Pinball Is Looking Pretty Lively for a Dead Game

As a teenager wins the world’s top pinball competition, there’s evidence of lifeblood aplenty in the scene.
April 12, 2017, 5:00pm

Above: Image courtesy of the Professional and Amateur Pinball Association/Replay Foundation

Pinball has been "dying" for decades now, its death-knell sounded repeatedly over the years as the industry has contracted. Back in 1988, when pinball giant Bally effectively withdrew from the business, with rights to the brand's name going to Williams, some predicted that it would only be a matter of time before everyone else followed suit.


When Gottlieb hung up its flippers in 1996, pinball was declared dead then, too. It was also read its last rites when Williams declared that Star Wars: The Phantom Menace would be its last machine. Long story short, pinball's been "on the way out" for as long as I can remember.

In reality, I don't think it'll ever truly die. Granted, the advent of video games gave pinball a hefty kick up the coin slot, and ever since then sales of pinball machines have been a mere shadow of what they used to be back in the 1960s and '70s. You certainly couldn't argue that the industry in rude health at the moment.

Related, on VICE: Talking Pinball and Pedantry with Richard Herring 

But that doesn't mean that it's flatlining, either. The kitsch value of retro pinball machines has seen a resurgence in bars and arcades, and existing and new companies like SternJersey Jack Pinball and Heighway Pinball are doing their best to ensure fanatics continue to get a fresh supply of new machines to try out.

Gamers have been enjoying the pinball love, too. The likes of The Pinball Arcade (which recreates a bunch of classic licensed tables) and Zen Pinball (which offers original tables based on the likes of Marvel, Star Wars and South Park) make sure those who prefer their entertainment digital don't forget what their tastes replaced.

Related: Watch VICE's American Obsessions film on the history of pinball, with Mac DeMarco 

Pinball video games are one thing, though. Ultimately, there's nothing quite like playing a real-life pinball machine. There's a real tactile satisfaction of hitting the flippers, seeing the ball rocket off the bumpers, even giving it a cheeky tilt, that no PS4 or PC pinball game will ever be able to recreate, no matter how realistic its ball physics get.

And there's a strategy to it. While most casual players will turn up and just play for fun until they lose their three balls, each table can be mastered with practice, just like any video game, as this Professional and Amateur Pinball Association (PAPA) tutorial video for the Batman Forever table shows:

It isn't something that'll slowly fade away as pinball fans get older, either. Last week, PAPA held the 20th world pinball championships.

The amateur division was won by an eight year old, and the top "Division A" title—the actual world championship—was won by a 13-year-old lad from Colorado, Escher Lefkoff. You can watch his win here, and his reaction when his closest rival falls short is just glorious. If these two sprogs are anything to go by, pinball will continue to have a fanbase for generations to come.

I'll always be a gamer. It's the one form of entertainment I love more than anything else. But I'll always be a pinball fan, too, and while tables aren't so easy to come by these days, any time I come across one you can be assured I'll continue to stick a coin in for old time's sake.

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