My History with Pinball: Playing, Competing, Obsessing

Things have been a bit hectic in my life recently, so I’ve decided to reminisce, taking a look back at how I got into pinball. Although my story isn’t particularly exciting in any way, I believe that everyone’s personal experience is unique, and I hope that you enjoy the long journey I’ve taken to eventually arrive in the land of the silver ball.

Early Beginnings

I cannot remember when I didn’t know about pinball. I’m sure that my parents introduced me to the game, as they both played when they were in their teens and 20’s. Neither of them had “the bug,” however, so the introduction they gave me didn’t have a ton of impact. Something about pinball must have grabbed a hold of me, however, as I can recall quite a few pinball memories.

Since I rarely made it to the arcades (until high school anyway), I did most of my gaming on my parents’ computer. Games like Rollercoaster Tycoon and Myst were the things that kept me from doing my homework. A few digital pinball titles made it on to that PC, and while they did not get me hooked, they were responsible for teaching me that pinball had modes and objectives. I learned that pinball designers, whether they designed physical or virtual tables, used things like callouts, music, animations, and different colored and shaped inserts to communicate to the player, telling them things like their progress toward multiball, the availability of an extra ball, or how big your bonus will be.

Some of my earliest pinball memories looked like this.

Back to the Arcade

When I entered high school, I made some new friends and was reintroduced to the arcades of the time. Almost immediately, I caught the bug…

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…of rhythm games.

Dance Dance Revolution was huge in the early 2000’s, and I was caught up in the craze. I quickly discovered a fairly large scene of players in my area, and soon I was rhythmically stepping with the best of them, competing and practicing every chance I got. My love of DDR soon branched out into other rhythm games: Pop’n Music, Beatmania, Drummania, pretty much every music game that Konami made.

At around the same time, the Lord of the Rings movie trilogy had just finished. My family goes to the movies quite frequently, and the theater that we frequented most had just put in a small arcade. Among their games was a brand-new Lord of the Rings pinball machine. For a while, this machine created a new pre-movie ritual: we’d arrive at the theater, buy our tickets, and then my parents would go find seats while I’d stay in the arcade playing pinball until it was showtime. I never had enough time to explore the machine in much depth, but I remember being so enthralled by the game. Everything from the sound to that oh-so-satisfying ring shot kept me hooked. However, this still was not enough to get me into the hobby, and it didn’t help that pinball was far and few between at the time. Even if I did get hooked, I’m not sure how much pinball I would have found on location during the early 2000’s.

As college grew closer, I decided to get a part-time job at an arcade, motivated in part by the desire to spend more time in the arcades. The arcade I ended up working in had two lonely pinball machines: Austin Powers and Pirates of the Caribbean. Admittedly, I didn’t get hooked by these machines like I did LotR, and I saw firsthand how little play these machines got. I thought they were somewhat fun, but pinball once again failed to enthrall me.

A Moment of Serendipity

After graduating from college, I had almost forgotten about pinball until one of my friends posted about how much fun she had at the Pinball Hall of Fame in Vegas. A few weeks later, my mom came to me looking for help. She was going to go to a conference in Vegas in a few weeks and wanted something fun to do in her spare time that didn’t involve gambling. I brought up the Hall of Fame, and she thought it sounded great.

Flash forward a bit, and I get massive thanks for the recommendation. She told me that I absolutely needed to go as soon as I could. It wasn’t long before I was planning a weekend trip to Vegas (I lived within driving distance at the time). One of my favorite bands was playing there on a Saturday night, so I decided to head down the day before and spend the evening playing pinball.

I played for hours, playing all sorts of machines that I’d never even heard of before. My wrists got sore, and I left with a huge sense of satisfaction. I knew that I’d like to play again and again. After getting home, I started to dive into the world of pinball, downloading The Pinball Arcade and looking up where I could play locally.

It’s More Fun to Compete

Unfortunately for me, when I returned from my trip to the Hall of Fame, I found that there were no local machines for me to play. For the moment, I was stuck in the virtual world of pinball. Thankfully, the internet has quite a few resources for those involved with the hobby. I recall watching countless PAPA tutorials, looking up tons of info on IPDB, and occasionally perusing Pinside.

Months later, I ended up moving back to my hometown, and the search began again for location pinball. After checking out a few spots that contained machines in various states of disrepair, I found a spot on the Pinball Map located in the back of a consignment store. To my surprise, I found a nice collection tucked away in quite the unassuming location. After coming back a few times to play, I met the operator, who encouraged me to show up to one of the semi-monthly competitions that he ran: mostly casual, non-IFPA events that attracted a fairly small local crowd.

The first competition I entered was a two-strike head-to-head knockout. The competition was fierce, but I managed to make it to the top 4 of the group of about 12 people. I was not new to competition, and I knew after that event that I needed to play more, to get better, to win.

Climbing the Ranks

A lot has happened in the 2.5 years since my introduction to competitive pinball. I’ve moved across the country, made my way into the top 1000 of the IFPA rankings, and traveled to a variety of large tournaments including Pinburgh. I’m looking forward to a few big events in the near future, including the Sanctum 24 Hour Final Battle this weekend, the New Hampshire SCS in January, and US Nationals (hopefully) and IFPA PinMasters at the end of March.

If you haven’t noticed yet, I’ve put an upcoming events section on this blog on the top of the sidebar. I’ll try to list pinball events that are happening in the Northeast US. I would love to attend all of these, but even if I cannot attend, I hope that those reading this blog who are close enough to any of these events go out and play. Most of the pinball people I’ve met here are friendly, welcoming, and accepting, and you should feel welcome at any of these events.