Click, clack, score! The weird, improbable rise of air hockey

Historically speaking, air hockey has very little to do with ice hockey, but don't tell that to former New York Rangers captain Mark Messier.

Bryan Bedder/Getty Images for Delta

For more than 40 years, air hockey has been one of the more reliable (and, frankly, enjoyable) arcade pleasures to invest a few of your hard-earned quarters. The games are fast, as is the gameplay. The sport requires very little skill to learn, and there’s a whole subtext of angles and physics living just above that constantly whirring puff of air that makes the whole endeavor possible. 

But air hockey wasn’t always a guaranteed or even all that popular piece of our culture. For a few years, there was, in effect, no air hockey manufacturing in the United States. But the arcade boom of the mid-1980s and the intervention of one man saw to that little hiccup, and air hockey is now a sanctioned sport with a global presence and thriving competitor base where children – not even old enough to drive – can crack the world rankings.

Let’s look back at how the all-so-familiar click! clack! of America’s favorite tabletop arcade game has survived many obstacles to remain the force it is today.

Air hockey took several billiards engineers years to perfect

Brunswick’s original patent for an "air cushion table game" was granted in 1975.

Brunswick Billiards, one of the world’s leading producers of pool tables, was ultimately responsible for the invention of the modern air hockey table, but it took several of its more dedicated employees years to nail down. In the late 1960s, three men (Phil Crossman, Brad Baldwin and Bob Kenrick) set out to construct a working prototype of a "frictionless" game-play surface produced by air flowing up through a heavily perforated wood, but doing such proved enough of an obstacle that the project was put on ice indefinitely.

That is, until 1972, when Brunswick engineer Bob Lemieux had the very cool idea of marrying the very basic tenets of ice hockey – two goals at opposite ends and a "puck" – with his coworkers’ creation and air hockey, as we know it, was born

By 1974, the sport had reached such popularity that the Brunswick people decided to hold the first-ever Air Hockey World Championship at a hotel in New York City. The announcer? Yes! You guessed it: Marv Albert. First prize was $5,000.

What happened that day is partially lost to history and perhaps even apocryphal in what account survives, but here’s how one air hockey blog sums up the climactic finish:

"The tournament was truly dramatic with a final showdown between a Centenary College student named Barnett and an imposing feared 24-year-old player dubbed ‘The Spiderman,’ who enrolled in a community college just so he could play in college air hockey tournaments (he never actually attended any classes). After 40 grueling matches, the Spiderman was defeated, his game weakened by severe blistering on his hands. He settled for the $1,000 second prize, though."

The United States Air-Table Hockey Association was founded the following year by Phil Arnold (still ranked 23rd in the world), and the first USAA national championship was held in Houston in 1978. Total prize money for the 40 or so competitors: $500.

For air hockey to live, Brunswick had to kill it off

Brunswick stopped production on all its tables in the late ’70s, due in large part, it’s believed, to an oversaturated market. Like a refrigerator or oven, the air hockey table represented, in essence, the "durable goods" of the arcade. How often do you really need to buy another one?

Well, the answer (unfortunately) for arcades was quite often. Yes, it was impressive that the Brunswick engineers were able to bring the sport to commercial viability after so many years, but the materials science that went into the tables was sorely lacking. So when you have a poorly made product that there’s simply too much of, it doesn’t take an economics major to see that’s not a good long-term business model.

"It proved to be," as one Brunswick executive later recalled, "rather faddish." But dedicated enthusiasts started to hoard tables like rations during a food shortage, and so the sport kept humming along, even as it was slowly dying.

It wasn’t until 1985 when foosball table-maker Dynamo, under the prodding of world champion air hockey player Mark Robbins, started to manufacture high-quality, tournament-style tables that air hockey was truly back from the brink. 

Texas is the mecca of air hockey excellence

Take a gander at the most recent USAA world rankings: 24 of the top 50 players are from the Lone Star State. It does make sense in that it was the Texas crowd of people like Phil Arnold (and transplants like Mark Robbins) who personally saved the sport from extinction in the early ’80s. And there are fellow statesmen like 11-time national championship winner Jesse Douty (who hasn’t played competitively since 2001 and is rarely heard from anymore) and 10-time champion Tim Weissman, who has been in the sport long enough that he has three children in the USAA rankings. (Jacob, 18 years old, is ranked No. 14, only seven spots behind Dad.) It’s easy to see why Douty and Weissman are regarded as perhaps the greatest air hockey players of all-time

And yet, neither of the two highest-ranked players in the world by USAA are from Texas:

Billy Stubbs, from the greater Chicago area, won his first world title in 1995 … and then didn’t win again until 2012. He won his fourth world championship this past August in Denver. 

Davis Lee, from the San Francisco Bay Area, has been playing for more than 20 years and has 33 career top 10 finishes and two national titles.

Here’s footage of when Lee and Stubbs met in the finals of the most recent world championships this past summer:

In elite air hockey, it’s about technique and body control

For a sport that is so easy to learn and seems so simple to master, there’s an incredible amount of stamina and technique required to compete against the best players. You’ve got to understand upper body control like a pitcher, have the reflexes and intuition of a hockey goalie and be able to anticipate the speed and trajectory of a plastic disc moving at speeds of around 100 mph – like an Aroldis Chapman fastball coming right at your hand, dozens of times a game.

Skim through this nearly hour-long clinic given by Stubbs and you’ll understand that air hockey is a lot harder than just who’s going to be first to seven points.

Four-player air hockey is a real thing!

But sadly, it’s not officially sanctioned by our air hockey overlords. That’s not totally surprising since it represents such a radical departure from we traditionally know as "air hockey."

Still, if it keeps people plunking down quarters, how bad could it be?

You can follow Erik Malinowski, who’s never passed on an opportunity to be summarily defeated in any and all arcade sports, on Twitter at @erikmal and email him at erik.malinowski@fox.com.