Becoming a better Tournament Director / League Officer

Hello everyone. Be aware, this is probably going to be a really loooooong post. :grin:

I fell in love with pinball about a year and a half ago after running into an Avatar at a bar one night. I had never played before and after about an hour I turned to my wife and said “I’m buying one of these things”. 18 months later, I have 8.

Shortly thereafter, I decided I wanted to start a league. We are getting ready to start our 4th season :sunglasses: and have grown to about 16 members. We currently have 4 machines to play and an operator that is very receptive to any issues we might encounter. About 6 months ago, I decided to try my hands at monthly tournaments. We don’t get a big turn out (maybe 6 - 12), but it’s still fun.

So far, I’ve received a ton of help from Joe Schober with PAPA on how to run my league. His help has been invaluable. Josh and Adam with the IFPA have also helped me on occasion with tournament questions and getting scores submitted (I think I screw it up every time :confounded: ).

Anyway, I have a few questions that will hopefully make things more fun and grow the turnouts.

  • What do you do if you make a mistake?

We had a incident one night were a girl played someone else’s ball. I ruled that she was disqualified (thinking tournament rules and not league rules). They finished the game as if she was disqualified. While they were finishing, I took a look at the rules, just to be sure, and realized that I screwed up. I wasn’t sure what to do, so I called over the group and decided to allow them to make a decision. We decided that they were fine with just replaying the entire game.

Other than reading the damn rules before ruling, what should I have done? Do you guys stick to your guns even if you’re wrong or do you over turn yourself if you realize your error?

  • Extra balls during tournaments?

Even though the operator has provided me with a key, I only use it to free stuck balls. I have no desire to start messing around with his settings and although he trusts me (obviously), I try and stay away from his DBV.

Do you allow extra balls during a tournament? Is it up to me or is there a rule I’m supposed to follow? We aren’t professionals, so for a lot of people, getting an extra ball is exciting and provides a feeling of accomplishment. I’ve been allowing one in a tournament, but perhaps that’s incorrect. We had one girl that was so excited after getting 3 warp ramps on Star Trek for the first time and then cashing in her extra ball. I would have felt bad if she had to plunge it away. I know this is a competition, but it has to be fun and rewarding at the same time.

I wasn’t sure if since it was an IFPA registered event if I was forbidden from allowing certain things?

  • Tournament formats?

We are currently using the software and running Knockout tournaments. We have been varying the number of strikes based on turnout. I chose that format since it seemed like an easy one to use to get my feet wet. Is there something else cool that we could use for 6 - 12 people? I’d just like to shake things up if I could.

  • How do you guys grow your league?

We started a website and a FaceBook page. The venue has a digital billboard and has offered us billboard time. We are lucky enough to have a graphic designer in the group so he has agreed to create some artwork for the billboard. Other than what we are doing and word of mouth, does anyone have any other suggestions?

We were thinking of using the money from the kitty to pay for the “promote” functionality of FaceBook. Does anyone have any experience with that function?

  • League funds.

Up until now, I have been paying for everything out of my pocket (domain registration, hosting fees, email hosting, paper, pens, etc.). The two guys I have helping me have been harassing me to pay for it with league fees. We are still a small league so I’m not 100% comfortable with taking funds, but on the other hand they are league expenses. Do you guys have bank accounts you keep the funds in, or just have a secondary person check the books? I currently just use a bank bag and have another guy check the bag and spreadsheet each week.

  • Game issues.

I use the word issues, as I’m familiar with malfunctions, but what about “weird” stuff. I know the general consensus is “that’s pinball, play on”, but what about a ball being fired without any interaction from another player? We’ve had issues where player 1 steps away and for no reason at all, the game fires player 2’s ball. Is that a malfunction? What’s the ruling?

We also had an issue where Addams would randomly reboot. Sometimes it would happen twice and other times it wouldn’t happen for weeks. The operator was trying various fixes until I ultimately pulled it. At what point do you pull a game? After the first reboot, the second?

Sorry for such a disgustingly long post. I feel like I just finished my dissertation.



I would recommend using the tournament rules as the basis for your league rules – this will take care of both player errors (playing out of turn = DQ) and malfunctions (ball fired for no reason and player lost ball = player gets +1 ball on a new game to add to score).

The Pittsburgh Pinball League and New England Pinball League both have pretty good “hybrid” rules that work in league situations. This should also clarify your extra-balls situation. Both PPL and NEPL have a “plunge, don’t play” rule for extra balls. FSPA (Free State Pinball Association) has a “play one EB” rule. The main reason for not allowing extra balls is timing, so if that’s not a problem, let them play!

Knockout format is good, but most leagues use a point system like 5-3-2-1 (for first, second, third, and fourth) or similar. Everyone plays the same number of games, then the winner is the one with the highest total. This is the format used at the Sunshine Laundromat tournaments. The benefit is that no one is “knocked out”, and everyone has the same play experience.

Word of mouth and onsite promotion seem to work a lot better than Facebook advertising. By the way you didn’t tell us who you are or where your league is :wink:

I think it’s totally reasonable to take a small percentage of league dues for expenses, especially if you can explain what you’re using the money for. In NEPL it’s $30 / season, with $20 to prizes and $10 to food, trophies, and other expenses.

Good luck and thanks for spreading the love.


Also – great job organizing and making pinball more visible.

(Props to Robert Sharpe.)

I’ll definitely take a look at their rules. It sounds like I have some latitude to tailor the rules to our situation. We are currently using the FSPA rule set that Joe referred me to when he advised me during our creation phase. Poor guy, we must have traded 100 emails.

Is there a good way to determine the number of games played based on the turnout?

Whoops. We are in Harrisburg PA and play at the River City Blues Club. Our website is and our FaceBook page is

That’s what the other guys keep telling me.

Absolutely. I think League Nights are my favorite night of the week.

Thank you for doing all the tutorial videos! I think I’ve watched them all by now and some more than once. :blush: I’ve learned so much by watching you play and aspire to find myself in A one of these decades…I mean days.

If I could only figure out that damn loop pass. I always butcher that one.

Yup. That’s me in the video. :blush: I have no idea how you found that and made the correlation, but some damn fine detective work.

I would not change the number based on turnout. At NEPL we play 4 games per week. PPL plays 3. Sunshine plays 5. Pretty much any number is okay. The limitation then becomes the number of machines at the location – and if your league grows it will either encourage the location to get more games, or encourage you to add another location. The largest leagues in the US took off big-time when they started using more than one location, but also have the benefit of a large local pool of players. Not sure what your upper limit may be in Harrisburg!

I’ll let you know if I ever trust myself with loop passing. So far, no, not after the Corvette incident from PAPA 12. Loop passing worked great in quarterfinals; in semifinals I dumped a ball right down the drain then lost by a narrow margin.

Best wishes and ask away anytime.

Don’t worry, you’re not the only one :wink: I appreciate the effort nothing pisses me more than someone who can’t event be bothered to try and update the details for the results submission and then gets pissy with me when I ask questions. If you work with us we’ll work with you, simple as that :slight_smile:

that’s 100% up to you, there is no wrong answer. My league doesn’t allow extra balls, but that is 100% a time frame thing. We want to keep things moving and some games you could end up with 3 or more extra balls so a player could be playing two full games rather than just one with extra balls. But if time constraints aren’t an issue let us play, it would certainlya dd a different choice in strategy.

We don’t have a bank account but do put out a Ledger at the end of the season so that we can be held accountable to our members on the money that comes in and where it goes back out. But paying for everything yourself is not sustainable at some point you’ll need to move those expenses to the league.


I’ve found that the tourney formats that get the best reception/feedback are those that use group or head-to-head Swiss style play – essentially, a miniature league featuring match play that’s condensed into one day/evening. MatchPlay provides the means to do this. But even that can get stale. Plus, since you’re already running a league concurrently on the same four pins, you may want to go a different route. If your player base wants tourneys to be IFPA-registered, keep in mind that each of these formats have to have a “direct play” component at some point (typically in the finals).

Other options:

  • Unlimited best game qualifying (aka Herb style, or pump and dump).
  • Unlimited ticket-based qualifying (similar to how PAPA world championship qualifying works, but you can vary the # of games played on each ticket to make it more palatable).
  • Limited entry best game qualifying.
  • head-to-head double-elimination bracket
  • Pin-Golf
  • Pin-Bowling

Some fun options that aren’t typically IFPA-eligible, but still a lot of fun:

  • Speed runs (search for PDQ = Pinball Done Quick)
  • Team pinball
  • Split flipper tourney
  • One-handed tourney
  • . Try something different and see if it works!
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The first league I ever joined (and the one I still call “home”) has “one extra ball limit, subsequent EBs must be plunged.” I like that compromise a lot. Casual players (like I was when I joined the league) really like getting to play extra balls, but limiting it to one stops the pros from getting too out of control.

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I think your lack of comfort in taking money is well justified. Isn’t domain registration is like $20 for a few years now? Even basic web hosting (which would typically include email) shouldn’t cost more than a few bucks/month. The other stuff you probably had already. I don’t think it’s worth taking money from people to cover so little. In my opinion you’re much better off putting whatever you can back into a prize pool or putting some towards trophies for the winners—things that are more likely to help grow the league—than you are keeping a few bucks to yourself.

If you are going to decide to use money to cover expenses, I would do it this way:

Well, the first part is me, the second part is definitely not me. You guys are doing us a service and there is no reason for anyone to get pissy with you.

We use 4 for leagues, but I was referring to changing the number of games played if we would switch the tournament format to what you suggested above (5-3-2-1). I wouldn’t want 6 people to show up and it to end in an hour.

I’d love to do that, but there is only one operator in our area and our location is the only one with multiple machines. The others are single machines scattered across his other accounts. He’s a great guy and as long as he can justify it, he adds a machine as we need them. We started with 2. I’m working on him to get his GB and GoT for our Winter season. :grinning:

Maybe I should concentrate on my shot making instead in that case. I’ve gotten pretty good (at least in my own mind for playing for such a short time), but sometimes I just can’t make a shot to save my butt. I do pretty good with my flipper skills, but I see you guys making some sick moves that always make me jealous.

There is one you do in particular that I’m trying to learn. I don’t know if it has a name or not, but when the ball is just barely able to be touched by the tip of a flipper, you so eloquently flip it into the opposing inlane. I either nudge the machine unnecessarily, or do a quick flip with one flipper after the other. I can save the ball, but it goes flying out of control.

Whatever that is called is what I’ve been trying to practice lately.

That’s the way we’ve been doing things because as you said, a lot of our members get really excited when they get an extra ball. I like that everyone has an obtainable goal. Most of our players will never see Kobayashi Maru multiball and are happy to get to any multiball at all so the extra ball just adds something for them to go after.

It started out little, but is beginning to grow. I got a deal on hosting, but when it renews it’s $90/year, add that to your normal domain registration of $15/year, private registration for another $10/year, then email at $5/month, and the for $30/year. You can be over $200 pretty quick.

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For growing the league, don’t overlook the value of hanging league flyers at these one-off spots. This assumes, of course, that the location is OK with it.

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Only 100 emails to help interpret the fspa rule set?


I’d second the “play the first Extra Ball, plunge additional ones” rule. In non-high-level competition, you want people to enjoy getting and playing an extra ball. Limiting it to one, though, does two things: first, it keeps the game times reasonable vs. playing all of them, especially for machines where you can keep earning them all game; second, it introduces them to the idea of a rule that says you can’t necessarily play an extra ball [e.g. the 2nd and later ones]. That means when they go to an event where no EBs are allowed, it won’t come as a total surprise.

I’ll also second the “points” format, e.g. 5-3-2-1, 7-5-3-1 or whatever. Do not have the last place finisher get 0 points. Leaves a bad taste for beginners. And yes, have a fixed number of games per week / month, usually 3-6 for 4-player groups; the number should be driven by your available time and your players’ level of interest.

For leagues, we did small fees to go to end-of-season prizes [e.g. translites, t-shirts, etc.], party food if there was an end-of-league party [unless it’s a BYO potluck], and any minor expenses of running the league. As long as the amounts are small and it’s all out in the open, should be no issues.

For the “mix it up,” one thing you could do is at some league nights, have a funky side event where your either your goal or the machine is non-standard. If you can tweak the games to do something odd, do that. If you’re not a tech, you can still do external things like “Tommy-style” where part of the playfield is covered. For the goal side, you can do “most martian kills on AFM,” most mansion rooms [TAF], most walkers killed [TWD], most songs started [AC/DC], and things of that nature.

I discussed that with the operator and he was opposed to it because of advertising one of his accounts through another account. I understood completely.

We do for leagues, but I was referring to tournaments where attendance is dynamic each month.

In that case, do a round-robin Swiss style match play, where first round starts at X pm, and no new rounds will be started after Y pm. Then either do finals after that, or not (but will likely have tie-breakers needed to determine who’s the winner).

I’d stick with the same number of games for dynamic tournaments, too. Less confusing to people than if it changes. If you have really large swings in player count, you could say X games up to Y players, Z games for more than that - - just two values. If the player count is low, having a complete or partial round-robin is nice. You could also use a set cutoff time in lieu of a set round count.

Two resources that can help, one is the IFPA/PAPA rules quick ref guide, and one is a machine settings checklist I created for directors. Might not help for leagues or public locations, but if a TD has access to the machine, these settings can help fix a lot.

You can find under Resources here:

Only other suggestion is to use IFPA/PAPA consolidated rules as much as possible, and only deviate when necessary or in interest of fun, e.g. using one extra ball in leagues. But when it comes to malfunctions (minor, major, catastrophic, and beneficial), I believe it’s best for TDs to be consistent with IFPA/PAPA. Makes it easier to make rulings quickly and correctly with one baseline instead of dealing with league flavors of rules.


I love seeing a thread like this get so much activity in under a day! The best part is that you’re seeking to improve. Absolutely none of us are perfect, and we just keep trying to do our best and keep learning.

Consolidated comments:

  • If you make a mistake: it happens. See my comment above about not being perfect. Learn from it. There are no other organized sports that I’m aware of where officials don’t occasionally make mistakes.

  • Extra ball rules: The FSPA has used the “1 extra ball per player per game” rule since its inception, and players generally love it. EB’s are a fundamental part of a game’s ruleset. The game designers incorporated them thoughtfully. They can add a very interesting element to a game’s strategy. It’s a shame to completely dismiss them. We feel our rule is a nice balance between “playing the game as designed” and “not taking forever”. One subtle aspect to this rule is that it doesn’t specify that the first EB must be played… sometimes this is irrelevant, but in games with large Hold Bonus opportunities (Road Show and Johnny Mnemonic pop to mind) this can be an additional strategic consideration.

  • League funds: My personal opinion is complete transparency of funds (I always share our league and association books with anyone who asks) and that 100% of league funds go to the benefit of our players, not lining the pockets of the officials. I feel that maintaining a reliable and useful web presence is generally beneficial to your players, and so it’s appropriate to use a modest portion of your league funds to do that. There’s no particular reason you should pay personal out-of-pocket expenses for things like that in addition to the considerable time and energy you volunteer to the league. If you choose to do so – that’s great too, and either way, thank you for your contribution to the hobby!

  • DQ’ing machines due to malfunction: rulesets like the FSPA’s offer suggestions on when to remove games from competition, but ultimately there’s no “right” answer, and officials are given a fair bit of discretion to do what they feel is right for the overall competitive environment. So much is situational: do you understand what caused a failure? Are you able to fix the problem with a reasonable degree of confidence? If you remove a game, are there enough other machines available to allow play to continue without excessive delay? etc etc etc…

Thanks for being part of making competitive pinball great!

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With the number of players you have showing up at your tournaments, it’s perfectly reasonable to just pick the format based on however many people show up. This is what I do. :slight_smile:

16 players? Sounds great for a double elimination bracket. 15 players? Three groups of 5, round robin with the top in each group advancing to the finals. 4 players? Do a four player match play group with top two advancing.

In my experience, players understand that there isn’t a one size fits all for formats. A three strike, swiss pairing tournament with only 8 players? You’re going to be playing the same opponents over and over and over.

TL;DR For small local tournaments - no reason to pick a format ahead of time and need to feel locked into using that.