Pinball is booming in America, thanks to nostalgia and canny marketing
On a Tuesday night at Logan Arcade, a bar on Chicagos Northwest Side, Ian, a 57-year-old assistant manager, looks at the Rick and Morty pinball machine. This is a frustrating machine, he says. He steps up and takes his turnone of a group of four, including your correspondentbashing the flippers to try to direct the ball into the garage of a model house with a flying saucer at the top. A screen above records the scores and shows clips from the cult cartoon show. When you hit the target, the show moves along. Ians ball falls into the gutter. He sighs and shuffles out of the way for the next player. I met the dude who designed this machine, he says. They take a lot of learning. Theyre deep. Twenty years ago, pinball seemed to be circling the drain. In the 1980s and 1990s video games stole market share from the mechanical sort, and home games-consoles stole market share from arcades. By 2000 WMS, the Chicago-based maker of the Bally and Williams brands of pinball machines, then the biggest manufacturer, closed its loss-making pinball division to focus on selling slot machines. Yet today, pinball is thriving again, both at places like Logan Arcade and in peoples homes. Sales of new machines have risen by 15-20% every year since 2008, says Zach Sharpe, of Stern Pinball, which became the last remaining major maker after WMS closed. We have not looked back, he says. Next year the firm is moving to a new factory, twice the size of its current one, in the north-west suburbs of Chicago. Sales of used machines are more buoyant stillsome favourites, such as Sterns Game of Thrones-themed game, can fetch prices well into five figures. Josh Sharpe, Zachs brother and president of the International Flipper Pinball Association, says that last year the IFPA approved 8,300 official tournaments, a four-fold increase on 2014. What is driving the boom? Much of it is nostalgia. A generation raised on pinball in arcades now has disposable income, and kids with whom they want to play the games they played as children. Marty Friedman, who runs an arcade in Manchester, a tourist town in southern Vermont, says that he and his wife opened their business after he realised it would allow him to indulge his hobby. I compiled a list of the games I felt were essential to a collection you would deem museum-worthy, he said, and went about acquiring them. But canny marketing is also drawing in fresh blood. Newer Stern machines are now connected to the internet, so players can upload scores to an online profile. Both Sharpes suggest that the mechanical nature of the games appeals to people bored with purely screen-based play. A couple of generations ago many states banned pinball, seeing the machines as encouraging gambling. In some cities the mafia had a monopoly on servicing them. In 1940s New York City, Fiorello La Guardia, the mayor, went around smashing them with a sledgehammer. In the 1970s Roger Sharpe, the father of Josh and Zach, helped overturn the ban in the Big Apple by proving that the game was one of skill, not pure luck. Even now, in South Carolina, fans are still lobbying the state to lift a decades-old ban on people under 18 playing. Yesterdays teenage vice becomes todays wholesome family fun, as surely as a pinball eventually falls down the gutter. Stay on top of American politics with Checks and Balance, our weekly subscriber-only newsletter, which examines the state of American democracy and the issues that matter to voters.