Full Tilt | Cover Story | Salt Lake City | Salt Lake City Weekly

Full Tilt 

How local pinball champs and arcade bars are keeping the game alive.

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STEVEN VARGO
  • Steven Vargo

Those of us who came of age before Y2K will remember the singular thrill of visiting an arcade. You'd spend the week doing anything to build up a stash of quarters—mowing lawns, babysitting or even rifling through the cracker crumbs between the couch cushions in search of loose change—and then spend it all on a few transcendent hours at the arcade. Back then, arcades were an ecosystem all their own. The initials that flashed across the high score tables at the end of arcade games like Donkey Kong and Mortal Kombat signified the rise and fall of empires, and one lucky quarter could be your ticket to video game Valhalla.

If you were really spoiling for some action, you'd saunter a few steps across the floor, sticky with spilled soda and the tears of defeat, to the multisensory assault from the pinball machines. Lined up like Lamborghinis in a showroom, and blinking and trilling in a discordant Morse code that only the bravest players sought to interpret, the pinball section had a pulse all its own. Where snagging a respectable score on a digital arcade game was possible through obsessive pattern recognition, the same strategy only got you so far here. Pinball machines were self-contained geographies that maintained their own laws of physics. Reflexes, reaction time, critical thinking and a level head remain important factors in pinball, but Lady Luck plays a much more pivotal role than she does in the game's digital cousins.

Perhaps that's why pinball has always attracted a certain kind of arcade desperado—there's something singular about the thrill that comes from knowing that skill can only get you so far until you come to terms with how lucky you actually are. It's that kind of hardcore fan that saved pinball from being swallowed up by the digital onslaught of contemporary entertainment and preserved it for a new generation of players.

For a snapshot of the kind of community that has helped preserve pinball from extinction, one only has to visit the 2019 IFPA (International Flipper Pinball Association) Utah State Championship. It's here where the best players in the region gather to compete, commiserate and conquer while they spend their day immersed in a cultural phenomenon that is starting to regain traction.

Kelly Thomson - STEVEN VARGO
  • Steven Vargo
  • Kelly Thomson

The Warmup
It's just before noon on a balmy winter Saturday when I visit Kiitos Brewing, the site for this year's pinball championship. Kiitos sports a well-curated collection of pinball machines that spans four decades—from the 1977 classic Super Flite to 2018's video game hybridization of Marvel's Deadpool. The machines themselves belong to competitors Dan Newman, organizer of the Salt Lake Area Pinball (SLAP) league, and Mike "Iceman" Lund, who is a hot contender for this year's top slot.

As the brewery's daily customers trickle in and out, I'm watching the top 16 players in the region warm up. An air of definite competitive tension fills the room, but it's quickly dispelled by the amount of camaraderie on display. I went in expecting a bunch of stone-cold poker faces and was greeted with a friendly sense of community—everyone knows each other, and they're more interested in spending a day playing pinball with their friends than in humiliating the competition.

The competitors gathered here today were determined by their end-of-year standings on the IFPA leaderboards. Over the course of 2018, they faced off at officially sanctioned IFPA qualifying tournaments and kicked enough ass to make it to state. The winner of this prestigious gathering of pinball nerds heads to the national championship in Las Vegas next month—the gateway to an international tournament that has yet to be announced.

Immediately, I'm thinking about the unique challenges that face today's contenders. And when I hear that the tournament is supposed to last well into the evening, it's clear that endurance will be a key factor. Contenders in IFPA-sanctioned tournaments like this one need to be prepared for the long haul. Once the competitor pairings have been announced, each player needs to best their opponent in a series of seven matches. With the amount of players on hand, tournaments can exceed eight hours. Mental stamina is tested as thousands of blinking lights and unlucky balls chip away at each player's will, all of which is exacerbated with each hour the tournament progresses. Sure, the gathering is all about fun and games, but whoever wins this thing will do so because they're able to keep their wits about them in a sea of sensory stimulation.

The tournament logistics are in the capable hands of Jeff Rivera, the official IFPA representative for the state. As far as the competitors are concerned, he's the alpha and omega of pinball regulations. Throughout the tournament, he makes the final call on any rules and regulation disputes, and is in charge of distributing the day's prize money among the victors. "Today, every state who has an IFPA rep will be running their tournament, and that includes Canada," he tells City Weekly before the event kicks off. "This is our third year doing a tournament in Utah. The IFPA decided we had a large enough scene here to need a rep, and I volunteered to take that role."

Rivera also is a member of SLAP, and he's invested in getting more people on board. "Pinball has grown from a middle-aged white guy sport and become a bit more diverse," he says. "The community itself is opening up a bit more to other types of players, which is really nice to see." In addition to making itself friendlier to newcomers, Rivera notes that online communities like Twitch have made it possible for pinball players the world over to connect in real time. "It's becoming more of a spectator sport online. Some people like to watch to learn games, some like to watch for competitions," he says. "Several of the tournaments today will be streamed, and I hope to do something like that next year."

The kitty includes $375 in prize money, a guaranteed spot at nationals and a chance to win a brand new Stern pinball machine, but today's competitors act like that's the furthest thing from their minds as they limber up their flipper fingers and fire up their synapses. Each competitor wants to win, of course, but today's tourney is about more than scoring a victory. There's a unique vibe to this particular competition—an evolution of pinball from an iconic counterculture pastime into something that has a renewed sense of humility. The competitors maintain a solemn reverence to the game of pinball because they almost lost it. To better understand the source of the monastic appreciation on display here and in countless arcades, basements and museums across the country, we need to explore the history of pinball, which is as bumpy and unpredictable as the game itself.

Jeff Rivera - STEVEN VARGO
  • Steven Vargo
  • Jeff Rivera

A Counterculture Within a Counterculture
Like booze, witchcraft and keeping chickens within city limits, early pinball machines used to be on the wrong side of the law. In the mid-1940s, pinball machines were declared illegal in American metropolises like Chicago, Los Angeles and New York, which banned the devices for three decades. Publicity stills of NYPD officers shattering pinball machines with sledgehammers circulated throughout the country as New York Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia declared these machines to be run by the mafia in an effort to steal lunch money from the country's impressionable youth.

Much like our own Gov. Gary Herbert's flaccid declaration of porn as a public health hazard, LaGuardia's crusade against pinball was based on far-fetched conspiracy theories and political posturing. See, early pinball machines didn't have flippers, so they were considered games of chance and not games of skill. The mere whiff that pinball machines could be luring the nation's youth into the vice grip of gambling was enough to brand them as nefarious morality traps cooked up by the don's consiglieri, and the machines were routinely drag-netted and destroyed. Once flipper pinball became mainstream in the 1970s, however, the game's 30-year demonization came to an end when pinball was legalized—though it remained a good way to piss off your parents.

After the early '70s, pinball machines became fixtures in video game arcades across the country. Pop culture influencers of the time recognized pinball as a fascinating niche within a community that was already building a reputation synonymous with rebellion and counter-culture ideology. Perhaps the most notable convergence of these pop culture ley lines was Tommy, a lavishly produced rock opera by British rock legends The Who. The band's chart-topping "Pinball Wizard" not only lent a sense of angsty credibility to pinball, but their decision to feature pinball as the catalyst for their deaf, dumb and blind messiah figure to fulfill his psychedelic destiny colored the game with undertones of mysticism.

Pinball enjoyed immense popularity until the early 2000s, which was when the arcade business was gutted by the proliferation of home-gaming consoles. At the time, Sony's Playstation 2, Microsoft's Xbox and Nintendo's GameCube were ushering gamers into a new era where they didn't have to scrounge up coins—or even leave the house—if they needed a gaming fix. Online communities redefined and expanded gamers' social circles, which meant that brick-and-mortar joints were rapidly going belly up. Digital games could survive this process—Mortal Kombat and Street Fighter are more popular now than they've ever been—but clunky pinball machines weren't as easy to market to the at-home audience. The 30 some-odd pinball manufacturers in the country held on for as long as they could, but all of them except one—Chicago's Stern Pinball—went to that big high-score display in the sky.

Despite this drought, passionate collectors and curators maintained pinball machines for posterity. Over the past decade, the hobby has started to see an uptick in popularity. The nostalgia factor for players who are now old enough to have the financial ability to purchase their own machines—combined with millennial culture's appreciation for artifacts of bygone generations—has preserved pinball for the time being. As Salt Lake has always had a soft spot for niche communities like this, it's not a bad place to be a fan. Between Kiitos Brewing, Quarters Arcade Bar, Murray's Nickelmania and others, we not only have a wide selection of machines, but also a few pinball purists who are actively recruiting for the burgeoning pinballer community. While this IFPA championship represents many different things to the competitors, looking at it from the eyes of an interested observer paints it as a testament to what a passionate fanbase can do when something that it loves comes close to extinction.

Matt Sjoblom - STEVEN VARGO
  • Steven Vargo
  • Matt Sjoblom

The Tournament
Perhaps it's the shared bond that single-handedly spared pinball from the pop culture junk heap. Competitors are just as amiable with one another as with outsiders like myself. In between rounds, I'd strike up conversations with the players to get a sense of what brought them in, and what spurred them to start earning IFPA points to begin with. Steve Strom, a database engineer from Elko, Nev., and last year's state champ is among them, ready to defend his title. "I grew up in Portland, which had a ton of pinball machines, and has even more now. It's raining all the time there, so I guess everybody plays pinball," he reflects. "I owned around a half-dozen pinball machines back in the day, but I sold the last one off in 2005 when we moved to Elko, where I took some time off because there's really no pinball [there]." While traveling through Salt Lake on his way to Wendover—"My son and I were going to see Cheech and Chong," he reminisces—Strom happened to be in town for the 2017 Salt Lake Gaming Con, which was holding an IFPA pinball tournament. "It turned out to be one of the largest tournaments they ever held in Utah," he says. "I won that one, so that immediately put me in contention for state championships."

Strom attributes his success to his ability to stay cool in light of the arcade's sensory onslaught. "You have to have a calm demeanor," he says. "You can't get too excited about something going good or bad. I also watch a lot of Twitch streams to pick up on some strategy, especially when a new machine comes out." Even from the spectator perspective, it's evident that Strom is in control. Tournament contestant Matt Sjoblom, who became my unofficial pinball Sherpa during the competition, told me to compare Strom's game stance with the other competitors. "The guy's like a statue," Sjoblom notes. There was definitely a sharp contrast—pinball players, especially when playing competitively, gyrate and swivel quite a bit as they work their magic, but Strom conducts himself like an enduring sphinx when it's game time. "It's real. It's physical," Strom says about his attraction to pinball. "I've played Pac-Man, Donkey Kong and all the classic video games, but pinball drew me in because every game and every shot is different."

In addition to veterans like Strom, there was some new blood in the ring as well. Andrew Herbst, a rookie to the competitive pinball scene, came up from Santaquin to participate. It's not a surprise the Utah County community wouldn't be considered a hotbed of pinball activity—the only public machine within city limits is housed at a local burger joint called the Santa Queen Drive Inn—so Herbst was happy to find a pinball community within driving distance. He got involved with competitive play while shopping for pinball machines to add to his collection. Like anyone who is local and shopping for machines, Herbst soon met Kelly Thomson. Thomson has a personal collection that dwarfs most local arcades, and is also competing for the state championship. It was Thomson who introduced Herbst to the local competitive scene. "He invited me over to check out his collection. We played some pinball and he told me about the league. Through that, I got more involved with the competitive side of things," Herbst recalls.

"The draw to pinball for me is that it's very mechanical," Herbst says. "You get positive feedback from the machine, you feel the flippers. It brings a different type of skill into gaming that you don't get from the digital stuff." This is Herbst's first state championship, and while he's playing to win, he's mostly looking forward to a full day spent doing something he loves. "As long as I don't come in last, I'll be happy. But it's all in good fun," he says. "That's one thing that I've always liked about this group. There are so many people from different walks of life, and we all get along. I don't think there's any animosity in the group."

According to Sjoblom, the rivalry to watch was between Dan Newman and Mike Lund, who battled it out for second and third place after Strom took last year's title. After a grueling six hours of flashing scoreboards, multi-balls, jackpots, agony and ecstasy, a winner finally emerged. In the end, it was Lund—the folks in SLAP know him as "Iceman"—who took the title. "We get a lot of enjoyment at my expense about Iceman," Lund says. He got the nickname two years ago during news coverage of the 2016 tournament while explaining the significance of the initials MIL that he uses any time he gets on the board with a particular pinball machine. "It's something I've been using since I was a teenager. When you earned a million points on a pinball machine back in the day, it was kind of a big deal, so I always put MIL," he explains. "I didn't mean anything, but a reporter at the time asked me what it stood for. Joking around, I said 'Iceman,' and I didn't think it was actually going to go into print." It definitely did, and it's stuck with Lund ever since.

Lund credits his victory to strategically stacking up multipliers at the right time. "When you play tournaments, you're just trying to get into multi-ball or hitting jackpots instead of hitting all the shots in the play field," he says. "Newer games have modes where there's a storyline that you play along, but it's more about exploiting the easy points that reward more, so it's kind of a different mindset."

This victory earns Lund a spot at nationals, where the competition can become a bit pricklier. "I'm not really a very big fish, and I'm swimming in a very small pond," he says of his chances. "Going to nationals, I'm just going to be a minnow floating around in the sea. I think I should do pretty well, but I don't have a lot of high expectations." At nationals, competitors with the highest IFPA rank get paired with those among the lowest. "My ranking is terrible, so I'm pretty much guaranteed to play the top player in my first round, which means that, unless I have a really good set of games back-to-back, I'm going to be out first round," he says. All the same, Lund is looking forward to the event—playing pinball in Vegas isn't a bad way to start the year.

Left to right: Mike Lund, Dan Newman, Mark Laird and Steve Strom. - STEVEN VARGO
  • Steven Vargo
  • Left to right: Mike Lund, Dan Newman, Mark Laird and Steve Strom.

Building a Local Community
While many of the competitors spoke to the pinball community's growing diversity, the competitive circuit remains predominantly white and male. When pinball was enjoying the height of its popularity in the '80s and '90s, the game was strongly marketed to young males, making it widely considered a boys' club. Much like the vocal, toxic fanboy subset of any gaming community, pinball today has its share of dipshits who strive to keep pinball exclusive. Female pinball players have traditionally struggled to find acceptance in hardcore pinball leagues—though the IFPA does maintain a list of its women players and their international standings. This gender rift has led to the creation of women-only pinball leagues such as Belles & Chimes and tournaments like the Women's International Pinball Tournament (WIPT), the inaugural tournament for which took place in Pittsburgh last year. Both examples speak to the truth that pinball fans come from all walks of life, but also to a culture that is evolving when it comes to including its more diverse fans.

Although the competitors in the Utah state championship were all men, I got the sense that they were nothing but excited to see a wider breadth of players stepping up. Unlike the more cynical members of the pinball community, they understand that the surest way to keep something you love alive is to share it with as many people as possible—which is where Quarters Arcade Bar comes in.

Owners Katy Willis and Michael Eccleston have made pinball a priority at their geek-friendly watering hole. Every Monday night from 8 p.m. to midnight, Quarters hosts a pinball league designed to build local swell around the game. "Our pinball machines get a lot of play, and it's a mix of men and women playing for sure," Willis says. "We have some other industry friends that are ladies, and once we get sort of an overall pinball culture, we want to get a chapter of Belles & Chimes started in Utah."

Where competitive play or showing up at SLAP tournaments for the first time might be intimidating—especially for women, people of color or members of the LGBTQ community—folks who are interested in getting their feet wet can visit Quarters for a more casual organized experience. "The people who are regulars at Quarters are really welcoming," Eccleston says. "One of our bartenders is really into pinball and he's walking people through rules all the time. It can seem intimidating, but it's really not."

Willis and Eccleston have also achieved moderate success by streaming their weekly pinball league on Twitch, where their online traffic has already earned them affiliate status on the video-streaming platform. "We've done it for two weeks, and both of them were a learning process, but I still think it looks really great," Willis says.

Back at Kiitos, after a grueling six and a half hours of hardcore pinball, Lund, the day's victor,made sure to hold his first place trophy high enough for his competitors to see. After taking a well-earned rest from the day's barrage of thumping bumpers, the champ takes a moment to soak it all in. "There was no lack of luck when it came to my win. Salt Lake has a huge talent pool when it comes to pinball," Lund reflects. "Knowing the game's rules and a few tricks of my own allowed me to sneak through and win the day, but it really was anyone's game," he continues. "This being my second state championship does validate all the smack I've talked over the past year. But, continuing with tradition, a side note to all the flipper clowns out there: the Iceman cometh—and he kicked your candy asses!" No one ever said pinball was a gentleman's game.

Steve Storm - STEVEN VARGO
  • Steven Vargo
  • Steve Storm
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