Growing a pinball culture and player base

Hi Everyone. My name is Wayne and I am the founder of the Tucson Pinball League (2014) and co-owner of Tucson Pinball (late 2015), a (currently) 3-location hobby operation. We have 19-20 machines on location currently depending on maintenance needs. I run 12 league events a year, and am slated to do 36 IFPA tournaments this year, along with the first ever Tucson Pinball City Championship.

We have a great group of core players, about 10 or so, and maybe 10 other semi-regular players. According to IFPA, I have hosted 125 events, 75 unique players, 31 new players, and 25 returning players. Seeing as league has about 10 new players and we have only submitted once so far, that returning player number will increase a decent amount with the next submission.

So there are the numbers. Here is the question: How do I increase the pinball culture in my area?
I listen to a lot of podcasts (because I like them) and have picked up a lot of good info from them whenever operators are on. I don’t listen for this sole reason, but I’m trying to stay on topic.

This is not a WPPR goal, this is not a money goal, this is a mission. Tucson has a metro area of around a million people. It shouldn’t be hard, but it is.

I have been on the radio in the past talking about pinball and that generated ONE new like to our Facebook page. I have done a little bit of FB advertising which got page likes, but I have never seen any of those people like, comment, or share anything I have ever posted. I have emailed TV and paper news outlets as Phoenix has had enormous success in this area, and finally have one person interested in at least talking about doing a TV piece.

D&D, the 24-30 pin location in town has done radio, college newspaper and game ads, and they have said they were largely unsuccessful.

I’ve hosted one charity event (not a tournament) recently and that got pretty decent feedback from the beneficiary, so I am going to try to host more of those with local groups in exchange for a FB event share to get the word out.

I know it won’t happen overnight, but I’d really like feedback on the places that have strong pinball scenes/cultures/player bases. The Portlands, the Seatles, the Clevelands, the Chicagos, the DFWs, and so on.



I’m someone who needs to take the type of advice that will show up in a thread like this and put it into practice.

A few things I’m aware of that have helped in my town:

Getting pinball machines into offices (and have them pay you). In some case, people who play every day at the office will refuse to pay 50 cents to play a game since they get it for free…but a few other people will get hooked and become a part of the scene.

Leagues. Newer players seem more likely to come to a multi-week league than a single night tournament. Strange, I know. Tournament sounds intimidating.

House parties. I went to a party last weekend hosted by someone else, and about 50% of the people there were people I hadn’t met before. At a typical league or tournament, I already know 90%+ of the other participants.

Free pinball. Can you offer free pinball for occasional events? Or some kind of $10 for free play? Free tutorials? Bring a friend night?

The largest league I had was when the offer was: “new players $30 to enter league, $30 in free pinball credits”. I did that again for a subsequent season didn’t have same success, so maybe I got lucky.

Machines in new places. At a slow location of mine, I reluctantly ran a league. 11 players season one. 15 players in season two, 10 of whom weren’t really part of the scene. If you build it, they will come?

I’m sure there are other things I haven’t thought of…


Consider monthly events at your locations. You can cross promote with other locations and on facecrack. One thing that I did last year was a bicycle tour that stopped at 5 different locations within a 12 mile loop. It worked out great! Make sure to do this in Tucson in the spring or the winter. Sometimes the stops can be at a collector’s home as well. Googlemaps, bikes and pingolf. A great combination.

The more of an “event” you can make it for your participants, the more memorable it will be.

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In my experience, the best way to get newbies to participate is through a recurring weeknight league. Some general tips:

  • put up very visible posters at the league venue, consider using language like “for all skill levels,” “casual,” etc… and since you’ve got multiple locations, cross-post!
  • offer discounts for new players, as suggested above
  • have an online presence through FB or your own website which includes CLEAR information on when/where/how much event will cost

Haven’t tried it myself, but a low-cost split flipper tournament could be a good way to get your regulars to invite new players. Again, emphasis on fun and less on competition will help get people in the door. There’s lots of people who enjoy playing pinball but feel intimidated by actually competing in a league/tournament. I’ve seen a lot of new players return to league season after season and get better and more competitive as time went on.


Kind of stating the obvious but the best way to increase your player base is to have clean, working, fair (beatable) games available as many hours a day as possible. Everything else is secondary to that.

Do you check your audits? Do you know how many minutes your games average? How often people get replays? Do you rotate games regularly? Do you buy new games? How often do you clean? Are any of your locations open less than 10 or 12 hours a day? Are all your games on coin drop, no by the hour places? I always shot for 3 minute average games and adjusted accordingly. Cleaned weekly, whether they needed it or not.

Another factor is weather. Generally speaking, the farther south you go, the less interest there is in location pinball. The pinball map reflects this. I can’t speak for most of the country, but here on the west coast, pinball culture has been around a hell of a long time. It’s not something one person can create. Keeping your games clean and fair is about the best you can do. If that doesn’t do it, there’s not much more you can do.

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As a new member of the pinball scene, here’s some of my thoughts:

There’s a relatively high barrier to entry, for a few reasons. lots of people don’t know that pinball is multiplayer (some don’t even know you get multiple balls), at the local barcade people are in groups and want to play games with their friends. this also means that serial play is less desirable than parallel play. pinball is more expensive, the barcade has plenty of video games for 25c, while pinball is either 50 or 75c, if you put 75cents into TAF and get a house ball, it’s going to feel like a serious rip-off. Pinball also needs more time to develop skill than your average arcade game, it’s more complex which also means it’s less casual. If as @phishrace said, you’re aiming for players to get 3 minutes on average, and developing some skill takes even 25 hours of play at say 50cents/game on average then you’re looking at an initial investment of $250 just to feel semi-competent, if not competitive.

Seems to me the best venue to get people interested in competitive pinball is either on a free play office machine in an area that has “casual” leagues or at a barcade where all machines are on free play (I’ve heard of such mythical places).

Great question! Here are some notes from what we’ve used in Eugene, OR to grow a very small scene, where 12 players was a best-case scenario, (one un-sanctioned weekly and one annual tournament a year) into a fairly thriving one (44 players on Monday for league) – two sanctioned monthlies at two different locations; six charity tournaments a year, two league seasons a year that use both of our two locations. I hope this helps.

  • Every event we run is played in a group format. Our league is match play, and our monthly is a group knockout. New players have more opportunities to observe and socialize, which could make them more likely to return. They’re also worth way more points, so… why not?

  • We partner with a local nonprofit for our charity tournaments, where 100% of entries are donated directly to their organization. I can’t say enough about how positive this has been for the pinball scene in Eugene: 1. new players feel far better about an entry fee that goes to a group doing good things in their community rather than to the guy who lives at the arcade. 2. The nonprofit is invited to table at the event, host an activity, and their employees are all given free entry. It’s also free promotion for you; they will likely post about this a lot on social media and tell their supporters. 3. Some of our dedicated league members first came to a charity tournament because they supported the charity, not because they liked pinball.

  • Variety of prizes, both in what they are and in how they’re given. For league meets, we have 3-4 prizes for the top 3-4 finishers. The 1st-place finisher selects which prize they want first, and so on. We also make sure to do at least one prize drawing for those who finish outside of the top 4. We have a mix of local business swag, GCs, etc. and pinball-themed gear.

  • Community partners / sponsors. Try to find one or two businesses that really see the value with partnering with you and are enthusiastic about what you do. It gives you great visibility in the community as well as clout within your player base. A local breakfast food chain called Off the Waffle not only gives us a $15 gift card to give away every event, they kick us down $3.50 off / free waffle coupons, which players get just for signing up. Additionally, OTW came to one of our tournaments and handed our free mini-waffles to all players.

  • Submit results to IFPA ASAP. This one seems like a no-brainer, but when WPPR points are a selling point of your event, it’s frustrating as a player to have weeks go by and see nothing, particularly as a new player who’s enthusiastic to see their rise in the rankings.


You didn’t say what kind of locations your pins were at…

Bars? Entertainment places? Restaurants? etc

I can tell you in our area - the growth is at casual, social scene - not the ‘hard core’ competitors. The 20 and 30 year olds… have been out in force. They have been drawn to the whole listening to podcasts, social playing and learning, usually around drinking/food/pinball together. This is why I ask the location question. This group is largely interested in ‘owning their first pin’, etc. It’s not the collectors… its not the hardcore competitors. It’s the hipster, bar crowds, etc.

The easily understood ‘strike tournaments’ are the most popular… because there is no commitment except for the night of. So having an event every other week or something… $5 entry, etc have been popular around here. The long running league continues to be harder to get people to commit to… but people love the ‘drop in’ events. The more serious events are advertised at the drop in events and we have been expanding the more dedicated player base from this feeder of the social drop-in events.

The IFPA rankings do seem to resonate with locals too…


Our first location is an indoor soccer/roller hockey arena. It has a bar/kitchen, but not a ton of casual foot traffic. We have 9 machines there and we got in there because I’ve been playing hockey there once a week for years, so know the owner on a casual basis.

Second location is one that we honestly thought was going to be “free storage”. It’s a pretty big RV facility that has an area for sales/service, then a whole “park” with at least 200 spots. There is a building in the middle with a nice store,rec room, and cantina. There is a pool, laundry, event center, and a few other smaller things. It’s like a little town all in it’s own space. We have 5/6/7 games here depending on what needs to be worked on and how major it is. This location is very seasonal. Almost empty during the hot summer and jam packed during the winter. We’ve been very happy with it based on my initial expectations. 100% split doesn’t hurt either.

Third location just opened up. It’s a brew pub in an industrial complex. Not a run down area at all, but not a ton of casual foot traffic yet as they are just getting started. They have been very supportive sharing our FB tournament event posting several times. This was out first event and had a reasonably low turnout (timed match play, heavy emphasis that nobody gets eliminated) but I’m not worried about getting a few curious souls. 4 machines here and likely that’s all the space we’ll get. Since the pins have been delivered, they have posted a picture of them once a week.

Since we have enough machines to do another 2-4 machine location, I’m always looking. Where I live is outside of Tucson city limits, and we are getting a grocery store and several smaller retail spaces, set to open this month. I’m hoping I can find something in there that will give 2-4 machines a shot as there will be a ton of foot traffic. This is the only grocery shopping center within about 10 miles, so it’s gonna be busy.

Agree with the comments regarding recreational leagues! I moved to the Twin Cities about a year and a half ago and was determined to cultivate the kind of social pinball scene I experienced in Chicago and NYC. I started a recreational weekly team league, which allows teams to choose “home” bars, so these weren’t necessarily THE pinball bars in the area, but that brought in a different crowd than has been traditionally involved in the competitive scene here. There are about 50 people who have played in my league now and who haven’t attended any of the competitive tournaments.

Also would suggest specifically going to/advertising at those bars that may have 1 or 2 machines- you will usually find that there are regulars there who love pinball but may not know about the larger scene or opportunity to play. I met a lot of people who are now in my league by just going to those bars and striking up a conversation about pinball with the people who were already there playing pinball (and then giving them my league’s “business” card.)


Pittsburgh Pinball League started out homed at a coffee shop with about four machines - you can do a league that small! For a few years.

Do you have promo material for tournaments/leagues in or on your machines? You can make up a card with your website and info.

Do you have Pinball Map? Volunteer to be a regional admin if necessary.

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Doing a little follow up at this point. We recently had the first Tucson Pinball City Championship and a month before that I blasted every media contact I could find. I got some interest from a reporter who came out to a regular tournament the Thursday before. He was there for 2 hours talking to players and getting a lot of the back story. There are a few mixed details (because it’s confusing that I run the league and also most of the tournaments for my route) but aside from some very minor things, it went really well.

They were there on a Thursday, and I got an email early Friday that it would be on the 6PM news that night. Shortly after the video was up on the web page. I knew about all of that, but then I got a message from a friend out of state saying that Stern’s FB page just shared the news story. That was really cool. I was at dinner with my wife and when we looked on FB, sure enough. She shared that saying something to me along the lines of being a rock star, which was pretty badass.

We actually had another reporter there on the Sunday of the Championship doing a follow up story. They took some video of the event, interviewed one of the players (the guy you see playing a lot and hear the one-liners from the first video) and said to email a picture of the winner with names. Well, 4:30 rolls around and there we are, on TV… and down to the last 4 players. So I emailed info like was requested, but was after the fact. Oh well, I tried.

All of that happened and I ended up getting two new players for league, which was nice.

I have another idea for trying to grow the casual scene as well. Haven’t been able to work on that too much, but should be able to this weekend.

One of my tournament players is the regional admin for pinballmap, so our info is always updated as soon as I let him know, or even sooner if I swap a game the night of an event. He’ll just updated it then and there.

So we are trying. It’s slow, but at least it’s on the up slope at this point.


Now that I’m on my phone I can add some images of “The Stanley Cup of Tucson Pinball.” Here is Derek, the first city champion. One of the more fun portions is that the winner had to engrave their name into the trophy. A little hard to get a picture, but it’s there.

We also opened our third location recently. We are two months in at a small brewpub with 4 machines in place. It’s small and off the beaten path, but it’s also new and they are very good on Facebook. We have a tournament there once a month and it’s all faces we know, but the location is happy and I know we get a little casual coin drop as well.


This problem has two parts. First you need to get the word out to people who are already into pinball but might not know about your tourneys. For that I think media coverage is great. If I was going to pay for advertising I’d try some targeted FB ads, but I’m not sure how effective that would be. I think business cards and flyers would also be a good idea. Recruit a street team - give them flyers and stuff. Post 20 flyers around town and get a free translite!

The second part of the problem is much more difficult. It’s how do you get new people into pinball. I have no idea on that one. I like ryanwanger’s idea of putting them in offices. I think you can also make the tourneys a big deal. Get a megaphone. Be PT Barnum. Get the people who aren’t playing in the tourney curious. And before you start a tourney go around and talk to the random people not playing. We have got a few players that way. Hey wanna play? Some people just need to be asked.

The single most effective way to grow a scene in my opinion is using your league members as evangelists. I live in a relatively small city with almost no location pinball, but we’ve managed to grow our scene significantly over the last two years by telling league members to bring family, friends, whoever. Some come back, some don’t. But almost all of our regulars came to play with us the first time because they had a friend who was already involved.

If you haven’t already, challenge players to bring a friend to the next tournament. People are more likely to come check it out if their friends are already involved.


So much this. There’s one guy local to us that if he comes to play in a tournament he brings 6-10 people with him. It’s awesome.

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What little I know about building a scene I’ve already shared, but I just wanted you to know that the Tucson Pinball trophy is sweet.


Your best bet of picking up new players will be from regular foot traffic and the brew pub sounds best placed for that. What happens is new people will look at them and are curious but a bit afraid as they don’t know what to do. As people come back though some will hopefully give it a try. As people start to play it can build as people watch what others are doing. That is what I have seen at least!

Try a ‘pinball 101’ night where you put all games on free play for a fixed price and offer some general advice on how to play. I have had really good luck with these introducing new players. Advertise at the location as you want regulars playing as that will draw in others.

Good luck!

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The local scene was dealt a blow a few months ago when my business partner and friend passed away. He came to most events if at all possible and would bring his wife, son, son’s fiancé, fiance’s brother, or any combination of that group. It’s been a struggle, and not just on a pinball level.

One idea I had recently was business cards with info for a “Tucson Area Pinball Scene” FB page I recently started. I’m going to order a ton of those and give them to everyone that plays in other areas to have them left on the lock bar. Because they will be targeting people to join the group, not ads to my games I figure it won’t be terribly bad form. I think that players talking to other players will keep interest up and we can all talk about the hobby.

There is a new bar on the Main Street downtown that has lots of arcades and a nice selection of pins. I asked them to consider putting on a tournament, since I think them doing it would probably go over better than me, but who knows. Lots of casual players there, so if the bar can do some giveaways drawn at random that should take some attention off the podium a little.

Last, I started a club at work. It’s a pretty big place, 11k-12k people. Have 21 names for the group and I’m sure I’ll get more. I will host at my location and put games on free play for a few hours. Also want to do some fund raisers. Since I’m basically funneling people to my spot it’s sort of ripe for conflict of interest issues, so I’ll be donating 100% for those. If people come back on their own, that would be the payoff.

Lots of stuff. I’m trying.


Sorry for your loss!! Ill be wishin you and your scene all the best from here in Austin!!!