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Inside the wild comeback of tournament pinball

By Courtney Balestier, Wired
updated 7:04 AM EDT, Mon June 9, 2014
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Pinball is popping up in bars, laundromats and arcades around the country
  • The game is also drawing more serious competitors signing on for tournament play
  • People love it for the nostalgia, artwork, electronics or as an alternative to video games

(CNN) -- In the resurgent world of competitive pinball, brothers Josh and Zach Sharpe are among the elite. Which makes it surprising that neither made the finals in the Illinois State Pinball Championships, unfolding in February in a suburban Chicago basement -- wall-to-wall carpet, couches, pool table, and the relentless din of 14 pinball machines. Pinball is essentially a bat-and-ball game; it's just played on a course that's like a possessed amusement-park ride. When multiple games are live at once, it's a cacophony of bot voices ("Nobody messes with the USA!" "Jackpooooooot!") and clanging bells. The blinking lights are so emphatic they're almost audible. One of the machines, "Attack From Mars," has a warning for epileptics.

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The Sharpes are used to the noise. Zach, a compact 32-year-old with lively brown eyes, is number one or two in the International Flipper Pinball Association rankings, depending on the day. He doesn't have anything to prove. "Some -people take losing a lot harder," he says, smiling. He and Josh, 34, have started a sideline battle for third place on "Theatre of Magic," one of host Jeff Hooper's tournament machines. They take turns, one playing, the other watching the finals. From a field of 16 contestants, the single-elimination competition is down to the two players who beat the Sharpes: Dave Hegge, a shaggy-haired ex-world champ who looks like he emerged from the "AC/DC" game, and the eventual winner, Josh "the Kid" Henderson, a flush-cheeked 16-year-old with his own pinball trading card.

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Then again, pinball turns all of these guys -- and they are mostly guys -- into kids. There are aging IT professionals, 40-something recruiters, hip freelancer types (and even pinball gangs, says Nick Campbell, a 34-year-old software designer with a "Billy Joel" belt buckle who recently started his own posse, called Dead Flip). These are the obsessive heroes in a new pinball revival. Membership in the IFPA, which hosted this and 27 other simultaneous state tournaments in February, now exceeds 23,000 -- up from just 500 in 2006. In March, its sister organization, the Professional and Amateur Pinball Association, hosted a 400-player tournament, the largest in history. It's easier for people to discover pinball these days, thanks to an increase in game production and a resurgence in cities like Portland, Oregon, and New York, where machines pop up not just in bars but also in skateboard stores, laundromats and doughnut shops.

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For many players, pinball's appeal has to do with nostalgia for days spent stretching quarters in college bars or bowling alleys. Others thrive on the competition. Some revel in the electronics or the artwork. Still others -- especially teenagers like Henderson who were raised on video-games -- are attracted to the tactile physicality. For them, pinball is an antidote to the programmed patterns and digitized detachment of screen-based gameplay.

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"Pinball is in real life. It involves real physics," Henderson says. "It's beyond trying to get the highest score."

That a teen today can wax philosophical about pinball can be attributed in large part to Josh and Zach's father (and fellow competitor), Roger, who is somewhere between the Michael Jordan and Santa Claus of pinball. Roger, 65, is from Chicago, the pinball epicenter -- where major manufacturers were based -- but he didn't fall for the game until college. At the University of Wisconsin, he watched in awe as a frat brother dominated a game while simultaneously eating a burger and smoking a cigarette; when this prodigy had to go to class, he left his turn to Roger.

"Before he made it out the door, the game had ended," Roger jokes. "I vowed that someday I would have that same level of control and mastery."

Roger moved to New York after college, working in advertising and then journalism. Around 1974, eager to buy a pinball machine, he started researching an article that would turn into a definitive book, "Pinball!" A couple of years later, he cofounded PAPA -- which set the standard for scorekeeping and league and tournament play. Then-managing editor of GQ, Roger Sharpe wore many hats in the world of pinball: He didn't just found PAPA, he also wrote for coin-operated-game trade publications and worked as a freelance game designer. (His likeness was drawn into the artwork of his first game, "Sharpshooter," dressed as an Old West gunslinger.)

Roger eventually left publishing for pinball full-time, moving back to Chicago in the late '80s to work for industry giant Williams Electronics Games, where he helped license entertainment brands like Elvira and "Gilligan's Island" for use in game design. But one turn at the flippers made him a legend. It was 1976, and many cities -- including New York -- had banned pinball, declaring it a game of chance, aka gambling. So in an audacious gamble of his own, Roger played in front of the New York City Council. The council-members were so impressed by his skill that they reversed the ban, and ruling bodies around the country soon followed suit. With bans lifted, pinball exploded, until being eclipsed by the arcade video-game era of the '80s. ("There was this great swell and release, a boom and bust," Roger says.) Next came the age of the console and the Internet and then the mobile-gaming craze. Now -- thanks to player-collectors and the emergence of "barcades" -- pinball is back.

Really, pinball is a game of skill and chance. Players say it's about an 80:20 ratio on newer machines; older ones hew closer to 50:50, because their bumper action is more unpredictable and they have wider-set flippers through which the ball can "drain" out. (Increasingly sophisticated technology has also allowed for more elaborate playfields and "deeper" games in which players work their way through narratives and sequential tasks.) Every playfield contains three potential drains -- the flipper gap, or center drain and the outlanes along each edge -- but in between, on the playfield, each game is a self-contained universe with its own topography and laws. A game rewards players who can analyze and exploit its rule set, securing a multi-ball -- an orgy of point scoring that occurs when multiple balls are released simultaneously -- or executing a shot sequence with a huge payoff.

Although the rules of a pinball game can be memorized, no two machines play alike. Nowhere is this truer than at tournaments, where games are groomed like Augusta before the Masters: The back legs can be raised, increasing speed, and the tilt sensor -- measuring how hard a player can jostle a machine before it "tilts," or ends the turn -- can be adjusted. The outlanes can be widened, making the ball likelier to drain. Even the software can be tweaked; if five shots usually earn a multi-ball, 10 might be required in a tourney.

"We do that as a last resort," Josh says, "because when a player walks up to a game, they expect it to behave a certain way."

It's you -- whether it's you versus the machine or with the machine. Today I was versus myself."
Roger Sharpe

This collision of predictability and randomness is the essence of pinball's appeal. Video games have patterns that can be cracked, but every game of pinball is played anew, with real-life variables -- a metal ball moving in controlled chaos -- that force players to react with a highly calibrated combination of reflex and restraint. Bowen Kerins, IFPA's Massachusetts champion and a math-textbook writer, calls it a cross between golf and bull riding: "The game presents you with all of these choices, and you have to navigate them while figuring out a strategy."

That includes estimating shot angles and passing the ball from one flipper to the other for a better trajectory ("basic geometry," Josh says). Players also revise strategies on the fly: high-risk, high-reward shots in tight matches or safer ones when they hold a wide lead. Pinballers talk about "slowing the ball down," cradling it on a flipper while plotting moves.

"If you control the ball, you control the game," says tourney player Tim Smith, 31. "When it's out of control, you cross your fingers and hope."

Before the Illinois tournament, players had an hour to acclimate to the groomed machines: learning tilt sensitivities, perfecting timing, testing strategies. "I'm getting a lot of air balls off the ramp," Joseph Blasi says while playing Theatre of Magic, referring to unexpected trajectories that send his shots flying. Another player asks about changes to the "AC/DC" game. "We have code that nukes the 'Highway to Hell' scoring strategy," Josh says, to audible groans, about a fix that eliminates a player's ability to score extra points just by choosing that song. The practice session is boisterous, but once it ends, the collective tension brings the room to a hush.

Pinball is an individual challenge, a one-person game of mental calculus.

"If you choke, there's nobody to be mad at but yourself," Zach says.

Players curse at themselves but are friendly competitors, with the camaraderie of students taking a final. Almost no one leaves the tournament once they're eliminated, even though it lasts seven hours; they stay late, playing pinball, talking pinball, absorbing pinball. Many predicted they'd have short days anyway, up against three Sharpes, although as it's turned out, Roger -- wrists wrapped, hand towel in his pocket for wiping down the machines -- lost in the first round. Like Zach, he takes it philosophically.

"It's you -- whether it's you versus the machine or with the machine," Roger says. "Today I was versus myself."

Are you a pinball fan? Share your thoughts in the comments, on Twitter @CNNLiving or on CNN Living's Facebook page!

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