STATE: These pinball wizards keep the classic arcade game alive

By Emma Kenfield, UNC Media Hub

CARY, North Carolina — It is a Wednesday night at The Neighborhood Sports Bar and Arcade. 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. Created in 1995, it is an older model. But he’s a self-proclaimed older guy, whose fondness for the game is rooted in his memories as a child in the ‘80s. 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, and 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 to have a go at the game. But pinball was overshadowed as attention shifted to video games like Super Mario and Mortal Kombat in the late 1990s. Most manufacturers went bankrupt.

But pinball isn’t dead. In the last several years, it has seen an enormous resurgence in popularity — especially in the Triangle.

The Triangle Pinball Players is a close-knit group of men and women who come together to play the game they love — religiously, even. “Going to church,” to its members means meeting at the arcade every Sunday morning. When the work days are over, they show up, knowing they’ll never be the only one there.

Kevin Lucht, who is 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 ‘80s, pinball machines were in his neighborhood laundromats, pizza parlors, gas stations and corner stores. It is the only way he knows how to live.

“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 have 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, resident of Cary and 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 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.”

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, the so-called “Hero of Pinball,” Roger Sharpe, testified that the game was rooted in skill. He proved his claim on a machine chosen by council, correctly predicting the path of the ball shot after shot. The ban was lifted, and it was known: pinball was a game that required skill, talent and strategy. The Triangle Pinball Players know this 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 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 one can achieve when launching a ball, different for each machine. A woman in a man’s world, she learns each game’s skill shot and racks up points against her competitors.

Of the top 300 players in the world, according to the IFPA, only three are women. But there are no physical advantages for men over women in pinball; it is a game of skill, not strength.

“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 Women’s Triangle Players last year to create a safe space for women entering the boyish world of pinball. They 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. So it never really got to take off,” she said. “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 do not only love the game — they are hooked. It’s not a video game. It’s a machine. One that sticks with even its best players, for no game is the same as the last. One that carries nostalgic reminders of the old days, children hunkered in front of the glowing metal box, digging for one last quarter before curfew calls them home. One that brings people together.

“People want to touch something. You want to grab something and move it and be able to manipulate it,” Lucht said. “It’s just fun.”

“You can play, and you can play, and you’ll never master it,” Staelin said. “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 said.

It is closing time at The Neighborhood now, and the pinball players return home. The bartenders know, as they close up shop, they’ll see them again tomorrow. Sanders hasn’t saved the universe yet — so they better have their quarters stocked.

Emma Kenfield is a senior at UNC-Chapel majoring in journalism and minoring in public policy.