The Sure Shots: Inside the Little-Known World of Hypercompetitive Pinball

Raymond Davidson, the world’s top-ranked player, warms up before the Stern Pro Circuit Championship in March.
Raymond Davidson, the world’s top-ranked player, warms up before the Stern Pro Circuit Championship in March. Brian Sorg


RAYMOND DAVIDSON, the world’s number-one-ranked pinball player, needs a strong start on Batman ’66. The blond-bearded 26-year-old steps up to the machine—a new model bearing the faces of the Joker, the Riddler, and other villains from the old TV show—and wipes the sweat from his hands on his jeans. Then he grabs the plunger and lets the ball rip. It flies onto the playfield, then rockets up a ramp at the top left. The machine flutters and pulses with light. “Shoot for the Batcave!” it exclaims, as Adam West brawls with riff raff on the LCD screen. “Collect All Umbrellas! Shoot the Batphone!” The ball hits a target at the top right three times, then zooms up the left ramp again. Davidson, sporting a black G Fuel hat and a black hoodie, stays loose and upright, making excited little kicks when the ball nearly drains. When it does, after five minutes, he has 206 million points, twice as many as the next player. He is where he wants to be—in the lead.

A computer programmer by day, Davidson is competitive pinball’s rising star—a rising star in extremely relative terms, sure, given the game’s hyperniche following, but a rising star nonetheless. He’s the winner of the World Pinball Championship two years running, and is here in Chicago from Seattle this weekend to compete in the Stern Pro Circuit Championship, at the Bottom Lounge bar. It isn’t competitive pinball’s biggest tournament, but it’s among the most prestigious. Only 40 top ranked players are invited to compete, meaning no clowns to hand over easy early wins. And though the prizes are modest—first place takes $2,500 and a new Stern pinball machine, worth $6,000—the tournament doesn’t lack spectacle. A projection screen, displaying live matches, covers an entire wall of the bar. In front of it, Todd MacCulloch, a 7-foot-tall former Philly 76er, sits at a table, dishing commentary for the 10,000 people watching live via YouTube and Twitch; he’s impossible to hear, though, over the live DJ and the clanging machines. This evening, Ed Robertson, the lead singer for the Barenaked Ladies, will perform. Welcome to Big Time Pinball.

Over the past decade, pinball has enjoyed a resurgence, owing as much to its analog charm as to increased exposure through online streaming. The fact that you don’t have to be terribly sober to mash two buttons hasn’t hurt, either. Arcade bars have popped up across the country, in big cities but also in towns such as Eagle, Idaho, and Fargo, North Dakota. There are now some 6,000 sanctioned tournaments worldwide each year, compared with about 500 a decade ago. The number of ranked competitors has shot up similarly, going from fewer than a thousand to 38,000 today.

Testing two of the 10 tournament games.
Testing two of the 10 tournament games. Brian Sorg

Davidson and the 39 guys, and they’re all guys expect one, that he’s facing off against today have swan-dived into the deep end of the trend. They aren’t athletes, but they inhabit a shadow world that resembles pro sports, a world with its own legends (Keith Elwin, the GOAT); its own media outlets (This Week in Pinball); and its own controversies (tournament rule changes, mostly). And though the players may wear bad jeans and possess minimal agility beyond their fingertips, they are fierce. Some wear gloves to avoid playing with sweaty hands; others have rags to wipe down the buttons. The most serious among them travel monthly to matches across the country to maintain their ranking. But unlike esports teams, say, which battle for millions, pinball’s best compete mostly for glory. Even so, Davidson says, “I usually recoup a lot of my money in prizes as long as I do decently.” To prepare, he spends hours watching games on pinballvideos.com, studying how to win on machines that aren’t among the 10 he owns.

He ultimately coasts out of round one, and no surprise. “He’ll hit more of his shots than anyone else here, I bet,” Steve Bowden, another top player, tells me. “He catches, holds, shoots, catches, holds, shoots.”

Davidson’s ascent among the competitive ranks comes at a moment of renewed interest in pinball, no doubt. But the game has made improbable rebounds before. The coin-operated pinball machine debuted in 1931, and the “gaudy nickel traps,” as The New York Times called them, remained popular in the postwar years, despite bans in Chicago, Los Angeles, and New York for the game’s links to gambling and organized crime.

A pinball player works the flippers.
A pinball player works the flippers. Brian Sorg

Pinball’s greatest existential threat arrived in the early ’80s: Pac-Man and Galaga. To save the game from arcade oblivion, manufacturers souped up new models with ball traps and cranes, ramps and video screens. And the plan worked. Pinball’s popularity peaked in the early ’90s, bolstered by the release of The Addams Family, the all-time most popular machine, with more than 20,000 sold. But dark times are never far away in the flipper world. In 1999, WMS Industries, maker of The Addams Family and probably every other machine you’ve played from the era, killed off its pinball division to focus on slots.

Since the game’s early-aughts nadir, tournaments have played a major role in its rebound, largely by recruiting committed players, like Davidson. That today’s contest is in Chicago—the “heart and soul of American pinball”—is extra motivation for wanting to win, he says. Stern, the largest manufacturer, is based here, as were the biggest outfits of the past: Bally, Midway, Williams. Today’s tournament is also in the run-up to June’s World Pinball Championship, hosted by the International Flipper Pinball Association, in Milan, Italy. There, 62 players from around the world will compete for a whopping $1,000 and a new pinball machine. Davidson is hoping to three-peat, and today affords a glimpse at how he and other top competitors might perform.

Video Games tell you what to do. With pinball, you figure out what you need to do and the best way to do it.

ROUND TWO STARTS at 3 p.m., three hours behind schedule. At this point, a non-player might wonder, How much time can I possibly spend in a bar on a Saturday, sustaining myself on chicken fingers and tater tots? But Davidson and other players don’t lose focus. Any idiot can keep a ball alive for a minute or two on a prayer. These guys complete objectives—like hitting Batman ’66’s Commissioner Gordon target three times to double the value of other features—to make points rain from the pinball heavens. They take safe, repeatable shots that return the ball to their flippers. They learn how hard they can nudge a machine to save a ball, without nudging it too hard and getting a tilt. Because if you tilt, you’re screwed: dead ball, no bonus points, nice try, next player. And they try their best to memorize the rules of each game, which can run a hundred pages long, so they know how to cash in on certain scoring modes.

 

Competitive pinball players travel across the country to maintain their rankings, never mind the modest tournament prizes.
Competitive pinball players travel across the country to maintain their rankings, never mind the modest tournament prizes. Brian Sorg

But even if you know the rules and can nail shots and avoid tilts, it’s still a puzzle to figure out the smoothest path to victory. “Video games tell you what you need to do,” explains Davidson, who started playing seriously at age 12. With pinball, “you figure out what you need to do and the best way to do it.” This is perhaps the game’s greatest challenge and its biggest appeal, and partly why it’s attracting more and more young players, like Davidson. Don’t expect competitive pinball to go mainstream anytime soon, though.

At 5 p.m., the tournament opens to the public and the bar swells with 300 people, some of them actually women, a marked departure from earlier. But a half-hour later, Brian Quinn from the TruTV show Impractical Jokers bursts into the room. “What’s up, motherfuckers!” he yells into a mic, halting the tournament. He’s here to sign autographs, and it becomes apparent that 98 percent of the crowd is actually here for him; pinball, not so much.

Another curious aspect of the tournament is that Stern employees, including the designer of the Iron Maiden machine, are allowed to compete. This would be less problematic if Stern didn’t futz with the machines, as many tourney hosts do, to make them more difficult in ways not disclosed to competitors beforehand. But the other players knock out the Stern employees pretty early anyway.

Going into game four of round two, Davidson is basically screwed. He has had a lousy round, and he needs to take first in this game to advance to the finals. His fair complexion has gone ghostly. “Oh, he’s going for the double,” he says bleakly when Robert Gagno, another player, pulls ahead on ball two.

Now Davidson is up. Last ball. Last game. Down 200 million points. I abandon whatever pretense of journalistic objectivity I have and tell him to kick ass. But he looks as though he’s been handed an electric eel and doesn’t know what to do with it. As he approaches Iron Maiden, he’s the only player at the 10 machines; everyone who’s not vying for an autograph is fixed on the projection screen, watching. For Davidson, the ball means the difference between first and fourth, and it’s a Hail Mary from his own end zone.

He plunges the ball, and within seconds gets a multi-ball mode. Two extra orbs tumble into play. He cradles them, then fires. The balls loop and loop. “Jackpot!” the machine says. “Jackpot!” More balls. More jackpots. More loops. It never ends. The balls become a tornado of color, spinning, spinning, spinning. “Power jackpot!” He is Michael Jordan draining a buzzer-beater. He is Tiger Woods birdieing at Augusta. He is Brandi Chastain punching in a penalty kick.

A vintage Ali machine.
A vintage Ali machine. Brian Sorg

The moment Davidson passes Gagno’s 273 million and claims first, his arms shoot up. “Oh my God!” he says, red-faced as he runs back to his high-top table. Never has he made such a dramatic comeback, at such a key moment. “That right there was ball-three adrenaline!” If there was confetti on hand, it would be thrown.

DAVIDSON DOESN’T WIN the tournament. Womp womp. He makes it to the final three, and at 10:30 p.m., hours after the crowd has vanished, he drains on Guardians of the Galaxy. “That’s it,” he says, walking back to the table. “I died.”

He wins $700. “At least that paid for the trip,” he says. He also placed high enough to keep his first-place ranking going into the World Pinball Championship. He apologizes for not taking first, though, because he knows it would’ve been really great for this story. A guy named Andy Rosa wins instead.

Still, Davidson pulled off the most exciting comeback of the 13-hour tournament. But “as fast as the adrenaline was there, it went away,” he says. “I just drained so fast. Lightning speed.” It’s hard to know whether he was unlucky or just screwed up. The latter bothers him more. Because, though there’s plenty of luck in pinball, there’s no margin for error. Not at this level. Not with stakes this high. ♦

This story appears in the June 2019 issue, with the headline, “The Sure Shots.” The story has been updated since publication.

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Essential Pinball Lingo

Luck Boxes: Vintage machines, usually from the 1970s or 1980s, that are less predictable than new models and are thus generally loathed by competitive players.

Nudging: The fine art of hitting the side of a machine to influence a ball, without hitting it too hard and getting a tilt penalty.

Drain: When a ball enters the black hole of no return below the flippers.

The Plunger: The spring-loaded knob that launches a ball onto the playfield.