Replay: New Wizardry Keeps Pinball Rolling in the Internet Age
Souped-Up Machines, Global Rankings Power a Renaissance; Watch Out for Wax
John W. Miller
Sept. 10, 2014 10:30 p.m. ET
CUYAHOGA FALLS, Ohio—At the recent Battle at Stonehedge pinball tournament here, Jessie Carduner cursed her ninth-place finish and vowed to get professional help.
“I’m thinking about getting a hypnotist,” said the 51-year-old linguistics professor at Kent State University. Ms. Carduner, who is 4 feet 10 inches tall and wears high heels so she can get a better view of the game, says she practices up to 30 hours a week but gets jittery at competitions.
She is one of a growing legion of fans powering a pinball renaissance. They are drawn by snazzier machines, trickier games and a new ranking system that compares players from all over the world. Leagues and tournaments like the one in which Ms. Carduner competed are mushrooming.
The International Flipper Pinball Association in New York now counts 27,000 ranked players, up from 500 eight years ago, and 1,600 tournaments a year, up from 50. Though half the players are from the U.S., aficionados span the globe, from Norway to New Zealand.
Pinball, which grew out of an 18th-century French variation of billiards known as bagatelle, had its heyday in the 1970s, becoming a fixture in arcades and malls. Players controlled flippers to whack around steel balls, racking up points by hitting targets. But with the emergence of videogames in the 1980s, pinball faded in popularity, kept alive by a cult following of fans.
Then pinball manufacturers like Stern Pinball Inc., in Melrose Park, Ill., started making machines that mimicked videogames, adding LED displays, intricate music tracks and features such as robots that pop up from the field.
They also designed games with more flexibility, allowing tournament organizers to set up tougher competitions. They waxed the playing surface and raised the machine’s back legs to steepen the incline, making balls travel faster. They opened up more space along the sides to swallow balls. And they removed posts and bumpers to steer balls more swiftly into the gutter.
Software in today’s machines, which retail for $5,000 to $10,000, has introduced a host of adjustable features to create additional challenges. In a game based on The Simpsons TV show, hitting the character Otto 10 times suddenly makes the left flipper button control the right one and vice versa. It is one of six accomplishments that generate maximum points.
Software also allows for a bit more “nudging”—shaking the machine to one side to influence the path of the ball. While machines in the past were designed to end games automatically when a player overdid the jerking, they can now be programmed to give warnings. Typically, three violations result in losing a ball. A violent “slam tilt” will cost a player an entire game.
The changes have shortened the average duration of tournament games to under 10 minutes, according to organizers. Without adjustments, a pinball wizard with supple wrists could “keep the same ball rolling a whole afternoon,” says Mark Steinman, director of operations at the Professional & Amateur Pinball Association, based outside Pittsburgh in a warehouse with 500 pinball machines. The group organizes one of pinball’s two annual world championship events.
To make pinball more competitive, the International Flipper Pinball Association began ranking players online in 2006 based on their placements in leagues and tournaments. The move was inspired by a similar ranking of marathon runners, says IFPA president Josh Sharpe. “Suddenly, thanks to the Internet, we could compare players in Chicago with players in Denmark,” says Mr. Sharpe, who is 17th on his ranking system. “That started to snowball into more tournaments” because players were eager to compete with their peers around the world.
Amid all the innovations, one thing that hasn’t changed: the ball, still 2.8 ounces of steel and 1 1/16 inches in diameter.
On the first day of the Battle at Stonehedge tournament, which was played on 24 different games, Michelle McCleester, ranked 786th in the world, stormed away from the table after a disappointing performance on the Batman game, which features a wrecking ball suspended from a crane that players have to try to hit. She suspected tournament organizers had waxed the game surface. “I’m used to the nice, slow Batman that’s usually in league play here,” she said.
Standing nearby, Marvin Ortscheid, one of the organizers, confirmed he had. He used a product called Millwax, billed as the “world’s finest pinball playfield wax and cleaner.” Ms. McCleester, who usually plays an hour or two in the morning on the 25 machines she has at home, said she would buy the product and practice with it.
The increased competition breeds bravado. “I like to walk away from my machine when I still have an extra ball and I’m kicking somebody’s [butt],” said Matt Quirk, ranked 1,394th. “Then I say, ‘Oh sorry, I didn’t realize I had an extra ball.’ ” Added another player, Chris Flohr, ranked 2,504th: “We talk some smack, but I don’t think there’s ever been a fight at a pinball tournament, at least not a serious one.”
The next day, in the final round, pinball distributor Trent Augenstein, ranked 10th, calmly pulled the trigger on a game based on the movie Ironman. Having studied the game, he had a plan: Shoot the ball up each ramp five times, triggering a bonus-scoring round known as “Bogey.” Then hit six targets that make an evil robot called Iron Monger rise from the surface. Shooting the ball off the robot triggers a round with multiple balls, allowing for a scoring binge.
It worked. Mr. Augenstein, nudging constantly but avoiding tilt warnings, racked up 30 million points and walked away with a $300 first prize—a relatively small award, considering some tournaments yield $10,000.
But for fans like Ms. Carduner, the linguistics professor, who is ranked 1,202nd, pinball isn’t about the money. “I don’t have kids, my house is paid off and I have time,” she said. On summer weekends, she sometimes heads to a bar to practice, playing from around 2 p.m. to 10:30 p.m. and spending $20 to $30.
“That’s what it would cost to go to the movies for a day,” she says. “Why not play pinball?”