11:56 am May. 29, 2012
On Sunday afternoon, Eric Pavony stood on a Williamsburg street wearing a pink shirt, a straw hat, and numerous armbands, getting a crowd of nearly 70 people amped up.
“Outside, right now, should be all 64 of the best Skee-Ball players in the country,” the organizer said to the crowd of people mostly in their late 20s, who cheered back at him. It was the second day of the Brewskee-Ball national tournament, and Pavony explained what the order of procession into the Knitting Factory would be and what would take place during the opening ceremony.
"The crowd are the rollers right now, and the rollers are the crowd," he said. "So just wave to the sound guy."
The tournament, nicknamed the Beeb, is in its third year, and now attracts players from affiliates in four cities, turning the familiar Boardwalk diversion into a competitive sport. There aren't many independent fans right yet—about 15 people, many of them relatives and friends of players, sat waiting for the players to enter. Still it's forged its own pun-heavy vernacular, characters, and relationships.
As the tournament began, players with names like Suicidal Tendenskees, Paul Rollvere, and Magnum Skee I. started to compete as Pavony chatted with me about the sport.
“Everybody has a childhood recollection of playing Skee-Ball,” he said.
Pavony, 32, said the game taps into a nostalgia: the weight of the Skee-Ball, the sounds of the balls rolling down the lane, and the electric jingle of the machines.
“I thought that it was beautiful to see a lot of young adults, in the day and age of where we live where everything has a controller, everything has a touch screen, coming in to play this old-timey children’s game in a modern setting.”
Though it was invented in Philadelphia, Skee-Ball became popular in beach resorts like Atlantic City, which held the first national tournament in 1932, and Coney Island, where, during a 2005 visit, Brewskee co-founders Pavony and Evan Tobias were inspired to create their own league. There, they realized the game could be a good bar competition, and spent more than $3,000 buying two old machines from Coney Island and the Jersey Shore and bringing them to the East Village. They’ve since begun hosting the nights from Williamsburg bar The Full Circle. On the first night, rollers had represented their respective cities in league play, but on Sunday, it was an individual free-for-all, seeing who could rack up the most points after ten frames.
The tournament featured players from New York, Austin, San Francisco, and Charlotte and Wilmington, N.C., but Pavony said they’ve begun expanding to other cities (Denver is one), or as he put it: “from skee to shining skee.”
Pavony, who also hosts similarly left-field tournaments like Major League Dreidel, said he likes to make such events out of anything he sees.
“You give me a bunch of bottlecaps and a snow cone and I’ll make a game out of it. And that’s what we did with Skee-Ball.”
He’s fully aware of the jeering that might accompany a bunch of adults in Brooklyn playing a retro kid’s game, but Pavony said he’s willing to accept being called a hipster if it means they're having more fun.
“I don’t know what a hipster is, but we have ‘em,” he said. “However, we also have lawyers and accountants and musicians and actors and gay people and straight people and jocks and nerds and flamboyant people and shy people. And that is what Brewskee-Ball is."
He said the levity was just as important as the competition. The person to beat was San Francisco's Joey “The Cat” Mucha, last year’s champion, who was dressed in a cheetah-print vest and pants.
“Skee-Ball is a very nostalgic arcade game for me, it was the game that my father, at Chuck-E-Cheese, said 'This is the coolest game, you should definitely play this one, if you’re gonna play anything,'” Mucha said.
He said he has a pre-roll ritual that involves removing moisture and dust from his fingers, putting a foot on the board, and doing “ghost rolls” to warm up. Like many of the top players, he prefers to roll the ball straight down the middle for steady points, rather than risky diagonal 100-point shots.
“I’m a 40 or 50 roller, exclusively. No more hundos in my repertoire,” he said.
Mucha, 25, works in business development for a mobile-advertising company, and speaks of the game with a seriousness that attest the $15,000 he estimates he's spent on buying and repairing his own Skee-Ball machines, half of which he keeps in his Mission District apartment.
Ryan Cramer, 28, also from San Francisco, said he got hooked on the game several years ago, initially as a release from the demands of law school.
“I should be doing bar-exam preparations this weekend, but I decided to come out to New York instead and so I’m gonna have to play catch-up for the next couple of weeks,” he said.
He appreciated the game’s communal aspect, a sentiment also shared by last year’s second-place winner, Dave Mahler, of Williamsburg, who said the tournament gave him a base of people to visit in other cities, andthat he enjoys the communities that develop in the rolling community. Mahler's been playing for around five years and said part of his trick is to ignore the pressure from photographers, the audience, and fellow competitors.
“All you’ve gotta do is just pretend like it’s any other day, you know?” Mahler said.
Over six hours, the teams broke up, some playing on the four lanes at the Knitting Factory, and some down at the Full Circle. As eliminations progressed, the numbers of contenders slowly dwindled. During the late rounds the Skee-Ball lane being used sat on an elevated stage at the Knitting Factory among some of the prizes: a cream-colored champ's jacket and an oversized $3,000 check. Many who were knocked out of competition took liberal advantage of the free beer on offer, and as the last matches began the crowd edged in close to cheer and lightly heckle Mucha, even throwing various objects onstage: a wig, a stuffed animal, glow sticks. Then, in the final round, Mucha went up against 28-year-old Alex Choi, from Brooklyn Heights, who kept up at first but slowly fell behind. Mucha was again champion.
After a brief ceremony, the prizes were doled out, and Pavony thanked all of the people who had helped put the event together.
“Fa-mi-ly,” the room chanted, and one of the volunteers came from behind Pavony and took his microphone.
“I cannot believe what my life has become because of Brewskee-Ball,” he told everyone, and added that he knew the same was true for everyone there.
The night wasn’t over. Comedian Hannibal Buress was doing stand-up in the venue’s front room, and the competition-turned-festival would continue with bands and a charity round of Skee-Ball set for much later that night.
From his booth, the D.J. promised over the loudspeaker that things would get weird.
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