Their names include 40-ounce, Skeedom and Skeenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Their goal is to score as many "full 50s" or "hundos" as possible.
Olympic athletes these players are not, but the training regimen for Raleigh Skeeball League teams is nonetheless enjoyable: throwing back some beers, rolling plastic balls up a steep ramp toward small holes—which probably becomes more difficult with each additional drink—in hopes of scoring the most points.
Shannon O'Donnell, the Raleigh League operator, says that Skee-Ball is different from other leisurely pursuits. "In other activities like softball, you only get to interact with your own team and that interaction is limited. You play a game and then go home," she said. "With Skee-Ball, you get to mingle with a lot of different people. You're able to be who you are amongst your peers. You don't have to pretend to behave."
Skee-Ball was originally an arcade game—or a highlight on many a carnival midway—that dispensed tickets which could be traded for a prize. The pub version is similar, but in lieu of a ticket dispenser, a cup holder is affixed to the machine to keep players near their beer. Instead of winning candy, skilled players can score a free beer or a shot of Jameson.
Although Skee-Ball's life as a competitive and social sport in the bar world is still in its infancy, the game itself has been around for more than a century. Skee-Ball is the creation of J. Dickinson Estes, who invented the sport in 1909 in Philadelphia for his son's birthday party. After seeing how popular his idea was, he showcased his 36-foot lane sport at his town's fair.
Two years later, Estes began manufacturing a Skee-Ball game for consumer use, but the public took little notice, probably because the lane was 36 feet long and too large for most homes. So Estes stopped production of his Skee-Ball lanes and sold the last of them, and then marketed the rights to the Skee-Ball name to Maurice Piesen of the outdoor amusement park industry in 1914.
When Piesen reduced the lane size to 14 feet to accommodate home use, Skee-Ball became very common in arcades. However, controversy dogged Skee-Ball: Because prizes were awarded to winners, the game was considered a form of gambling in some areas of the country, which led to restrictions on the number of machines allowed in arcades, or an outright ban. Those laws were eventually overturned, allowing Skee-Ball to become the staple arcade game that it is today.
SkeeNation is a North Carolina invention, co-founded by Brian Farrell, who suggested the game to a bar owner in Charlotte. Other cities popularizing the reinvention of this classic game include Milwaukee, Atlanta, Boston and Chicago. With 20 teams of three players each, the Raleigh league is in its ninth season, or skeeson, as the players refer to it.
Skee-Ball veteran Alek Krenichyn, aka The Rad Russian, says Skee-Ball attracts a particular personality—and not high-strung type A's. "Anyone willing to join a Skee-Ball league is clearly a relaxed person. There's no drama here. You can just hang out with friends and have a beer."
Alison Saltz is an Independent Weekly intern.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Tossing balls, drinking beer."