Bob “Birdleg” Brigham offers his left hand for an awkward handshake.
“Once I get a grip, I don’t let go,” the 74-year-old retiree said, holding up his right hand with the fingers wrapped around his Wii controller just so.
“Me, too,” his teammate Bing Cheung, 75, said apologetically, before turning back to the giant flat-screen television behind them, and the quest for another perfect game.
Brigham and Cheung are two of the UnbeWiivables, the 2011 National Senior League Wii Bowling champions. On a recent Thursday morning, the team’s four members met at the Margaret Schweinhaut Senior Center in Silver Spring to practice one last time before heading to Denver to defend their title on Tuesday. The championship game is slated to be a rematch, between the UnbeWiivables and the same final-round opponent they faced last year: the Happy Strikers of LaGrange, Ga.
That helps keep the pressure off, Brigham said. “If [the UnbeWiivables] lose, we’re even,” he said.
Wii bowling has joined bridge and ballroom dancing as a staple activity in retirement communities and at senior centers. The UnbeWiivables are among the 23 percent of seniors the Pew Research Center estimates regularly play video games. Nintendo recognized a potential audience among retirees when it launched the Wii in 2006. And the gaming industry, which saw revenue decline during the Great Recession, now eyes the gray-haired set as a market that can only grow as the generations that grew up playing Atari, Sega, Madden and Mario age. (Brigham already embodies the teen-on-summer-vacation-style retiree. When he is not playing Wii or shooting pool, he parks himself in front of a PlayStation.)
The Wii, with its light, cordless remote controller has already been integrated into physical therapy and exercise regimes for the elderly and embraced as a way for seniors to stay mentally sharp.
Unlike the gender divide that appears among younger gamers, Wii bowling appeals to both senior men and women. The other two UnbeWiivables are Bing’s wife, Susan Cheung, 67, a retired Montgomery County library employee, and Anh Nguyen, 63, a retired World Bank budget analyst. All four picked up a Wii remote about four years ago, when the county put Nintendo consoles in senior centers. None of them had done much real bowling before they started aiming at virtual pins.
In the beginning, there was a lot of trial and error. Some found that their bowling balls curved in one direction and learned to compensate by adjusting their grip. Others had to shed bad habits. Bing Cheung, a retired U.S. Postal Service employee, used to hop as he released the bowling ball.
“We tried every possible combination until we found the best way for each person,” said Brigham, a retired carpenter whose relentless coaching the other players credit for lifting their game. (Brigham’s nickname, by the way, has nothing to do with his Wii bowling form. It’s a CB handle from his youth. “When I put a bathing suit on, I had bird legs,” he said.)
In 2009, not long after the UnbeWiivables started bowling, Dennis Berkholtz, a former Olympic U.S. men’s handball player and coach, created the National Senior League, a Wii bowling league for seniors. It grew rapidly, from about 120 teams, Berkholtz said, to 242 teams this year, representing 116 communities in 30 states. More than 1,200 Wii bowlers competed in various tournaments for a lane in Denver, Berkholtz said.
The championship match is part of the annual meeting of the LeadingAge, a Washington-based association of 6,000 nonprofit service providers to the elderly that sponsors the tournament. The event is accompanied by an expo, where vendors showcase walk-in bathtubs and electric wheelchairs, and retirement community condos give away key chains, pencils and other swag. Last year, the most coveted freebie, the UnbeWiivables said, was a “SilverFox” T-shirt from a national broadband service aimed at seniors.
The National Senior League is divided into five ability-based divisions. Berkholtz is proud that the league includes a couple of dozen teams from nursing homes. Some bowlers compete while seated. There is also a blind bowler. (His spouse aims; he throws.)
The UnbeWiivables face tougher odds of bringing home a trophy this year for a variety of reasons. Brigham grumbled that the Happy Strikers get to practice more. The Schweinhaut center is now closed one day a week because of budget cuts. The Silver Spring team gets in about five hours a week of practice, Nguyen said. Most of the team members have Wii systems at home, but the experience is not the same on a smaller screen, they say.
The Happy Strikers have also changed their lineup. “They got rid of one and put in a ringer,” Brigham charged.
By ringer, he means Vestal Thomas, 69, the league’s Wii Bowler of The Year, who has bowled 36 straight perfect games in competition.
The UnbeWiivables have had their own lineup changes. Brigham is not going to Denver. He does not fly. He also does not board boats or trains, although he does ride a motorcycle. He has never been more than 350 miles away from Washington. He was able to attend last year because the championships were held in the District. Another member of the 2011 championship team is sitting out for personal reasons. Karen Maxin, the team’s official coach and Schweinhaut Center employee, is filling in.
“She shoots a 250 with no problem,” Brigham said, adding, “for us that’s not a good score.”
The team’s secret weapon this year might be the slim, petite Nguyen, whose game has improved over the past year. She is so used to throwing a perfect game that when she finishes with a spare, she groans in disappointment.
The key to victory is consistency, which can be a challenge when a championship is on the line. Berkholtz said he would not be surprised if Thomas ends his streak of perfect games in Denver. He has seen it before.
“When they get outside their community, and get television cameras in front of them, their concentration loses a little bit,” he said. “Like with any athlete.”