USA - Like a fine wine, it appears that table and alley games , foosball, table hockey and shuffleboard , only get better with age.
This is especially true during a time when many consumers are spending hours upon hours, both at work and at home, staring at computer screens.
While this lifestyle shift may be great for Bill Gates, it has created a huge void in social interaction, leaving many people feeling increasingly disconnected from the outside world.
This is where table games enter, and the businesses that operate them. Simple in nature, table games have always sparked intense competition among players, making the category a perfect fit for cashbox-busting location tournaments.
And while they've been around for decades, it's also ironic that table games are still viewed by the public as unique, as the majority of consumers don't have the opportunity to play them in their homes. The same argument cannot be made for video games, which have gradually lost their luster due to the proliferation of home systems.
This may account for the high level of excitement that table games often create in locations. If a group of people is whooping it up, hollering, or celebrating in a location, chances are they're playing a table game.
At a time when coin-op is facing increasing pressure to reduce the amount of "violent" video game content industry wide, the non-violent nature of table games also makes them a perfect fit for families.
In terms of return on investment, operators have always applauded table games for their consistency, especially their ability to make money long after other games have faded into oblivion. They may not earn $300 a week like a hot new video game, operators reported, but it's a good bet that three years later they'll still be making a steady profit.
Although table games enjoyed their greatest popularity in the mid-1970s, the category has staged somewhat of a comeback in recent years.
According to Valley-Dynamo L.P.'s Dave Courington, foosball and table hockey have experienced a resurgence lately in both the coin-op and home markets.
Courington, who has been involved with table games since 1973, is an official of the Valley International Foosball Association and a member of the United States Table Soccer Association Hall of Fame. VIFA organizes league and tournament play on the market-dominant "Tornado" foosball table line.
Today VIFA boasts more than 5,000 members, with charters growing at a steady rate. The growing popularity of foosball, he said, is evident at the association's annual national tournament in March in Las Vegas, which features players from around the world competing in 18 divisions.
Courington attributes the resurgence to a number of factors.
Large companies like Microsoft, he pointed out, are using foosball to attract new employees and to keep morale high.
"We've found that there's a direct link between foosball and the computer generation," he said. "A lot of computer companies are now holding their own tournaments. They're putting foosball tables in their breakrooms and encouraging employees to play because it's a great way for them to breakaway from the computer screen."
These employees, he added, often take their newfound interest in the game and seek out bars to play in leagues.
As Courington sees it, the resurgence of table games is directly linked to a backlash against technology.
"I really believe that the category is growing because of all the technology that's out there," he said. "When it comes down to it, technology is going to have a hard time replacing human competition."
In contrast to pool, where players are basically playing against the table, Courington stressed that foosball players need to visit locations to truly hone their abilities.
"The thing about foosball is you can only practice so much in the home; to really test your skills you have to go out and play a wide variety of people," he explained. "With pool you can basically practice any shot in your house that you could in a bar environment."
While foosball may be VDLP's top-selling, non-billiards table game, Courington noted that table hockey also is experiencing renewed growth.
"From an operator's standpoint, table hockey is a very consistent earner," he observed. "Women are drawn to it and it's a much easier game to learn and get good at more quickly than foosball."
The refreshed popularity of table games also is evident in the tremendous growth manufacturers have been experiencing on the home side of the business.
Approximately 70 percent of VDLP's soccer table business, for example, is derived from home sales, compared with 30 percent on the coin-op side. Just three years ago, coin-op sales represented 65 percent of VDLP's business, Courington reported.
"There are a number of factors contributing to this expansion, but the most important is today's robust economy," he said. "People have more money to spend."
As far as table games go, it could be argued that the most family friendly game on the market is table hockey, making it a must-have for location-based entertainment.
The game is a mini-version of "the world's fastest sport," incorporating a plastic puck, round "shooters" (or paddles), a smooth, high-impact playfield and a blower system, which distributes air across the playing surface, speeding up the puck.
According to Tina Partington of Cranston, RI-based Great American Recreation Equipment, table hockey is currently one of the company's most popular products, ranking right behind pool.
"Our coin-op hockey lines have been well received," she said. "The secret to the long-term success of the game is simply that it's really fun to play, especially for kids."
Great American is well known for its "Power Hockey" and "Jr. Power Hockey" (just for kids) tables. The company's newest product, "Laser Hockey," is designed to add a little spice to the classic table hockey concept. Its side corners, rails and light bar are designed with a neon finish; a black light in the overhead scoring unit and glow-in-the-dark pucks add to the high-tech effect.
Partington attributes the recent success of table games to their ability to foster competition.
"Video games are fun to play, but table games are more of a group activity," she said. "They offer exactly what arcades are looking for."
Great American, like VDLP and other U.S. manufacturers, also is reporting increased consumer sales. The majority of the company's home sales, she added, occur in October, November and December, as table games have become hot holiday gifts.
"The economy is good so people want high-quality commercial tables," she explained. "They desire something that won't fall apart. If they go to a department store and buy a cheap hockey or soccer table, they know they'll have to replace it in a few years."
Partington added that the company is experiencing sales increases in venues outside of the home, including youth centers, universities, churches and businesses.
In terms of coin-op, table hockey still enjoys its greatest success in LBEs and FECs.
Frank Cain of Playdium Entertainment Corp., the Canadian company that operates four major LBEs, told V/T that table hockey is still a top draw in his company's arcades.
"We operate between five and nine tables per location," he said. "They are perfect for families because they are non-violent, they offer a competitive experience and the return on investment is phenomenal."
Table hockey is doing especially well for the company's theater business, Cain added, as Playdium operates several 1,200-ft. game facilities for Viacom's megaplexes in Canada.
According to Cain, table hockey is the number one earning piece at every one of Playdium's theater facilities, surpassing all other types of game.
Another table game staging a comeback is shuffleboard, the indoor version of the popular seaside/ship deck game that dates back to 1928.
In contrast to the visceral excitement of foosball and table hockey, shuffleboard is more of a thinking man's game , the chess of table games. The game tests a player's offensive and defensive skills, as he or she attempts to knock opponents' pucks off the table, while also sliding pucks into areas where they act as buffers to protect points.
A market leader in the shuffleboard business, Richland Hills, TX-based Champion Ltd. commands a significant market share in coin-op with its "Grand Champion" board.
According to Champion's Andy Northup, shuffleboard is slowly shedding its image as a game for the elderly set. He also noted the company is selling more and more tables to colleges and universities, many of which are starting their own league programs.
"People are starting to realize just how much tact and skill is involved in this perceived old man's game," he said. "At first glance it doesn't seem like there's much to it, but once people start playing they realize that there's a lot more involved."
In fact, Northup is observing that the median age of shuffleboard players, which was 52 just a few years ago, is now 37.
Over the past two years, Champion's coin-op and consumer shuffle business has been booming: growing 38 percent from 1998 to 1999 and another 29 percent from 1999 to 2000. Northup attributed the increase partly to the proliferation of video game consoles that are eclispsing coin-operated viddies.
"Games of skill in general are coming back because of the decline in video games," he explained. "People can now get as much enjoyment out of their 'PlayStations' at home, so when they go out to an arcade or bar, games of skill like shuffleboard really stand out more than they used to. They offer something completely different."
Like other table games, Northup emphasized that shuffleboard has a long and interesting history. For example, he noted that the game's narrow design is no accident.
"They were originally developed in big cities on the East Coast," he said. "There was a myriad of these long, narrow bars. On one side you'd have a sit down bar and on the other side you'd basically have dead space. There wasn't enough room for tables, so they came up with the shuffleboard."
While such a design may have worked well in 1928, that same space requirement is often a hindrance to location owners today. To overcome the space objection, Champion has designed coin-op tables in a number of sizes.
The average size of a shuffleboard table today is 22 ft., while the first tables were 26 ft. Champion offers table sizes ranging from 12 ft. to 22 ft. in order to give operators and location owners more options.
Another knock on shuffleboard tables, Northup added, is that the three-inch maple playfield, which is the most costly part of the table, is easily damaged. With a coat of lacquer paint as its only protection, the metal pucks would leave divots that would render the table unplayable over time, he explained.
To counter this problem, Champion developed a Polymer finish that he says never requires refinishing.
"It still shows the aesthetic beauty of the maple, but it's a protective coating," he said. "Bar owners love it because they don't have to babysit their tables and throw the drunks off it all the time. Now it takes care of itself."
Another common criticism, at least from an operator's viewpoint, is that a game of shuffleboard takes too long to play. Northup noted that Champion has solved this problem through its patented handicap scoring system.
By simply adding a 4 to the traditional 1-, 2- and 3-point scoring system, the time it takes to play a game has been reduced by as much as 45 percent, he explained.
While these improvements may not transform shuffleboards into top earners, Northup stressed that they do make the game a better long-term investment.
"Rarely will shuffleboard be your biggest earner in a location, but it's going to be your most consistent," he said. "The bottom line is that many people love the game. From an operator's standpoint, they are also a great anchor, because once you put it in, you've got the location."
Another company that is gaining ground in the table game market is Hillside, NJ-based Venture Entertainment Products. The company, which incorporated in 1995, carries foosball tables from the well-respected 65-year-old French company Rene Pierre, including the "Le Champion 2000" table.
Venture also has been involved with the shuffleboard business since 1998, through its acquisition of American Shuffleboard. And the company is home to shuffleboard legend Sol Lipkin, a member of the Shuffleboard Hall of Fame.
Despite the foosball market dominance of VDLP's "Tornado" table, Venture's Bob Chapman said the company is carving a niche with the help of Rene Pierre.
"Although 'Tornado' is very strong, we've been able to make a dent in a few markets," he said, noting that Rene Pierre tables are very popular in the South.
"It all depends on what market you're talking about," he explained. "In North Carolina it's a very popular table, but in the Midwest, people are used to 'Tornado,' and it's always difficult to get people to change their routes from what they're accustomed to."
Similarly, Chapman noted that Europeans who have relocated to the U.S. often seek out the tables for their homes.
"People recognize it as a quality table so they are willing to spend the money," he said. "The majority of our sales are focused on the consumer market."
Over time, Chapman said, the hope is that consumers who play on Rene Pierre tables will eventually seek them out in locations. "It's kind of like giving a kid a computer when he's in kindergarten, he's going to want to use that same computer when he grows up," he said.
Venture also is the only U.S. company to offer a table with telescoping rods.
"With every other table, the rods go out the other side and there's always the chance that a kid could get hit in the head," he said. "With ours, they stay within the table."
The safety feature has been especially popular with families, helping the company double its home sales over the past two years.
In terms of shuffleboard, Chapman noted that the majority of Venture's sales also is derived from the consumer side of the business. Last year, however, the company custom-designed a tournament edition shuffleboard table for the North American Shuffleboard Federation, which held a $200,000 tournament in Las Vegas in October.
Venture also has coin-op accounts with such national LBE chains as Dave & Buster's and Jillian's. Those chains, he said, operate between two and six units per location, and charge by the hour, a strategy that a growing number of LBE businesses are employing.
With prices that can reach over $4,000 per table, Chapman admitted that the return on investment can be a tough sell for operators. On the other hand, he stressed that they can provide a strong anchor for a location.
"As a coin-op product it doesn't make a truckload of money, but what it does do for the bar owner is attract women and couples," he said. "It's also great for tournaments, which keep people in bars for longer periods of time."
Although stranger things have happened, it's a good bet that one type of table game that may have run out of comebacks is the puck bowler, which simulates and expands on the game of 10-pin bowling.
Originally designed for the penny arcades of the 1930s, bowlers were initially played with balls; later versions used steel pucks. Barring a miracle, their numbers will continue to dwindle, as there are currently no manufacturers left in the category; Williams Electronic Games, the last company to continue production of puck bowlers, built its last model in the early 1990s.
Surviving machines, however, remain favorites in some of America's blue-collar bars, and they retain their nostalgic appeal among older patrons.
One company that still operates puck bowlers in limited numbers is A.H. Entertainers (Rolling Meadows, IL). A.H.'s music and games director Chris Hesch told V/T that the game still serves a niche, even if it's a shrinking one.
"We still operate bowling games in some of our locations, and some of them do fairly well for us," he said. "In terms of earning performance, the game can be very hot or cold. In some locations, however, they remain very popular and have a loyal following."
Hesch emphasized that they are by no means a great money maker, as A.H. only charges a quarter per play, compared with $1 or more for foosball and table hockey.