Techies entertained by little men, big goals

Foosball sales are soaring as tech workers and companies embrace the game with renewed enthusiasm.

7 min read
They are probably the most overworked and underpaid 26 members of any technology company--whipsawed between rival factions, spun senseless from overuse, dizzy after round-the-clock shifts.

But the plastic men who toil on the foosball field are nothing if not respected pillars of the New Economy.

After spending most of the '80s and much of the '90s in relative obscurity, virtually unknown to anyone unfamiliar with the inside of low-rent pubs, foosball has staged a stunning comeback. And it owes its renaissance to faddish Internet companies that have embraced the game with gusto.

Annual foosball table sales in the United States, approaching 100,000 per year, are about quadruple what they were a decade ago. Sales at leading retailer FoosDirect, which sells tables online at Foosball.com, have surged 62 percent since 1998.

Corporations now account for 61 percent of FoosDirect sales, compared with 22 percent in 1997. The company's No. 1 customer is Internet portal Yahoo, which has foosball tables in offices around the world and has 10 in its Santa Clara, Calif., headquarters. IBM has about a dozen tables in its Austin, Texas, facilities.

"A lot of the tech companies, from start-ups to Fortune 100 companies, every time they open a new office, they buy one," said Eric Waterman, co-owner of FoosDirect in Annapolis, Md. "Then the workers who really get into it buy one for the home. Business has been booming. It's wonderful."

Tournament talk
The resurgence has many foos aficionados trying to muster support for a national tournament pitting the best of Intel, IBM, Yahoo, Cisco and other foos-obsessed offices against one another. Some even argue that foosball should debut as an exhibition sport at the 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake City.

"The future popularity of foosball has no limits other than those imposed by its players," waxed Hugh Wintin of Jacksonville, Fla., a representative of the American Foosball Association who answers technical questions to the AFA hotline (1-888-FOOSING). "Leagues have already been established in many parts of the U.S. and Canada and will spread with growing interest."

Techies themselves are responsible for organizing leagues and broadening the game's appeal. Jeff Kobal, a software engineer who has worked for IBM for more than five years, is working with the North American Table Soccer Association to host an IBM employees foosball tournament in Austin next month.

Kobal, who can pick from one of four foosball tables in his office, would likely clean up at such a tourney: He won $150 and placed third at the 2000 World Foosball Championships for Rookie Mixed Doubles, and he placed fifth for Semi-Pro Doubles. He has been playing foosball for a decade, the last five years on the tournament circuit.

"I was on the winning team of the two high-tech tournaments that we've had here in Austin. The first was in April with about 38 teams, and the second was in August with about 105 teams, with the grand prize of both being a foosball table," Kobal said, with the characteristic enthusiasm of a foos fanatic. "We get a lot of people playing in our rec room at work, which has three of the tables, especially during lunch and after hours, when very often all three tables are full."

Dissenting voices
But foosball--also known as table soccer--isn't universally cherished. Workers who sat precariously close to the table in one San Francisco advertising agency wanted to lose the foos because the ball pinged too loudly and disturbed cubicle dwellers nearby.

Managers replaced the regular balls with more quiet, rubberized versions (which incidentally are not accepted by sanctioned leagues), provoking outrage among the foos fans who objected that the new balls bounced differently. Managers then changed course again, sequestering the balls behind a desk. Annoyed employees had to ask a manager for permission to use the foos.

Another note of foos discord: Veteran foosers say they're starting to hear of a backlash against Johnny-come-lately tech foosers. Especially galling to the long-timers are techies who insist their newfound fanaticism has raised the collective talent of the foosing community.

To be sure, detail-oriented programmers and engineers spend hours poring over rule books and perfecting once-esoteric foos moves, including stunning aerial shots that require surprising dexterity.

But Alex Tsang, a freelance photographer and property manager in San Francisco, says techies have bombarded old-school table soccer haunts and have changed the foos culture--once dominated by blue-collar working stiffs and military brats who learned the game in bars or European saloons.

"You get a lot more kids these days," said the 37-year-old Tsang. "Let me rephrase that: dot-commers. They're half my age and making four or five times more in a month than I make in a year. Some of them are pretty good, but most of them from the dot-com industry are playing because their boss bought the table."

Bandwagon jumpers?
Despite those controversies, foosball continues to take root throughout the Silicon Valley and tech hubs such as Boston and Seattle.

Texas, manufacturing base for high-end tables and headquarters of leading retailer Valley-Dynamo, is an up-and-coming tech hub that is particularly foos-frenzied. Texans boast that they aren't fair-weather foosers, having remained loyal to the game in the '80s and early '90s before it became de rigueur with dot-coms.

What will they think of next? See CNET Tech
  Trends It's impossible to overstate the zeal that foos aficionados feel for the game. Once hooked, they say, techies are transported by the foos table to a Zenlike state where office politics, looming deadlines, cloying co-workers and the mind-numbing minutia of coding fade blissfully from consciousness. Some insist foosball--combined with a few cans of caffeine-socked soda--provides stamina for 12-hour days and all-nighters.

"I believe foosball allows technology workers to relax and forget the pressures of their jobs without leaving the work site," said Gordon Furuto Jr., a database administrator in Honolulu who has been foosing for 15 years. "The more relaxed you are when returning back to your work, the more the creative juices flow.

"I know when I play foosball I completely lose track of time and my problems," Furuto said. "It keeps me alert and always thinking about what my opponent is going to do next. If you let down your guard in foosball, it can mean an easy point for your opposition. In tournament situations you're always in the position of changing and adapting your game as your opponent changes and adapts to you. You're always trying to outthink and outguess your opponent's next move."

Counting the benefits
Some say foosball's popularity in the office is due to its relative speed: Few games take longer than 10 minutes, so employees aren't enticed to waste the time it takes to play an entire game of billiards.

Foosball tables are also much smaller than pool tables, allowing them to sit in virtually any corner of an office--even a loft in Manhattan or San Francisco's South of Market district.

Many foos fans insist that the game's appeal lies in its face-to-face combat against co-workers--a real fight, not a fantastic, intergalactic battle against martians or millipedes on a video screen. Others thrill to the physical vigor of the game, which requires sophisticated hand-eye coordination and often results in calloused palms.

Anthony Ortega, who works for high-tech marketing company DMG in Austin, spoke for many foos fans when he explained that the game's appeal lies also in the lessons it teaches about survival in corporate America.

"Foosball is a very meticulous game," said Ortega, an eight-year foosball veteran who, like many fans, participates in foos banter in chat groups such as rec.sport.table-soccer. "You're dealing with a ball slightly smaller than a Ping-Pong ball, 26 player figures, two holes all within a box that is 4.5 by 2.5 feet. One move off by even an eighth of an inch can cost you a match. Just as in business, one slightly wrong move can cost you a deal."

Learning lessons
Jeremy Hamilton, a 15-year foosball aficionado and middle manager for Home Depot in Billings, Mont., agreed that foosball teaches business acumen. He called it an art that he and other mentors will pass to rookies "and promote it until death."

"If you need to vent, get something off your mind or rehabilitate after sitting at a computer for so long, then a few foosball games will do the trick," Hamilton said. "Teamwork is a must in foosball: You learn to trust and rely on your co-partner to achieve the common goal, just like most business decisions...You learn to get drive. You learn to be organized with your passing and series of shots. You learn to be focused so you are able to be consistent. You learn how not to play into the mind games of the game."

Foosball retailers don't really care why the game has become so hot--they're simply thankful that it has returned from the brink of extinction. In addition to soaring corporate sales, foosball tables have become a major auction item on eBay. The low-end tables, which cost between $150 and $900, are shaping up to be a big seller for the upcoming holidays--so much so that retailers are concerned about a lack of supply and are warning customers to place orders before Halloween.

Todd Shelton, owner of Recrooms.com of Bay City, Mich., says tech companies are the catalyst for an even broader revival of foosball. He just shipped 10 Cyclones--one of the top-ranked home foosball tables, which sell for $1,100 to $1,400--to the Border Patrol in El Paso, Texas.

Shelton has also seen foosball become popular with wealthy baby boomers who started playing in college. Their architects design rooms specifically to fit foosball tables, said Shelton, whose 2,000-square-foot home arcade boasts pinball machines, shuffleboard and foosball, and billiard and air hockey tables facing glass windows overlooking a pond. He predicts soccer tables will become must-haves for the new economy's nouveau riche.

"They make the bachelor pad of all bachelor pads," said Shelton, himself single. "At my place, the women come over and just love it. They're usually not as good at foosball, but they're getting there. They beat men hands down on shuffleboard."