Can Legendary Bar Favorite Skee-Ball Successfully Make the Jump to the Digital Age?

New owner is betting big on it

Skee-Ball is a perennial fixture at county fairs, boardwalk arcades, beer halls and, more recently, family-entertainment centers.
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On the evening of Feb. 26 at Oakland’s Oracle Arena, Stephen Curry scored 27 points, helping the Golden State Warriors annihilate the Brooklyn Nets 112-95. But the most memorable shot Curry took that night actually wasn’t during the game. It was during a second-half timeout when a fan came down to the court to play a target game. She wasn’t very good at it. After missing on her first two tries, Curry decided to step in and assist, taking the ball and sinking it for her.

The game? Skee-Ball.

Well, OK, technically it wasn’t officially Skee-Ball, but it was close enough. The object was to roll a palm-sized ball up a ramp with a ski-jump end, trying to land it inside one of several hoops for varying numbers of points and prizes. (In this case, the lucky fan went home with $5,000.) The Mercury News called the setup a “life-sized version of skee-ball.”

Which raises the question: What ever happened to plain-old regular Skee-Ball?

Come on, you know what we’re talking about. If you consider yourself an American, then there’s probably a game or two of Skee-Ball in your past (probably in your hazy, drunk-at-a-bar past.) The popular game, a sort of cross between bowling and ring toss, is a perennial fixture at county fairs, boardwalk arcades, beer halls and, more recently, family-entertainment centers like Dave & Buster’s. According to one estimate, some 70,000 Skee-Ball machines have been shipped since the game was invented (more on that in a moment). Even counting just the entertainment centers, there’s somewhere north of 32,000 machines currently humming and dinging across the U.S.

And if a company called Bay Tek has its way, there are going to be a lot more.

A cluster of five Skee-Ball Classic models
Courtesy of Bay Tek

Bay Tek Games, a family-owned coin-op company based in Pulaski, Wis., acquired Skee-Ball in February 2016. Part of the reason was simply to gain market share in the arcade-games category. But the company had bigger plans for Skee-Ball, too.

“We believed,” said Bay Tek’s director of innovation Holly Hampton, “we could take a 100-plus-year-old brand into the 21st century.”

And how does one take a coin-operated colossus of wood and flashing lights, one that stands nearly seven feet tall and weighs 615 pounds, and drag it into a new century? Well, carefully.

Bay Tek’s first step was to throw its support behind Full Circle United, an organization of Skee-Ball teams across the country (“from skee to shining skee,” according to its website) that stages the Brewskee-Ball league tournaments in places like L.A., Philadelphia and Brooklyn. (Full Circle is the only licensee permitted to use the Skee-Ball name for league play.)

The problem is that the teams are all playing on different machines of varying vintages, and national competition mandates standardization. “Right now, they’re playing on lanes built in the late 1970s, early 1980s,” Hampton said. “We want to bring them a new, innovative lane.”

Under Full Circle’s guidance, Bay Tek is developing a professional-model Skee-Ball machine that’ll be wired to the web and include cameras to allow teams in different cities to compete in real time. The point of this, according to Hampton, is to foster the social connections that Skee-Ball seems to generate naturally, and the more pro players out there, of course, the more professional machines they’ll want.

For those who don’t quite feel ready for league-level Skee-Ball, Bay Tek has retained Croatian tech firm Ocean Media to develop a Skee-Ball app. You can almost hear Skee-Ball devotees groaning, but Hampton stresses that the app will be a realistic facsimile of the game, allowing players to position the ball, control the speed of the throw and so on. On other digital fronts, Bay Tek is kicking off a social-media marketing effort and reworking its website. (An online merch store may be in the offing, too.)

Meanwhile, Bay Tek now offers three different models of the Skee-Ball game: the Centennial (a machine for the home buyer priced at $6,000), the Classic (the retro-style machine that’s popular in most retail and entertainment venues) and, for entertainment venues that want something a bit more flashy, a model called the Marquee, which is essentially a Classic tricked out with enough LEDs to look at home on the Las Vegas Strip.

Made for home use, the Centennial model resembles the machines of the 1930s, when Wurlitzer owned the game.
New machine courtesy of Bay Tek

These tweaks are probably as far as Bay Tek can reasonably go, according to Matthew J. Quint, director of Columbia Business School’s Center on Global Brand Leadership. In the case of Skee-Ball, Quint said, “you want a balance, because you don’t want to take away from the history that is a core part of the brand.”

Fortunately, the one thing that hasn’t changed about Skee-Ball is the simple, intuitive mode of play that dates back to 1908, when a Philadelphia man named J.D. Estes built the first so-called “alley bowler,” unveiling it at his son’s birthday party (it was reportedly a hit). Estes called the game “Box Ball,” a name he later changed to “Skee,” after the “skee jump” ramp (skee being an accepted spelling of ski at the time) that launched the ball into the pockets. While the game has had its share of alterations, including a shortening of the original 36-foot ramp to 14 feet so women and children could play, and updates–electro-mechanical components, then solid-state ones—Skee-Ball is pretty much the same as it always was. And that, Quint said, probably explains why it’s survived into the digital age.

The most recent Skee-Ball machines are loaded with LEDs, Vegas-style.
Courtesy of Bay Tek

“It’s obviously a classic game and a classic brand that is loved by many and will continue to be loved,” he said. And not just by the graybeards, either. “We see attention to analog even among digital natives,” Quint added, citing a surprising 2013 study by JWT, “Embracing Analog: Why Physical Is Hot.”

“As we spend ever more time in the digital world, what’s becoming increasingly valued is the time we do not spend in front of a screen—the time we spend with real people and real things,” the report noted. “It’s not that we’re abandoning digital—far from it. But as we buy more apps, ebooks and downloads, and as digital screens become our default interface with the world, we seem to increasingly seek out physical objects and experiences.”

The study also found that, despite the proliferation of video games, 24 percent of us still like to play physical games. Equally telling: Asked if they ever “feel nostalgic for things from the past, like vinyl records and photo albums,” 67 percent of respondents said yes.

If even a fraction of that population decide to get into Skee-Ball, it’ll be good news for Bay Tek. But Hampton doesn’t need a marketing study to understand why the classic game her company now owns is enjoying something of a renaissance. A bank of Skee-Ball machines, she said, beckons people to play together. “It creates instant competition and social interaction—we’re missing that today,” she said. “That’s why there’s this resurgence of Skee-Ball.”