The rules were being announced through the loud speaker and my mind became fixated on a obscure thought. The thought of pinball machines which have only reciprocated love, being transformed into battle "Arena's" for pinball combatants to go head-to-head in heated competition.
Images of cherished & beloved pinball characters started to filled my mind, participating in a violent "Anchor Man" like battle royal.
With a fading mental image of Rudy swinging a baseball bat at Dr.Dude's head and the old man from White Water throwing a trident at Gomez & Morticia Addams, I peered over a long row of pinball machines and a feeling came over me, one of excitement and dread. In that dim lit arcade I wondered how did these machines just suddenly go from carefree "worlds under glass", to blood thirsty battlegrounds?
It all started from a text I recieved from a high school friend a few weeks earlier.
"There's a big pinball tournament at 8-bit (arcade) at 3pm Saturday"
It was my long time friend Matt. We have managed to stay friends through a mutal love for pinball. His local stomping grounds is the 8-bit up north from me. I live in the south end and so we don't play much together unless hes partying at my place and even then as a host I don't get to play much with him.
With that in mind I replied back.
"You may just see me there. Whats the info?"
In my life I have never been one to actively seek out competition but when competition presents itself I do welcome it.
"Registration at 2:30pm, $15 buy in" he texted back.
Saturday arrived and after a late breakfast out I departed from my wife to the tournament. I left with my GPS telling me that I would arrive at about 2:20pm, but forgot the car was almost out of gas. I reluctantly pulled over to the nearest gas station for a couple gallons. In a haste I got out of the car and pushed on the gas door and usually at this point the panel opens and you fill it up, but today with no time to spare the latch mechanism decided to completely fail. Not knowing at the time that I could simply open the trunk and use the emergency button I frantically grasped and clawed at the gas door, upheaving the cover panel from the door all together. "No problem." I thought I will just pry the door open too! In the process of prying it open I unknowingly gashed the inside webbing of my hand. I didn't realize the blood running down my palm until trying to put the door cover back on to the gas door.
After gasing up I grabbed a towel and wrapped my hand. As I drove off I remembered the one bandaid I kept in my jacket since last ski season and while I applied it to my cut I laughed in silence to myself while thinking " You're going to a gaming tournament and you fuck up your hands? Priceless."
GPS new arrival time 2:28pm. Just enough time to get in and register. The drive was slow but uneventful. As I pulled up to the front of the arcade I was graced by spot right outside the doors. Upon exiting the car I spotted my friend walking up to the entrance. After a brief hello and "you won't believe what just happened" story we walked inside.
Once through the entrance door I spotted a large row of occupied pins to my left. Just across from them an older man sat on a stool at the bar, squinting through thick glasses at computer screen with brackets containing various names of competitors. I was immersed in an fury of intimidating, competitive pinbalI. I proceeded to followed my friend through the thick ambience of classic arcade melody and felt glad that he knew his way around and pretty much everybody in the arcade. As we walked along he mentioned that with the Washington Open match play tournament which we were attending there was an IFPA championship tournament playing out and some of pinballs best were here to play.
We found our way to the back area where registration was taking place. We put our money in, wrote down our names and we were set. After grabbing a beer we headed outback to the smoking area and chatted it up, talked with the editor of SkillShot a Seattle pinball zine and had our photo taken.
Waiting around and not knowing what to expect had me feeling pretty anxious and so when my buddy challenged me to a game of SF3 back inside I gladley accepted. After a few rounds of back and forth fisticuffs the loud speaker boomed- "Attention, attention all pinball tournament players..." it was about to get started.
The last and only time I ever competed in anything gaming related was a PC gaming tournament. There were over 35 players competing and the game was the first person shooter Counter-Strike. My dad had passed away earlier that year and in his honor I entered the tournament, because he always said "If your going to play that damn game so much why don't you do something with it?" It was long, brutal and at one point I felt it was hopeless, but upon feeling that emotion I told myself to "Just play. Just play like you do at home where you daily dominate on newbs like this." With that mindset I managed to climb the ranks, battle my way up to what would become a dramatic one on one tie breaker for third place against another younger competitor. The dual which I managed to win felt more nerve racking than the whole tournament. This kids friends on one side, a few of my family members on my side, both sides waiting to cheer for thier victor. So I am no stranger to playing under pressure. But that was over 15 years ago... and this was pinball not PC's.
As the rules were read out I nervously tried to keep my composure, but my mind wandered. Once the announcer was done I quickly snapped out of my daze, spun my head towards my friend and asked,
"So what again did he say?"
He reiterated what was just announced,
"Six strikes and your out. Four people to a machine, First place is zero strikes, Second and Third are one strike and last place gets you two strikes."
He opened up his phone and looked over a list and showed me my first game to play- Pinbot.
As I headed over to the machine not knowing what to expect, a man from our group pointed at me and said my name in which I confirmed. "Great!" he said back. We lined up at the machine and I followed the others lead but it was quickly pointed out that I had yet to put my quarter in the pin. "Sorry guys, I'm a newbie at this..." I said as I put my quarter in and pushed start- "No worries!" They said back.
For the next 10 minutes I sat back in my player 4 spot and watched these veterans blow up Pinbot. Intimidated doesn't begin to describe how I felt. I have only played pinbot a couple times and usually in different forms such as JackBot or Bride of Pinbot. Each competitor played the game in a methodical manner- the game calling out the same for each of them- "I AM IN YOUR CONTROL", "PARTIAL LINK-UP", "NOW I SEE YOU", "SHOOT FOR SOLAR VALUE". They were like the pro skateboarders I grew up with and I was the lame stragler in a game of follow the leader or SKATE. During the game I chatted with one of my Pinbot competitors. He went on to tell me his pinball story and how a couple years ago he was a state champion. I quickly realized my other two compeitors weren't much different and this was going to be a no win game and my first two strikes for the evening. "No big deal." I told myself, we will just shrug it off and play better next game. My fears and doubts however were lingering heavy over my head. Thoughts of "What if you place last on all three pins?" " What if you drain your ball straight down the middle three times in a row?", "What if you don't place in the top 20 like you want to?"
Between rounds I chatted with my friend while he smoked and I toked. We discussed and laughed off our losses. I checked my phone for my next match- Indiana Jones. Being new to the arcade I asked around if it was the Stern or Williams version of the game. I wasn't a huge fan of the Stern version but knew it much better than the Williams pin. To my dismay and somewhat delight I was told "I think its the older Williams version." by a patron smoking near me. It was now game time so I went inside to find my machine.
When I found Indiana Jones it was occupied by a couple playing in the IFPA tournament. We waited out there game and proceeded to play when they left. Meanwhile I used my phones matchplay app to look up tips for IJ. After scanning through the notes I made a decision to focus on the scoop, the ramps and keep it simple. I was then introduced to the competition, one of them was a good friend of whom invited me out. When my game started I stuck to my strategy and drained my ball not to long into play but on my second ball my strategy played out nicely. By activating a few modes and collecting jackpots along the way, I managed to get a decent score and to my surprise was leading by significant margin. Unfortunately my last ball was very short lived and I wasn't prepared for the video mode. In the end I was barely beat from behind by my buddies friend. I was excited though and pumped for a second place finish. I thought " That round could have been mine! If I had just gave it a little more!" And most exciting I only got hit with one strike. I wanted to stay in this, I wanted to play more pinball!
Outback on the porch again for a drink and a breather, I tell my friend about how I almost beat his buddy at Indiana. Before I look at my phone I pray the next game is one that I own and know. To my indifference it is not one I own but one I have played quite a bit on location- Iron Man.
After wondering around aimlessly for a few minutes I track down Iron man tucked in a corner near the entrance door. My competition is also there. Its a group of three, just me and two others. One was a fresh face, the other guy I had just played on IJ and he had got third or last. After freshening up my knowledge of the game via my app I told myself to have fun with this one. After the first round of ball 1 all of our scores looked almost the same and dismall. It was still anybodies game. I managed to qualify for multiball by raising War Monger from the playfield and while trying to get indirect hits on him I managed to drain. The player previously from IJ had a killer second ball and had a score around 10 million. I was still in third behind with a score of about 3 million, but I knew what I had to do. As ball three came down from the pops to the right flipper I made it my duty to bash the shit out of War Monger while taking caution at hitting him straight on. Multiball activated I did my best to juggle and keep them all in play. When it was all said and done it was just enough to keep me in second and avoid a double strike, 7.8 million to 12.6.
While on the back porch my friend and I tallied up our strikes and checked the standings. I was currently sitting at 14 spot out of 34, with 4 strikes against me. I checked for my next "arena" to do battle. It was The Addams Family. Probably the first pinball other than Twilight Zone I remember playing as a kid. I enjoyed playing it at arcades and on my phone but never really gave it much competitive thought. Knowing how popular the game is to this day I shuddered at the what the competition might be like.
I went in and found Addams Family. IFPA players were currently finishing there game and so I thought I would take time to shake hands with the competion. It was two other people, a gentlemen and woman who I had yet to meet and about my age. IFPA players were gone, our quarters were in and it was time to play.
It was my turn to be first up to play and I was going to make the most of it. I wrapped my palms around the moist lockbar and embraced it like the sweat was my own. I plunged the ball with my focus on the orbits and ramps just looking for some quality time behind the flippers. I grasped and stop saved the life of every ball as it came to near drain and somehow managed to activate quick multiball. I made sure to make the most of it. Before I knew it I was locking balls and trying to set myself up for multiblall for my second ball. Upon draining I looked up and saw a score of over 30million and was elated. Unfortunately my last two balls fell short of what I was going for, I think I psyched myself out somehow, yet to my disbelief I had won! I looked up at the score 42 million, 13million and 1.8million. I shook my opponents hand and told them good game. Then took a picture and reported the win to the officials; all with a shit eating grin on my face. I was still in it. First place on Addams gave me new life and with zero strikes against me- "I can keep playing!" I thought.
Back on the smoking porch I celebrated my win with a fresh drink while my friend and I chatted about our recent wins. He had just won as well against two others on Gaurdians of The Galaxy. The process continued and I checked my phone for the next game- Theater of Magic. One of my favorite games to play on location, but not too familiar with the rules other than the magic chest multiball.
I found TOM and said hello to the competion. A female about my age and an older gentleman and woman, all of which I could tell from there garb and demeanor were avid pinball players. With my win on Addams fresh in memory I tried to keep my spirits high, but they were soon crushed and memories of PinBot domination were starting to arise in the back of my mind. All three players had killer 1st balls, playing almost endlessly into the hundred millions. They were practically mimicking eachothers play similar to the competion on Pinbot. My first ball was plunged it went up the shooter lane and then down the habitrail to the right flipper, and after reject shot after rejected I drain in a matter of what felt like seconds. My second ball was not much better but at least I had moved the game along a little, fighting for everyball that came down towards the flippers. I looked up at the DMD and it wasn't looking good, third place was still a couple million away from me and these guys were definitely pros with second and first place just a few hundred thousand away from eachother. My only shot at staying in this competition was my third ball and I had to make it count to get at least third place. After waiting for a few minutes my turn came up and once again I embraced the sweaty lock bar and made it my own. Nerve racked, I plunged the ball and gave TOM my best shot and it was working. Orbits were made, ramp shots made, lock shots made and then as if my subconcious took over me, my left flipper flings the ball straight into the chest- Multiball! Just as on Iron Man I did everything I knew to do to keep the balls in play and still making shots. After a minute or so my last ball finally drained, I looked up and to my joy I had did it. I had managed to get a third place score which rivaled second and first place. As I turned back to face my competition they gave me a soft smile and said "good job." I just said "You guys don't make this easy." In which they concured.
Back on the patio I was feeling rather exhausted by this point in the evening. Lots of stress, lots of standing, and a shit ton of concentration. It felt good to be out taking a break.
With four rounds played much of the competition had been eliminated, including my friend. To my surprise I was still in it and glad to be playing, but was starting to feel burnt out. I checked for my next game- Guardians of The Galaxy. Another game that I have only played a few times on location with little knowlege of the ruleset. I tell my friend I am up on Guardians he suggest I choose Starlord because he starts off with two ball multiball. I take him up on his advice and when the game starts I do as best as I can but to little avail. For the next two balls my strategy is to just keep the ball in play and try for combo shots, but easier said than done. In my exhaustion I think I kind of gave up and wasn't fighting for the ball like I was earlier in the evening. After it was over I welcomed the results- last place on GOTG. That was my sixth, seventh and final strike.
Once outside I chatted with the friendly faces I was just competing against. Somebody asked me how I did and curious myself I checked the standings. #20 out of 34 with 7 strikes. I blurted out "Top 20, I did it!" Going into this and expecting the worst I can say that I couldn't have been happier for my first pinball competition.
My friends and I later grabbed some tacos next door and closed the night out by playing a few games of pinball back at the arcade. I am grateful for the pinball tournament experience, its one I shall not forget and hope to experience again sometime in the future. Special thanks to all those who take the time to organize these events- you all kick a lot of ass