It’s chilly for Austin on the Sunday night before Halloween and it’s getting a little late. The final four rollers have been chosen for the National Brewskee-Ball Championships, an event known to players as “The BEEB.”
The back area of Full Circle Bar on East 12th Street has been transformed with tents and a makeshift projector screen into a lively battleground for competitive Skee-Ball players. Yes, Skee-Ball, the boardwalk and video-arcade staple where you roll a wooden ball up a lane and try to get it to land inside white rings for 10, 20, 30, 40, 50 or 100 points.
On this night, as drinks flow and jacket-clad fans cheer, the future feels pretty close. A set of prototype lanes with new kinds of technology are being tested in the year’s most high-pressure match. And tech being what it is, there are a few glitches. Some emergency coding happens as rollers and friends-of-rollers wait.
“We will have electronic scoreboards for the final four,” promises Eric Pavony, the co-proprietor of Full Circle and ringleader (beware: lots of Skee-Ball puns ahead) of the National Skee-Ball League, “we just ran out of technology.”
And then it’s time. There’s a chorus of “Purple Lane,” to the tune of Prince’s “Purple Rain.”
The competition begins. The conventional wisdom in competitive Skee-Ball is that if you can avoid getting too ambitious and stick to consistently hitting the 40 ring with nine balls, you can be a winner. Roll 40, 40, 40 and so on until you hit 360, a “Full Circle,” as rollers call it.
The lanes automatically keep track of the scores and for each frame, they’re posted on a nearby screen and sent to an app that players have on their smartphones. There are webcams tracking not only where the balls land in the rings but the faces and movements of the players. It’s the first public showing of what Brewskee-Ball’s brain trust hopes will be a new generation of standardized Skee-Ball lanes across the country.
40, 40, 10, 40...
There are whoops and high fives and victorious fists shaking toward the tent ceiling. It’s exciting and infectious and, yes, a little silly. But it’s also a lot of fun judging by the huge grins on the faces of rollers and spectators.
A guy next to me marvels at the site of all these Skee-Ball players gathered, rolling, having the time of their lives: “I’ve never seen something so menial be so intense,” he tells me.
In January 2011 in Austin, Sarah Oehrlein had a friend who invited her to come to a competitive Skee-Ball game. There was a team that played at the Scoot Inn.
“I said, ‘Uh, Skee-Ball? Yeah, I gotta see that. I gotta see what’s up,’ “ Oehrlein remembers. She got hooked immediately. “I started a team. I don’t think i’ve missed a single game since 2011.”
Oehrlein, who now works for Front Gate Tickets and as a merchandise coordinator for Emo’s, was in the in-between space after college and before normal life was about to begin. She found her crowd in Skee-Ball. “It’s pretty much the ‘Cheers’ effect,” she said, “When you walk through the door, you know everybody’s name. You know you’re with family.”
She was told she was pretty good for a rookie. Within a year, she was traveling to New York to compete at the annual BEEB. She now co-organizes the Austin league and has two Skee-Ball lanes in her living room on loan from Full Circle Bar.
She’s part of a culture that started in New York, but has spread to other Brewskee-Ball cities such as Austin, Los Angeles, Philadelphia and Charlotte. They have trading cards, inside jokes, lots and lots of puns involving rolling, rings and balls, as well as nicknames. Oehrlein is AKA “Sarah Oh Face” and she’s one of about 10,000 league players who have gotten serious about Skee-Ball since 2005.
The ball starts rolling
Eric Pavony was not a video game kid. He was outdoorsy, the kind of child who would find something to do with a ball if you gave him one to play with.
On a hot New York day in August 2005, Pavony and a friend who ran a community magazine with him, Evan Tobias, got the itch to find a Skee-Ball machine somewhere and play. “It really goes back to when I was a child. Skee-Ball was my favorite game for sure,” Pavony said. “I like the tactile nature of Skee-Ball. You actually hold the ball in your hand and physically roll it up the lane and watch it take flight. It really drew me in among the other games at the boardwalk or arcade.”
They took a 90-minute train ride to Coney Island and played and drank beers and played again. “It felt really, really good,” Pavony said. “I hadn’t played in over 10 years at that point. We realized Skee-Ball is a lot more fun when you play it as an adult. You’ve got more control over where the ball goes than you did as a kid. And you can drink.”
On the train back, the two began devising rules and rewards and figuring out what a league centered around competitive Skee-Ball might look like.
It wasn’t long before they were purchasing classic “Model-S” machines from the 1980s and looking for a local bar that might house them. The Ace Bar in New York became the home of “Skeeson” One of Brewskee-Ball the same year.
“Once we got it rolling [see? pun], and it really started to take off, other bars in New York City started to put lanes in their bars,” Pavony said.
In 2009, Pavony opened the first Full Circle Bar in New York, a venue dedicated to Skee-Ball. Pavony says that by 2012, the National Championship was starting to bring more people together in a way that pointed to a long-term future. Friendships blossomed. Romances bloomed. Food, art and music became part of the BEEB, a kind of summer camp for grown-ups.
In 2015, Pavony came to Austin and fell in love as Full Circle was looking to expand with a new location in East Austin. “It felt very much like where we started the bar in Brooklyn many years earlier,” he said. The plan was to stay for six months, but he didn’t leave. “It just felt right. Now I have two homes, Brooklyn and Austin.”
With Brewskee-Ball leagues growing and the culture solidifying, Pavony and two National Skee-Ball League partners also named Eric (Cooper and Wikman) started thinking about where to take the sport next.
Eric Wikman had worked in software development in Austin and had been a Brewskee-Ball enthusiast since 2010. “It was such a fun community around it,” Wikman said. “When I wanted to learn a new technology, I would use Skee-Ball as my pet project to learn a new programming language or whatever.”
They began plotting on ways to make scorekeeping easier (it used to be done on paper before a league app was introduced), to track more stats than just points and to find ways to make the game more connected, even across geography.
In 2015, Wikman left his job in tech work on this project full time to standardize Skee-Ball lanes, get them connected online, make apps to choose game modes and reserve lanes, and build a business model for the league that included payments for games while retaining the social nature of the game.
Around that time, Wisconsin manufacturer Bay Tek Games took ownership of the Skee-Ball brand. The Erics, who are all partners in Full Circle Bar and its Skee-Ball business Full Circle United, began working with Bay Tek on this new generation of Skee-Ball lanes.
By the 2017 National Championships on Oct. 26-29, 10 prototype lanes had been developed and some of them were deployed to Full Circle Bar for unveiling and testing for that weekend.
Ringing in the future
Wikman says that in addition to scorekeeping, the new software will allow for new types of gameplay, such as collaborative scoring goals, and for players in bars across the country to compete with each other, even if they aren’t playing at the same time, something he calls “Time-shifted games.”
Players will be able to pay for play with an iOS or Android app, but credit card readers are also planned for those who don’t want to use their phones to make Skee-Ball purchases. The prototypes have been tested across three bar locations with plans to continue gathering feedback from rollers and eliminating bugs.
In fact, Wikman says that in this prototype phase, the team is paying close attention to not overwhelming both novice and league players with too many options and too much screen time.
“I won’t say we’ve got it 100-percent figured out,” Wikman said. “We’re toying around with it to figure out the best way to make sure you don’t feel like you’re playing on your phone. To a certain extent, with league play, we’ve reduced how much you have to stare at a calculator or phone. With casual play, we’re trying to find the right balance.”
Oehrlein said she’s pleased by the time that automated scorekeeping saves and the possibilities lane and ball tracking offer. “It’s fascinating the lane understands how we compete and what we want to see out of a match and keep track of all our marks, our accomplishments,” she said.
But she said she feels the key to a competitive league growing nationally is the standardization of lanes. “I think that’s key. If the lanes are going to be different, everyone will be on uneven footing.”
Lanes can roll fast or slow, have a higher or lower pitch or skew balls to the left or right. Newer lanes made to exacting specifications would theoretically eliminate any competitive advantages or disadvantages.
As the leagues grow and interest gets more intense, there’s even been talk of rollers competing professionally, something Oehrlein isn’t sure will happen to her, despite the lanes in her home.
“I don’t know if I’ll be one of those players,” she said. “Certainly the hope is if it’s a large, networked thing, that eveyrone can play and compete. Maybe some unknown roller from Montana we’ve never met before will become a phenom. Maybe one day there’s sponsorships and competitions so big they’re televised.”
Pavony is driven to make that happen, to nurture the rise of “Skee-lebrities” and to make the game he played as a kid into a national pasttime. He wants to continue re-inventing a game associated for many people with ticket dispensers at kiddie pizza parlors and cheap toy prizes.
“My dream has always been to wake up in a world where somebody gets out of bed in the morning and walks to a Skee-Ball lane in their living room and starts to practice. Why? Because they are a professional Skee-Ball player and they make a living at Skee-Ball,” Pavony said.
“This weekend really kicked off the reality of that world,” he said. “Maybe we’re a couple years away from that, but I can smell it.”
Cover image: Austin's Full Circle Bar hosts the Brewskee-Ball National Championships Oct. 28. Eric Harris Pavony, the CEO of Brewskee-Ball unveiled his all new "Lane of the Future" for the championships, bringing new technology to the world of Skee-Ball. Tom McCarthy Jr. for AMERICAN-STATESMAN