Pin­ball Wiz­ardry

The flip­pers are back, and fans are play­ing in record num­bers

Newsweek - - Contents - BY BOB FEKETE @Bobfekete

walk into a ran­dom bar in Chicago, San Fran­cisco or Brook­lyn, New York, and there’s a grow­ing like­li­hood you’ll run into a pin­ball ma­chine or two. You might be sur­prised to find groups of peo­ple ex­cit­edly plunk­ing quar­ter after quar­ter into the ma­chines and talk­ing about high scores. This scene might feel like some­thing out of the 1980s, but it’s not. Pin­ball is back.

The ev­i­dence isn’t just anec­do­tal. The In­ter­na­tional Flip­per Pin­ball As­so­ci­a­tion keeps track of tour­na­ments around the world and re­ported an al­most ten­fold in­crease in the num­ber of them from 2009 to 2017. At­ten­dance at these events sky­rock­eted from

12,527 in 2009 to 115,656 in 2017. IFPA Pres­i­dent Josh Sharpe tells Newsweek this isn’t only an Amer­i­can phe­nom­e­non, with other coun­tries, such as Aus­tralia, es­pe­cially em­brac­ing the pin­ball boom too.

What draws folks to play these seem­ingly an­ti­quated games, es­pe­cially when free ones are just a but­ton-push away in our pock­ets? Zach Sharpe, di­rec­tor of mar­ket­ing at pin­ball man­u­fac­turer Stern (and Josh’s brother), cred­its phones and video games with driv­ing peo­ple to seek out a more tan­gi­ble, me­chan­i­cal pas­time. “It’s an en­ter­tain­ment de­vice that can’t be repli­cated,” Zach tells Newsweek. “While video games are fun, you don’t get that same tac­tile ac­tion that you ex­pe­ri­ence with a pin­ball ma­chine.” Josh says the ana­log na­ture of pin­ball wasn’t spe­cial dur­ing the rise of video games in the ’90s, but it brings a wow fac­tor in to­day’s dig­i­tal world.

A ma­jor rea­son for the rise in the num­ber of tour­na­ments, as well as ma­chine sales, is the in­crease in Bar­cade-style drink­ing es­tab­lish­ments fea­tur­ing ar­cade games and pin­ball, says Zach, not­ing that Stern just saw two years of 40 per­cent sales growth, from 2015 to 2016 and 2016 to 2017. “The more these pop up, the more it helps our foot­print,” he says.

Pin­ball ma­chines are a great in­vest­ment for bar own­ers, says Jack Guarnieri, owner of man­u­fac­turer Jer­sey Jack Pin­ball. Aside from the money the games make di­rectly, they can bring in re­peat cus­tomers and help fuel league play. As an added bonus, pin­ball ta­bles re­tain a strong re­sale value.

Jer­sey Jack Pin­ball has tried to mod­ern­ize its ta­bles by tak­ing what Guarnieri calls the “Steve Jobs” ap­proach to de­sign—giv­ing play­ers things they didn’t know they wanted. Now, ta­bles come with big­ger speak­ers and large dig­i­tal screens dis­play­ing fancy graph­ics, as well as tech­no­log­i­cal in­no­va­tions such as Blue­tooth in­te­gra­tion.

Along with run­ning Jer­sey Jack Pin­ball, Guarnieri fos­ters the growth of the game by do­nat­ing ta­bles to chil­dren’s hos­pi­tals and pro­vid­ing money and prizes for pin­ball tour­na­ments around the world. “It’s what we do. It’s pin­ball,” he says.

“While video games are fun, you don’t get that same tac­tile ac­tion that you ex­pe­ri­ence with a pin­ball ma­chine.”

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