This story was first published online at UNC Media Hub.
It’s a Wednesday night in February at The Neighborhood Sports Bar and Arcade in Cary. It smells like beer and french fries, and neon lights from arcade games splash the walls with red and blue.
Paul Sanders slides four quarters into a slot. Instantly, red, green, and yellow lights begin to flash, and the world around him fades away. Only he can save the universe from Martians in a flying saucer, using only silver balls and glowing flippers.
Attack from Mars is his favorite pinball machine. His love of the game, Sanders says, is rooted in childhood memories. Somehow he’s never outgrown this particular machine.
Green red-eyed Martians bounce up and down, mocking him as he shoots for the saucer. He hits the middle orbit, which locks a ball. If he gets two more, multiball mode can begin. In seconds, he’s done it. One ball turns to many, dancing under the glass like atoms in a molecule.
His score keeps climbing, but soon he loses his grip. One by one, the balls slip away. Sanders has lost.
He slides four more quarters into the machine.
“It costs me a dollar,” he says, “but it’s cheaper than therapy.”
Pinball machines once illuminated pizza parlors and arcades across the United States. Their flashing lights, intricate designs, and trendy themes attracted children and adults alike. But, as consumer culture shifted toward video games like Super Mario and Mortal Kombat in the late 1990s, pinball began to be edged out. Most manufacturers went bankrupt altogether. In a dour 1999 New York Times story, amateur pinball historian Russ Jensen predicted that pinball “might not make it into the next millennium.”
But pinball didn’t die. And in the last few years, riding a wave of nostalgia that finds parallels in the return of disco, rollerskating, and velvet couches, pinball has seen a resurgence in popularity—especially in the Triangle.
The Triangle Pinball Players, which kicked off in 2016 and has more than 330 members on Facebook, is a close-knit group of pinball devotees who come together to play the game they love—religiously, even. “Going to church,” as some members call it, means meeting at the arcade every Sunday morning. When the work week is over, they show up, knowing they’ll never be the only one there.
Some come more often. Kevin Lucht, known as “Kevin FL” in the pinball world, comes to The Neighborhood daily, despite living 30 minutes south, in Fuquay-Varina. Growing up in the eighties, he was surrounded by pinball machines in his neighborhood laundromats, pizza parlors, gas stations, and corner stores. They’ve always been a part of his life.
“It’s an addiction,” he said. “I’d say I’m in here almost every day.”
Because of the pandemic, many tournaments have been cancelled and arcades closed down, but the Triangle Pinball Players still host “selfie tournaments” at The Neighborhood. At any time, players can take a picture of their scores and upload them online to compete without overcrowding the bar.
Ovid Dillard, a Cary resident and the creator of the selfie tournament, was ranked first in the state last year by the International Flipper Pinball Association and placed second in the pinball state championship. He returned to his childhood pastime after buying a machine at an auction six years ago and has since played competitively across the country.
“I think the reason it appeals to people is because it is still a mechanical thing that will break,” Dillard said. “And it’s different every time. The spin on the ball happens in a certain way. You can’t really program that into a computer.”
Pinball is feeling this resurgence all over. According to the IFPA, the number of ranked players worldwide has increased by almost 100 times in the last decade. Today, there are almost 80,000 people in the world who are ranked, and the United States claims more than 20,000 of them. North Carolina alone had 516 people play in tournaments in 2019.
Before the 1970s, pinball was illegal in New York City on the grounds that it was a game of luck which could be associated with gambling. In 1976, however, Roger Sharp—also known as the “Hero of Pinball”—testified in court that the game was rooted in skill. He proved his claim on a machine chosen by the New York City Council, correctly predicting the path of the ball, shot after shot. The ban was lifted on the grounds that pinball was a game that required skill, talent, and strategy.
And this is something that the Triangle Pinball Players know well.
Dillard’s signature move is to literally slap a machine at the last second, to tip the ball off the edge of the flipper. This creates a tip-pass, which gently tosses the ball to the other flipper for a better shot.
Sanders, meanwhile, prefers to wing it, just hoping he doesn’t lose the ball.
Frances Staelin, who lives in Raleigh, is known by the Triangle Pinball Players as the master of the skill shot, which is a special bonus rewarded when a player launches the ball in a certain way; each game has its own skill shot. She quickly learns the shot at the start of the game and racks up points against her competitors.
Of the top 300 players in the world, according to the IFPA, only three are women.
“It has traditionally been a man’s sport where it can be really intimidating,” Staelin said. “Some women are like, ‘I don’t want to get into competition,’ or they can feel embarrassed because they don’t know what’s going on. It might not be approachable; you walk in, and there’s just a bunch of guys there.”
Staelin started the Women’s Triangle Players last year to create a safe space for women entering the traditionally male-dominated world of pinball. League members would come together, have a few drinks, and learn from each other without feeling nervous or intimidated by crowds of men.
“We only got to have our first meeting before everything shut down with COVID,” Staelin says. “So it never really got to take off. But in our first event, we had a couple of newbies and one person even saw our posts on Instagram and just showed up. Even having one person was super exciting.”
One thing remains the same: people who play pinball don’t just love the game—they’re hooked on it. Pinball sticks with even its best players, with no game being the same as the last.
“People want to touch something,” Kevin Lucht says. “You want to grab something and move it and be able to manipulate it.”
It’s not a video game, it’s a machine; maybe even a time machine. It carries nostalgic reminders of a different time, children hunkered in front of the glowing metal box, digging for one last quarter before curfew calls them home. One that brings people together.
“You can play, and you can play, and you’ll never master it,” Staelin says. “You can become amazing; you can become the best, but you’re still gonna have a bad day, and you can’t trump the game. Which is something that’s really attractive about it.”
“It kind of takes your mind away from everything that’s going on, and you’re able to just sit there and just get angry at the pinball machine,” Sanders adds.
It is closing time at The Neighborhood now, and the pinball players return home. The bartenders know, as they close up shop, that they’ll see them again tomorrow. Sanders hasn’t saved the universe yet—so they better have their quarters stocked.
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