Pint-sized pinball wizards compete in Huntertown tournament

By B60WizWorld

April 09, 2023

This story got featured & frontpaged on April 11, 2023

56 days ago

Dave Gong | For The Journal Gazette

Ten-year-old Eli Mitchell’s gold medal lightly touched the edge of the pinball machine at Wizard’s World Pinball Arcade on Saturday afternoon as he toggled the buttons that control the game, launching a tiny silver ball toward a nearby hole.

Eli, who traveled to Huntertown from Fishers to compete in the arcade’s weekly youth tournament, beat opponent Max Smith over six rounds to become the arcade’s newest youth champion. In an interview, Eli said he started playing pinball at home at the age of 2.

“It’s just fun to enjoy and play a game and get away from electronics sometimes,” Eli said, adding that his favorite machine is the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles game.

Eli said the highest score he’s ever earned was over 816 million on The Mandalorian machine his family has at home.

“My dad can’t beat it,” he said, smiling.

Saturday was Eli’s first time competing in a pinball tournament. He didn’t expect to win.

A passion for pinball is something Eli shares with his father, Niles Mitchell, who said he grew up playing pinball at arcades in the 1980s. Niles said he has a couple pinball machines at home, including an antique from 1948.

“(Eli) has picked it up really well and he’s better than me now, which I’m fine with,” Niles Mitchell said with a laugh.

The Mitchells’ home pinball machine has become something of a neighborhood attraction as well.

“All the neighborhood kids love to come over and play at our house,” said Margaret Mitchell, Eli’s mom. “It’s something different, which is nice.”

Niles agreed.

“Everybody’s got a Nintendo, but we’re the only ones with pinball,” he said, adding that he switches out a machine every few years to keep things fresh.

Wizard’s World, which hosted the youth pinball tournament, opened in 2017 at 14613 Lima Road. Mike Burgess, the owner, said he worked at the original Wizard’s World arcade in North Manchester during the 1980s, in the heyday of the local arcade.

In an interview Saturday, Burgess said after the North Manchester location closed, he spent the next 30 years raising his family. Once his kids left the house, Burgess said it was time to return to the game he loves.

"I enjoy competing. And I wanted to play in pinball tournaments, but the closest ones were two hours away in Indianapolis or Lafayette. So, I opened (an arcade) up in a 1,000-square-foot rental space,” he said.

As time went on, Burgess bought the building on Lima Road, expanded the arcade to its current 8,000 square feet and hung a large sign that reads simply, “Pinball,” in large red letters from the façade. That sign, visible to traffic on Lima Road, is an homage to the Pinball Hall of Fame in Las Vegas, Burgess said.

At 144 active machines, Wizard’s World is among the largest pinball arcades in the world and hosts various tournaments each week, Burgess said.

Initially, Wizard’s World focused on attracting tournament players, he said. When the arcade first opened in 2017 there were about 75,000 registered pinball tournament players worldwide. In the years since, that number has increased to more than 100,000, he added.

Recently, however, the arcade has sought to attract more casual players in addition to those who participate in tournaments. Now, the arcade’s regular customers outnumber the tournament players, he said.

“It’s pretty neat, because I didn’t go after the kids initially, but now they’re coming in and they’re playing pinball and they love it,” he said. “It makes me happy because it’s something I feel like I’m passing on to the next generation, and that’s going to keep pinball alive for years to come.”

Lukas Bakle has been an employee of Wizard’s World since 2018. Pinball’s a great game, he said, because while at first glance it might seem like a game of luck, there’s a great deal of skill involved, especially for those who participate in tournaments or play professionally.

He also loves the lights, the sound and the gratification that comes along with a high score. His favorite machine in the arcade right now is a new one that features a 50th anniversary James Bond theme.

Bakle said he’s been playing pinball for about six years and acknowledged that there can be a learning curve for new players. But his advice is simply not to give up.

“You’re going to drain a lot in the beginning, that’s a big one,” he said, referring to when the ball passes the flippers without scoring many points and disappears into the bottom center exit, or the drain. “You’re going to drain a lot. But also know that when you get that first hard catch and the ball stops and then you hit your shot, it’s so satisfying.”

Huntertown resident Eric Frauser brought his sons to Wizard’s World on Saturday for an afternoon of pinball. The kids enjoy it so much, he said, they’re talking about joining a future tournament.

“It’s a nice hidden gem, fun for the whole family,” Frauser said, adding that the family’s been there several times with a couple rolls of quarters in-hand. “It’s just a nice community attraction and a good place to come and spend time with the family.”

The community that’s developed around the game of pinball is diverse and supportive, spanning demographics and age groups, Bakle said.

“Overall it’s a very welcoming community. No one’s going to make fun of you for missing a shot or getting a bad score,” he said. “We want people to play and come back and be a part of the community"

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53 days ago

Great story, especially the participation by youngsters who will help fill the "supply chain" with future players/collectors with fond memories to share for decades. Time for a road trip to Ft. Wayne with the grand kids.

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