Spoiler Alert: competitive pinball is not a great spectator sport.
It’s not that The Professional & Amateur Pinball Association (“PAPA”) didn’t try. There were cameras trained on each of the Division A tables which simultaneously broadcast to big screen TVs right above the play and live to the Internet on the organization’s streaming site. A set of low bleacher seats was set up with a view of everything and it was consistently stocked with lounging competitors. Occasionally, one of them would even look up to check out the action. But let’s face it, watching some dude (and it is almost always a dude) play pinball is just not that exciting, no matter how good he is.
PAPA, based in a big warehouse in the industrial section of Carnegie, has put on eighteen World Championships of pinball, the most recent having just wrapped-up last weekend. When we hear the words “world championship pinball” followed by “free” and “pancake breakfast” (O.K. that last one wasn’t an official part of the event), you know we’ll be there.
Though it’s exciting to walk into what is essentially the Olympics of pinball, the Orbit staff, much like Bob Costas and Mary Carillo in Sochi, quickly lost focus and wandered off to look at shiny things.
And there were many shiny things to distract even the most hardened get-the-story-right blogger: blinking lights, ringing bells, zapping buzzers, bumping bumpers, crazy mechanical contraptions, perverse teenage fantasies, (outdated) pop culture knock-offs, blast-from-the-past zig-zagging lasers. Some 450+ pinball machines alone (we’re taking the PAPA’s word on this, but that seems totally believable) plus old-school video games, mechanical arcade games, novelties, and one “yarn-bombed” art machine.
I love pinball art in all its glowing comic book teenage (male) fantasy over-the-topness. Busty science-fiction vixens, stoned aviator sunglasses-wearing protagonists with unfortunate haircuts and “shaggin’ wagons” (Greg’s term), popcorn movie tie-ins (official), and knock-offs (not so). No genre or theme seems to have been left unexplored: from the old West to outer space, from secret agents to cartoons, surfing to disco dancing, Guns and Roses to ladies formal wear (yes: the Dress Up pinball game seems to be the one machine 100% targeted to women and/or budding fashion designers).
As great and ridiculous as the actual glowing machine graphics are, I find that what appeals to me most are the simple 3- and 4-color spray-painted cabinet stencils that decorate the sides of the machines. Their placement makes a lot of them difficult to see (and impossible to photograph) except when the right machine ended up on the end of a row where you could really get a good look at it. This is totally understandable, of course, but still a shame as the simple designs and fuzzy not-quite-registered paint jobs are particularly terrific.
The variety of license plates told us that attendees came from all over the country (at least) and the banners that immortalized past champions (and their home towns) hanging from the ceiling had a similar distribution. Keep your eyes peeled for a second big event in August at the convention center where a pay-one-price scheme gets you open play at the full collection of PAPA’s pinball games and supposedly another hundred or so they’re bringing in on top.