept of Skee-Ball leagues. "Beer Pong was just a college drinking game and then all of a sudden it was in bars. I'm getting ready to make a couple of Beer Pong tables because I have a lot of young people that want to play it."
Nesbitt says he's down for almost anything when it comes to new ideas for his bar, and Skee-Ball is no exception. "I'm definitely interested in doing something like that. It would be fun."
BREWSKEE-BALL BY THE BATTLESHIP
A little farther up U.S.17, the phenomenon is flourishing. Bluepost Billiards in Wilmington, N.C., is a participating Brewskee-Ball bar. We caught up with Adrian Varnam, of the Wilmington Brewskee-Ball league. "Each league has its own Skee.E.O," he instructs.
How did Varnam become Skee.E.O?
"I had a friend here who played in a league in New York, and he was thinking of starting a league here in Wilmington. He called me and asked if I wanted to help him out and I said sure. After the second skeeson here he went back to New York and I was kind of left with the league."
He says Bluepost Billiards on South Water Street seemed like a logical place. "It's a bar with pool tables - and a back room that already had arcade games. It had the space too, so it seemed like a natural place to put two Skee-Ball machines." Varnam adds that the Brewskee-Ball organization owns and supplies the classic Skee-Ball lanes to the bars in participating cities.
Brewskee-Ball's Pavony clarifies: "We're constantly picking up old lanes and old parts wherever we find them, spare vintage balls, scoreboards, switches, cups, etc. We love the old, classic lanes and the parts are hard to come by. We have a pretty cool stockpile of classic Skee-Ball lanes and parts now. We actually built some of Full Circle Bar using old classic Skee-Ball lane parts."
With Brewskee-Ball in places like New York, Austin and San Francisco, isn't a spot like Wilmington a bit off the beaten path?
"We're kind of the odd small city, but it works and people are passionate about it. It's just a really great way of getting out and having a good time - and it's not the same old, same old," says Varnam.
But Varnam doesn't see Skee-Ball as a natural evolution or progression of bar games a'la Silver Strike Bowling or Cornhole. "I think that what Skee-Ball brings to the table that other things don't is the nostalgia factor. It appeals to everyone - not many people grow up throwing darts or playing pool necessarily, but almost everyone has some sort of memory of playing Skee-Ball - whether it's at Chuck E. Cheese or the Jersey Shore - or the Myrtle Beach Pavilion. Its sort of a very American iconic kind of thing."
Merging the nostalgia with the now is key.
"When you grow up and now you like to go out and have a few beers with your buddies - you put Skee-Ball into a bar and you organize a competition around that - and it appeals in a way that other things don't. I think the nostalgia of this really makes it work."
So what's it going to be, Myrtle Beach? We've got Skee-Ball galore and we have beer taps aplenty. And we've got a burgeoning young adult population here looking for things to do.
The concept of Skee-Ball league play on the Grand Strand is wide open. Anyone ready to roll?