Con­nected and so­cial

Austin American-Statesman Sunday - - FRONT PAGE - Omar L. Gallaga

The fu­ture of Skee-Ball

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 SkeeBall 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 SkeeBall play­ers gath­ered, rolling, hav­ing the time of their lives: “I’ve never seen some­thing so me­nial be so in­tense,” he tells me.

Hooked in

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 got to see that. I got to see what’s up,’” Oehrlein re­mem­bers. She got hooked im­me­di­ately. “I started a team,” she said. “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 SkeeBall 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. SkeeBall 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 , 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 longterm 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.”

Mod­ern­iz­ing Skee-Ball

With Brews­kee-Ball leagues grow­ing and the cul­ture so­lid­i­fy­ing, Pavony and two Na­tional SkeeBall 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 “Timeshifted 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 ev­ery­one 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 pas­time. 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 SkeeBall,” 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.”

Austin’s Full Cir­cle Bar hosts the Brews­kee-Ball Na­tional Championships on Oct. 28. Eric 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.

PHO­TOS BY TOM MCCARTHY JR. / FOR AMER­I­CAN-STATES­MAN

In 2009, Eric Pavony, the CEO of Brews­kee-Ball, opened the first Full Cir­cle Bar in New York, a venue ded­i­cated to Skee-Ball.

TOM MCCARTHY JR. / FOR AMER­I­CAN-STATES­MAN

Sup­port­ers and play­ers from the Austin league cel­e­brate af­ter a clutch roll from Cory “K. Skee An­thony” Lynd.

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