When I was nine, skeeball was all about racking up enough tickets to claim a dinosaur-shaped eraser or a Spider-Man Pez dispenser. That was it. I couldn't have cared less about the social aspects and competitive qualities of the game. I wanted to roll a few wooden balls up a jankity lane, pocket some 50-spots, and take home some junk.
But those were simpler times. Today, New York, San Francisco, New Orleans, Boston, and Atlanta have competitive skeeball leagues—and now Chicago does too. With league names like Brewskee Ball and hip beer moguls like Pabst Blue Ribbon signing on as sponsors, the game that has long been next to Whac-a-Moles and ball pits is trying to join foosball and table shuffleboard on the great bar-sports totem pole.
"The machines that we have here in Chicago are actually called 'BeerBall' machines and have cup holders right in them," says Mike Fraser, director of league operations for Chicago's new division of SkeeNation. "There are digital displays for the bar to promote their drinks on special. It's the new age spin on the old Chuck E. Cheese dilapidated-machine-type thing."
SkeeNation was hatched in 2006 during an admittedly inebriated 2 AM pitch from cofounder Brian Farrell to a Charlotte, North Carolina, bar owner. To Farrell's surprise the owner went for it, putting skeeball machines in his bar. The league's popularity quickly grew, and it expanded to Raleigh and Charleston. With the recent additions of Chicago and Milwaukee, the league is now in eight cities.
Farrell explains what he sees as skeeball's draw: "Folks my age have kickball and softball leagues after work where you sweat your ass off for a couple of hours. There's not a lot of team interaction. Most just go home and shower, and they're done for the night. Come to skeeball for the night, and it's typically 40 to 50 people in the room, having beers, mingling. It's a lot more of a social opportunity. We've had about seven or nine skeeball marriages, no joke. We've had skeeball babies."
Chicago's ten-week inaugural season is slated to begin in mid-October at Lincoln Park's Flat Rock Tavern, 2476 N. Lincoln. In the twice-weekly league matches, each player from a team of three will roll ten frames. (One frame equals nine balls.) The team with the highest combined score wins.
At a kickoff event last week, 30 or so attendees, drinks in hand, marveled at the sleek BeerBall machines. Before chucking a frame during the night's early open play, I watched a handful of people roll their own rounds. One kid in his early 20s kept draining 100-point shots, or "hundos" as Farrell calls them, finishing with a final score of 540 out of a possible 900 points. But instead of mechanically dispensing a thin strand of perforated cardboard tickets, a la Chuck E. Cheese, this machine printed out a solitary voucher, one for a free PBR at the bar.